” Ja, Ja……”
This very talented and lovely lady had a big impact in my life. My great friend and fabulous voiced mezzo soprano pal in the early “school” period of the Metropolitan time, Gail Dubinbaum had asked if I would like to meet and sing for her great teacher and mentor Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
She was studying several roles with her, and Elisabeth was giving a master class at one of the great schools in New York, my memory recalls Manhattan School of Music, or the Mannes School. Dr. Kaufman was the president at the time who welcomed me with quite a flourish. She had been kind enough to leave me until after the formal auditions for her master class had run it’s course and then called me to their little theater.
My memories of her were always vivid. One met a totally luminous woman, strikingly beautiful, with a historic kind of beauty, I always felt the devil was fighting with all that was good for her soul.
Mythic beauty and a directness and humility about herself and music and her voice that was borne most likely as a badge of honor and protection against the steady barrage for perfection that was the fabulous Walter Legge, her great love and husband. She loved him deeply, and he her, but perfection came at a caustic price on occasion.
I felt no fear. Never did when I sang for greats. For people who knew. I am mortally nervous when singing for those who know nothing. More work and less satisfaction. To hear one word of praise and encouragement, or a look of solidarity from one of the greats and that was all I needed. That sense of, they KNEW what I wanted, WHY I wanted it, and HOW I went about achieving it. Never failed.
So “Off we go….” was her delicious invitation to begin and indeed we went.
I was in a trance. Gone. Sang “Ritorna Vincitor!” from Aida.
I used to love to color the “Numi, pieta…” with what I hoped was hushed religiosity, a sense of awe and a suspension of all things while Aida beseeched the heavens for pity and mercy.
Floating the last, I closed in total concentration. The room was numbingly still.
Her look was worth five years of a life. Her eyes had filled with tears, and her hands were at her face.
“I had not hoped to hear Rethberg again in my lifetime….I do not mean to compare but really…..this is very special.” The praise flowed and I drank my fill. ” I have never seen someone so young yet so ready. Your message is so sure and from within, genuine heart.”
I had been always battling someone, trying to keep what was mine. So many people belittle new artists, don’t think they are artists, or are too bitter to join in the new dream of a fresh start.
I was very stubborn when I came to the Met. Very. Only James Levine really understood, but at that time, he was far too busy running the opera house and my contact with him was always wonderful but naturally was limited. Which I hated! LOL.
“You are an authentic Italian soprano, the legato, the color, the phrasing. From an early age, yes?” She would make statements and end with a question that was the answer already.
It was resolved that I would come work with her, and subsequently I did. We worked Elsa, from Lohengrin which she adored and wanted more precise. “Your desire to be expressive is formidable, you must learn this music very well to do what you do…”
We worked several other pieces later when she came to the Met to teach a Master Class, a lot of Wolf, Brahms and Lieder, which I learned for her. At the end of this session however, she offered me something fantastic but so casually I almost missed it’s significance.
“My husband would have loved you….you know, you must come to Austria. I want Herbie to hear you.” I of course thought to myself, “Herbie???” and then it clicked. Herbert…..as in Von Karajan.
I mentioned that I was coming on a tour of Germany for auditons. I would make sure it finished in Austria!”
She countered fine, that I was to call and she would “try” and set it up for that summer.” I was so thrilled and stammered on about thanking her for her interest, and she countered something so humble yet exactly her. “When you find a talent like this, it is my duty to be of service.” And boy was she not kidding. Doors flew open and wide all over Germany and finally Austria. She did make the tour of Germany and Austria quite a special time for me….. Coming to him (Von Karajan) at her invite was a gift of the God’s. I will tell that amazing story another time.
This story still had a good deal of drama….
Later, after the marvelous time with the Maestro, in Salzburg. We went to Milan by train, where i was to make an audition for La Scala that “Old Man Oldani” had arranged for me.
“Old man” was the term they fixed to him as his son was also in his very famous agency in Milano. He had heard me in Busetto the year I won the First Prize at the Voci Verdiane.
He had represented many greats and was steeped in La Scala history…..So, apparently Von Karajan had been in touch with the then artistic director, Leone Magiera and had said to him listen to me carefully. That he had enjoyed my singing and that we were going to work together that November. He had wanted me to work with Magiera in preparing the music for that work.
Leone, God bless him, did hear me and promptly offered two Ernani’s for my debut. I had to fly to London to sing for Muti in Kingsway Hall for his okay. The tour was really growing.
We arrived in London with literally enough to stay for two days. The auditon was also something magical and I was hired to make my debut at La Scala.
Then we were robbed.
Panic. My mother and sister with me, what were we to do?!! We had hoped for a wire of funds that proved stubbornly unavailable. A study in highs and lows.
It was dire.
The phone rang in a room that smelled like fabulous British scones with melted butter and coffee with cream.
It was Elisabeth. She called to tell me congratulations that “Herbie” had been as impressed as she and she was happy but not surprised about La Scala. I told her I may have to stay in the street! Needless to say, with no fanfare whatsoever, she said, “We can’t have this for you.” She paid for the Hotel where we had holed up, paid for my whole family to get home.
Never blinked an eye. When I returned it, never said one word. Compassion. Class.
Later in Vienna when I made my second visit to that august house, I was singing Desdemona with Atlantov and Bruson in the Otello. A huge floral basket arrived unable to get in the door; so like the gorgeous standing bouquets famous for presentations on stage in the early 20’s and 30’s.
The entire theater was buzzing that she was there. My dressers were smiling and giggling for me and made all the wig and costume with their normal perfection but tonight even with more special care.
The card with the flowers they presented like it was royalty…..
It read simply, ” Unleash the gold, girl. I am here for you ….” She came back beaming as only she could.
With a slew of European press and several friends, Uri Merkel among them, and Rita Dixon and Rudy Balmer, if my memory serves me right, the latter two special people who would later became great friends.
She had “bragged about me and I hadn’t let her down”.
At least 28 minutes of applause greeted us after, Bruson and Atlantov were great favorites and had been quite exceptional, but it had been the biggest success of my career in Austria.
A magical night, and a great lady who was a blessing to me, an inspiration of humility, diligence and discipline in the service of music. Music above all.
I shall never forget what she brought to my life.