Music

VOICE AT THE TOP

Lawrence O’Toole June 23 1980
Music

VOICE AT THE TOP

Lawrence O’Toole June 23 1980

VOICE AT THE TOP

Music

Lawrence O’Toole

It was an evening perfumed with glamor powerful enough to kill. Paris—Feb. 25, 1979. The entire musical world, including 300 or so international music critics, had turned out in curious, anxious force. So did politicians, diplomats, dignitaries of varied hue, celebrities of countless stripes and others who simply happened to be filthy rich. The occasion was the world premiere of the full-length version of Alban Berg’s opera, Lulu, most of the third act of which had been suppressed for years by his widow. The next day The New York Times' senior music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, called it “perhaps the most important and glamorous operatic premiere since the end of the Second World War.” Negotiating the cruel demands of the title femme fatale role—a moth caught in the glare of luminescence—was a soprano, all five feet of her, who 40 years earlier had arrived into the world on a dining room table above a Chinese laundry in a Toronto slum named Cabbagetown.

“I had a fever and was drugged up with cortisone,” Teresa Stratas recalls. “I didn’t want to sing—couldn’t sing —but they insisted I did anyway. The cortisone did something to my perspec-

tive. Normally I’m myopic, but as I stepped out onto the stage I saw gathered in front of me, so clearly, the entire musical world and the rest of the famous world as well. And then I said to myself, ‘So you finally did it. And this is it.’ And then I thought, ‘So what is it?’ I suddenly realized that it didn’t mean a thing—not—a— thing. So I did what I was supposed to do: I stood there and I sang.”

Within the past few years Stratas’ ascendancy in the operatic world, begun in 1958, has taken a celestial climb. There was, of course, the world premiere of Lulu in Paris—the plum soprano role of the decade, some say the century, which she will repeat for the Met this fall; before that, a film of Richard Strauss’s Salome made in Europe under the baton of Strauss expert Karl Böhm, which rushed the blood up into the head. Last fall, wearing black leather leotards and drawing languorously on a cigarette, she appeared as the prostitute Jenny in the Metropolitan Opera’s controversial staging of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, following that, in January, she gave two landmark Weill concerts at New York’s Whitney Museum. And in May, to cap off a year of nothing but success, the Canadian Music Council named her Performer of the Year for 1979.

At the world-renowned Salzburg Festival she has been acclaimed as a frontrank Mozart singer; on her living room wall is a photo of superstar conductor Herbert von Karajan, for whom she sang the part of the maid in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and which is signed, “To my uncomparable Susanna.” When Karl Böhm came to her

apartment to listen to Stratas sing the Salome score at the piano, he told her he had doubts about using her for the film; when she finished singing he walked over to the piano with tears in his eyes, kissed her and said, “This is the voice that Richard wrote for and prayed for when he wrote this. If only he could be here to hear it.”

All this propulsion into the lights again—and the tempting promise of more acclaim, satisfaction and tributewill be placed neatly and irrevocably aside in five years: Stratas wants to retire on a farm—alone. “I’m probably going to have to use the word career a few times in this conversation,” she says, lavishing a tone of contempt on the word. “I hate all the connotations of the word career. I suppose I’ve had one in spite of myself.” A recluse by her own admission, she has also been dubbed “Miss Cancellation” by others in reference to her notorious and much publicized cancellations. The opera world, which has always assumed it has the monopoly on fiery temperaments and is ever ready to continue the tradition, provided her with the sobriquet “the baby Callas” right from the start. And, though dependable is hardly the first word to come to mind in relation to divas, Stratas has earned a reputation for being especially un-co-operative and nonchalant about the entire matter. Her response: “Too bad.” o

A case in point: “Who is it?” she asks 5 through the door of her apartment in a § sleep-drugged voice at the appointed g time for the interview, something she | rarely grants. “Oh no,” she groans, £ alerted to the date. “Oh God, I’m stark naked. Is it really today? I’m sorry, but I just can’t let you in. I look like Medusa—I’ll scare you to death.” Another cancellation. Earnest pleas for forgiveness. The next day she opens the door, looks surprised and, raising her hand to her throat à La Traviata, says, “Don’t tell me it’s today,” trying to look mean and sophisticated. Joke over, response achieved, she breaks into a grin.

