Maria Jeritza

Maria Jeritza: “Prima donna of the Century” and San Francisco Opera’s First Salome

When Maria Jeritza died in 1982, her obituary in the New York Times noted, almost parenthetically, that her second marriage, to Hollywood film executive Winfield Sheehan in 1935, “brought her a lavish estate in Beverly Hills, with a dining room that seated 182.” Few would have batted an eye. After all, that was only to be expected of the woman who was widely regarded as “the Prima Donna of the Century.”

“It is very difficult to describe what Jeritza was like to a generation that never saw her in her great days with her tremendously erotic aura and her positively volcanic voice,” lamented Marcel Prawy in The Vienna Opera. By the time Gaetano Merola finally lured her to San Francisco Opera for the 1928 season she was firmly established as the most glamorous, most famous living opera singer in the world, enjoying a carefully nurtured celebrity that would rival that of any rock star or film actor today.

She was born Marie Jedlizová in 1887 in Brno in what is today the Czech Republic, but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is virtually impossible to separate fact from fiction when it comes to her early life, though it was said her father was a concierge. At any rate, her background was modest and she made her operatic debut as Elsa in Lohengrin in 1910 at the Municipal Opera of Olomouc. Within a year she had moved on to the Vienna Volksoper. During the summer of 1912 she sang Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at the spa resort of Bad Ischl, where Franz Josef, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, happened to be in the audience. “Why is this ravishing creature with the heavenly voice not singing in my opera house?” he demanded. A few months later she was. Her debut was in a now forgotten opera, Aphrodite by Max Oberleitner, and she did the role “in a degree of nudity that the house had never seen before,” Prawy wrote. “Here as everywhere she took the audience by storm.”

Jeritza was considered a beautiful woman, but hers was not the great classic beauty of sopranos like Geraldine Farrar or Lina Cavalieri. Nor was Jeritza’s voice the perfect instrument of a Rosa Ponselle, Elisabeth Rethberg, or Kirsten Flagstad.  Her acting, which seemed so utterly spontaneous onstage that audiences frequently gasped at her actions, had often been calculated to the exact note.Jeritza’s genius was in her ability to combine her looks, voice, and theatrical skills with that indefinable charisma that separates the very greatest stars from the merely superb.

Jeritza Meets Richard Strauss

1912 was quite a year for her. In addition to enchanting the Emperor, she was singing Helen of Troy in Max Reinhardt’s production of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene in Munich when Richard Strauss saw her and chose her to create the title role of his new opera, Ariadne auf Naxos—only two years into her career!  It was the beginning of a relationship that extended to the very end of Strauss’s life. He dedicated “September,” one of his miraculous Four Last Songs to “Mr. and Mrs. Seery” (Jeritza and her third husband, Irving Seery). “September” was composed on September 20th, 1948, the last of the Four Last Songs to be written. Two months later, November 23rd, Strauss wrote “Malven” (Mallows), a wistful, charming song for soprano and piano. It was his final completed work and he sent it to Jeritza with the dedication, “To my beloved Maria, this last rose.” The song was only discovered after her death and received its long-delayed world premiere when Kiri Te Kanawa sang it in New York in January 1985. (The performance was broadcast and is available on YouTube.)

In addition to the role of Ariadne in both versions of Ariadne auf Naxos, she also created the role of the Empress in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Remembering her as Helen of Troy in Offenbach’s operetta, Strauss crafted his own version of Helen for her in Die Ägyptische Helena (The Egyptian Helen), though her exorbitant financial demands meant that Elisabeth Rethberg sang the actual world premiere in Dresden, with Jeritza singing the first performances in Vienna and New York shortly thereafter. 

Strauss was not the only composer who adored her. Erich Korngold wrote Die Tote Stadt for her (it served as her Metropolitan Opera debut in November 1921) and Puccini wrote to the Met’s general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, saying he was writing an opera called Turandot, which would have good roles in it for Jeritza and tenor Beniamino Gigli. (As it turned out Jeritza was the first to sing Turandot at the Met, but Rosa Raisa sang the world premiere at La Scala.) She was a memorable Minnie in  La Fanciulla del West but without a doubt her most famous Puccini role was Tosca.

And then there was Tosca

The tradition of singing Tosca’s great Act II aria, “Vissi d’arte,” while lying on the floor was a Jeritza innovation. She always claimed it was an accident, that during a rehearsal in Vienna in 1913, she slipped and fell, landing face down on the stage. The conductor continued and realizing she did not have time to get up and collapse on the sofa where she was supposed to sing the aria, she simple sang it lying prostrate on the floor. Puccini, who was present, loved it, exclaiming, “Brava, Maria! This was an idea from God! Never sing it any other way!” Others have said the whole thing was planned and was the idea of Vienna’s famous stage director Wilhelm von Wymetal. Whatever the origin, it was typical of Jeritza’s innovative, riveting stage presence that enchanted audiences, whatever the opera.

