Some Neglected Ladies – Victoria de Los Angeles, Shirley Verrett, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel & Dorothy Kirsten
Sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote, “But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away”,
and certainly that is as true of opera as of baseball. A few artists had talents so outstanding that their legends lived on after their death or retirement, aided and enhanced by the writings and memories of others. A very few, Maria Callas comes to mind, worked in their lifetimes to create their own legends and succeeded. The rest are remembered by those who saw and heard them, and by occasionally by newer generations through their recordings, but as time passes they become mostly overlooked, especially if they did not record extensively. Which really isn’t fair. Consider these ladies
Both Victoria de Los Angeles and Shirley Verrett had long, successful careers. Each sang into their 70’s. They sang a wide repertory of music and performed and recorded with the finest musicians of their time. They differed greatly in their approach to their roles – De Los Angeles was sweet where Verrett was imperious, but audiences loved them both and critics worked overtime to find superlatives in describing them. And yet today they are virtually unknown except to a small cadre of devotees.
Victoria De Los Angeles (1923 – 2005) was born Victoria de Los Angeles Lopez Garcia in Barcelona, Spain. She was a lyric coloratura soprano who sang with all of the great names in music of her time. Music was a constant part of her family life. Her father was a caretaker at Barcelona Conservatory and she was seen to occasionally cut class in school to stand and play her guitar in an empty lecture hall there.
Victoria graduated from that institute at 17 (completing a six year program in only three years) and made her professional operatic debut the next year. Within four years she was an international star and had made her Metropolitan Opera debut. Top notes could be troublesome for her, but her warm, creamy tone more than compensated. She was superb in everything from Wagner to Debussy, but the operas she was most associated with were squarely in the middle of the romantic repertoire – La Boheme, Faust, La Traviata, Barber of Seville, Manon, and Madama Butterfly.
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, she sang at every major opera house in the world, made numerous recordings (21 complete operas), sang recitals and concerts, and appeared on radio and television. Several of her recordings are considered classics even fifty years later. Her “Songs of the Auvergne” is considered the finest ever recorded and is still in the catalogs after fifty years.“La Boheme” with Jussi Bjorling and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham has been called one of the few “perfect” opera recordings.
She had a rare quality of naturalness in everything she did, but she lacked the fiery personality of a Maria Callas and rarely sought publicity. She infused everything she sang with warmth and feeling and you always believed her characterizations. If she had a flaw, it was that while she was always completely believable, her roles became extensions of her own personality. Her “Carmen” had a quality of sweetness rather then fire and her Violetta in “La Traviata” was ravishing, more sad than anguished, but you understood everything about her. In short, she was a consummate artist who was loved and respected by all, but who never achieved – and possibly never wanted – Prima Donna status.
By the late 1970’s, de Los Angeles had retired from opera, although she continued to perform in recitals and giving concerts throughout the world. Nearing her 69th birthday, she sang at the closing ceremonies of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Victoria de Los Angeles died at the age of 81 from heart failure.
Shirley Verrett (1931 – 2010) was born in New Orleans but raised in Los Angeles, California. She was a mezzo-soprano with top range that allowed her later to transition to some of the more lucrative soprano roles.
She had a voluptuous beauty and a voice with warmth and richness, but also a bit of an edge that made her remarkably effective in dramatic roles. She had a charismatic presence and was sometimes referred to as “the black Callas.” Exciting and intense – “electrifying” was a word often used to describe her, she was adored by critics who referred to her as “the best mezzo in the world.”
Racial prejudice affected her deeply, both personally and professionally, but it also brought her attention. When conductor Leopold Stokowski hired her to sing with the Houston Symphony and the orchestra board refused to accept her because she was black, he later got her more notice and prestige by using her with the better known Philadelphia Orchestra. By the time she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1968, she had been singing to acclaim in Europe for 10 years (and had also appeared in the first televised concert from New York’s Lincoln Center.)
Her interpretation of Dalilah in Samson et Dalilah (which she sang with both Placido Domingo and Jon Vickers) is a classic. Her Lady Macbeth has vocal power and range together with a true commanding character. Verrett brought fire, vibrancy, and personality to everything she did. She had the instincts of a Prima Donna, just not the roles.
She was a proud and defiant personality who knew her own value and reveled in both her success and the acclaim it brought, but she maintained a strong work ethic and avoided succumbing to excessive vanity. Plagued throughout her career by an allergy to mold which often affected her singing, she never made excuses or asked for sympathy. Her move to the soprano repertoire was not universally applauded, but in roles like Lady Macbeth or as Selika in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africain” she was superb. In 1992, having finally retired from opera, she made her Broadway debut in a revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel” singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” She was sensational. She died of heart failure at the age of 79.
