Monday, March 27, 2006

A Meeting with Regina Resnik

Besides being blessed with a voice that made her a long-time star of the Metropolitan Opera, Regina Resnik was also endowed with a high IQ – as evidenced by her graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College. And as is evidenced by a recent conversation with her. In her 80s, she still has a keen mind and a tenacious memory – and no timidity about contradicting people, perhaps because she is so accustomed to contradicting music students she has taught.
She knows that Felix Mendelssohn re-discovered Bach’s music and paid for a statue of him to be put up in Leipzig – and that the Nazis, in 1937, tore down Mendelssohn’s own statue. She has a way with words: Enrico Caruso’s voice was “fat,” and “There has been no one like him to this day.” She knows that Caruso died in 1921, so it is unlikely that the interviewer’s mother could have heard him sing. And she she knows which composers enjoyed writing for mezzo sopranos (Verdi) and which didn’t (Puccini).
And in her 80s, she’s still very busy. In fact, on Sunday she will narrate a Jewish-oriented concert program, called “Covert or Convert?” and featuring the music of Mendelssohn and Anton Rubinstein, both converts to Christianity, along with someone she admired greatly, conductor Otto Klemperer, who converted, then converted back to Judaism. Also on the program will be music by composers during the Spanish Inquisition, during the Holocaust and by Soviet Jewish composers.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for members/students. They can be purchased by phone at (646) 437-4202 or online at The performance will begin at 2:30 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edmond J. Safra Hall, at 36 Battery Place, New York City.
Other performers will be Darynn Zimmer, soprano; Michael Philip Davis, tenor (her son); Charles Robert Stephens, baritone; Vlad Iftinca, piano; and guest artist David Leisner, guitar.
This is the second concert in a Regina Resnik Presents series on Jewish song. The first focused on Jewish composers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the last will be on non-Jewish composers who wrote music on Jewish themes, such as Dmitri Shostakovich.
She was born in the Bronx, and her name was Resnik. (Even Opera News has mistakenly spelled it Resnick, and she tells an amusing story about how hard it was to prove to the Social Security people that her name was really spelled Resnik.) She sang in school, and at 14 won a competition on radio’s old Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour ($10). (Maria Callas complained that she herself lost out to a kid who played the accordian.)
She debuted at the Met in 1944, at age 22, replacing an indisposed Zinka Milanov in Trovatore, and went on to sing over 80 roles. But 13 years after her debut, her voice darkened ominously. A true crisis. What should she do with all the soprano roles she knew? Her new voice teacher said: Close the book. She went on to become a splendid mezzo, playing such roles as Carmen and Klytemnestra.
She lives not in a fancy luxury apartment but in an old, rather small artist’s studio not far from Carnegie Hall, the studio of her late husband, the gifted painter Arbit Blatas. She also has a place in Venice – she once directed an award-winning documentary, “The Historic Ghetto of Venice.”
In person she has long blonde hair and looks nowhere near her age. She still has a strong voice. Is it because she has taken good care of it? “It’s just there! But I have taken care of it.”
What singers does she remember? “I knew them all!” Jussi Bjoerling? She sang with him—and called him the Silver Voice. Elisabeth Rethberg? She met her – and sang in an Aida eight years after hearing Rethberg sing Aida. Lawrence Tibbett? She sang with him. Callas? “She had a picture of herself that she had trouble living up to.”
Is she very religious? “I’m not a religious Jewess. I’m a cultural Jewess. I have Jewish roots up to my ears, but I wasn’t brought up to be rigid about religion.” A pause. “I know who I am.”
When she was in Germany not long ago, someone asked her, where did your voice come from? Her reply: I’m Jewish, and my ancestors who came from Russia were musical.” The questioner was nonplussed.
She spoke about the decline of singing in the schools…mezzo roles versus traditional soprano roles…singing in opera versus singing in a concert (in a concert, you’re on your own).
She was disappointed that her visitor had brought a cup of coffee with him, because she was planning to offer him a cup. But she insisted on exchanging his paper cup for a china cup.
Why the heck doesn’t she write an autobiography? “I have many stories to tell, but I don’t have the time.” Why not just talk into a tape recorder for an hour every morning? “Maybe this summer.”
Here’s hoping.