Following the debut last season of its new "Met Legends" series, which paid tribute to Marilyn Horne, the Metropolitan Opera Guild now turns the spotlight on another indisputably legendary singer: Teresa Stratas.
"Met Legends: Teresa Stratas" will take place at New York's Town Hall on September 25 and will feature a rare public appearance by a woman whose singular artistry and persona have given her a sense of mystery and allure comparable only to the great Hollywood actresses of the Golden Era. The remarkable singer and actress will watch rare film and video clips of her performances with the audience and will discuss her life and career with the event's executive producer, Paul Gruber.
In the following conversation, Gruber shares some insight into this remarkable artist and into what audience members can expect to see and hear at the Guild's event.
Q: How did you persuade an artist whom Opera News has called "Opera's Garbo" to participate in a public event like the one you are producing at Town Hall for the Metropolitan Opera Guild?
Paul Gruber: I'm still not sure. From time to time, over a period of some years, Teresa and I would speak on the phone. A year or so ago I began talking to her about the "Met Legends" series, realizing all the while that getting her to agree to such a thing would be an uphill battle. Basically, she hasn't given interviews in years, and has made very few public appearances since she stopped singing in 1995. But we were both enjoying the phone conversations, and just kept talking about it until she finally said yes.
Q: The Guild's Stratas event is the second in the new "Met Legends" series that you launched last year with a tribute to Marilyn Horne. Why do you think Teresa Stratas is thought of as a "living legend"?
PG: I think part of it has to do with the quality of her performances, the fact that her work was so intense, committed, and original. There's a lot of talk of how the opera singers of today are better actors than the singers of 30 and 40 years ago, but anyone saying that should take a look at the videos of Teresa's work in Mahagonny or Bohme or Salome. In addition to having a unique and very beautiful voice, she worked with enormous theatrical instinct and acting ability, in a way that is rarely seen on the opera stage.
Then there's the offstage persona _ her reclusiveness and frequent cancellations. As many people know, several times, at the height of her career, she cancelled everything to devote herself to charity work, at one point with Mother Teresa in India, at another in a Romanian orphanage, caring for children with AIDS. When she did consent to interviews in the 1960s and 1970s, she spoke with brutal honesty about subjects opera singers just didn't discuss, such as mental illness in her family and suicide attempts. She's always been one of a kind.
Q: For most of the Guild's public events you are usually the man "behind the scenes," the executive producer. What prompted you to take on the interview role for this event?
PG: I really am a backstage guy, and was somewhat reluctant to do the interview. But it was pretty much part of the deal with Teresa. She feels comfortable with me, and wanted me to be the one who spoke with her onstage.
Q: Have you ever seen Teresa Stratas in live performance?
PG: I guess I saw everything she did from the time I began going to the Met regularly, in the early- to mid-1970s. So I saw her in Bartered Bride, Mahagonny, Pagliacci, Lulu, Ghosts of Versailles, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Ariadne auf Naxos, Turandot, all three of the Trittico operas. I saw her Broadway show, Rags, as well. And her incredible Kurt Weill recital at the Whitney. Every one of them was unforgettable.
Q: Tell us a bit about what the audience can expect to see and hear at your Stratas event.
PG: The evening will start with a biographical video we're producing just for that night. It uses a lot of the archival material I got from Teresa: personal photos, private performance tapes, things no one has seen or heard. And she's recorded some of the voiceover narration. Then, between segments of conversation, we'll screen clips from her film and video performances, scenes from Mahagonny, Bohme, The Bartered Bride, Salome, The Ghosts of Versailles. The CBC has been very generous, digging into their archives to give us tapes of Teresa in her early appearances on Canadian television. Not only do we have her first television appearance when she was 19 _ singing a Greek Christmas song _ but we'll also show early clips of her doing the "Letter Scene" from Eugene Onegin and a Pagliacci duet with Robert Merrill.
There are some other surprises I'd rather not give away yet, but there's one real coup that I think I can reveal. Of course, her performances as Lulu at the Met really have achieved legendary status, as has her cancellation in the Met telecast of that opera. So, basically, it was thought of as a lost performance. But, prior to the telecast, the Met videotaped her final dress rehearsal of Lulu, and both she and Peter Gelb have allowed us to show a scene from it.
Q: In speaking with Teresa while putting together this event, what have you learned about her that especially surprised you?
PG: In one way or another, she surprises me every time I speak with her. I think that one of the reasons her performances were so fascinating was that they reflected her recognition of the complexity of human beings. And that came out of her knowledge that she herself was and remains a very complicated lady. She's very smart and funny and generous and caring. And a perfectionist.
Q: How long have you been doing your work for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and what are your principal duties there?
PG: I've been at the Guild for 32 years, at one time or another running the Ticket Service, the Membership Department, and the Merchandising Program. For the past four years I've run what we call Public Programs, which includes both big fundraising events, like the Guild Luncheon and the Opera News Awards, and other tributes like the Stratas evening. I've produced the memorials we've done for Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Anna Moffo, and Luciano Pavarotti, and other tributes for RisêŠ Stevens, Marian Anderson, and Mario Lanza.
Q: What else are you working on now in the way of public events produced by the Guild?
PG: Next up after the Stratas event is this year's Opera News Awards gala, at the Plaza Hotel on November 16. We're honoring John Adams, Natalie Dessay, Ren_e Fleming, Marilyn Horne, and Sherrill Milnes. Our co-hosts are Susan Graham and Thomas Hampson, and our presenters are Plšcido Domingo, Alan Gilbert, Garrison Keillor, James Levine, and Marian Seldes. (Am I beginning to sound like a namedropper?) Then we have a family program we're doing in late January, which is an introduction to opera through the screening of Met videos. And the Guild Luncheon on April 23 will honor Plšcido Domingo.
Q: Do you ever tape these programs, so people who can't attend them can see them?
PG: No, we don't, mainly due to rights restrictions. If you want to see the Teresa Stratas "Met Legends" program, you'll have to be at Town Hall on September 25!
Interview courtesy of 21C Media Group, Inc.
Thursday, September 25 at 8:00 pm
MET LEGENDS: TERESA STRATAS
The Town Hall in New York City
123 West 43rd Street
Tickets are priced at $40 for Guild Members and Met Patrons; $75 for all others; $150 for prime seating and post-performance reception with Miss Stratas and other artists who will be attending.
Tickets are available by calling (212) 769-7009 or online at www.metguild.org