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

Remembering Maria Callas at the dawn of the 2010/11 Operatic Season

Yesterday marked the 33rd anniversary of the death of one of the greatest singing actresses to grace the operatic stage, “La Divina,” Maria Callas. At the dawn of the new operatic season, with the Met Opening with “Das Rhinegold,” and the COC opening with “Aida,” I recall the spirit of this remarkable woman whose presence is sorely missed.  It’s interesting to watch how newspapers and magazines rarely remember her passing anymore, except for say Opera News or other subject based publications, when in retrospect Maria Callas was to Opera what Martin Luther King was to African American Civil Rights.  She brought a type of glamour and star quality to opera that had perhaps not been so blatant in the past.  Although she began her operatic career like many other singers, singing smaller roles and performing in studio recitals, her quick-wit, impeccable precision, and musical aptitude rapidly blossomed her into one of the most renowned and prestigious personages in musical history.

Not to date myself, but Callas died 11 months before I was born and so I feel a little let down that I never got to hear this tour-de-force while she was alive.  Even though, I retain infinite respect, admiration, and certainly devotion.  Callas had a voice that was unmistakable in its genetic makeup.  Although it may not be marked as the most beautiful voice to have existed, it was certainly an instrument of magnificent proportion, and frankly, I think it was beautiful (so there!).  The “squillo” she was able to create and the precision of her coloratura and stylistic understanding are models for any young singer and professionals alike.

We might also attribute Madame Callas with accolades for reviving Bel Canto.  Beginning with “I Puritani” in 1949, she ventured into “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “Il Pirata,” “La Traviata,” “Medea,” “Anna Bolena,” and many others.  It was her ability to sing these roles and also the larger dramatic roles that remain a remarkable trait of this singular artist.  As a result, many have attempted to categorize this voice and even criticize it (How dare you!).  Whether Callas was originally a “mezzo,” a “dramatic,” or a “coloratura,” is a rather trite manner of discussing this great artist.  What we should be recalling is that she was able to sing with a voice that was immediately recognizable and also capable of the most difficult technical feats, yet filled with emotion and possibility.  In the end, it is more often recounted that she “overdid it and therefore lost her voice.” I, for one, stand in complete opposition to those who feel that they have the right to criticize Callas or the reason for her vocal decline.  Frankly, I don’t think her “voice” declined at all.  It was more her heart and soul that were diminished and crushed by someone whom she desperately loved.  We cannot expect that a woman of this will, of this prowess, who took nothing lightly, would take such matters of the heart lightly.  This is what resulted in the tragic aftermath and premature passing of this great woman.

In my thoughts yesterday, as I listened to her in my car while commuting in and out of town, I was reminded of the affinity I felt for her and have always felt.  I loved her vigour, her fire, and her passion, so much so that I have always held developed these attributes in my own artistic character.  Likewise, I loved her pathos and her willingness to accept pain and know how to project the reality of it in her music.  Years ago, I met and sang for the great Fedora Barbieri, who often sang with Callas.  Although I respected Barbieri for her own contributions, I trembled at the fact that she had often stood and blended her voice with someone I admired so deeply.  I asked her, at that time, how Callas was, and she answered, “Eh, Callas era Callas” (Callas was Callas).  A perfect answer….she was simply that, CALLAS.  No other explanation is required.

“We miss you and you are remembered always”

Hey…ey…ey..ey…What’s goin’ on?

Franco Zeffirelli’s productions have been staples at the Met and worldwide

The new year has opened with a number of well-loved favourites at various opera houses around North America and overseas.  Tickets continue to sell, but not without controversy, perhaps the most bothersome at the Metropolitan Opera.  As of late, Mr. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met has been dealing with some much deserved flack for the failed production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” a failure that was secured by the modern and inauthentic direction of Luc Bondy, but also by the continued problem of inappropriately casting non-Italianante voices in Italian repertoire and vice-versa in the Germanic repertoire.  Many patrons have been bothered by Gelb’s failure to admit that the Bondy production failed.  He has only publicly stated that beloved Franco Zeffirelli’s production of “Tosca” would be remounted.  In what seems like a bit of retaliation, Gelb has now decided to withdraw Zeffirelli’s “Boheme” production for a new one.

At a time when podcasts, internet streaming, and digital cable are at an all-time peak of interest, the artistic genres that have maintained verisimilitude seem to be suffering. Why now, after a century of excellence, is it necessary to “modernize” even those things that do not need to be modernized?  I’m all for new ideas, but when those new ideas interfere with the composer’s indications or with aesthetic truths, then I raise my hand in defiance.  We are in a crucial period where the maintenance of opera as a valuable art-form relies heavily on authenticity, but in these times the authentic voice of opera is facing the possibility of becoming mute, a prospect I will fight tirelessly to prevent.  It is why the value of the productions are lesser and why the wrong voice types are constantly being cast in repertoire that not only affects the singers’ vocal health, but mars the essential quality that these styles are meant to promote.

