09 August 2013

Regina Resnik

Seldom have I met anybody better suited to her name than Regina Resnik, the mezzo-soprano whose death has just been announced. Her husband, the late artist Arbit Blatas, was a devoted fan of The Threepenny Opera and created a remarkable series of paintings, drawings, and lithographs of his impressions of the long-running production at the Theatre de Lys in New York. And so Regina and Arbit became “Friends of the Foundation,” who used to drop by from time to time for a chat and (very often) lunch, but seldom for any business. Regina was one of the first true opera stars I ever got to know — though only a little — and quite possibly the first I ever visited in her home.

Regina was nothing if not regal. Did her parents know, somehow, when she was born, just what she’d be like as an adult? With her hair always perfectly coiffed and her bearing always upright, she spoke in low, rounded tones and an intimidatingly cultivated accent. Everything about her intimidated me, actually, and very often when she was about, I’d remember Scarpia’s line: “La Regina farebbe grazia ad un cadavere!” (The queen would pardon a corpse.) She might have made a good Scarpia, actually, though offstage there was nothing nasty about her at all, and really she was phenomenally gracious — like a queen.

For example, when I visited her and Arbit, she made a point of asking me about myself — and she also made a point of appearing interested in what I had to say. I was just learning that there’s no greater gift that a distinguished artist (or monarch) can bestow upon a young person (or subject), and if ever I get distinguished (or coronated), I’m fully resolved to do just what Regina did.

I never saw her onstage, though I knew her work from radio broadcasts and recordings. This surely helped to inspire awe in me: I’d look at her and know that, just below the surface, a volcano waited to erupt. That huge, dark voice was truly a force of nature — one of the few I’ve known that deserved that description.

In my presence, she never talked about her past triumphs: she was always focused on her current projects. I don’t remember these in detail, though the Venice Ghetto fascinated her, and at various times she organized exhibitions, concerts, and a documentary film on that subject. I sometimes had the feeling that, at that stage in her life, she was tying together all the elements of her culture: art and music and her Jewish heritage. That would have been a worthy effort in any case, and yet she made it seem even nobler.

Her association with the Weill Foundation brought benefits beyond the German cold cuts that I set out (in artistic arrangements, of course) at lunchtime. Harold Prince was a board member of the Foundation, and one day he told Lys Symonette that he would be directing a revival of Cabaret on Broadway. Did she have any suggestions as to who might take the role that Lenya created, Frau Schneider? “Regina Resnik!” Lys promptly answered. Prince might have come up with the idea independently, but Lys’ endorsement surely didn’t hurt, and Regina wound up with a Tony nomination in 1987.

For all the polish of Regina’s presentation, there were occasional hints at a wilder, more passionate side to her personality. After all, her portrayal of Carmen had to come from somewhere. And so, for the record, I note that she tended to take a very wide stance when she sat, as if her knees hadn’t gotten the message that she was a Great Lady. That’s among the reasons that I’ll remember this benevolent monarch with as much affection as awe. It was a privilege to spend time in her company.

AFTERTHOUGHT: On further reflection, I see that I’ve neglected to take note of Regina’s sense of humor, which was considerable. One day when she visited the Foundation, I greeted her with a “Reverenza!” in amateurish tribute to her Quickly in Falstaff. She laughed, and I felt indulged — until she responded with her own “Reverenza!” — whereupon I was intimidated again. That voice! It could knock you over.

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