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The Met careers of Regina Resnik and Astrid Varnay, the latter the subject of the previous post, followed remarkably similar trajectories. Resnik made her company debut at the age of twenty-two, younger by less than a year than Varnay when she first appeared on 39th street. The two dramatic sopranos had large, dark voices, uncommon musical sophistication, and keen interpretive gifts. Forced to replace Europeans absent during the war either by choice or necessity, general manager Edward Johnson called on Resnik and Varnay often, perhaps too often, too soon.
A recent graduate of New York’s Hunter College, at the tender age of twenty Resnik had already essayed Lady Macbeth, one of opera’s most demanding roles, in a Broadway theatre, and soon after, in Mexico, she had taken on Leonore in Fidelio. Unlike Varnay, she came to the Metropolitan through the company’s Auditions of the Air (now the National Council Auditions), a portal through which most successful American singers have passed since 1935.
This is Resnik’s winning rendition of “Ernani, involami” heard by radio listeners in 1944. By any measure, Resnik had an extraordinarily precocious talent, a mature instrument, a grasp of the requisite style, and the requisite technique. Note the subtle shifts in dynamics, freedom in the upper register, strength in the middle, and a real trill, all serving the expression of Elvira’s impatience and rapture.
Like Varnay, Resnik made her acclaimed Met debut as a replacement for an ailing star, in her case the Yugoslav Zinka Milanov. She capped her first season, 1944-45, with performances of Fidelio under the direction of Bruno Walter. During the next few years she was tapped for a world premiere (Bernard Rogers’s The Warrior) and a Met premiere (Britten’s Peter Grimes), along with assignments in the operas of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and others.
In the 1950’s, both Resnik and Varnay joined the many other Americans who made careers in Europe as the U.S. fulfilled its destiny as an “exporter of talent.” As Resnik put it in a 1987 interview with Bruce Buffie, “From 1953 to 1960 in Bayreuth was the big time of the American singer. Astrid Varnay was American—Hungarian mother, but half American—and George London and Steber and myself and Jerome Hines. You can go on and on; there was a very big American presence, especially people going in to sing Wagner. In ’53 I made my debut as Sieglinde, and then it was still a very mixed bag of Europeans and Americans, even though in that very season it was George London’s first Amfortas, Steber’s first Elsa and my first Sieglinde. But until 1960, the Americans came up very fast in the Wagnerian circles. They had big voices. Then in 1960 I had switched to mezzo, and was now singing Fricka. Wieland Wagner walked into the rehearsal for his brother’s Ring, Wolfgang’s Ring. He took a look around in the rehearsal and said, ‘Well, well, well. It still looks like the war.’ I said, ‘And what does that mean, Herr Wieland?’ He said, ‘All the Gods are Americans, and the Niebelungs are the Germans.’ Now I’ll tell you why he said that. I was Fricka, Jeromeines was Wotan, Thomas Stewart was Hines was Wotan, Thomas Stewart was Donner and Gunther, Claire Watson was Freia and Astrid Varnay was Brünnhlde. We were musing over everything that was going on, and it was very apparent, because the way we were seated in rehearsal, not that the Americans sat with the Americans—it just happened that way. He walked in and there were the Americans on one side!”
Both Resnik and Varnay were underappreciated by Johnson’s successor, Rudolf Bing. An erstwhile Leonore and Aïda, Resnik was miscast as Musetta and Rosalinde; soon after, she made the transition to the mezzo repertoire. Bing unaccountably relegated her to secondary roles, leavened by the rare Amneris. In May 1960, on the Met’s national tour, Resnik sang comic character parts. Later that summer, attendees of the 1960 Salzburg Festival heard her in Don Carlo. As she traverses the shifting landscape of Eboli’s “O don fatale”—the explosive opening section in which the princess curses her beauty for the transgressions to which it has led her, the dolorous middle section in which she vows to retire to a convent for expiation, then her vow to save Carlo in the urgent finale—Resnik proves her right to a place among the world’s leading dramatic mezzos.