Her capacious apartment in New York City’s old Hotel Ansonia—former home for Caruso, Toscanini and Sarah Bernhardt—is exactly the kind of place where a diva might be expected to hang

her furs and jettison her jewels after a night of champagne and chitchat with the great and famous. Stratas’ minks hang in the closet; they are gifts she never wears. Instead, she wears black satin trousers and her hair thrown back, which gives her the aspect of a woman who has been around the block a few times. The reminders of success strewn around the apartment have one small flaw: something in her makeup room sticks out among the Greek icons like a sore finger. Tacked up on a wall is a flour sack with the wording Primrose Flour. Her mother made undershirts and staples of clothing from the material when the family couldn’t afford anything else. Stratas says she hangs it there to look at always, to remind herself of where she comes from.

Born Anastasia Strataki to Cretan immigrants, Stratas gave her first concert for an unusual audience at the age of 4. She was brought up on Greek mantinades (folk songs you make up as you go along) and used to sing them to her pet cat. Wandering into the basement one day, she found a captive audience of furry creatures and sat down and sang for them. “When my mother found me,” she says, “she beat me and cried at the same time. I was singing to sewer rats.” Soon, having learned her first song— Pistol-Packin 'Mama—the five-year-old sang for patrons in the family restaurant; the listeners threw nickels and dimes to her; later, she was to sing torch songs in nightclubs. “I had to keep the attention of all the drunks—an experience that pays off when I sing to the sometimes dozing opera audience who come to listen for social reasons.”

“No,” she says, “I would not have done what I have and led the life I did had I not come from a background of poverty. I wouldn’t be where I am now— wherever that is—had I been born into a middle-class Canadian family. When you’re terribly aware of the lack of things—though we had everything that counted in our family—well, you’re goaded into going the distance. One more than compensates to make up for the void of knowledge that begins and ends at oneself.” She clarifies the matter by explaining that her lover of eight years and former fiancé, conductor Zubin Mehta, grew up on chamber music; she grew up on the bouzouki. “Now that I’ve done just about what I’ve wanted to, I want to get back to where I came from. You kill yourself to escape from where you come from and then kill yourself to get back. It’s a little absurd, isn’t it?” Eighteen years ago, when her career had just begun to rocket, she told Maclean's: “I’m not where I’m going to be, not by a long shot.” She has, ironically, come full circle.

Dumping the “career” for a farm, eager to discover “what Shakespeare and Kafka really had to say,” taking no music with her (“It will all be inside my head”), she’s convinced she spies a light at the end of the tunnel; in her own words, “to be alone but not lonely.” Her father won’t understand her dream. “My father came from the mountains of Crete, and when one of his children says she wants to escape the cities and wants to have what he had back then, that she’s shedding all those things he struggled for her to have, he simply cannot understand.” Her dream farm won’t be in Canada, however: the tuberculosis she contracted as a child was never properly cured and her lungs require a warm climate. She seldom feels the need to return to Canada. “I don’t feel I belong anywhere. I’m first generation S and that’s a problem first-generation % children face—you never really feel at 1 home anywhere. At some point in life t; you realize that you’ve been at home all 5 along—with yourself.” But there is £ another, far deeper reason — memory. Stratas’ mother, whom she loved and doted upon, died at the relatively early age of 52 in 1963. Shortly after the death Stratas said, “I still can’t get myself to accept singing engagements in Canada. We were so close. The only thing that takes me back is... I sneak into Toronto to visit her grave.”

Stratas’ umbilical ties to her own past have always prevented her from indulging in the glittering social orbit of the operatic world. It has also led her down the road generally not taken. “I don’t do recitals and I’ll tell you why. I can’t stand the format—the sequined gown, the lacquered hair, the clasped hands—and a good and acceptable program. The basic struggle in my family was one to survive—nothing was ever taken for granted. Suddenly, to find myself at age 19 at the Met among the privileged society of opera was a fairly heavy trip. The cocktail parties and receptions—that sham which has nothing to do with making music—bugged the hell out of me. So now I say ‘If you want me, if' you want Teresa Stratas the singer, then I’ll do it.’ But I won’t show my face somewhere just for the sake of showing my face. I won’t dress up. I don’t get dressed up.”

