And, of course,
almost any set of coincidences
can be bent to accommodate this rule.
But in 1993 the world of opera suffered
the loss of three bright stars, each supremely gifted singers, two sopranos and a mezzo, and in circumstances that would almost made that old superstition believable.
They each were born in the same year – two within a day of each other – and each died of cancer (two of brain cancer, one of breast cancer) in the same year and within months of each other.
And, while they have not really been forgotten, their memory has been neglected. So I’d like to try and remedy that.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on hearing Lucia Popp for the first time: “Miss, you’re phenomenal!”
Lucia Popp was supremely stylish singer, dazzling in technique, sophisticated in artistry, with a high, lyric soprano voice that could warm to the sweetest of tones. Her voice and personality were ideal for Viennese operetta, and she was one of the best Rosalindes in “Die Fledermaus” and Hannas in “The Merry Widow” of her time. She was a recitalist and lieder singer of great charm and stage presence. Hers was also possibly the best Queen of the Night on record. She began as a coloratura soprano but later moved to the lyric repertoire and finally into the lighter Strauss and Wagner operas.
Lucia Poppova was born November 12, 1939 in Uhurska (which is now called Zahorska) in a part of Czechoslovakia now known as Slovakia. The country had been occupied by the German army. Lucia’s father, Rudolph Popp was conscripted into the Slovakian division of the German army to fight in Russia but was sent back home to a military prison (probably for communist sympathies.) After the war the country became a communist satellite.
As a child, Lucia lived mostly with her grandmother. Her father became a cultural attaché at the Czechoslovak embassy in London and his daughter once accompanied him to a reception given by the Queen of England. Her mother was an excellent lyric soprano and there always was classical music in the Popp household. Lucia often sang duets with her mother at home.
Young Lucia was blonde and beautiful and by the age of 16 she had already starred in a Czech movie. She began as a mezzo-soprano, but her voice changed and she became first a coloratura and then a lyric soprano. She studied at the Arts Academy of Bratislava where a former coloratura of the Vienna Volksoper, Anny Hruvosky was impressed by her musical intelligence. “I had a bottom and a top and nothing else between,” Lucia later said. After much work Hruvosky helped her develop an astonishingly beautiful middle voice and Lucia never changed teachers for the rest of her life.
She made her début as Mozart’s Queen of the Night (singing in Slovakian) in 1963. Ten days later she visited Vienna with her mother and managed to get an audition at the Viennese Opera. Lucia couldn’t speak German so she sang her audition in Slovak. It didn’t matter. She was immediately accepted and Herbert von Karajan authorized a three-year beginners contract. With her parent’s agreement (and with their understanding of the possible consequences to them) she defected to the West. Lucia later married the pianist at that audition, the conductor Georg Fischer.
One month later she made her debut at the Vienna State Opera. She was initially assigned small roles but she was able to work alongside Pier Lorengar, Nicolai Gedda, and Christa Ludwig, and be conducted by Karl Boehm. Her first starring role was as Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” and it was a was a triumph. She was quickly signed by Angel Records to record the part. The conductor, Otto Klemperer, wanted someone “more famous” but after he heard her sing he relented.
When she sang Karolka in the opera “Jenufa” with Fritz Wunderlich, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf wrote on her program that Popp was “the future.”
Rudolf Bing invited her to sing The Queen of the Night the Metropolitan Opera after which she returned to Vienna and in 1968 her parents were at last able to get a visa and visit their daughter. Then the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and she was once again listed as a defector. She became an Austrian citizen and Czech government finally allowed her to return home on condition that she pay a large sum as compensation for her Slovak “education.”
She sang a series of seven Mozart operas in Cologne, Germany, becoming one of the great Mozart singers of her time and she also emerged as a fine lieder singer. She was now well-established singer, appreciated as much for her musical intelligence as her beauty of sound. She was becoming well-known in recording studios but she was not yet a major star and still sang in operettas.
She was charming with a fine sense of humor. She divorced and eventually married tenor Peter Seiffert, who was 15 years younger than she. Then in the 1980’s her career became fully international. She sang in Salzburg and Munich, at Covent Garden and La Scala, and then the Metropolitan Opera. She was a huge success with the public and she continued adding new roles to her repertoire. In 1982 she decided to sing heavier lyric roles such as “Fidelio,” “Der Meistersinger,” “Tannhäuser”, and even Elsa in “Lohengrin”.
