Maria Jeritza and Turandot

The Pri­madon­na of the Cen­tu­ry” is how Mar­cel Prawy, chron­i­cler of the Vien­na Opera, described sopra­no Maria Jer­itza (1887 – 1982). It is no exag­ger­a­tion. “It is very dif­fi­cult,” he lament­ed, “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.”1

Born in what is today the Czech Repub­lic, Jer­itza 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.2 A few months lat­er she was.

Her debut at the Impe­r­i­al Opera of Vien­na (as it was then known) was in a now-for­got­ten opera called Aphrodite by Max Ober­leit­ner. 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.”3 It was also in 1912 — only two years after begin­ning her career — that she cre­at­ed the title role of Richard Strauss’s opera Ari­adne auf Nax­os. It was the begin­ning of a long asso­ci­a­tion with Strauss: she also sang Ari­adne in the 1916 ver­sion of the opera, then went on to cre­ate the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schat­ten (1919), a role writ­ten for her, as was the title role in Die Ägyp­tis­che Hele­na (1928), which she sang in both Vien­na and New York.

The year after Jer­itza cre­at­ed Strauss’s Ari­adne, she sang the Vien­nese pre­mière of Puccini’s La Fan­ci­ul­la del West and met the com­pos­er, who prompt­ly became one of her ador­ing fans. At one point Puc­ci­ni wrote to Giulio Gat­ti-Casaz­za, Gen­er­al Man­ag­er of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera from 1908 to 1935, say­ing he was writ­ing an opera called Turan­dot which would have good roles in it for Jer­itza and tenor Beni­amino Gigli.4

The con­tro­ver­sy between Jer­itza and Rosa Raisa over which of them Puc­ci­ni wrote Turan­dot for spilled over into the news­pa­pers short­ly before the New York pre­mière. Jer­itza even went so far as to show a reporter for the New York Sun­day News her auto­graph album, in which Puc­ci­ni had writ­ten (accord­ing to Jeritza’s own trans­la­tion): “To the artist of high­est genius in the unreach­able Tosca and I hope in the unsur­pass­able Turan­dot, in admi­ra­tion and friend­ship, Gia­co­mo Puccini.”

Of course Puc­ci­ni wrote the opera for me,” Jer­itza said. “That is an open secret which the whole musi­cal world knows for a fact.” To which Raisa coun­tered, “If Puc­ci­ni wrote ‘Turan­dot’ for Mme Jer­itza, why did he not select her to cre­ate the title role?” Jer­itza respond­ed by explain­ing that Puc­ci­ni had seen her many times in 1924 and had told her he want­ed to write the score for her and he want­ed her to sing the first per­for­mance in Ger­man in Vien­na, but she could not because of an engage­ment in Cher­bourg.5  (Why Jer­itza thought any­one would believe she would give up such a plum assign­ment as cre­at­ing a Puc­ci­ni role in Vien­na in favor of singing in an oper­at­ic hin­ter­land like Cher­bourg must for­ev­er remain one of the mys­ter­ies of the diva mind.)

The Chica­go Opera com­pa­ny released a pho­to­sta­t­ic copy of a telegram from Ange­lo Scan­di­ani, impre­sario of La Scala, dat­ed Octo­ber 7, 1924, stat­ing, “Glad to announce [to] you that Mae­stro Puc­ci­ni and Toscani­ni select­ed Raisa and [Edith] Mason for the cre­ation of the two female roles of Turan­dot next April at La Scala.”6 A spokesman for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan said Puc­ci­ni told Gat­ti-Casaz­za, “My dream is that Jer­itza will cre­ate the role.”7

I want no quar­rel,” Jer­itza said. “That would be too sil­ly.” Then she added, in per­fect pri­ma don­na style, “Even if Puc­ci­ni wrote Turan­dot for me, every sopra­no all over the world must sing it. I can­not go every place to sing the role. Raisa must sing it in Chica­go.”8

No mat­ter what the facts were, the blonde, blue-eyed, viva­cious, charm­ing Jer­itza gen­er­al­ly had the pop­u­lar press in the palm of her shape­ly, well-man­i­cured hand — and she knew exact­ly how to use that to her con­sid­er­able advan­tage. 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 as Tosca