The Whitney recital, in January, of the Kurt Weill songs, most of them more esoteric than Mack the Knife or September Song, is expressly what Stratas envisions for herself as a performer. After she did Mahagonny at the Met, the legendary Weill interpreter, Lotte Lenya, approached her. Lenya had locked away in vaults a score of unperformed Weill songs (including one written for Marlene Dietrich which she never sang) and, having listened to Stratas sing Weill, gave them to her. “You are the only one who has come along to sing Weill without making him sound vulgar,” said Lenya, and with poignant hesitancy passed on the torch. “For that concert,” recalls Stratas, “I

sat on a stool and wore what I’m wearing now. I spoke to the audience. Everyone was sitting on the floor and zeroing in on the music, which is what is important—and not the f— what I’m wearing.”

With that behind her, she has planned her first recital series—an autobiographical one. “It will be just Stratas Sings. No program notes. I’ll come out and start with one of those haunting mantinades, not an aria. I couldn’t always sing an aria. And I’ll sing the Weill songs. That’s the way I’ll do it: on a stool, in my jeans.” This form of recital will be a new direction. Other divas, such as Eileen Farrell and Helen Träubel, sang blues and pop in their days, but not in tandem with classical. (Träubel sang blues at the Chez Paree in Chicago; Stratas auditioned for Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.) “If I’ve broken the mould of the recital and what it means, then I’ll feel I’ve really done something,” Stratas says.

The books on her coffee table—a new translation of The Bhagavad Gita, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, Callas, Gypsies—reveal how far she has travelled from where she began and, at the same time, how little she’s actually

moved away from it. Her apartment at the Ansonia is decidedly Old World— objets d’art given her by Mehta, photographs steeped in the sepia of age. There is also a framed piece of the curtain from the old Met. On the day the stagehands were tearing the dependable old thing down, Stratas walked in, saw a part of her life die and began to cry. “ ‘What’s wrong with Terry, eh? Whoever hurt Terry is gonna get his

f------face pushed in,’ one of them said.

I told them what the matter was and they tore off this piece and gave it to me.” A Chagall poster, signed by the master, has a sadder story. “He [Chagall] gave it to Mary, the switchboard operator at the Met. Mary didn’t just run the switchboard,” Stratas muses, “she ran the Met. She promised it to me if I got married or if she died first. ‘Fat chance,’ I told her—on both accounts.” Suddenly, Stratas’ voice takes a plunge in tone. She reaches over (a habit of hers) and touches her interviewer’s arm. “Mary died of cancer. I used to visit her in the hospital, disturbed by her dying. ‘Don’t be foolish. You’re not going to die,’ I told her. But she needed someone to help her die and nobody, myself included, would. Now, I would have seen her through that door.”

Stratas, with her inbred Greek fatalism to buttress her, believes that death is the only absolute. “Nothing is constant. Death is constant, that’s all. Now that I think of it, I’m probably very religious. It doesn’t mean I go to church every Sunday. I think a lot about death. Hey, this is something I don’t tell interviewers, but it will help to explain: I’ve had a number of astral experiences [wherein the spirit leaves the body], I didn’t want it to happen, and it was a very frightening experience as it was happening. But once I was out of my body it was the most wonderful thing. I didn’t want to go back in, but felt sorry for that body lying there. Obviously, it wasn’t my time to die. I went back in.”

Because she has no time for absolutes, she is cynical about relationships. She left Mehta after eight years because she didn’t want to be “Mrs. Conductor.” “To find a person in life who will accept all the facets of a person’s personality is very difficult. People think it’s very glamorous to be part of Stratas’ life, to be part of the light that Stratas is. Let that light for a moment get black and no one wants you. To have to cope with Stratas in her depressions is something people don’t want. They want to know about the glitter and champagne. The stress and what one goes through to give birth to a performance—no one really wants to know that.”

Though a loner, she has never lacked for the company of men.Currently, she’s living with Tony Harrison, a British poet she met two years ago during The Bartered Bride, for which he wrote the libretto.

Following the breakup with Mehta, stories circulated about Stratas’ unhappiness when she took off for Europe and bought a house in Spain. Franz Kraemer, now with the Canada Council, who knew her during the early days, counters a suggestion that Stratas was unhappy. “Teresa is never unhappy. Teresa is either in love or out of love.” He remembers working on La Traviata with her when Stratas would interrupt the rehearsal every five minutes to

either take a phone call or to make one to Mehta. “One minute she’d return from the phone in tears, the next sublimely happy. It went on and on like that.” Stratas herself admits to tendencies toward manic-depression, chalking it up to her beloved, “crazy” family. In 1962, before a performance in Cleveland, she wandered among crowds on a midway and felt depressed and homesick. She fled back to her hotel, called Toronto to speak to her friend and sister, Mary (now a schoolteacher living in Florida), and, on hearing a familiar voice, hung up without saying so much as a word.

To offer a clue to the conditions that govern her life she quotes from Lulu: “I have never in the world wanted to be anything but what I have been taken for, and no one has ever taken me for anything but what I am.” Unlike most opera singers, Stratas is a strong exponent of 20th-century music and, as well as being drawn to Lulu the temptress, also feels a pull toward Mélisande from Debussy’s Pellêas et Mélisande. “They are both absolutely their own people,” she says. “They hurt, inadvertently, because they cannot conform to what other people want them to be. They can’t be caged in, only by themselves.”

She won’t be imprisoned in the grooves of recordings, either. Her recordings have been few, restricted to the necessary—one of the full-length Lulu and an upcoming Mahagonny. “I never felt I was ready when I was younger. I said no to everyone without giving a reason—I just said NO! There’s something permanent about a recording and I don’t like any kind of permanence. If there’s going to be anything permanent, then it should be to the best of my ability.” (As to the range of her abilities, she’s hardly falsely modest:

“Karajan said, ‘If you want to sing Mozart properly, listen to Stratas.’ That, for a Greek kid born in the slums of Toronto, is pretty good.”) As well as recording offers there are movies as well. Handed the lead in The Diva, the story of an opera singer, she turned it down; it was “a pile of s—.” Frienddirector Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hair) is looking for a property expressly for her, and Franco Zeffirelli wants her to play the juicy title role in the Maria Callas biography. “He called me while I was in Paris doing Lulu. I told him if he did it the way he did his TV documentary on her I wanted no part of it. ‘You beetch, you beetch, what you mean?’ he screamed. ‘Franco,’ I told him, T think you did her an injustice.’ He didn’t like that, but then people don’t always like the truth.”

Stratas, who vows she is not rich by any stretch of the imagination, had just in fact cancelled a trip to Europe a few days before the interview. “It was a recording and a performance and it was easy money. I won’t go where the easy money is. The primary function of what I’m doing, of art—and who am I to say this but I’ll say it anyway—is to somehow enrich. If I have a primary function past my own development,

it’s to give something further to other people.”

Sometimes, in the spotlight, even Stratas forgets that. She tells a story on herself. Following a telecast two years ago of I Pagliacci from the Met with Stratas singing Nedda, she received a telephone call from a man who told her how moved he was by the performance and asked if he could meet her. “I was about to leave for Europe and was feeling very harassed, so I was abrupt with him, even rude. I told him to call in the fall. I get this kind of thing quite often and thought he wanted to get laid or something.” Minutes later her doorbell rang and, when she opened it, she saw a hand holding a flower poke through. “You sounded like you needed a little sunshine in your life,” said the man. It was then she saw his white cane.

To keep herself balanced, to remind herself of what she is doing and, even more importantly, why, Stratas keeps a book given to her by her sister, Mary, close at hand on a shelf. Mary sent it to her when she returned from performing the Paris Lulu. The inscription reads: “Dear Teresa, welcome home. There’s nothing at the top, and it doesn Ï matter. Love Mary, 4.15.79.” O