In 1985 the Berlin Wall came down and Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia. The Communist regime was “in the dustbin of history” and Popp could finally visit her home without fear. For the next several years her career flourished and she made an extraordinary amount of well received recordings. She seemingly had everything to look forward to.
But in 1993, when her father came to visit, she asked him to stay in a hotel rather than be a guest at her house. When he saw her she finally admitted the truth. She had brain cancer and not long to live. After many treatments she was admitted to a hospital in Munich with what she called “diese dumme Geschichte” (this stupid thing). Four days later, on November 12, 1993 she died.
She sang much of the same music as Lucia Popp but extended her repertoire to everything from Bach to Schoenberg, from Mozart to Verdi, from religious music to classical love songs. She had a ravishingly beautiful, crystal-clear, lyric soprano voice that was gentle but had great reserves of power. Joyce Arleen Auger was born September 13, 1939 in Southgate, California but she grew up in Hartsdale, New York. She sang before she would talk. She trained in piano and violin and in her school years she performed as a soloist and even served as concertmaster of her high school orchestra.
She graduated from California State University at Long Beach and taught kindergarten and first grade. She also sang with the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. In 1965 she moved to Illinois to study voice with tenor Ralph Errolle for two years in Evanston, Illinois. Then she won first place in the Viktor Fuchs Vocal Competition of Los Angeles in 1967 and a prize of airfare to Vienna, Austria, and several singing engagements.
Arleen could speak no German and knew only two coloratura arias, but she was immediately signed by the Vienna Staatsoper and made her debut in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” as the Queen of the Night.
She remained in Vienna for seven years, singing in Vienna and throughout Europe. She made her American operatic debut with the New York City Opera singing Queen of the Night, quickly followed by her Metropolitan Opera debut as Marzelline in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” conducted by Karl Böhm. She sang with almost every major conductor of her time, all of whom were impressed by what was described as the “pure luminous quality” of her voice and her “sublimely intelligent musicianship.” As her career evolved, she began to concentrate on concert work and recitals, including 13 worldwide recital tours, singing in every major venue of Europe, North America, and Asia.
Throughout her career, She always made room in her schedule for voice students and teaching and master classes. From 1971 to 1977, she taught voice at the Göthe University in Frankfurt, Germany, a position never before given to an American. She placed especial emphasis on sacred music, making Mozart’s Esultate Jubilate her signature piece. In 1986 she sang the “Esultate Jubilate” to a television audience of over 700 million at the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
She changed her style in the 1980s by cutting down her vibrato and narrowing her expressive range in order to conform to the ideals of the “historically informed performance” – a more literal expression of the notation in the score. Which wasn’t difficult since she was already singing in a much plainer fashion than most other singers.
A critic wrote that she was “the sort of artist whose work not only provided pleasure for her audience but also instruction for her colleagues … She sang beautifully for more than a quarter century, she sang great music, and she never bowed or pandered to public taste. She was an artist, steady and serious to the end.” She was referred to as “The epitome of elegance and purity.”
Richard LeSuer remembers: “Planning a linked recital, she read through the complete poems and diaries of Emily Dickenson, and made a list of the poems, how they were related, what groups she wanted to do, and made notes on which selections from the letters and diaries she wanted read between the groups. And she had me go out and find every setting of each of those poems, so she could find somebody who set it the way she read the poem.”
She made over two hundred recordings, covering composers from Bach to Schoenberg. She won a posthumous Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance in 1994 and one reviewer wrote that her album of classical love songs “remains one of the finest compendiums of classical song ever issued.”
The Los Angeles Times said: “Listening to a song recorded by Arleen Auger, one might be inclined to credit the engineers for some of the apparent perfection. That any singer should be able to sustain such effortless lines, such pure and exquisitely gauged sound, so consistently, seems unbelievable. Believe it. Saturday evening at USC, the American soprano demonstrated anew in recital her musical command of a virtually flawless voice.”
In 1991, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death, she sang his Requiem with Cecilia Bartoli and the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Georg Solti in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna. Months later she was given six months to live.
