In a picture-filled house in leafy Rye, a half-hour outside Manhattan, an attractive, very lively blonde in pumps, red jacket, black skirt and gold earrings begins to sing.
I know the song: It’s the showpiece in Franz Lehar’s eternally popular 1905 operetta, “The Merry Widow.” But I’ve never heard it sung by a soprano who was adored by the composer himself and has a huge photo of the waltzmeister on her grand piano in a silver frame to prove it: Marta Eggerth.
“To my lovely compatriot, the enchanting artist Marta Eggerth. In deep admiration, Lehar. Vienna, July 7, 1933.”
A fateful year. In January, Hitler had become chancellor of Germany. Within a few months, Eggerth’s cultivated world began to disappear.
Born in 1912 in Budapest, proclaimed a wunderkind at age 11, Eggerth had just a few years at center stage in Old Europe, often appearing with her Polish husband, tenor Jan Kiepura, like her a dazzlingly attractive charmer. She made more than 40 films, some with him. When Austria, stage of so many of their triumphs, became Nazi territory, the couple was luckily in New York where Kiepura was making his Metropolitan Opera debut in “La Boheme.”
Westchester eventually became their home, though they toured Europe often after the war as Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo (the biography mentions some 2,000 performances of “Merry Widow”). Eggerth’s husband died in 1966, leaving her with two young sons.
I visited Eggerth after listening with amazement to her recent, two-album release. It is a wonderful compilation of operetta arias and songs, the earliest dating to 1932, the most recent recorded in 2002.
Hoelterhoff: How did you keep your voice?
Eggerth: No smoking, no drinking. I always lived for my performances.
Hoelterhoff: You seem to keep very busy.
Eggerth: Yes. Today for example, I got three phone calls -- one from Vienna, one from Germany, where they seem to want a TV show, and one from Switzerland for a master class. This is going on all the time.
I like that. I love to give master classes. I am not one of the old bags who thinks that everything that was, was so beautiful. It wasn’t. What is wonderful today is progress. What is wonderful is today -- that a doctor could fiddle with five bits of my heart and sew me up again.
Better Than Ever
Eggerth: That doctor put my heart on a table and did something about the hole and here I am (after a quintuple bypass). Isn’t that better?
Hoelterhoff: I’ll say so. One thing that isn’t better is that there isn’t such a widespread love of the music you sang and we both love.
Eggerth: You can never have everything. You need to inoculate yourself. You can have a lot, but never everything. This is my long life’s experience. And there is another thing. For everything there comes a bill.
Hoelterhoff: Did you have a big bill?
Eggerth: God was good to me, except of course the loss of my beautiful, eternally beloved husband. He was the only one in my life. In that I am very old-fashioned.
In the Wings
Hoelterhoff: How did your career start?
Eggerth: Emmerich Kalman wanted me as understudy for his operetta, “The Violet of Montmartre” with Adele Kern, a star of the Vienna Staatsoper.
Hoelterhoff: She got sick and you were in the wings?
Eggerth: No, she didn’t get sick, but there was some misunderstanding with the management, so they said “Okay Marta, you sing tonight!” So I jumped in with little rehearsal. It was very nice. I had a huge success. I continued from then on to be the star of that operetta. What is that you are writing on?
Hoelterhoff: A laptop.
Eggerth: Ah, the technology of the day. I am a total idiot. I like pen and paper.
Hoelterhoff: I don’t believe that. Have you ever gone on the Internet and Googled yourself? It might amuse you.
Eggerth: Why should I look myself up? I know myself!
Hoelterhoff: A favorite aria on your album is “Wien, Nur Du Allein.” What are your memories of Vienna?
Eggerth: I worked a lot there, though I never really lived there. I sang at the Theater an der Wien and in the Johann Strauss Theater. Vienna as a city was something so exceptional.
Hoelterhoff: How do you account for the Nazi era?
Eggerth: I can’t. Who can? I can quote Goethe: “Two souls, alas, are at home within my breast.” Nice people can be killers.
Hoelterhoff: So did you live outside Vienna?
Eggerth: I remember we rented an apartment in a park hotel. This conductor next to me knocked on my door: “Fraulein Eggerth, I hear you have a piano in your room. Can I use it when you are in the studio?” I said yes.
I came back, the whole room was dark with cigar smoke and there were socks on my bed. He was a little crazy. It was the conductor Klemperer.
Hoelterhoff: Was it love at first sight with your husband?
Eggerth: I didn’t like him at first. There were 20 or so women around him all the time.
Hoelterhoff: Your CD set is accompanied by ravishing photographs of you beautifully posed in gorgeous costumes. I especially like this picture of you in a flowing off-the-shoulder gown, seated wistfully at the piano. What movie?
Eggerth: It is called “Casta Diva” and was based on the life of Bellini. I played a singer who was in love with him. I died at the end, as I recall.
“Marta Eggerth -- My Life in Song” is available from Patria Productions Inc., 61 Church St., Littleton, New Hampshire 03561. Eggerth’s son, pianist Marjan Kiepura, and his wife, Jane Knox, compiled the two-CD album that includes music by Lehar, Stolz, Abraham, Chopin and Kreisler. For more information, go to http://www.patriamusic.com. The set is also available through Amazon.com.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)