THE EFFORTLESS ELEANOR STEBER
When she began her career in 1940, Eleanor Steber was as gorgeous a slip of a girl as ever graced the Met stage. Forty-seven years later, she greets a visitor to her Manhattan apartment and says, “I’ve decided to let my hair grow out. What do you think of it?”
The curly gray hair is cut short and is becoming. Though Steber is quite heavy now, the facial features are still beautiful.
As she sits at her piano and sings softly, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore . . . ,” one recognizes the familiar Steber timbre: a silvery lyric soprano in a completely equalized range with no register breaks. As pure sound, there can’t have been many more beautiful voices produced by this country.
Moreover, the sound at its best was always an effortless one. Her ethereal pianissimos were as audible as her firmly controlled fortes. Mary Garden once described Nellie Melba’s high C at the close of the first act of “La Boheme” as being like a ball of light which hung on the air, almost disembodied. The same could be said of Steber’s top, and the best example would have to be her recording of the optional D-flat at the conclusion of Butterfly’s entrance. No struggle for breath, no scream, no harsh cut-off--it was simply there and seemingly could go on forever.
Having recently celebrated her 71st birthday, Steber devotes her time to teaching, both in New York and at her charming house on Long Island.
“I won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in the spring of 1940. My contract called for me to know Mimi, Micaela and Violetta. The conductor Ettore Panizza was not impressed with me at all, but Erich Leinsdorf was and asked for me as his Sophie, so I made my debut in ‘Rosenkavalier’ on Dec. 7. What an anniversary that was to become!”
Steber was from the beginning a quick study and was always completely prepared. She credits this trait to her teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music, William L. Whitney, with whom she studied from 1933 to 1938. What he did was give her a formidable technique and a curiosity about all kinds of music.
“I wasn’t even allowed a ‘Traviata’ aria until I was a third-year student. I worked on oratorio arias of Handel and lots of Mozart. Those composers are marvelous for the voice’s foundation.
“I was lucky to have the tenor Paul Althouse as my mentor. When he coached me he brought out the best qualities in my voice.”
After Sophie, Steber sang a few small parts like the Forest Bird in “Siegfried,” a Flower Maiden in “Parsifal,” and Woglinde in both “Rheingold” and “Gotterdammerung.” Bruno Walter was the conductor at that time who was to change her career completely.
“He heard me sing ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ at a hotel concert and said, ‘This girl can’t be an American, she must have a European background.’ Anyway he asked for me to be his First Lady in ‘Zauberflote’ and then gave me the ‘Figaro’ Countess. That put the star on my dressing room door.”
It was the part she was to sing most at the Met, a total of 55 performances.
Although she was initially paid $175 per week at the Met, radio work was much more lucrative. She appeared with Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith. Her 13-week stint one season on “The Coca-Cola Hour” at $1,000 per week enabled her to buy the house on Long Island that is now valued at $650,000.
Steber’s repertory was wide-ranging, to say the least. There were those, in fact, who claimed she sometimes overextended herself.
She was a superb Mozartean--Countess, Constanza, Fiordiligi, Elvira, Anna--as her recordings of arias attest, but she also took on Wagner (Eva and Elsa), Puccini (Butterfly, Mimi, Tosca and Minnie), Verdi (Violetta, Alice Ford, Desdemona and Elisabetta), and Strauss (the Marschallin and Arabella). Not to neglect the French repertory, she sang Manon, Marguerite and the “Hoffmann” Giulietta.
Why so much?
“I didn’t really want that big a repertory. They pushed me into it. They needed me. I always liked variety. You give me a challenge and I’ll take it.”
No better examples that Steber is not kidding can be found in the following instances: performances of “Otello,” “Cosi fan tutte” and “Vanessa.” In an emergency, which General Manager Rudolf Bing warned might kill her, she sang a matinee Desdemona and proceeded to polish off Fiordiligi in the evening performance. She claims to have felt no strain at all.
As for “Vanessa,” Steber was not originally scheduled for the opera. Samuel Barber’s new work was cast with Sena Jurinac in the title role. Jurinac cancelled six weeks before before the opening, and as usual it was Eleanor to the Rescue. She learned the part in a very few weeks and was crushed when she and the opera were indifferently received by the press.
Steber at first was favored mightily by Rudolf Bing. She had new productions of “Cosi,” “Don Giovanni,” “Arabella” and “Wozzeck,” not to mention the inherited “Vanessa.” Then she crossed him.
The general manager suggested she do “Traviata.” The soprano had always had trouble controlling her weight and, as she puts it, “I had joined the beef trust and Violetta was not for me.” She says Bing never forgave her and even stooped to such pettiness as asking her to give up a broadcast “Tosca,” which she refused to do.
As things began to go wrong at the Met, so they did in her private life. Steber says that was not lucky with her men. Her first marriage ended in divorce. Then, on an Asian tour, she met an Army colonel in Vietnam, and they were married when he returned stateside. He had a habit of wearing his dress blues to performances. When her secretary quit and was asked if her husband were the reason, she replied, “Well, frankly, Diva, I never know whether to salute or ask for a transfer.” The marriage didn’t last.
