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Singing from Life - Brian Kellow salutes Marta Eggerth

From the magazine Opera

Marta Eggerth with (l.) Franz Lehár and Emmerick Kálmán in 1933, the only known photograph of the two composers together
Marta Eggerth with (l.) Franz Lehár and Emmerick Kálmán in 1933, the only known photograph of the two composers together

In 1999, Vienna's Staatsoper gave its first ever production of Lehár's Die lustige Witwe, starring Barbara Bonney. Two days before the opening night, a special performance featured the Hungarian soprano Marta Eggerth, arguably the most popular and not so arguably the most seasoned, elegant and accomplished Hanna Glawari of the work's century-long existence. Beginning with a hit Broadway production in 1943, Eggerth and her husband, the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, sang Lehár's operetta hundreds of times over two decades.

Marta Eggerth on stage at a Theater an der Wien gala in 2001
Marta Eggerth on stage at a Theater an der Wien gala in 2001

Marta Eggerth with Jan Kiepura in pre-war Paris
Marta Eggerth with Jan Kiepura in pre-war Paris

Eggerth and Kiepura together in 'Die lustige Witwe'
Eggerth and Kiepura together in 'Die lustige Witwe'

At the time of her Vienna Staatsoper turn, Eggerth was 86, but what she gave to the audience that afternoon was astonishing: a medley from Witwe, delivered in English, French, Italian and German-just some of the languages in which she sang it opposite Kiepura. When she had finished, the entire audience rose to its feet to give her a thunderous ovation that didn't stop for several minutes. The venerable Staatsoper's long embargo on Die lustige Witwe suddenly seemed inexplicable.

For years now, Eggerth's performances have been causing similar sensations around the world. Her mastery of the classic operetta repertory is complete; she possesses a command of phrasing and heartfelt sensitivity that most sopranos 60 years younger can only approximate. Listening to her, one realizes that this is the sort of artistry that cannot be taught; it is born of an instinctive, natural gift and deepened by the life she has lived. Eggerth's is nothing if not a voice that has been lived in, and that is perhaps what we respond to most of all.

In April, shortly before her 93rd birthday, Eggerth released a CD, My Life My Song, that gives a generous sampling of the breadth and depth of her career. Produced with loving attention to detail by her son, the pianist Marjan Kiepura, and his wife Jane Knox, My Life My Song shows Eggerth in brilliant form, with performances dating from 1932 to 2002. The repertory ranges from Johann Strauss's 'Frühlingsstimmen-Walzer' to Robert Stolz's 'Das Lied ist aus' to Chopin's 'Dumka' to John Kander's and Fred Ebb's 'Married' from Cabaret.

Born in Budapest in 1912, Eggerth enjoyed an early breakthrough in 1930, when she succeeded Adele Kern in Kálmán's Das Veilchen van Montmartre at the Vienna Staatsoper. Only a few years later, she became a huge international star in a long string of film musicals, produced in Germany, Austria, France and England. In 1934, while she was filming Mein Herz ruft nach dir, she fell in love with her co-star, Jan Kiepura, and they married in 1936. She was passionately devoted to him, and they went on to make more films together before the growing power of the Nazis forced them to leave Vienna in 1937 and sail for New York. Behind them, they left nearly every material possession they had. They were luckier than many: Kiepura had a contract with the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1938, and Eggerth soon found work on Broadway and in Hollywood. Then came their triumph in Die lustige Witwe. For years they toured with it, becoming the Hanna and Danilo of choice for an entire generation.

The inevitable question to Eggerth now is: how does she explain her remarkable vocal longevity? 'I'll tell you,' she says. 'There is, as they say in America, no free luncheon. For everything in life there comes a bill. If you want to be a singer, you have to give your whole life to it. I didn't decide to be a singer-life decided it. I was young and quite good-looking, and all these operetta giants-Lehár and Kálmán and Oscar Straus-wanted to write for me.

'I am sometimes thinking back on my life and wonder, what did I miss? There was no partying. I was never in a nightclub, because I was sensitive about smoke. Once there was a party for Constance Hope, who was publicity agent for Melchior. My husband and I were invited, and Flagstad was also at the party. Next day she was singing Isolde. At two o'clock in the morning she was smoking such big cigars and laughing and playing poker. Constance later told me she stayed until six in the morning. Next day I went to Tristan, and she sang like an angel. The pianissimi! I wanted to kill her.'

Perhaps Eggerth's credo could be found in remarks she made at the New York launch party for My Life My Song at the Austrian Institute. 'I found out not to sing tones. Tones are tones. Sing from what you have in here,' she said, clapping a hand over her heart. 'I sing from many things in my life. And my soul is filled with them. If I can give it to the listener, a little feeling of what life is about, then I have done my job. What can I say? Here I am, an old bag, with all my heart, ready, willing, and able.'

'My Life My Song' is on the Patria Productions label and distributed in the UK by Discovery Records

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