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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 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!


JD Hobbes said...

I wonder if it was her midwestern background that kept her from taking it all too seriously? The fact that she appeared with Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante and that she liked baseball and worked with people like Margaret Truman couldn't have helped her career. But she was so good that she rose above all that. Interesting character, as you point out.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. Good comment! Yes, I think you are on to something. Certainly it has been said before that Midwesterners are pretty down to earth and distrustful, as it were, of pretentiousness. I didn't mention the episode about teaching Margaret Truman, but you are right...that didn't do her much good. Poor Margaret. There wasn't a whole lot there to work with, I'm afraid. Thanks for comment!

Nate said...

Edmund, I agree completely with your assessment of Traubel's extraordinary gifts, especially for the music of Wagner. For once, I have nothing to add, except I was wondering why Lily Pons didn't receive the same treatment from Bing, given the fact she appeared in films as well as on television quite often. I also recall her saying she didn't care much for Bing compared to Gatti. Were there no other lyric coloraturas of similar caliber at the time?

corax said...

hojotoho! heiaha!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Nate. That is a very good question indeed, and I'm not sure of the answer, to be honest. I suspect a great deal of it had to do with personality. Pons was, of course, a European, and her film work, if I could characterize it generally, would be classier than, let us say, Traubel's TV work. I don't know if you are old enough to remember watching her on TV or not, but I did, and it was very close to slapstick. She was very fat, by that time, and quite a clown, when she chose to be. My guess is that is was image, more than anything else.

Edmund St. Austell said...

To corax: Yes, you could say that:) :)

JING said...

Glorious singing! Quite incredible really. Great selections. I think, Edmund, you are correct to direct our attention to her voice and achievements at the Met. That is what really counts. But the private life and personal history are soooo interesting - especially since, it would seem, that she stirred up strong responses from about everyone who encountered her. As frequently happens when I read and listen to what you post, I'm off and running, looking for more. I recommend hunting down the Time Magazine, November 11, 1946 cover story on Traubel. It's the full Time "treatment" dealing with her St. Louis German upbringing, her relationship with her teacher, Louise Vetta-Karst (whose influence I think must have contributed to Traubel's forever insisting she just "wasn't ready" to move her career forward at critical moments of opportunity), even details of Traubel's waist, bust, and hip size, as well as some nice glimpses of the Met culture and audiences of the forties (so much Wagner!), and gratuitous cracks about Flagstad and her return home to her "quisling" husband. All this was before Traubel went off fully into her "cross-over" career (which is actually what I remember more than her Met years). But, looking at the life, one has to wonder if the St. Louis German roots made inevitable her stubbornness as well as excess - the love of Rhine wine, bock beer, and feasts of pheasant, dumplings, and sauerkraut. Her second husband, a jolly soul-mate, is quoted as saying that she was so chronically good-natured that "no one is ever quite sure whether she is stupid or lethargic."

In true Time style, Traubel is declared our "Home-Grown Wagnerian. At first by default, and increasingly by merit, Helen Traubel has become the greatest Wagnerian soprano singing in the world today. She is the first great soprano at the Met to sing Wagner and nothing but."

Edmund St. Austell said...

Whoa! What a great comment! I should re-edit the piece and put all that in the original:-) How very interesting! And yes, you hit the nail on the head describing her personality,which comes through in everything she said or did. A truly fascinating personality, and a tremendous Wagnerian. I suppose I could wish she had gone abroad and played the prima donna role a bit, and earned more fame and respect for herself, but when I stop and think about what a sui generis creature she was, and how much she seemed to enjoy all her activities, I feel a real need to butt out, so to speak:-) I remember that Tony Curtis once saids that fame is an entirely different career, that must be sought and developed separately from an artistic career. I think he was absolutely right...and that just wasn't Helen Traubel. She was happy in the world she lived in, and more power to her!

JING said...

Amen to that!!!

Anonymous said...

The article is excellent, I like your approach very much ( I mean “She was happy in the world she lived in, and more power to her”). Her voice is extraordinary – so beautiful and so powerful that it doesn’t matter that she didn’t take high Cs. There was ‘shimmer’ in it which made it sound “high”. It seems that her timbre makes an impression of a very high voice, though she didn’t take the highest notes. (The same can be said about ‘ringing’ tenor voices.) And of course there was nobility and elegance in her singing which is typical for truly great artists. I would have never thought that she could be a comedian in real life.
Her appearance was very “Wagnerian” too. Maybe she was big, but her face can be called ‘classically beautiful’ , perfect for Renaissance .