Tosca was the second opera she sang at the Met, just a couple weeks after her debut, and that performance on December 1, 1921 has become legendary. In the late Robert Tuggle’s endlessly fascinating book, The Golden Age of Opera, the Met’s archivist noted that Gatti-Casazza (who had managed Milan’s La Scala for ten years before coming to the Met) wrote in his autobiography “the ovation by a cheering, screaming audience after ‘Vissi d’arte’ was the longest one he’d witnessed in his professional career.” Tuggle then adds, “Not only did Jeritza become the box office successor to Caruso in the 1920s, but her triumphs with public and press were so great that both Geraldine Farrar and Claudia Muzio left the company rather than compete.”

Farrar sang Tosca at the Met 67 times and did a bit of feline scratching when she wrote in her book Such Sweet Compulsion about Jeritza’s famous staging of Tosca’s Act II aria: “From my seat I obtained no view of any expressive pantomime on her pretty face, while I was surprised by the questionable flaunting of a well-cushioned and obvious posterior.” But few in the audience—whether in San Francisco, New York, or Vienna—cared.

Jeritza Reaches San Francisco 

It was as Tosca that Jeritza made her San Francisco Opera debut on September 19, 1928. Her fee, $3,000 a performance, was the highest paid to any artist at that time. She went on to regale San Francisco audiences that season in Turandot, Fedora, Carmen, and Cavalleria Rusticana. This was only a few months after the kerfuffle over Strauss’s new opera, Die Ägyptische Helene in Dresden and Vienna, and—probably inadvertently—Merola used Jeritza and Rethberg as his two principal sopranos. It was Rethberg who opened that 1928 season in Aida, as well as singing Butterfly, Andrea Chénier, and Faust. (After performing in San Francisco during September and October, both sopranos moved on to the Met, where Jeritza sang the American premiere of Die Ägyptische Helena on November 6.) 

As memorable as Jeritza’s first season in San Francisco was, it was her second season in 1930 that made history. In addition to the roles Strauss wrote for her, Jeritza was an acclaimed Salome and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Octavian was a frequent assignment at the Met, on a few occasions with Rethberg as Sophie, but Salome had been banned at the company after one performance in 1907. Merola seized the opportunity to not only give the company’s first Strauss opera but to present Jeritza in one of her most famous roles for the first time in the U.S. 

The Civic Auditorium was packed for the occasion, as the Examiner’s Redfern Mason predicted it would be again when she repeated the opera on the last day of the season. (In between the two Salomes Jeritza performed in Fanciulla del West, Cavalleria Rusticana AND Pagliacci as well as Tannhäuser.) Merola himself conducted which raised some eyebrows, especially given the extremely limited rehearsal time, but Mason praised the fact Merola “was able to make the performance at once organic and thrilling.” 

As for Jeritza, Mason couldn’t deny her effectiveness, but he was almost grudging in his praise. “Her first appearance was rather a shock. Instead of being a lithe and orchidaceous oriental she was a buxom Viennese, about as remote from what one imagines the daughter of a Judean king to have been as it is possible to picture.” When it came to the scene between Salome and Jochanaan he preferred “the subtle witchery and weaving of moonlit spells to which we have grown accustomed through the art of Mary Garden” who performed the opera in New York with Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera and also with the Chicago Opera and toured it with both companies. 

But Mason admitted that as the evening progressed Jeritza “developed a poetry of her own, a poetry of glorified and transcendent fleshiness.” He noted her Dance of the Seven Veils was “beautiful with sinister hints,” but felt it “lost a little in beauty because it left too little to be imagined.” When Salome demanded the head of Jochanaan from Herod “the king seemed a poor human worm in the grip of a tiger.” In the final scene “the head of John the Baptist was swathed in a glorified cheese cloth,” but even so “the mood became a form of erotic rhapsody.” Mason mused that he was not at all sure that was what Oscar Wilde had in mind in his play, but nonetheless “Jeritza carried the scene to a white heat of horror, a horror that bordered on the revolting. People might be shocked; but they could not be indifferent.”

Jeritza did not record of any of Salome’s music. But then her commercial recordings give no indication of what she was like on stage; in fact they are usually downright dull. But there are a few excerpts of her in live performance in Vienna in 1933. These are not from a radio broadcast but were recorded from the stage wings, using the rather primitive equipment available at the time, which means voices fade in and out, there is stage noise, and the sound often leaves a great deal to be desired. Even so, something of Jeritza’s magic comes through in the brief snippets of the Walküre Brünnhilde, Santuzza (the end of the Santuzza/Turiddu scene sent the audience into an absolute frenzy, right in the middle of the opera), and Salome. (For the curious, these excerpts come and go on YouTube.) The bits of Salome, conducted by Hugo Reichenberger, show the volcanic top of her voice, the gripping intensity of her performance—and the fact that by then she was often wayward, sometimes shockingly so by today’s standards, in her pitch and rhythm.

San Francisco Opera’s own Kurt Herbert Adler was amazed by this when, as a young man, he attended a performance of Salome she gave in Vienna conducted by Strauss himself. According to Nigel Douglas’ More Legendary Voices, at a party afterward Adler “asked Strauss if he himself had been pleased with the performance. ‘I know why you’re asking me,’ Strauss replied with a smile. ‘You mean Jeritza, don’t you. Yes, she was all over the place—but wasn’t she fabulous?!’”

Writer, lecturer, and teacher Paul Thomason is currently writing a book on the music of Richard Strauss

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