01 February 2008

Blasts from the Past

Stratas as Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana

The modern opera singer faces realities that her predecessors never contemplated. The mezzo Maria Malibran died before the age of sound recordings: although written descriptions of her voice survive, and she is still held up as a model of her art, we don’t know what she really sounded like, and we have only a few paintings and sketches to show what she looked like.

Today, however, the singer must contend with the likelihood that, decades after a performance, future generations will stumble across a DVD or YouTube clip and be struck, perhaps for the first time, by her. “What an amazing voice!” they’ll cry. And “She’s so beautiful!” And “Where did she get that hairdo?”

These thoughts are provoked by my discovery of a couple of performances by Teresa Stratas from the 1970s: a DVD of Franz Lehár’s operetta Der Zarewitsch, and a YouTube clip of the Letter Scene from Tschaikovsky’s Yevgeni Onegin, in German. Watch the clip, and you’ll see what I mean.

When we were preparing the program bios for Rags, Teresa mentioned that, by her count, she’d made 17 opera films. We tried to list them, but we couldn’t come up with more than ten titles: the rest, she said, were made when she was young, and she’d been trying (with some success) to forget them ever since. Too bad for her. It’s now clear that, sooner or later, like it or not, they’ll turn up.

The Onegin excerpt reveals Teresa in the kind of dramatic role with which I associate her most strongly, projecting youthful vulnerability and mounting passion with vivid singing: I can’t wait to see the whole film. Or rather, I continue to wait to see the whole film, as I’ve waited ever since Teresa first mentioned it.

George Solti’s recording of the opera was my high-school graduation present from my godmother, Ann Coleman, and it inspired my brief, ill-starred studies of the Russian language. Fed to the teeth with being called Guillaume, Wilhelm and Guglielmo in language class, I announced on the first day that “Menya zavut Yevgeni Onegin” (they call me Eugene Onegin), and Yevgeni I was from that day forward. I identified with all the opera’s characters, though. And I translated a verse of Lensky’s aria for the dedication of my first novel — to Teresa, as it happens.

The Zarewitsch is a horse of another color, and not only because it shows Teresa in a complete work. Like Onegin, it’s set in Russia, more realistically than one might expect from the composer of The Merry Widow. Teresa plays Sonia, a former serf who’s now a cabaret star, specializing in saber-dancing. Disguising herself as a boy (as seen here) to ingratiate herself with the misogynistic son of the Tsar, she winds up falling in love with him. When she finally takes off her cap, she’s got a very groovy hairstyle that may be the same wig she wore in Onegin.

Much of the singing part lies very, very high, and since the audio quality on the DVD is superior to that on the old Philips album of the soundtrack, it’s fun to hear Teresa sail so high. But the film is perhaps more important as a document of the ways Teresa encouraged, toyed with, and ultimately shattered her image as a kind of operatic sex kitten.

She was young, pretty and petite, and whenever people weren’t calling her “Baby Callas” (a name with which neither she nor Callas herself was entirely comfortable), they were giving her cuddly parts in crossover showcases like this one. They also asked her to pose for cheeky, cheesecaky pictures, which occasionally resurface. One of her other Lehár vehicles, Giuditta, featured her in a mod hairdo and an orange pantsuit, riding a motorcycle: va-vroom. Regrettably, I’ve only seen a still photo, and never heard her sing the big number, “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss,” nor any of the role. (Written for Jarmila Novotná, another great beauty.) But that picture alone is worth at least a thousand musical notes.

Throughout Zarewitsch, you get glimpses of the Teresa that lay simmering, even then, beneath the pretty surface. Surely the socioeconomic drama appealed to her — a peasant in love with a prince — and in her always-haunting eyes, you can see a bitterly impoverished background at which the script only hints. The filmmakers sneaked around certain challenges: her dancing, sword-fighting, and German dialogue are all performed by other women.

Within a few years, Teresa would portray Strauss’ Salome on German television (pictured at right), and Berg’s Lulu onstage in Paris and New York: sex kittens as man-eating tigresses. “Why didn’t you look at me?” Salome demands of John the Baptist, whom she has just had beheaded, in a scene that required Teresa to throw the director out of the studio and to take charge, directing herself. It’s almost as if she’s wreaking vengeance on all of us, producers and audiences alike, who underestimated her or misjudged her art — or her sexual appeal.

From that point on, even when she returned to pretty-girl or glamour parts she’d sung in her youth (Mimì, Nedda, Violetta), her beauty served a new purpose. She lost weight, and her tiny body seemed more fragile than ever, unable to defend herself against the forces that oppressed her. But she gave each victim a voice.

Her portrayals of consumptive heroines were so convincing (not least because Teresa contracted tuberculosis when she was a child) that one British critic announced in a book — a book — that she had died of the disease. For real. Neither the English nor the American edition corrected his mistake.

As Mimì, at the Met: She only pretends to die here, folks.

She seemed a pretty lively corpse to me: she had just tried to strangle me for some reason or other. (There was — and is — always some reason. She is an eminently reasonable person.) We talked about the book, and I wondered whether some response might be required. “Write him a letter,” I said, “like Mark Twain: ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’” But Teresa preferred to let the poor guy figure it out for himself; she wasn’t going to rub his nose in it.

Nearing seventy now, she is still darned lively, and though she isn’t singing anymore, one can still hear her. Her YouTube clips multiply; a lot of her work is turning up on DVD. One of these days, I’m going to see every opera movie she made. I expect that in her performances she will always bring me new ways to understand the truth. But I doubt if anybody could ever make me understand some of those hairstyles.

An earlier incarnation of Mimì

[A footnote (or hairnote): Teresa once told me that her 1960s bouffants were created by sticking a ball of tissue paper on her head, and sweeping the hair up around the ball. Who knew? Add some hairpins and a great deal of hairspray: now you can do it yourself. The tiara is optional.]