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Opera: Small Body, Big Voice

3 minute read

At midnight the day before tickets went on sale, fans began lining up outside Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper. Was Callas singing? Tebaldi? Sutherland? None of them, but a Canadian-Greek girl named Anastasia Strataki, known in the world of the opera as Teresa Stratas.

At 26, Teresa Stratas is not yet the most famous soprano around, but standing a flat 5 feet, she is surely the smallest. Performance by performance, review by review, she has been inching to stardom. As Cherubino in the Metropolitan Opera’s Marriage of Figaro last December and as Liu in Turandot, she won the kind of acclaim that prima donnas are made of.

Munich heard her for the first time last year. Staatsoper’s Director Rudolf Hartmann was so impressed by her performance that he staged last week’s special La Traviata for her. Stratas did not let him down. Her singing of Verdi’s virginal strumpet, Violetta, swept the packed house into a record 43 minutes of tumultuous applause. Raved the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Stratas intuitively found everything that makes the part touching, the erotic flair of the doomed girl, the fire and despair of her heart. Her light, balanced soprano obeys each impulse: from tender lyricism to great dramatic explosion, from giddy parlando to dolorous espressivo, everything is luminescent and enchanting.”

Pistol-Packin’ Mama. In the death scene, Stratas shed real tears and made her audience suffer with her as the strings surged upward to a great chord, punctured by Violetta’s desperate cry: “Ah! gran’ Dio! Morir si giovine [Ah, great God! To die so young].” After the performance, Teresa, smothered in flowers, wearing a green Florentine velvet gown, was seized by a hollow cough. “You see, Violetta is contagious,” she said.

Teresa made her debut in her father’s restaurant at four, singing Pistol-Packin’ Mama. At 15, she was singing in Toronto dives. “If you learn to hold an audience of drunks who would rather be noisy, you can surely hold people at the Met who pay to hear you,” she says. She saw her first opera at 16, when Renata Tebaldi sang La Bohème’s Mimi in Toronto. At 20, she outsang 2,000 contestants to win the annual audition and a contract at the Metropolitan Opera.

Soup & Chicken. “I sang every maid in the operatic repertory,” Teresa recalls. But reviewers noticed her in the small parts, called her “the baby Callas.” She had the brash drive of an expectant star. After a lunch at the White House with President Kennedy in 1961, she told reporters: “The soup was lukewarm, the chicken tasteless.” She kept pestering Rudolf Bing tirelessly for better roles. In the best operatic tradition, opportunity came on two days’ notice: she replaced ailing Lucine Amara as Liu. Despite excellent notices, Bing still held her back: “You have plenty of time.” She retorted: “I want to sing while I am young,” and took off for Europe. She sang at Covent Garden, the Bolshoi, La Scala. In Moscow, she showed the first syndrome of a prima donna: she walked out after the second act of Eugene Onegin, declaring that “the applause was scanty.” At a recital a few days later, chastened Muscovites bravoed her back for five encores.

Now Bing has finally capitulated. The Met has announced that she will be Lisa in next season’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame.

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