Arleen Auger was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. After three brain surgeries she slipped into a coma and never regained consciousness. Arleen Auger died at the age of 53 on August 13, 1993 in Leusden, The Netherlands. She had been married and divorced twice, and was survived by her parents and brother.
The record producer, Walter Legge, said of Tatiana Troyanos: “Troyanos has a sumptuous voice, a very sharp intelligence, enormous ambition, and do-or-die determination to be a great artist.”
Of the three singers in this group, Troyanos was perhaps the best known to a general audience. In part this was simply because she spent 17 years at the Metropolitan Opera singing in 270 performances and 35 live broadcasts, but also because she had a more outgoing theatrical personality and sang more broadly known works.
Tatiana Troyanos was born on September 12, 1938 in New York City, New York. Her father was born on Cephalonia, Greece and her mother came from Stuttgart, Germany. She learned very little of either language because her parents separated when she was an infant and divorced when she was around 8 years old. She was looked after by Greek relatives for a while, then spent some time in an orphanage, the Brooklyn Home for Children in Queens, which she described as “bleak but marvelous”, where she sang and performed in plays. She said she wanted to become an opera singer from the age of 9.
Tatiana went to Brooklyn Music School, on a scholarship to study piano and she planned a career in music. In her late teens, she lived in a former home for disturbed girls, then moved to a co-ed boarding house. She sang in school choirs and the All City Chorus and, when she was sixteen, a teacher heard her voice in the chorus and with scholarships from the church, enabled her to attend the Juilliard School of Music.
She was employed as a secretary to the director of publicity of Random House, and eventually began vocal studies with Hans Heinz at Juilliard, where she was chosen as a soloist for Bach’s St. John Passion and the Verdi Requiem. She described Heinz as “the major influence in my life … Our work together built the foundation that was so essential to my career.”
She worked as an standee at the old Metropolitan Opera and sang in the chorus of the original Broadway production of The Sound Of Music. After a long run in The Sound of Music, she was engaged by the New York City Opera and made her professional operatic debut in 1963 as “Hippolyta” in the New York premiere production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She sang Marina Mnishek in “Boris Godunov” the following year, as well as eight other roles.
She was Offered a Metropolitan Opera contract which gave her very few stage opportunities so instead she left for Europe, where she was hired by the Hamburg State Opera as a member of its ensemble and later as a guest artist. Her breakthrough came in 1966 in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” as the Composer.
“She made a heart-breaking—and heart-broken—adolescent, whose voice, in Strauss’s great paean to the power of music, soared into the warm, Provencal night and seemed to hang there like the stars of a rocket.” Her first Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden in 1968 began her international career.
She sang throughout Europe and soon appeared in all the major opera houses in the United States. When she sang Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” in San Francisco, the Chronicle’s critic wrote: of her performance in Monteverdi’s opera, “The means by which Poppea seduces Nero … could liquefy even stone the way the sensational new mezzo soprano Tatiana Troyanos sang.”
In 1976 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in “Der Rosenkavalier.” “The star of the show was Miss Troyanos … the most aristocratic Octavian at the Met in years,” wrote the New York Post. “She has a large, warming lyric mezzo-soprano with perfect control … her singing of the Trio and the final duet was perfection itself.” For 17 seasons, she was a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera, becoming known for her “uniquely sensual, burnished sound, her versatility and beauty, as well as the thrilling intensity of all her performances.”
In 1977 she sang with Montserrat Caballé in “Norma”, the first opera performance to be televised live throughout the world. The next year she made her Carnegie Hall debut. She appeared often on television, gave a series of joint concerts with Placido Domingo.
Asked which mezzo type she’d rather play, she said: “Somebody’s mother or some guy,” Troyanos also once joked, “I prefer the guys—but maybe a guy who also wears a beautiful dress from time to time.”
Her last opera performance was as Clairon in Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” at the San Francisco Opera on July1, 1993. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital, where it was discovered that the cancer had metastasized to her liver. Shortly before she died, she sang for the other patients. A colleague remembered that she said she was going “to tell somebody to turn down their TV” and then she “just dropped.”
Tatiana Troyanos died August 21, 1993 in New York City three weeks before her 55th birthday.