Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, July 11, 2014

World War II and the Met Roster. Americanization: 1. Astrid Varnay

The first set of posts in this series was devoted to Tiana Lemnitz, Germaine Lubin, and Ebe Stignani who, although contracted by the Met in the years before the United States entered World War II, would not or could not come. That opportunity lost, there would not be another, and the Met stage would never see three of the thrilling singers of the time. For differing reasons, and not surprisingly, many other artists would be absent during the years of conflict. There were the decrees of the Italian and German dictatorships, of course, and the endless contingencies of war. There were personal considerations as well, the most famous of which was Kirsten Flagstad’s decision to return to Norway in 1941 so as to be by her husband’s side during the occupation of her homeland--thereby depriving the Met of its star soprano. The Swedish Wagnerian tenor Set Svanholm’s debut, scheduled for that year, was delayed until 1946; he was unable to book a clipper reservation and refused to make the dangerous ocean voyage. And there was Ettore Panizza who, uninterruptedly since 1934, had been principal conductor of the Met’s Italian repertoire. In June 1942, he canceled his 1942-43 appearances for fear of wartime travel.

All this left Edward Johnson, the Met general manager from 1935 to 1950, in the precarious position of having to cast productions without the European singers on whom the Metropolitan had relied since its inception in 1883. The Americanization of the company that had, from the beginning, been axiomatic to the Canadian-born Johnson’s regime as a matter of principle, by 1939 had become a matter of necessity. In May 1942, he told the Metropolitan board, “The day is gone for an operatic manager to have any such surprise as the withdrawal of so many performers who had been contracted in store.  His function is undergoing an inevitable transition from the purveyance of established foreign success to  the discovery and development of native talent.” The company’s future would depend on a gifted and well-trained cadre of national singers. Two years later, with “reconversion … in the air,” Johnson wrote that the curtain would rise on “what is predominantly an American opera company.” That fall, “nearly two-thirds of the singing personnel [had] been actually born in this country.” America would soon move from “importer of talent” to “producer of talent” and ultimately to “exporter of talent” (Times, Nov. 26, 1944). Johnson had gotten ahead of himself. In the Met of the 1940s, new American stars, however lustrous, were insufficiently numerous to compensate for the European absentees. Among those pressed into service were Regina Resnik, the subject of the next post, and Astrid Varnay.

Born in Sweden to Hungarian opera singers, Varnay was brought to New York as a small child. She made her Met debut at age twenty-three on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Varnay, who had been trained in New York, had never before appeared as a professional on any stage. Stepping in for the indisposed Lotte Lehmann, in Lehmann’s signature role, Sieglinde, the young soprano was cast opposite none other than the world’s premier heldentenor, Lauritz Melchior. Fortuitously for us, and accessible on Youtube, this event fell on a Saturday matinee. The transcription of the broadcast documents the performance not of an inexperienced tyro but of a compelling interpreter of the role. The Times reviewer noted a voice of “innate beauty” and warned the company against impairing its quality by casting Varnay in such heavy parts. But, absent the Met’s leading Wagnerians Australian Marjorie Lawrence (felled by polio) and Flagstad, Varnay was immediately called upon to share roles with the American Helen Traubel.

There is no doubt that early years of hard use took the bloom off Varnay’s voice; in compensation, she developed a sumptuous instrument, capable of surmounting the most brazen orchestral surges, and a personality made to the heroic measure of Brünnhilde, Isolde, and Elektra. Those who predicted that her career would be curtailed by the overparting to which she was subjected in her early twenties were proved wrong. She sang leading dramatic soprano roles for three decades, first at the Metropolitan, then in Europe’s major houses, before taking on the mezzo repertoire for another twenty-five years.

Here is Varnay in a 1949 New York Philharmonic broadcast from Carnegie Hall. Tireless in meeting the daunting demands of Strauss, with mounting excitement and deep reserves of tone, she traces the arc of Elektra’s nine-minute-long opening monologue: her despair and loneliness, the grizzly recital of the death of her father, Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover, the bloody revenge Elektra and her brother will wreak on the assassins, the sacrifice of horses and hounds, the siblings’ triumphal dance. When Varnay sang the role at the Met in 1952, she was hailed for her “musical accuracy, total propulsion, and continuing freshness of sound so rare in this part as to be almost unheard of.”

Varnay’s career as a Met soprano ended in 1956. (She returned as a principal mezzo between 1974 and 1979.) During her soprano period, Wagner accounted for most of her activity, followed by Strauss. She did, however, sing a few performances of Cavalleria rusticana and Simon Boccanegra; the latter, in spring 1950, was an important and well received revival of Verdi’s opera. Varnay and Leonard Warren, another star member of the Met’s Americanization project, made a commercial recording of the Amelia-Boccanegra recognition scene. A lyric sorpano’s float above the staff is not encompassed by Varnay’s dark instrument anchored in the middle register. Nonetheless, her Amelia comes alive through incisive phrasing and scrupulous musicianship and validates her partnership with Warren, the compleat Verdi baritone.

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