“He was cheating on me almost from the beginning,” the soprano says simply.
An ugly incident with Lorin Maazel effectively ended her career at the Met. Steber had sung a taxing lied recital shortly before a performance of “Don Giovanni” and found herself hoarse for the opera. She simplified a passage in “Non mi dir,” and Maazel, who was conducting, went to Bing in a rage to protest. Bing suggested she omit the aria; she refused, but did request that it be transposed down.
After an absence of some seasons, it was Eleanor-to-the-Rescue time once more. Dorothy Kirsten had canceled a performance of “Fanciulla del West,” and there was no one covering her role. Someone remembered that Steber had had a brilliant success with the opera at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy, years before, and she was called. Always game, she saved the show. Accounts vary as to how it all went, but six-foot-plus Franco Corelli withdrew after Act I and was replaced by a tenor barely over five feet. The performance on Jan. 17, 1966, was Steber’s last in the house.
Of the it-might-have-beens, Steber counts wistfully only Leonore in “Fidelio” and the “Forza” Leonora. She had sung Marzelline in Beethoven’s opera for Toscanini and her recording of “Pace, pace” gives a suggestion of what we missed in the Verdi.
There is more than a touch of bitterness in her conversation these days.
“I resented some of the Europeans who were often chosen over the Americans, particularly Licia (Albanese). She got a number of things I should have had, such as Butterfly. I did three Butterflys in a row with Ormandy in Hollywood Bowl that were splendid, but never at the Met.” (She did record the complete opera in an official Met version for Columbia, however, since she was on that label, while Albanese was contracted to RCA.)
"(Lisa) Della Casa took some parts away from me too. But I think the one I resented most was Rise(Stevens).”
When the interviewer expresses surprise, since Stevens was a mezzo with a completely separate repertory, Steber explains.
“She was always (general manager Edward) Johnson’s darling. She got everything she wanted. I could have had the kind of glamour-girl career she had if I had wanted. And she had that European husband who was always pushing her. I think the only one who ever made her nervous was Jarmila Novotna, who was so wonderful as Octavian and Cherubino. Why, do you know my own manager, Jim Davidson, favored Rise when I was being pushed out of ‘Voice of Firestone’ ?”
Stevens’ reaction is one of surprise: “I never knew she felt that way. I don’t know why. I always thought Ellie’s voice one of the most beautiful; I ever heard. As to ‘Firestone,’ I only know Mrs. Firestone (the composer of the opening and closing theme songs on the show) likes the way I sang her music.”
One expects to hear Steber speak about Dorothy Kirsten as a rival, since they shared some parts early on and even a Newsweek cover story.
“I was never jealous of her. She wasn’t in my league. I was established and not worried.”
Turning to less provocative subjects, the soprano talks with pride of her recordings. Her favorites are Berlioz’s “Nuits d’Ete” and “Depuis le jour” from “Louise.” She is pleased to be reminded of the famous anonymous recordings, made for mail-order newspaper promotion in the early ‘40s, which have become something of a collector’s item. Excerpts were made of standard operas and released with no singers identified. Steber is both the Butterfly and Violetta.
Her records still in the catalogue include the complete “Butterfly” and “Cosi” (in English), the Berlioz, and Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915" (which she commissioned) and “Hermit Songs.”
She regrets she never sang much on the West Coast--only one season with San Francisco Opera in which she did Micaela and Donna Elvira. She was always engaged elsewhere. She never sang concerts in Los Angeles. More recently, she has had California connections through the Eleanor Steber Music Foundation, which she heads.
In August, through the Merola Opera Program, the Steber Foundation gave $2,000 to the singer “who most represents the Steber Mozart style” at a gala concert. Two San Franciscans who have received these grants were Wendy Hillhouse, a mezzo, in 1982, and Lee Velta, a baritone, in 1984.
Of today’s singers, Steber admires Kathleen Battle and Carol Vaness, but few others.
“They don’t do the variety of things we did in my time. We were a real company. The public got to hear us in different roles to get to know our personalities.
“Now they come and go after a few performances. Also, the chances of national exposure are so limited. We had radio, with the ‘Voice of Firestone’ and ‘Telephone Hour,’ then television. Do you know I did the first television ‘Firestone’ in 1950? Nowadays, those degrading talk shows are about all that’s left.”
Moving with difficulty because of the asthma that has always troubled her, Steber stops to admire an oil portrait of herself as the Countess in “Figaro.” It will be going to the Met.
“It looks as much like me as most of the others there do of their subjects,” she smiles.
“Do you believe in reincarnation? I do. I know I’m going to be with my mother and father again.” Her eyes tear.
“My God, I’ve been talking so much I’m exhausted.”
As the Countess would sing, “Dove sono, i bei momenti?” Where have the beautiful moments gone?