What’s goin’ on?

Peter Gelb

Of course there are those who think this is fine and dandy, and that opera needs to be multimedia-ized in order to retain a voice.  Certainly, it is great to promote it to the younger generation who really have no means of knowing it otherwise, but do we need to inject every production with an alternative antibiotic, usually some blatant and unnecessary sexuality that was not intended by the composer?  Might I be so bold as to say that Opera is sexy on its own and so are its characters, so is the music.  Is it possible that most operas, if presented authentically, are expressive enough solely in the combination of their text and music to deliver the same punch that directors are trying so hard to achieve?  It’s already there, in the mix, so why add more ingredients?  Overlooking what is innate in the art for the sake of making opera suit the times seems like a waste of time to me.

Food for thought at the dawn of a new decade.

“What’s Goin’On?”

Review of Opening night of the 2009/2010 season at the MET: Puccini’s “Tosca”: Washington Post


The Met’s Twist on ‘Tosca’? It’s the Audience That Gets the Knife.

By Anne Midgette

Karita Mattila as Tosca and Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi in the Metropolitan Opera's season opener.

Karita Mattila as Tosca and Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi in the Metropolitan Opera’s season opener. (By Ken Howard — Metropolitan Opera

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 21 — If art is a secular religion, opera can be a particularly orthodox sect of it. Certain rituals have become codified with time. In “La Bohème,” Rodolfo always clutches Mimi the same way when she dies. In “The Barber of Seville,” the maid, Berta, always sneezes loudly after taking snuff. And in Act 2 of “Tosca,” Tosca always spots the knife with which she is going to kill Baron Scarpia at a particular chord in the music; and she always sets lighted candles around his dead body before she leaves the room. It’s in the score; it’s in the music; it must be so.

So when Luc Bondy, the director of the new “Tosca” that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season Monday night, had Tosca fail to do those things, he was virtually guaranteed a lusty chorus of boos.

Opening night at the Met is something of an international observance, particularly since the accession of Peter Gelb as general manager in 2006. Gelb’s first opening night featured a “Madame Butterfly” from the English National Opera by the film director Anthony Minghella, whose presence drew considerable star wattage, with the likes of Sean Connery and Jude Law in attendance. None of the subsequent opening nights of Gelb’s tenure has been quite as lustrous, and with reason: None, including this “Tosca” (which will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the world on Oct. 10) has been artistically as good.

Redoing “Tosca” was going to be sacrilege to some people, no matter what Bondy came up with. The Met’s previous “Tosca,” by Franco Zeffirelli, which dated from 1985, was seemingly set in stone: It faithfully reproduced each of the Rome locations specified in the score, so that you got a veritable postcard of the Palazzo Farnese in Act 2, which plays out in Scarpia’s study, and a faithful reproduction of the last-act Castel Sant’Angelo, from whose parapet Tosca leaps to her death. Zeffirelli, a local hero at the Met, did not go gently into the good night; in an interview with the New York Times before the performance, he dismissed Bondy as “third-rate.”
Bondy certainly tried to clear away the layers of encrustation from the opera, rather like a restorer trying to clear the varnish from a painting. The problem was that he didn’t always seem to have a vision of the strong underlying image he was trying to reveal. His modus operandi seemed to be to get rid of all of the Tosca traditions and start afresh, but “afresh” often involved gestures every bit as gratuitous as the ones he was trying to replace. For instance: Tosca doesn’t place the candles around Scarpia’s body, and place the cross on his breast, after she kills him in Act 2; instead, she runs to the window and contemplates a suicide leap, forecasting her demise at the end of Act 3. Like so many of this production’s gestures, it’s contrived and a little odd without being particularly effective.

Bondy also loosely disconnects the action from its historical time and place without altogether updating it. The costumes, by Milena Canonero (a three-time Oscar winner for films including “Marie Antoinette”), stay in the early 19th century, but the sets by Richard Peduzzi waver in an uncomfortable ahistoricalness. The Romanesque brick church of the first act looks almost like a postwar reconstruction of an ancient cathedral, while Scarpia’s study, with hideous yellow and brown walls hung with big maps of Italy, evokes dreary institutions circa 1960. It is perhaps a perfect setting for Scarpia: so unpleasant it is difficult to be in, for the characters and for the audience.

The star of the evening — her face, chosen as the icon of this season, has been plastering New York buses and billboards for some weeks — was the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. Mattila isn’t the most Italianate of singers, but she won my admiration by clearly grasping the challenges of the role and throwing herself into it wholeheartedly, even when it didn’t play to her natural strengths. Her voice may not have the iron the role might demand, and she was a little flat on her high notes, but she held nothing back, took abundant risks, and bit into a gravelly chest voice time and again to show the character’s despair.

