January 2012 “Singer of the Month”: Maria Jeritza (1887-1982)

Maria Jeritza

Years ago, when I began studying Puccini’s Turandot, I came across the name Maria Jeritza in Mosco Carner’s biography “Puccini: A Critical Biography,” along with several other names that ended up fuelling my operatic interests and studies for the next several years.  Jeritza, born in Brno in 1887 is a singer who perhaps deserves more attention than she has yet received, both historically and as a performance icon.  Fascinating because she created several of the most coveted roles in all of opera and worked with the greatest composers of her era, Jeritza belonged to a generation of singer that honed their instruments to a point that any major composer had to seek them, a practice that seems to have dissipated in recent years.  For me, her work with Puccini and Strauss is the most valuable to sopranos who are learning or attempting to sing the roles she created, because she worked hand in hand with the composers and was able to produce the vocal nuances and stylistic aspects they desired in their heroines.

As Turandot

As Marie/Marietta

She created the roles of Blanchefleur in Kienl’s opera Der Keurigen (1911), Ariadne in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), the Empress in his Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), and Marie/Marietta in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (1920), the latter also being the role of her debut with the Metropolitan Opera on November 19, 1921.

With Richard Strauss

On November 16, 1926, she starred in the title role of Puccini’s Turandot in its North American premiere at the Metropolitan, where she also created the title or leading soprano roles in Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa (1924), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrarri’s I Gioelli Della Madonna (1925), Korngold’s Violante (1927), Richard Strauss’ Die Āgyptsche Helena (1928), and Franz Von Suppé’s Boccaccio (1931) and Donna Juanita (1932.) Her popularity at the Metropolitan was, as in Vienna, immense, especially as Tosca, Carmen and Massenet’s Thaïs.

In the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musician’s, it states:

Her Covent Garden performances were confined to seven roles during 1925 and 1926, whereas at the Metropolitan she sang 290 performances in 20 roles. After World War II she made isolated appearances in Vienna and New York (having become a naturalized American). Though endowed with an ample and lustrous voice, Jeritza belonged to the category of artist known as a ‘singing actress’, freely yielding both dramatically and vocally to impulses that were sometimes more flamboyant than refined. In her numerous recordings, faults of taste and technique co-exist with genuine vocal achievements. Archival material from the Vienna Staatsoper in the 1930s testifies to the magnetic effect she had on audiences. (Desmond Shawe-Taylor/R).

In 1948 she married New Jersey businessman Irving Seery and moved to a mansion located in the Forrest Hill neighborhood of Newark, NJ where she made her home until her death in 1982, at age 94. She died in Orange, New Jersey, and is interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, New Jersey.

Jeritza made a number of 78-rpm recordings which testify to the high quality of her voice. Many of these recordings have been released on CD. She also wrote an autobiography called “Sunlight and Song” in 1924.

From Vienna in May 1923, Puccini wrote a letter to Giueseppe Adami, which indicates the type of power a singer like Maria Jeritza held over productions and over the composers who sought her talent.  He wrote:

Dear Adamino,

In hate: arrived safely.  Cool today, but very warm journey.  There is talk of “Manon” for September.  They are giving “Cappelli Bianchi” in a few days.  Eisenschitz wanted to give you a pleasant surprise.  If Jeritza accepts they will do “Manon.”  If not I shall return to my work.  But I shall stay here a little while for the festivities which they have prepared for me.  They treat me here as if I were the Kaiser or the Crown Prince.  Living is enormously dear.  My bedroom and sitting-room cost 500,000 crowns a day.  I am well.  My thoughts are on the lovely “Turandot,” lovely in her newest attire, thanks to the great “tailleur” Adamino.  And talking of beauty, last night at the Opera, in Strauss’s “Legend of Joseph” there was an ensemble of the feminine nude that would have turned the head of St. Francis.  Good-bye.  Greetings to you from us all. (Giuseppe Adami, ed., “The Letters of Giacomo Puccini,” Translated by Ena Makin, (London: Harrap & Co, 1931), 307).

I find it fascinating that unless Jeritza accepted the offer to sing Manon Lescaut, Puccini would simply just return to his work.  It is also interesting to note that Puccini was at this time already thinking of Turandot.  It is no big surprise that Jeritza would sing its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera.

Mosco Carner recounts:  “Jeritza was to become a celebrated interpreter of this role [Tosca] as well as that of Minnie in La Fanciulla; Puccini himself later declared her his best Tosca and ‘one of the most original artists I have ever known’.  It was, incidentally, Jeritza who by an accident introduced the half-lying position in which most Toscas now address their “Vissi D’Arte” to Scarpia.  In her tussle with the Roman Chief of Police she had, during a rehearsal, slipped to the ground, a position which Puccini considered in perfect keeping with the emotional situation at that moment and which he asked her to retain.”  Apparently, she received over 50 curtain called for her portrayal.

What I love about this last video is not just the singing but the gallant manner of introduction for these two artists, the respect paid to them by the speaker, the idea that opera singers were adored at a level that surpassed the normative artist.  Where has this well-deserved respect and gracious manner gone?  Those who lived during this period had less in terms of technology and methods of communication, but the thought that families would turn on the radio and listen to something like this, together, and in respect of great art, might just be worth turning back the clock…even if for a little while.

© Mary-Lou Vetere, 2012

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you so enjoyed/ I understand she also sang with Richard Tauber, Whom I met at a concert whilst on leave during the war in London at the Brixton Empress Theatre. She did outlive him by many years. I would have loved to have met her and seen her sing.

  2. Are the images on this site subject to copyright? I am looking for a photo of Mme. Jeritza to publish in a book. Thank you.


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