RENEE FLEMING, GOWNED BY JOHN GALLIANO
HER PRECURSOR, MARIA JERITZA (NOTE THE RESEMBLANCE)
They are scrambling to complete the costume which will be worn by Renee Fleming, the biggest star in opera right now (as well as the most glamorous), for the Metropolitan Opera’s 125th anniversary gala this Sunday, March 15. Recreations of historic past performances will be featured and Fleming is singing “Marietta’s Lied” from DIE TODT STADT, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later went to Hollywood to write rousing scores for Warner Brothers swashbucklers like THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Designer Catherine Zuber (SOUTH PACIFIC, LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA) has whipped something up for Fleming based on the costume worn by Maria Jeritza (1887-1982), who created the role of Marietta in 1920 and made her Met debut in it on November 19, 1921. Incidentally, if you visit the Met gift shop, you can pay your respects to the life-sized portrait of Jeritza as Octavian in DER ROSENKAVALIER, which once hung in Founder’s Hall and is now gracing the far wall of the store.
JERITZA IN ‘DIE TODT STADT’
Jeritza was, along with Lina Cavalieri (1874-1944), the most beautiful opera singer of her day, and was constantly in demand for her phosphorescent looks, penetrating, diamantine soprano voice, and acting ability which, like Callas, always favored dramatic verisimilitude over mere, pure tonal perfection, by such as the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria who recommended her for Vienna’s Court Opera after hearing her in DIE FLIEDERMAUS at a summer spa (“‘Why isn’t this ravishing creature singing at the court opera?’ ‘Must I always listen to fat, elderly women?”), and by Richard Strauss, for whom she created the roles of Ariadne in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS and the Empress in DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (in both of which she was paired with the great Lotte Lehman). She made her official debut in APHRODITE, wearing what was then considered next to nothing, to extraordinary success.
WITH RICHARD STRAUSS
JERITZA AS TOSCA
When she sang TOSCA at the Met, opposite a debuting, largely ignored Aureliano Pertile, then Met manager Giulio Gatti-Cassaza, recalled her reception as the greatest he had ever seen. TOSCA became her signature role for her, especially as she sang the aria “Vissi d’arte” while lying on the floor, a move that sopranos ever since have aped.
In a 1958 radio interview, Jeritza recalled that moment during rehearsal: “[Puccini told me] You have to sing it in a way that the people are spellbound and unable even to applaud and find something so they are unable to do so. He told me I should work out something so the people would sit petrified and can’t even move. ‘My dear, you will do it and you have the imagination – I depend on it.’
“I tried, I tried. I racked my brains and couldn’t find anything. Then during the second act Scarpia was carried away with the part … and he threw me down on the floor and I fell down on my nose. I lay there. I thought my nose was bleeding and I was afraid to start my ‘Vissi d’Arte.’ The Konzertmeister thought I lost the pitch and so he start from the orchestra again. But I was afraid to start. He started again – two or three times. I was so afraid my nose was bleeding but I thought, ‘Blood or no blood, you have to start.’ So I started ‘Vissi d’arte’ flat on my nose. After the first bars I managed to reach my face and found out that my wet face was full of tears and not blood. And so I started slowly but surely to raise in a kneeling position.
“All of a sudden I heard the familiar sound of Puccini’s voice – ‘Basta!’ And he came rushing on the stage, took me in his arms and kissed me. And said ‘Cara, carissima, thank you oh thank you so very much for the wonderful idea you had.’ ‘Maestro, that was not an idea of mine, that was an accident. Your Scarpia was carried away in his temper and he threw me on the floor.’ ‘Never mind, promise me that whatever happens you will always sing it in this accidental way.’
‘ARIADNE AUF NAXOS’
A diva in every sense of the word, she was known as The Moravian Thunderbolt. The 1920s were a particularly litigous time for her as she was always suing to suppress scandalous writings about her love life. Proud of her jewelry collection, she said of her admirers, “‘Flowers! If they had tried to give me only flowers, I would have spit in their faces.” She had fights with tenor Beniamino Gigli, who reportedly kicked her in the shins during a competitive curtain call, causing her to take a solo bow weeping aloud, “Mr. Gigli is not nice to me.” Lilli Lehmann bitchily remarked, “A real artist shouldn’t have to lie on her face to sing a big aria.” During a 1925 Vienna DIE WALKURE performance, mezzo-soprano Maria Olszewska became so annoyed by Jeritza’s distracting offstage behavior that she marched to the wings and spat at her. She left the Met because of a salary cut in 1932 and moved to Europe where, in Austria, she built a lavish palace, known as “Jeritza’s Folly” that was sold in 1989 for $70 million to an oil tycoon.
ALWAYS A DIVA
Jeritza had three husbands, including Hollywood mogul Winfield Sheehan, and died in Orange, New Jersey. Terence Cardinal Cooke offered a mass for her at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and she is interred at Holy Cross Cemetary in North Arlington, NJ.
See and hear Jeritza singing “Du und ich” from Franz Lehar’s operetta THE GRAND DUCHESS ALEXANDRA, filmed in 1933.
JERITZA BEAUTY TIP: For attractive elbows, soak them in grapefruit juice every day.