As I remember, Kallas was in conflict with Bing too. He seems to be a real dictator who was not afraid to lose the best singers.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you! Wonderful comment. You are so right--that shining power gives the impression of very high notes, even if they are not that high, and she was, in my opinion also, a very elegant singer. The opera public only saw her in Wagner, but I believe that by instinct she was a concert singer, and that career gave her the opportunity to sing other things. You commented elsewhere on the beautiful way she handled Tchaikovsky's "None but the lonely heart," and I agree with you. She sang it beautifully. I posted a whole song concert of hers recently on Youtube, and she did diverse literature very well. She was also a good jazz singer. I personally think that the reason she did Broadway, TV and night clubs was because she was tired of being typecast as only a Wagner singer. As for Bing, he does not have a very good reputation among many people..he could be quite nasty, and he stood in very distinct contrast to the elegant and gentlemanly Edward Johnson, who had been a fine tenor himself, prior to being General Manager of the Met, and who was supportive of the Wagnerian wing, which Bing never was. Thanks for a superb commentary.

Anonymous said...

"As for Bing, he does not have a very good reputation among many people..he could be quite nasty, and he stood in very distinct contrast to the elegant and gentlemanly Edward Johnson, who had been a fine tenor himself, prior to being General Manager of the Met, and who was supportive of the Wagnerian wing, which Bing never was."

It's interesting that tenors often become theater managers after they finish their career. In the Bolshoi there were several managers - former tenors: Sobinov, Khanayev, Kilchevsky, Orfenov, Lemeshev. Orfenov worked many years as a casting manager. Sobinov and others were "Vice Directors" .

Also it's seems strange that Bing didn't like that she did something else in addition to opera. Opera stars now can do everything, even to perform with rock stars.


Edmund St. Austell said...

That is very interesting. I knew about Lemeshev and Sobinov, but I did not know about the others. That's one thing I like about the Russian system--artists are expected to work on after their performing careers are over, either as teachers, or administrators in the system. It is the same in ballet. Altynai Asylmuratova is a good exmple; I believe, if I am not mistaken, that she currently directs the Vaganova Academy.

Regarding Bing, I think the simple truth is that he didn't like Wagner, and didn't particularly like Melchior or Traubel, because he sensed that neither was very interested in opera any more. [And for all I know to the contrary, he may have been right..there are always two sides to every story]. I think it's that simple. He was interested in Italian Opera to the exclusion of almost everything else. In that area, he did a good job, and put into place a kind of golden age of great Italian singing for the Met. But he was difficult, and angered many people.

Kelly Sweeting said...

I have been searching for info on a Helen Traubel album all morning, when I stumbled upon your current blog.

My Great Grandmother has an album by Helen Traubel, that I can't find any info on, including the library of congress. I am hoping you have heard of it, as I cannot find it anywhere on the internet.

Columbia records copyright 1949 ml 4221 nonbreakable

helen traubel, soprano,
with Coenrad Bos, piano

helen traubelsoprano
with orchestra conducted by Charles O'Connell

Was it her common practice to have her name all in small print? Thanks Kelly

Edmund St. Austell said...

A very good question, and I'm sorry to say that I don't know anything about them. I too looked on the various discogaphies on Y-T and found nothing. One thing you might do is check with Mr. Tim Shu, whose youtube channel is:

On the left hand side of his page, under "Profile," you will find a place that says "Send Message." You could send him a message, let him know how to write back to you and ask him the same questions. He is a very capable musical scholar. If he doesn't know, I wouldn't have any further suggestions. Those are RARE recordings!

Anonymous said...

This is a terrific brief article I thoroughly appreciated it

As a final note , let me thank you for your patience with my English as (I am positive you have become aware this at this time ,), English is not my initial language thus I am using Google Translate to figure out what to put in writing what I truly intend to say.

Gerhard Santos said...

Hi Sir Edmund, You write very well which is amazing. I really impressed by your post. thanks and Always Good Luck into your blog! *GOD BLESS*

Gerhard Santos said...

Really your post is really very good and I appreciate it, Sir Edmund. Thanks and Have a Beautiful sunday morning! *GOD BLESS*