Her Cavaradossi, Marcelo Alvarez, was just the opposite: His voice naturally fits the role, but he sang it almost carelessly, worrying a lot more about making big sounds than about singing through to the ends of his phrases. You might say he was in a time-honored Italian tradition, and he sounded pretty good.

George Gagnidze was a late replacement when the scheduled Scarpia, Juha Uusitalo, had to withdraw because of illness. Initially small-voiced and dry, he ultimately acquitted himself honorably in a role that was hampered by Bondy’s conception of the character as a weak bully, surrounded by ladies of leisure in his study who try to pleasure him as he sings of his love for Tosca, and then sobbing on his hands and knees when she tells him she wants to leave Rome after sleeping with him to free Cavaradossi.

The strongest guiding hand of the evening was James Levine in the pit, who generally offered a reminder that this opera’s music can indeed still be fresh, vital and (in a couple of solo spots in particular) absolutely ravishing.

For most of the audience, though, the decent-to-good musicmaking will not outweigh the sacrilege of Bondy’s production. Tosca’s stabbing of Scarpia — hiding the knife behind the sofa cushions, then driving it into him when he leaps upon her for the sex she has promised him — was actually quite effective. It wasn’t orthodox, though, and it infuriated the audience still more. Opera, sung in a foreign language with subtitles and shown in movie theaters, has come to resemble a foreign film in the minds of some American audiences: People assume that it needs to be exactly the same each time you see it, without realizing that in live theater, this isn’t at all the point of the exercise.

Some thoughts on today’s mish-mash and Anja Silja’s commentary about Karita Mattila

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca.  Glamour abounds.

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca. Glamour abounds.

While I have my own doubts about Mattila singing perhaps the most veristic of Puccini’s heroines, it is not because I don’t think she can sing it but rather because I recall artists of the past who didn’t belong to the current mish-mash of having to sing everything  Just because one’s voice is capable of singing Tosca, doesn’t mean that any voice is well-suited to singing Italianante repertoire.  Last season, Mattila’s performance in Manon Lescaut was successful albeit fragmented.  I felt that the first two acts were not performed at all well, and I don’t blame Mattila as much as those who cast her in this role. Part of the issue was that the meat of Mattila’s voice lies higher than what is available to her in those first two acts.  Therefore, there were pronounced difficulties. But then, who would recognize them other than those of us who have spent most of our lives learning about aesthetics.  In the last two acts, however, Mattila’s voice shone more brilliantly even if her voice is not one that I think is well suited to Italian repertoire.

In the past, singers like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Renata Tebaldi, Enrico Caruso, Claudio Muzio, and even more recent singers like the late Hildegard Behrens, and Luciano Pavarotti tended to specialize in a specific area of the repertory because it was more conducive to singing and to the art from altogether.  Perhaps it was with Callas, whom I have always adored, with her penchant for glamour and public image, that the current state of opera was induced.  It is not a secret that she delved into repertoire that was beyond her realm.  And for what?  For fame and glamour or to simply be indispensable.  To me she was indispensable anyway.  Why am I bringing this up?  Young singers today are being forced into constraints because they are expected to sing every type of repertoire.  “If one is a good singer, they should be able to sing anything.”  While this is true about technical ability, it’s not really a great way to forge a career.  I think this is one of the major problems with opera today.  One example on which we might reflect is when Madame Hildegard Behrens sang Tosca years ago, but well understood that her voice wasn’t really suited to the role.  She sang it well, but aesthetically her voice wasn’t appropriate for this aesthetic platform.  An art form is only an art-form by way of its aesthetic components.

The late Hildegard Behrens

The late Hildegard Behrens

In a recent publication of Opera News, the great Anja Silja, who is one of the remaining singers to stick to her voice’s actual innate qualities, comments on Mattila and offers a few interesting points about opera in North America. “Anja Silja, who last performed at the Met as Kostelnička to Mattila’s Jenůfa in 2007, has some insight into Mattila’s essence. “She is not a showgirl, which I hate in opera,” Silja says. “She is still kind of a diva-like thing, but this is a little touch of America. I think this is maybe necessary for those houses. It’s a little glamorous, and one has to have a beautiful picture, and these kinds of things, and interviews and things like that. That’s more of what the Americans like. It has nothing to do with her personality onstage.” It’s hard to argue with the idea that stateside audiences have been trained to consume their celebrities and performing artists on sheer glam factor. But in truth, Mattila adores her subscription to Martha Stewart Living and wasn’t interested in wearing designer labels for her photo shoot.” (Oussama Zahr, “Opera News”, September 2009, 74/3).

Even if Mattila doesn’t really fit into the glamour world of North American opera, Silja’s comments should make us take note.  What ever happened to art for art’s sake?

Anja Silja

Anja Silja

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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