Her place in oper­at­ic leg­end was already secure by the time she final­ly reached the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera on the evening of Novem­ber 19, 1921, in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (yet anoth­er role writ­ten for her by yet anoth­er ador­ing com­pos­er). A few weeks lat­er she sang her first per­for­mance of Tosca at the Met. “After the ‘Vis­si d’arte,’ which she sang while lying on the floor with her head hard­ly raised, the the­atre broke out in a demon­stra­tion the equal of which I can scarce­ly recall. The Amer­i­can pub­lic was com­plete­ly con­quered,”9 wrote Giulio Gat­ti-Casaz­za, who had been head of La Scala for 10 years before com­ing to New York.  Jer­itza always claimed she had slipped dur­ing a rehearsal and had sung the aria sprawled on the floor as an acci­dent, and that Puc­ci­ni, who was present, said it was per­fect and should always be sung that way. So great was her pub­lic acclaim dur­ing her first Met sea­son that two of the most famous sopra­nos of their gen­er­a­tion, Geral­dine Far­rar and Clau­dia Muzio, left the com­pa­ny rather than com­pete10 (Far­rar retired; Muzio even­tu­al­ly returned for a sin­gle sea­son a decade later.)

Though Jer­itza had many stars in her oper­at­ic crown, the role of Turan­dot remains one of the very bright­est. She sang twen­ty-three of the Met’s twen­ty-sev­en per­for­mances of Turan­dot dur­ing the only four sea­sons the Met did the opera until the com­pa­ny mount­ed a new pro­duc­tion of the work a gen­er­a­tion lat­er with Bir­git Nils­son as the icy Chi­nese princess.

With her Met Calaf, Gia­co­mo Lauri-Volpe.

Crit­ics out­did them­selves in try­ing to describe Jer­itza onstage in the role. Oscar Thomp­son remem­bered Jer­itza as “sweep­ing in dispi­teous majesty through the sump­tu­ous spec­ta­cle [of Joseph Urban’s pro­duc­tion], robed as per­haps no oth­er regal per­son­age has been robed at the opera.”11

Nev­er before was Mme Jer­itza quite so regal a fig­ure as here in the scene of the enig­ma,” wrote the review­er for Town Top­ics. “A daugh­ter of heav­en in very truth, divine­ly tall as she is fair, she stands on the great flight of stairs that leads to the impe­r­i­al throne, the incar­na­tion of revenge-mad woman. With con­temp­tu­ous, drawn face she advances on the unknown solver of her rid­dles as if to with­er him in the fury of her scorn, her train’s long scar­let out­stretched in bands of flame, and her voice flash­ing and cut­ting like the headsman’s axe.”12

Unlike oth­er Turan­dots who made their entrance in Act II far above the crowd, Jer­itza entered from down­stage, walk­ing majes­ti­cal­ly up the enor­mous flight of stairs, maneu­ver­ing her seem­ing­ly end­less train behind her in such a way that when she reached her spot for singing “In ques­ta reg­gia,” the cos­tume seemed to engulf the entire set. Then, dur­ing the rid­dle scene, Jer­itza would walk back down over her own train — some­how with­out falling, to the eter­nal amaze­ment and fas­ci­na­tion of the audi­ence — as she stalked Calaf. Jeritza’s genius at using her cos­tumes to dra­mat­ic effect led one crit­ic to declare that though the sopra­no sang “with much pow­er and dra­mat­ic con­vic­tion, her cos­tumes, how­ev­er, prob­a­bly had more to do than either act­ing or singing with the suc­cess of the part. Noth­ing quite like them has been beheld in the his­toric house.”13

The sopra­no was con­stant­ly try­ing new dra­mat­ic tricks onstage, even if they were tricks she used in oth­er operas. One cor­re­spon­dent wrote, “When ‘Turan­dot’ was giv­en its dress rehearsal at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan I heard one news­pa­per woman wager with anoth­er that by the time the third per­for­mance had been reached the fas­ci­nat­ing Maria Jer­itza would have found a suit­able place for one of those inim­itable stage falls of hers which have become cel­e­brat­ed.… The next time I heard ‘Turan­dot’ … sure enough, when the love scene was reached and the Unknown Prince thawed the ice of the piti­less Princess by the fierce heat of his first kiss, she top­pled, ever so mag­nif­i­cent­ly, to the floor.