The American soprano Eileen Farrell (1920 – 2002) could do it all. From Wagner to Verdi to Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, she sang each individually with full attention to the style as well as the vocal requirements. Irreverent and earthy, she was completely unpretentious had a very grounded sense of herself and what she wanted from her singing career. This did not set particularly well with controlling types such as the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Rudolph Bing, who valued dignity and decorum in his employees..
Farrell had a huge voice which could drown out a tenor if she chose, but she could modulate that voice to the softest of coloratura pianissimos or the lyrical passages of jazz and popular music.
She was born in Willamantic, Connecticut to Irish vaudevillian parents. Her father sang Irish ballads and music was an everyday part of her family life. Eileen’s mother gave her singing lessons. At the age of 20, she had her own CBS radio program which lasted for seven years,on which she sang a mixture of classical, popular, and Broadway music, some of the most popular performers of the day as guests, including Frank Sinatra.
She sang in concert halls throughout the country, dubbed the voice of Eleanor parker in the film biography of Marjorie Lawrence “Interrupted Melody”, and finally made her opera debut in 1956, joining the Metropolitan Opera four years later. She was a sensation, receiving 22 curtain calls. But management never approved of her casual attitude towards opera and her association with popular music was frowned upon. Unappreciated and under used, Eileen Farrell left the Metropolitan after only five years. Rudolph Bing made no effort to keep her.
So Farrell simply created a new career for herself, making television guest appearances and becoming the only opera star to ever successfully conquer the world of popular music. No other opera singer ever mastered the vocal simplicity and emotional directness required by the genre. Her record album, “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” was a smash hit and she recorded another 18 albums of popular music as well as a duet with Frank Sinatra.
She later taught voice at Indiana University for several years but left after refusing to teach arias she felt would damage her students voices. A sign in her office which said, “Help Stamp Out Opera” probably didn’t help her relationship with the University directors. Or the fact that she wqas greatly amused when a student made a T-Shirt for her with “I Used to be a Star” on the front in bold letters. She continued performing into her 70’s and died at the age of 82.
Helen Traubel (1899 – 1972) had problems similar to Eileen Farrell’s. She was primarily a Wagnerian under contract to the Metropolitan at a time when the met already had two major Wagner stars – Marjorie Lawrence and Kirsten Flagstad. When Lawrence contracted polio and Flagstad returned to Norway during World war II, Helen Traubel became the Met’s mainstay in Wagnerian roles. She was popular with audiences, beloved by the backstage crews, and sang at the Met longer than Farrell – for 14 years. She also had a more important career, singing with Lauritz Melchoir and being conducted by Arturo Toscanini, but Rudolph Bing did not care for her for essentially the same reasons that later led him to drop Farrell. Traubel enjoyed “undignified” appearances on television and in films, and singing in night clubs.
She was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a financially secure German family and began her career as a concert singer. In 1926 she turned down an offer from the Metropolitan Opera and delayed her debut there until 1937 when she sang the lead in the premiere of Walter Damrosch’s opera, “Man Without a Country.” She had a strong voice with a brilliantly pure tone and an unpretentious, joyful personality. With the arrival of Astrid Varnay and later Birgit Nillson, however, Rudolph Bing was no longer dependant on Traubel and in 1953 simply chose not to reenew her contract.
After she left the Met she continued singing in night clubs, sang in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Pipe Dream” on Broadway, made several films, including “Deep In My Heart” with Jose Ferrer in which she displayed a distinct flair for comedy. She wrote murder mysteries, appeared often on television with comedians such as Red Skelton, George Gobel, Jerry Lewis, and Jimmy Durante and co-starred with Groucho Marx in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”.
Her last public performance was in a night club act with Jimmy Durante. She died of a heart attack at the age of 72.
Dorothy Kirsten (1910 – 1992) was more the sort of diva that met with Rudolph Bing’s approval She as slim, elegant, graceful, mixed well with wealthy society, and enjoyed the role of prima donna. As such, her career at the Metropolitan lasted for thirty four years, retiring only to care for her third husband, a neurosurgeon who had developed Alzheimer’s disease. She did appear often on radio, television, and in films, but never allowed herself to look undignified or appear as anything other than a star of the first rank.
She began her career singing on radio, studied in Rome as a protégé of soprano Grace Moore, but returned to the United States when World War II began and, with Moore’s help, began her opera career. She joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1945 and sang there until 1979. Her voice lacked the richness of Ponselle or the warmth of De Los Angeles, but it was an excellent voice, clear and expressive with impressive technique. And she chose her roles carefully to protect that voice.
After retirement from the Metropolitan Opera, she continued to sing occasionally and make public appearances, often as a commentator on Met broadcasts. Following the death of her husband, she founded the French Foundation for Alzheimer Research and remained active as a spokesperson for Alzheimers victims.
She was a meticulous musician, extremely popular and well liked, but just as she never had the kind of open, joyous, persona of a Farrell or a Traubel, neither did she communicate the drama or mystery of a Maria Callas. Her personality was open but reserved, which may in the end be why her talent is far less recognized today than it ought to be.