Midst the racket of cocktail blenders, the noisy scooping of ice cubes and the loud stacking of drinking glasses in a bar and grill not far from Griffith Park, Maralin Niska returned to Los Angeles Tuesday night.
After being absent from here for half a decade, the California-born and -trained American soprano this week gave an operatic recital--assisted by pianist Henrietta Pelta--at the New York Company on Fletcher Drive.
What was an authentic operatic luminary, a member of both the Metropolitan and New York City Operas in the 1970s and a longtime visitor to operatic venues in Europe and in regional America, doing singing in a bar?
As Niska told The Times earlier this week, she considers that “Music is music, wherever you play it.” Besides, she added, “This is fun,” and follows a pattern she began, years ago, when, as a young operatic aspirant in the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera, she sang in numerous North Beach eating establishments.
At the Griffith Park locale, Niska’s appearance did not turn out to be a camp. Or a hoot. The controversial singing actress, looking trim and fit and, more important, sounding healthy, gave a real recital, and saved the talking for last.
Nor was it a mere personal appearance or nostalgia event. Niska sang excerpts from some of her beloved operatic roles, added some popular ditties from Rodgers and Hammerstein shows (to which she brought a refreshing, dramatic seriousness), other musical comedy tunes, and songs by Duparc, Wolf and Puccini.
She did not stint herself, even though, as she admitted very late in the evening, she was recovering from a bronchial ailment. In the expected arias from “Susannah,” “La Rondine,” “Gianni Schicchi,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Adriana Lecouvreur,” “Manon Lescaut,” “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “La Traviata,” Niska revealed, again, her brilliant, reliable and clarion voice, the solidity and plangency of her mid-range and the strength and personality of the lowest octave.
But technique, however splendid, is not what this singer is about. Niska was ever a purveyor of text as drama. At this appearance, from her opening, “Ain’t It a Pretty Night” (from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”), to “Sempre Libera,” sung as an encore, and in seven intervening arias, she brought the words forward, savored them and projected their meanings.
And she used the little showroom--a tiny stage, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling curtains--cannily, moving around the entire room, utilizing different places and lighting schemes, and individually staging each item on her program.
Handsomely supported--on a recalcitrant, musically limited and deficiently resonant white piano--by Pelta, the 55-year-old singer also delivered the poetic impact of Duparc’s “Chanson Triste” and Wolf’s “Er Ist’s.” And she characterized each one of six of Rodgers’ songs--most effectively, “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Mister Snow"--with that feminine sympathy and pointed intelligence we long ago found irresistible.
At 10:35 p.m., after she had been singing to her friendly audience in the darkened dining room of the bar and grill for more than 80 minutes, the soprano spoke informally.
In a very undivaesque manner, she told about her present life in Santa Fe, N.M., where she teaches voice, and occasionally stages operatic performances. She mentioned that she is available for singing engagements. She answered a few questions about operatic subjects. And, before this very pleasant occasion became a sad one, she finished her program, with Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte.”
Given the noisy approbation of her otherwise well-behaved, mixed audience, there was then nothing left to do but reinstate the “Traviata” aria the soprano had a few minutes earlier deleted. The ring of her high C was no surprise, but the legitimacy of the penultimate, high E-flat may not have been expected. This clearly operatic crowd reacted wildly to it.
Having shown them, Niska left while she was ahead. As she strode out of the room, she told her audience, “And that’s all you get!” Of course it was--it was all they had come for.