Here’s a story for breakfast tea- not heavy, a little sweet, nicely piquant. Like good stories, it may even have a point.
My grandmother ( a contralto from Indiana, Sembrich pupil, made her living as an oratorio soloist at St. Bartholomew's Cathedral and with the NY Phil.) started taking me to the opera when I was 7. This was the old Metropolitan Opera house, shabby gold and mulberry, but still resonant with the echoes of Garden, the De Reskes, Caruso, Ponselle, on and on; and scented by faded perfume from the the vanished hordes of swanky rich folk with their diamond tiaras, a little sweaty too as men and women from the garment district had listened avidly from the top balconies.
I was immediately taken by this atmosphere, this big dark space and the teeny people in bizarre bright outfits screaming away. A strange and wonderful hallucination. My grandmother’s explanation of opera plots was also mysterious and obliquely exciting. On Rigoletto- She: “The Duke is a cad and ruins young women.” Me (7 remember): “What does that mean? How can he ‘ruin’ them.” She with accelerating firmness: “He just...just..ruins them.” In connection with Magdalena she used the word, “strumpet.”; the first and last time I heard the word used in ordinary speech. It wasn’t that she was pretentious – she wasn’t. She had just memorized a lot of of libretti.
Anyhow, in the intermissions, a tall, quite old, very pale woman with commanding posture, white hair, round cobalt blue glasses, lavish flowing clothes and moving like a great exotic bird, would pass majestically through the aisles of the orchestra to hushed deference. A small dapper man was always in attendance.
“That’s Jeritza,” my grandmother whispered. Another mystery, Then she told the story of this great star of the Vienna State Opera, famous for her beauty, her glamour, her (I don’t remember how she got this point across, maybe by referring darkly to “scandals”.) many lovers, her gleaming voice and how Richard Strauss wrote Daphne for her; how she was the first woman to sing Tosca lying on the floor, head stage front.
It seems that this astounding creature was now in our midst because for years, whenever she would appear in NY, a dentist from New Jersey would come to her dressing room , leave flowers, proclaim his admiration and his (discreetly) undying love. He was not pushy but unfailing, and a certain friendship developed. They corresponded. After many years, and when her career had ended (I think there were movies too), she came back to NY and married him. He was, as he would have to be if the story is to be a good one, the small dapper gent in her train.