“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.
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.
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
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
- Marcel Prawy, The Vienna Opera (New York: Praeger, 1970), plate XIV/1 and p. 96, resp.
- Quoted in Nigel Douglas, More Legendary Voices (New York: Limelight, 1995), p. 111.
- Prawy, The Vienna Opera, p. 91.
- Robert Tuggle, The Golden Age of Opera (New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1983), p.168.
- 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.
- Ibid. Pregnancy forced Edith Mason to forgo creating the role of Liu, which at the première was sung, instead, by Maria Zamboni.
- 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.
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.