Teresa Stratas
Strataspheric Voice

When a customer at a small Greek restaurant in Toronto could not pay his bill, the owners were given two tickets to a Metropolitan Opera performance at Maple Leaf Gardens. They gave the tickets to their son to take his sister for her sixteenth birthday. She was initially not pleased with the idea but was so awed by the performance that she decided she too would sing opera. Today she is the worldrenowned diva, Teresa Stratas.

Pagliacci (1892), Leoncavallo's popular opera, has afforded sopranos such as Teresa Stratas, viewed here as Nedda, the opportunity to sing with passion one of the great dramatic arias in all opera.  [Photo, courtesy Winnie Klotz via the Metropolitan Opera, New York]

At the time of seeing La Traviata Teresa had hoped to become a nightclub singer. She had already played at some clubs and had sung on radio but, on seeing the Verdi masterpiece, she discovered that there was, to opera, not only a wonderful story, sets, costumes, and fabulous music but, as she told Harry Rasky, author and producer of a film and book about her titled StrataSphere, "the most incredible, extraordinary part of it all, was the people opening their mouths, making incredible sounds come out of the human body." She promptly approached the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and when she refused to be put off by a secretary before she sang for someone, Dr. Arnold Walter, founder and head of the opera faculty, agreed to hear her. Teresa, not knowing anything classical, sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Walter listened and was so impressed with her voice that he arranged for her to see Irene Jessner, a former Metropolitan Opera soprano turned teacher who was equally impressed with her voice and she became her only singing instructor.

Teresa's first professional appearance was as Mimi in La Boheme at the Canadian Opera Festival in 1958. A year later, as a co-winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions, she sang bit parts with them and performed in other operas in Vancouver, Athens, and London, England, before being selected by Rudolph Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to replace an indisposed singer as the slave girl Liu in Turandot. That happened in 1961 and caused one reviewer to suggest, "It is to be hoped she will be given further significant roles before the season's end."

Her career took flight. In 1962, Alan Rich of the New York Times praised her "Mimi" in La Boheme at the Met as "full of grace, charm and insinuation." That year she also sang at Milan's famed La Scala, toured Russia with I'Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, and a year later received 16 curtain calls in Leningrad when she sang, in Russian, the role of Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Her success in Moscow was marred, however, when she walked off the stage after the second act because she felt the Bolshoi Theatre audience did not appreciate her, not realizing that Russian audiences applauded only at the end of a performance.

The misunderstanding got worldwide attention, and subsequently failures to appear have contributed to her status as the temperamental Stratas. But throughout the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, her performances at the Metropolitan and virtually all the major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe won her a faithful following and critical acclaim. She had over 30 roles in her active repertoire, roles that covered a great vocal and dramatic range. These included La Traviata in Munich which set off a record 43-minute ovation; Desdemona in Otello at Expo 67; Despina in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Susanna inThe Marriage of Figaro at the Salzburg Festival; Nedda in Pagliacci and Queen Isabella in Atlantida at La Scala. Elsewhere, and especially at the Metropolitan, there were Mozart’s Cherubino and Zerlina, Puccini’s Cio-Cio-’San, Mimi, Liu, and Magda in La Rondine, Richard Strauss’ Composer, Offenbach’s Périchole and Antonia, Menotti’s Sardulla in The Last Savage, Marie in The Bartered Bride, Debussy’s Mélisande, Humperdink’s Hansel, Tchaikovsky’s Lisa in Pique Dame, Massenet’s Manon. In 1979, in Paris, she created the title role of Alban Berg’s complete Lulu (the first time the “forbidden” third act was performed), described as the greatest musical event in Europe since World War II.

Not all of the 300 international music critics attending sang her praises, but enough did to identify her as the one and only Lulu and the role as a highlight of her then 20-year career. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg called the role “murderous ... vocally and dramatically,” and of her performance wrote, “Her marvellous blend of singing and acting abilities far outweighed her lack of ease with some of the unconventional high-flying notes of the jarring score.”

When Teresa Stratas sang at the Canadian National Exhibition, as viewed here, in 1962, her operatic career was in full flight.  Already a star with New York's Metropolitan Opera, her stratospheric rise as an international diva included triumphant performances at Milan's La Scala and a victorious tour of Russia.  At the time she was 24 years old.  [Photo, courtesy The Toronto Star]

Numerous articles appeared in North America and Europe following Lulu which she also performed at the Met later, before singing Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. By the beginning of the early ’80s, her desire for privacy made her more selective in her public appearances. As she told Rasky, “I am basically a very introverted person leading a very public life,” thereby giving a partial explanation for her series of departures from stage appearances in the latter part of the ’80s.

In 1981, for instance, she backpacked through India, visiting Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity in Calcutta and volunteering to work there. Between 1983 and 1989 she did not sing at all at the Met, but made films of such operas as La Traviata and Monetti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and recorded songs written by Weill that had been kept by his wife, Lotte Lenya, who became Teresa’s friend during the rehearsals for Mahagonny.

In 1987, Teresa starred in the Broadway musical, Rags, and, although it closed after four performances, she won a Tony as the best actress in a musical. That year her singing the role of Julie in a recording of Jerome Kern’s Showboat prompted New York Times critic Alan Rich to write, “The Stratas Julie, like the Stratas Lulu, or the Stratas Kurt Weill, is the incomparable dramatic creation of an artist with an uncanny ability to get under your skin at every turn of phrase ... a phenomenal artist.”

Following her appearance as Lulu in Brussels, 1988, she returned to the Metropolitan and triumphed in all three operas of Puccini’s Il Trittico, created Marie Antoinette in the world premiere of Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles, and scored major successes as Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and with repeats of Liu, the Composer, and Jenny. Among her many filmed performances (in addition to La Traviata and Amahl) are Salome, La Rondine, Lulu, Pagliacci, The Bartered Bride, Mahagonny, La Bohème, Eugene Onegin, Così Fan Tutte, Tabarro, and Ghosts of Versailles.

While Teresa indicated as early as 1966 in a Maclean’s magazine story that she would give up singing before people asked, “Stratas – is she still singing?” and that she might return to Canada to form her own opera company, there is no sign that either will happen. Still petite and trim (five feet tall and just over 100 pounds), she continues to captivate and enthrall audiences and critics alike with her acting and magnificent voice. Still one to shun publicity and relish privacy, she admitted in a rare interview with the New Yorker magazine in 1994, “Opera is not life. It’s part of life, of course, but it isn’t life itself,” adding after a pause, “I couldn’t live without singing. At least I wouldn’t want to.”
Mel James