This is the last in a week-long series profiling the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim stars
Perched ramrod straight on a chair in the Kennedy Center’s Chinese Lounge, the eminent mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias tosses off memories of opera greats. She recalls being wall-oped on the back by Gian Carlo Menotti, when the composer and librettist was making an emphatic point in a rehearsal. She alludes to sharing a stage with Placido Domingo, and she recounts how she accepted, from composer Samuel Barber, the offer of a smallish role in his then-premiering “Antony and Cleopatra.”
“I said, ‘Sam, if you just told me to come in and say, “Dinner is served,” I’d do it!’ ” says Elias, who looks dignified and chic in a black turtleneck, black slacks and cream-colored cardigan.
Despite her past acquaintance with fame, this alumna of world stages — who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1954 — nearly lost her nerve when Stephen Sondheim showed up at a rehearsal for the Kennedy Center’s “Follies.” In the production, Elias plays Heidi Schiller, the aging operetta star who sings “One More Kiss” — a Sigmund Romberg-style number that waltzes into Act 2 trailing wistful sentiment: “One more kiss and farewell / Never shall we meet again.”
“I absolutely love my number,” Elias says, in a quietly ardent tone. Still, when it came to performing the piece in front of a man she terms a “pure genius” — well, she says she had to hide in the greenroom for much of the rehearsal, ducking in to deliver “One More Kiss,” then fleeing. “I’m only human,” she says.
The next day, she adds, she received an e-mailed compliment from Sondheim, who hadn’t been able to find her to commend her singing in person. A printout of his message is one of her treasured possessions. “I’m going to put it in plastic and put it in my score,” she confesses.
That’s saying something, given that her half-century-long career has seen her tackling more than 50 roles — including Carmen and other presumably memento-generating leading parts — with opera companies from Vienna to Buenos Aires to Santa Fe. Though Elias is well known for creating the character of Erika in Barber’s opera “Vanessa” in 1958, her credits also include Grammy-winning recordings; a turn as Mrs. Lovett for the New York City Opera’s “Sweeney Todd”; appearances in the world premieres of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and David Carlson’s “Anna Karenina”; and a second career as an opera director.
“She’s still so passionate,” says “Follies” director Eric Schaeffer, noting that, while some comparably experienced performers might be blase about putting on a show, Elias “comes to rehearsal early to watch all the ladies dancing.”
“I have been truly blessed, and I know it,” says Elias, who sees serene nostalgia as an emotion she shares with Heidi Schiller — a figure for whom she has invented a full biography. (Schiller’s Viennese-operetta back story gets passing mention in James Goldman’s book for “Follies.”)
“Character is very, very important to me,” says Elias, who considers herself a singing actress, rather than an opera singer. “I don’t care if a critic comes and says, ‘Well, she didn’t sound quite right,’ if I feel that the character would have sounded like that. You don’t give out always the most beautiful tones!”
She traces her interest in drama and musicality back to her childhood, growing up as the youngest of 13 kids, in Lowell, Mass. Her parents, who hailed from Lebanon, assigned their offspring regular household chores. Every Saturday, Elias would clean while listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s weekly radio broadcast. She recalls: “I would just fantasize that I was on that stage singing.”
Though her parents were prone to believe that “only bad girls go onstage,” she says, they allowed her to take voice lessons. Later, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music, studied in Italy and, upon returning, caught a professional break when she filled the role of Grimgerde in “Die Walkuere” at the Met, when another performer was temporarily out.
Elias — who lives in New York with her husband, a lawyer; and who declines to give her age — says she has never worried too much about whether her parts have been big or small. That’s good, because as Schiller, she’ll spend a good deal of time offstage. (She may be re-reading Dickens, her favorite author.)
“I would like to do a role if it’s three minutes long,” Elias proclaims, “if people walk out saying, ‘Wasn’t she wonderful?’ ”
Wren is a freelance writer.
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More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars: