Teresa Stratas (1938 – ) was and is petite (5 feet and 105 pounds) with a delicate, sensuous, beauty and an intimate, warm, voice that was still powerful enough to fill the largest auditorium. She sang professionally for 40 years before retiring at the age of 60.
Along with Maria Callas, Stratas was one of the finest singing actresses of the 20th Century. Due to her diminutive size she was sometimes referred to as “The Baby Callas” but other than their shared work ethic and Greek heritage, the two were quite different, both in their methods and their results.
Like many great stars Stratas suffered from extreme stage fright but she had a powerful stage presence and the talent to give life to her characters, projecting the vulnerability and fragility of otherwise strong and independent women and opening her soul to an audience through her characters. She had a three octave singing range as well as superb comic sensibility and timing, which enabled her to range from joy and innocence to deep tragedy in her portrayals.
And when she had achieved fame and was at her vocal and box office peak, instead of concentrating on the lucrative standard repertoire of popular and vocally undemanding operas, she chose instead to sing more difficult roles: Salome, Lulu, and the works of Kurt Weill. After which she left the opera stage for almost 8 years to concentrate on charitable volunteer work.
Anastasia Stratakis was born To Greek immigrants from Crete on her parent’s dining room table in Toronto, Canada. Her father, who had been a barefoot shepherd in Crete, suffered from manic-depression. She once said, “We lived a lifetime of emotions every day, always in dread and panic of what might happen next.” The family lived in near-poverty but there was always singing and dancing in the home. When she was four years old she was stricken with tuberculosis and nearly died. This later caused her severe respiratory problems, often forcing her to cancel performances.
“It’s weird to have something choose you that demands you use your lungs and breath, when most of my life I spent struggling to use my lungs and breath.”
Her father’s small restaurant made very little money but her parents managed to save enough money to buy a piano and pay a teacher to give Teresa’s older sister lessons. Teresa was a superb mimic and, at the age of two, absorbed her sister’s lessons by listening and soon could play simple melodies.
As a teenager Teresa sang popular songs in her father’s restaurant, in local nightclubs, and sang Greek songs on radio. The Metropolitan Opera was on tour in Toronto, and for her 16th birthday, Teresa and her brother were given a tickets to see “La Traviata.” She later said that seeing her first opera “overwhelmed” her with the concept of what the human voice could do. She decided to become an opera singer.
She had never studied voice and had seen only that one opera performance, but she auditioned for the Royal College of Music in Toronto singing Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Her talent was so obvious that she was immediately admitted and studied for three years on a scholarship. Irene Jessner, whom she credited somewhat inaccurately as her first and only singing teacher, taught her that “singing is a natural thing and the voice can express emotions that no words can.”
She made her debut in 1958 with the Canadian Opera as Mimì in La Boheme. And her Mimi did something exceeding rare in the world of opera. She actually communicated with her Rodolfo. She sang, and beautifully, but she was really talking – and explaining to him just who she was and what she felt. She wasn’t an opera singer performing an aria, she was a real person singing the words that just happened to come to her mind. And you can’t take your eyes off of her.
The next year she was a co-winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air and made her Met debut in 1959. At her audition, Met manager Rudolf Bing had asked her to sing Mozart. Teresa said she didn’t know any. Bing asked her to sing Isolde. She didn’t know that either. Stratas never sang Isolde, but she quickly learned Mozart. Very well.
She was initially given only small parts but one night Lucine Amara, the soprano singing Liu in Turandot, was stricken ill and Stratas was rushed on stage to cover – opposite Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. She was terrified but she sang (and acted) superbly. The reviews were wonderful and her talent and personality were so obvious that she was on her way. She soon made both her Covent Garden and La Scala debuts.
She could sing with equal fervor and believability the virginal Marenka in Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”, the prostitute Jenny in “Mahagonny”, the pious mother in “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, or the title teenage temptress in the filmed version of Strauss “Salome.”
Stratas was chosen for the role of Salome by Karl Bohm, a famous Strauss conductor. He told her afterwards how grateful he was to have witnessed the Judean princess sung and acted in the way the composer had envisioned.
During a 1979 rehearsal of Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny” at the Met, the composer’s widow Lotte Lenya sat watching from the audience. Lenya had sung in the premiere of “Mahagonny” and had also been the first Jenny in Weill’s “Threepenny Opera.” When Teresa asked Lenya what she thought, all the lady would say was, “Just do what you’re doing, dear.” Stratas thought she must have been so awful that Lenya couldn’t even discuss her performance. But later, Lenya gave Stratas the original scores of all Kurt Weill’s unpublished songs to do with as she wished.
She made two albums of those Weill songs, The Unknown Kurt Weill” and “Stratas Sings Weill” as well as a 1993 video of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins and appeared in the CBC documentary “September Songs” about Weill and his music. Later, it was Teresa Stratas who she nursed Lotte Lenya through her final illness.
Reviewing the Metropolitan Opera telecast of Mahagonny, critic Andrew Porter wrote: “Close up, the intelligence, subtlety and precision that distinguish Teresa Stratas’s Jenny were even more apparent. She is an arresting artist. One began to regret every moment the cameras left her…The opera took life from her.”
In Alban Berg’s “Lulu”, she played a whore who is stabbed to death by Jack the Ripper. “The director insisted that I be Lulu, and not act her,” she recalled. “He knew there is a lot of her life in mine. That filled the performance with borderline schizophrenia.” She was equally at home, however, in the world of operetta singing Lehar and Offenbach with originality and feeling.
Stratas led a very private personal life. She lived with conductor Zubin Mehta for eight years and had another long-term relationship the with poet Tony Harrison who she married in 1984 and later divorced.
“I make my own dresses; I never go to the hairdresser; I never go to parties,” she said. “With my background I find it very hard to justify the privileged life I have. It takes all my energy to do this very elitist thing. So why don’t I channel these energies and be something like Mother Teresa? Mother Teresa’s really doing something that matters with her life,” she says. “I’m just trying to justify mine.”
She felt so strongly about it that in 1981 she put her opera career on hold and backpacked alone through India, traveling to Calcutta where she met Mother Teresa and spent the next several years with her helping the terminally ill. She left occasionally to make films or recordings, explaining that giving Mother Teresa the income from just one concert or film, could be of more value than a year of her volunteer work.
“I’ve never planned a career – I hate that word – and sat down with advisers to think, ‘Oh, I should do that role, I should sing this,’ because I’ve been too busy living life … I don’t approach roles like other people, I become the person. My job, what I do, is to inform on the human condition … I have come and gone, cancelled everything, gone away, done other things. We only live once. Why would I only live it as an opera singer?”
She returned to opera in 1988, creating the role of Marie Antoinette in Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Metropolitan. Her voice had deteriorated somewhat, which some attributed to the demanding roles she was singing, such as Salome and Lulu, but her performances never lost their dramatic focus and intensity. Critic Ethan Morrden wrote: “Stratas is exceptional; she likes what she likes. Most divas want to like what the public likes.”
She recorded the role of Julie in Kern and Hammerstein’s musical “Show Boat” which was the first complete recording of the original score, with all of Hammerstein uncensored lyrics. She appeared on Broadway starring in “Rags.” She received rave reviews but the show closed after only four performances. Her films include “Salome,” Franco Zefferelli’s productions of “La Boheme,” “Pagliacci,” and “La Traviata”, the latter two also starring Placido Domingo.
She also appeared as Despina in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutti,” and the television version of Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and in “Under the Piano,” the true story of an autistic woman whose sister protected her fragile personality from a domineering former opera-star mother played by Stratas.
She continues giving of her time and money to charitable causes. In the 1990s she moved into a Romanian hospital to clean cots and wash and care for the sick and dying orphans.
In 1995 she had surgery on her nose for a sinus condition. The surgery left her with impaired breathing and she retired from singing. She sued New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and the surgeons.Shortly before retiring and moving to Sarasota, Florida, where she now lives, Teresa Stratas sang a concert at the White House (please excuse the poor sound quality.) She is obviously being careful with her top notes, but all of her expressiveness and warmth are still on display. And don’t go away after the first number. There’s a brief break followed by Kurt Weill’s “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.”