Sunday, January 9, 2011
Helen Traubel: A Great Wagnerian Voice
Helen Traubel (1899-1972) was born in St. Louis. She studied singing and made her first appearances in St. Louis as a concert singer with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, at the relatively young age of 24. By the time she was 27, she had received an offer to join the Metropolitan Opera, owing primarily to one of her concert performances of the "Liebestod," under conductor Rudolph Ganz. She turned it down—perhaps a questionable decision—in favor of continuing to study and continuing with her concert career. She was not to appear in opera until she was 38 years old, more than a decade later. She demonstrated at an early age that she was capable of making difficult decisions which she felt were right. It also—perhaps—shows that at an early age, opera was not the end-all and be-all of her life, something that would come back to haunt her in later years.
Her Met debut was in 1937, when she was asked by Walter Damrosch to portray Mary Rutledge in the world premiere of The Man Without a Country. Her actual Met debut as a Wagnerian, however, was as Sieglinde, in 1939. Because the Met had Flagstad engaged at the time as their principal Wagnerian soprano, Traubel was not able to sing Wagner there very often. However, Flagstad went to Norway in 1941 and was unable, because of the war, to return. This provided an opening for Traubel, who had come increasingly to public attention, largely from having appeared with Melchior on an NBC Symphony radio performance in that same year. She would go on, over the course of the next 12 years, to sing 176 performances with the Met, in 10 roles, most often Isolde. She quickly established herself as a first-class Wagnerian soprano, and was a hit with both public and press. Traubel stayed with the Met until 1953, at which time Rudolf Bing, who did not approve of the night club and TV work that she had begun to do, rather bluntly told her that she might do well to think about taking some time off before signing any more contracts with the Met, in order to decide if she was really all that interested in opera. Traubel was understandably offended —she was by then a star—and replied publicly that it was rank snobbery to think that only what went on in the opera house was music. That, of course, was the end for Traubel at the Met. She went on to a very successful further career on Broadway, in night clubs, and on TV. Lauritz Melchior had, a few years earlier, suffered a similar fate, for similar reasons. Traubel's biography, including her troubles and triumphs, is easily consulted. It is her talent, which was prodigious, and her extraordinary Wagnerian singing, that merits our attention.
Traubel's voice was a magnificent and immensely powerful instrument. It had a brilliance, or shimmer that was positively thrilling, and perfect for Wagner. I can think of no finer examples than the following two brief excerpts, which I ask you to listen to together. It is not easy to find set pieces in Wagner to present, so we are often constrained to excerpted passages, such as Brünhilde's War Cry and "Fort Denn Eile", both from Die Walküre:
This is absolutely stunning singing! It is hard not to feel chills up the spine when she soars on the extended melodic passages in "Fort Denn Eile." This is virtuoso Wagnerian singing, without question. The power and steely sheen of the voice are clarion, rivaled by some (Flagstad, Nilsson) but surpassed by almost none. This is a voice made for Wagner; it is consistent from top to bottom, like a shining tower of sound. It is true that it was a bit short on top. She did not sing a high C, to the best of my knowledge, with the result that the War Cry is transposed one half tone. But that is a matter of little or no consequence. If no one could transpose, we would not have many tenors doing Manrico, Faust or Rodolfo! No, she has all she needs, and then some.
It was especially Wagner, but not exclusively Wagner, in which Traubel was brilliant. Here is "Divinités du Styx." From Gluck's Alceste:
The same brilliance, the same shimmer...all are there in force. Ancient arias are brought to life in a particular kind of way when great voices lend themselves to them, without stinting. As a well known New York opera coach once told me: "Everybody loves great Mozart arias, they just don't want to hear them sung by a church tenor." I believe that is true, and also holds in the case of Traubel and Gluck.
Finally, a song. Traubel had a very notable concert career, and this rendition of Tchaikovsky's "None but the lonely heart" is a fine memory of her concert career. For technical reasons,you need to click on this link:
Very beautiful, and very musically sung. Perhaps it was singing songs that was her true heart's desire. Who can say? Certainly the fact that she put the Met off for a decade, while she concertized, is a clue. Perhaps the night club and TV work (she was, by a way, a good Jazz singer) tell the tale. As for the famous flap with Bing, why bother? A strong woman and a difficult man, by all accounts...it has the quality of inevitability about it. Bing went on to found a world-class Italian Met, which was where his interests lay, and she went on to a very multi-faceted career of opera, concert, jazz singing, comedy, film work, two detective stories which she wrote, and part ownership of a baseball team!—quite a character, all in all. No, she was fine. Like her friend Melchior, she had a fun-loving and down-to-earth side to her personality that endeared her to most. She laughed at pretense, snobbery and affectation and was pretty happy inside her own skin. If anybody lost out it was the lovers of Wagnerian singing, because Helen Traubel was about as good as that gets!
at 1:47 PM