By Nino Pantano
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
What greater cause for celebration can you think of than to honor a woman, and a voice synonymous with love, youth and spring? On May 5 at the elegant J.W. Marriott Essex House on Central Park South, Marta Eggerth in absentia was the honoree.
Ms. Eggerth who still sings at age 101, was born in Budapest on April 17, 1912. A child prodigy at age 11, her sparkling coloratura soprano later found its way into the major opera houses and theatres and then to European films in the early 1930s.
She fell in love with her leading man, famed tenor Jan Kiepura, while filming “My Heart Is Calling You” in 1934. Later on they toured from Broadway to the world singing over 2,000 performances of Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” with Kiepura as her dashing Danilo.
In the early 1940s, Ms. Eggerth made two films with Judy Garland; one of which introduced Gene Kelly, “For Me and My Gal.” She appeared in Puccini’s “La Boheme” in Chicago with tenor Jan Kiepura fresh from his Metropolitan (Met) Opera debut and they were truly the (Liebespaar) loving pair worldwide. Ms. Eggerth also recalls singing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Kiepura’s sudden death in 1966 brought her career to a halt. However, in the 1970s, at the insistence of her mother and friends, she sang once again. Ms. Eggerth appeared in the musicals “Colette” and “Follies,” appeared in cabaret as of her 100th birthday at Café Sabarsky (Neue Gallery), and was a frequent guest artist at the Albanese-Puccini Foundation annual gala.
Opera Index President, the ever-youthful Murray Rosenthal, spoke proudly of the scholarship winners of the past year and introduced the performers of the evening. Rising tenor star Bryan Hymel (An Opera Index past winner), scored a recent triumph at the Met and in London in “Le Troyens,” where he received the coveted Olivier award, sang a stirring and thrilling “E Lucevan Le Stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca with dark, fresh heroic sound.
Soprano Maria D’Amato sang a hauntingly beautiful “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka by Dvorak -- every inch a water nymph who wanted the right to love a human.
Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano sang a thrilling “Sein Wir Wieder Gut” with Viennese sparkle from Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
Nickoli Strommer’s vibrant baritone took us to the bull ring with an exciting Toreador Song from Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Marjan Kiepura, a noted pianist, was present with his wife and assistant, Jane Knox-Kiepura. He spoke lovingly of his famous parents and accepted the Opera Index award for his mother, Marta Eggerth. He also arranged for a special telephone hookup where she could hear, speak and be a part of the celebration.
Brian Kellow, Opera News features editor and author, spoke eloquently about Marta Eggerth and how honored he was to visit her at her home in Rye, New York on numerous occasions. Kellow not only learned about her career and life’s ups and downs, but about love and acceptance and the joys of music in one’s life.
The ensemble, with Ms. Eggerth listening, also sang excerpts from “The Merry Widow.” Maria D’Amato sang a magical “Vilia” with sublime ascents and haunting dimuendos. Then all of the singers with Bryan Hymel as Danilo sang and danced to “The Merry Widow Waltz” -- not a dry eye in the house after that.
Opera Index treasurer Jane Shaulis sang a witty and ironic bluesy, “It Never Entered my Mind,” from the Rogers and Hart Broadway show “Higher and Higher,” which starred Marta Eggerth circa 1940. The marvelous and versatile accompanist was piano wizard Michael Fennelly. After thanking the singers via telephone, Ms. Eggerth told those present that the reason her voice is still with her at age 101 was that she learned to say “NO” to those who tempted her to do roles that would have had short-term rewards but would have ended her career.
We thank Opera Index Vice Presidents Janet Stovin, Philip Hagemann and Executive Director Joseph Gasperec for all their efforts. Also present were former honorees Rebecca Paller from the Paley Center for Media and legendary sopranos Eleanor Ross and Elaine Malbin.
There were many operatic glitterati in the audience. At our table were celebrated ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, formerly from the American Ballet Theatre, and her husband Misha, who are forming a school of dance.
Also present were former PBS host and past honoree, the radiant Midge Woolsey and her husband Dr. Juergen (Jerry) Stolt. We thank Opera Index for this welcome to spring with Marta Eggerth and these wonderful young singers who give us hope for the future of opera!