That set me to count­ing the num­ber of operas in which the love­ly Vien­nese star employs her gift for falling down in a way no oth­er opera singer ever quite suc­ceeds in emu­lat­ing. As I checked them off they were ‘Tosca,’ ‘Thaïs,’ ‘Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana,’ ‘Fedo­ra,’ ‘Lohen­grin’ and ‘Jew­els of the Madon­na.’ I did not count the half-a-fall in ‘Tannhauser,’ and try as I would, I could not recall any­thing of the kind in ‘Die Walküre,’ ‘Die Tote Stadt’ and ‘Jen­u­fa.’ ”14

Jan Kiepu­ra

Mar­cel Prawy, who often saw her in the part, remem­bered, “When Jer­itza was Turan­dot, we all knew exact­ly when she fell in love with Calaf — dur­ing the sec­ond rid­dle. All at once the Princess changed from an ice­berg into a woman, a woman in love, ready to sur­ren­der.”15 Appar­ent­ly that was not the way Jer­itza had orig­i­nal­ly thought of the part, but once, when per­form­ing the opera oppo­site the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly hand­some, mag­net­ic Pol­ish tenor Jan Kiepu­ra, dur­ing the sec­ond rid­dle she looked into Kiepura’s “beseech­ing eyes”16 and changed her con­cep­tion of the role on the spot.

But no mat­ter how much she might learn from a col­league or val­ue an asso­ci­a­tion, Jer­itza nev­er let any­one for­get that when she was onstage, she owned it and she would tol­er­ate no rivals. Once, dur­ing Turan­dot’s rid­dle scene, Kiepu­ra — fool­ish­ly – tried to upstage her. With­out bat­ting an eye­lash, Jer­itza prompt­ly changed the stage direc­tions so that for the rest of the scene she stalked around him in cir­cles, calm­ly and con­stant­ly drag­ging her heav­i­ly encrust­ed train after her, around and around and around the kneel­ing tenor, until it almost stran­gled him. Kiepu­ra got the mes­sage.17



  1. Mar­cel Prawy, The Vien­na Opera (New York: Praeger, 1970), plate XIV/1 and p. 96, resp.
  2. Quot­ed in Nigel Dou­glas, More Leg­endary Voic­es (New York: Lime­light, 1995), p. 111.
  3. Prawy, The Vien­na Opera, p. 91.
  4. Robert Tug­gle, The Gold­en Age of Opera (New York: Holt, Rhine­hart and Win­ston, 1983), p.168.
  5. Inez Call­away, “Divas’ High Notes Clash in Opera Role Fight,” New York Sun­day News, Octo­ber 24, 1926. The dis­pute was wide­ly cov­ered in all the news­pa­pers of the time, usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied by pho­tos of Jer­itza get­ting off the boat from Europe to begin Turan­dot rehearsals at the Met.
  6. Ibid. Preg­nan­cy forced Edith Mason to for­go cre­at­ing the role of Liu, which at the pre­mière was sung, instead, by Maria Zamboni.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Giulio Gat­ti-Casaz­za, Mem­o­ries of the Opera (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941), p. 215.

10. Tug­gle, The Gold­en Age of Opera, pp. 208, 210.

11. Oscar Thomp­son, Musi­cal Amer­i­ca, Decem­ber 4, 1926.

12. “The Mélo­mane,” Town Top­ics, Novem­ber 26, 1926. Pho­to­copy, Turan­dot file, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Archives.

13. Unsigned review, Singing, Decem­ber 1926. Turan­dot file, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Archives.

14. Anony­mous mag­a­zine clip­ping, Turan­dot file, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Archives.

15. Prawy, The Vien­na Opera, p.120.

16. Gustl Breur, “Maria Jer­itza,” Opera News, Sep­tem­ber 1982, p. 59.

17. Ibid.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Stag­ing the Ori­ent: Visions of the East at La Scala and The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, pub­lished by the Dahesh Muse­um of Art, 2004.