Heard for Eight Decades, Her Voice Doesn't Waver
By ANNE MIDGETTE
The New York Times
RYE, N.Y. - Marta Eggerth has made more than 30 films. She has played on Broadway and Off Broadway, and in most of the theaters of Europe. This year she brought out a new album, "Marta Eggerth: My Life My Song" (Patria Productions, two CD's), with recordings from throughout her career, all the way to 2002. Retrospective CD's are nothing extraordinary for singers of a certain age. Ms. Eggerth, however, is more than a certain age: she is 93.
"I never want to be one of those singers with a wobble," she said, sitting in an armchair in her comfortable living room, filled with family photographs and a grand piano. "If I develop a wobble, I will quit immediately."
Her son Marjan Kiepura shot back, "We'll fire you, Mom." A pianist, Mr. Kiepura accompanies her on the most recent recordings and produced the CD.
Ms. Eggerth demonstrated her vocal estate with a lilting, graceful phrase of melody, small and sweet as a pressed flower. Her job remained secure.
And she should know how to sing by now. She has been doing it for eight decades. The voice is remarkable. Hearing it on a record, you wouldn't mistake her today for the ingénue of 70 years ago, who made several films a year, working with the likes of Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder. In those early days, films were not dubbed, but simply shot in several different versions for different countries. ("I speak six languages badly," lamented Ms. Eggerth, who was born in Hungary.)
But her voice still conveys the natural, unaffected freshness and the quality of sung speech that it has in her recordings from the early 1930's, like "Mir fehlt ein Freund wie du" ("I Need a Friend Like You"), from the movie "Der Frauendiplomat" ("The Ladies' Diplomat"), and "Es war einmal ein Walzer" ("Once There Was a Waltz"), from the film of the same title.
That last film has a score by Franz Lehar, the operetta composer. Ms. Eggerth's light, lyrical voice made her a natural for operetta, and she rose to fame in the last glory days of that genre. Resting on her grand piano is a photograph of her standing between Lehar and Emmerich Kalman, two elderly gentlemen in suits.
Ms. Eggerth's first love was opera, and she had no intention of making films at all. She landed her first stage role by singing "Un bel di" from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly"; she was all of 11 at the time. This success sparked a career of several years as a touring wunderkind. In her teens, she came to the attention of Kalman, who needed an understudy in Vienna for his new operetta, "The Violet of Montmartre." During the same period the great conductor Clemens Krauss offered to put her on salary at the Vienna State Opera if she would stop singing in public for five years and spend all her time studying Mozart instead. But five years seemed like an eternity to a 17-year-old.
Another pivotal operatic experience was seeing "Turandot" at 14 in Budapest, with the dramatic soprano Maria Jeritza and the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, then 24, already a matinee idol with a shining voice.
"I fell in love," she said. "I waited for him on the street. But there were so many girls, he didn't even notice me."
A mere eight years and a couple dozen films later, Ms. Eggerth was cast opposite Kiepura in the film "Mein Herz ruft nach Dir" ("My Heart Calls You"). Although their first reaction was mutual antipathy, the relationship soon blossomed into real-live, film-ready romance. Ms. Eggerth and Kiepura married and appeared together on stage and screen, in works ranging from delightful bagatelles like "The Charm of La Bohème" (still available on video) to a Broadway production of Lehar's "Merry Widow," an operetta they ultimately performed together more than 2,000 times, in five languages.
The Kiepuras' European ascendancy was cut short by the rise of the Nazis; both had Jewish mothers. Once war broke out, Kiepura wanted to fight for Poland, but the best thing he could do turned out to be singing at fund-raisers in the United States while helping sponsor as many refugees as possible. Ms. Eggerth, meanwhile, had landed a studio contract with MGM, where she hobnobbed with other refugees - her mother used to play cards with her fellow Hungarians Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre - and made two films with Judy Garland: "For Me and My Gal" (1942) and "Presenting Lily Mars" (1943). But being separated from her husband was a drain.
"I hated Hollywood - hated it," she said, furrowing her brow. Why? "I was used to playing the lead," she explained, "and in Hollywood, I was second."
At an advance screening of "For Me and My Gal," her big musical number brought down the house, she recalled. The next day, it was cut from the film. It is true that in 1942, the studio was doing everything it could to groom Garland as a big star. Ms. Eggerth's number, "The Spell of the Waltz," is preserved on the original cast album as an outtake.
In 1943 "The Merry Widow" proved a salvation of sorts, reuniting Ms. Eggerth with her husband in New York and providing them with money to set up a comfortable new life and replace the extensive possessions they had lost in Europe. Kiepura had put most of his money in Poland, building a grand hotel, Patria, which still stands; the family is still trying to reclaim its rights to it (hence the name of Marjan Kiepura's recording label).
"All this is from 'The Merry Widow,' " Ms. Eggerth said, gesturing around the dining room (where the conversation had moved), with the upright piano in the corner where she does her real work. Vladimir Horowitz, a visitor, once played on it, she said, and declared it "not bad."
The Kiepuras returned to Europe after the war, taking "The Merry Widow" on the road and making a few more films as well. But their American citizenships, which had come through during their wartime stay, would have expired, she said, had they stayed away for more than five years, so they ultimately returned to the United States, now with two sons, Jan Jr. and Marjan.
Kiepura's sudden death in 1966 devastated Ms. Eggerth, who still speaks of him constantly, evoking the love of her life. She vowed she would never sing again. She even turned down a role she had been approached about in the original 1966 production of Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret."
Eventually, though, she was ready to return to the stage. There was a 1980's musical of the life of Colette, with Diana Rigg, which appeared in regional theater but never quite made it to Broadway. There was a cameo on a popular German television series. And she has made appearances at benefit concerts and galas (like the Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation Gala in New York, where she regularly brings down the house). She has also taught master classes and been featured in documentaries.
Ms. Eggerth described being accosted on the street during a recent trip to Vienna. "Excuse me," said an elderly passer-by, "but weren't you once Marta Eggerth?"
She is still very much Marta Eggerth. Even some of her interview statements echo her voice of long ago. Explaining that she never drank or smoked to preserve her instrument ("I was a prisoner of my voice"), she unconsciously repeated remarks from her first interview with The New York Times - in 1935.
At that time, a young actress on her way to Hollywood for her first screen test, she followed her statement about teetotaling with a mention of her predilection for tokay, the Hungarian wine.
The article continues thus:
" 'I thought you didn't drink,' cut in the visitor. 'Tokay, this is medicine!' chortled Miss Eggerth, with a pitying smile for one who could be so ignorant."
Medicine or no, Marta Eggerth is still going strong. Marjan and his wife, Jane, are already at work on Volume 2 of her CD. There are plenty of other archival recordings for them to draw on. And who knows? She may make a few more.