I first met Marta Eggerth because I interviewed her. An interview with Marta, who was then in her 90s, was not like other interviews. Often one meets the subject in a public place: a hotel room, a restaurant. I was invited to her home in Rye, N.Y., for lunch.
Marta, who died Dec. 26 at the age of 101, was something of a cult figure among New York’s opera aficionados. For some years, she made a splash with annual performances at the Licia Albanese gala — Albanese being another soprano of a certain age, having been born a year later than Marta, in 1913. When you hear people talking about a 90-year-old woman singing in public, you tend to dismiss the reports as being leavened with a certain amount of sympathy or wishful thinking. I didn’t suppose that Marta could, at that point, really sing.
I knew that she had been married to the tenor Jan Kiepura, a matinee idol and, in his day, even more famous than she was. I knew that she had been a major operetta and film star, though neither I nor most of Marta’s latter-day fans in New York had ever actually heard the operettas or seen the movies. Neither of them traveled well to this side of the pond. The operettas — by Emmerich Kalman, Franz Lehar, Oscar Straus, Robert Stolz — never rivaled, in the States, the Broadway musical; and the movies were light romantic comedies with lots of sugary music, melting away quickly, like meringues, in the memory. Marta did not, like some of her coevals, fully manage the transition to Hollywood, although she did appear in two MGM films with Judy Garland.
Part of the reason could be divined through a New York Times article that I unearthed from 1935, when Marta was at the height of her European fame and Universal Studios brought her over for a screen test. The Marta that sparkled through the interview was the same woman I met seven decades later: witty, frank, and a little naughty. She coquetted through the interview, letting fall little witticisms about learning English with terms like “nuts,” or about wanting to co-star with Mickey Mouse.
The interviewer spun this as if it were all too risque for American audiences of the time — audiences who were perfectly capable of appreciating the repartee of Nick and Nora Charles. I took his pose of disapproval as an implication that the publicity machine was cultivating more innocent stars, and certainly more home-grown ones.
Which was short-sighted, because the nonagenarian who received me in Rye that afternoon was the epitome of ladylike grace, charm and poise.
Not that she wasn’t also perfectly capable of a dirty joke.
Marta managed a balancing act that I later realized she had practiced throughout her life, since she began performing in public at the age of 10. She was at once magisterial and eminently accessible: both regal and wholly natural. Like many celebrities, she had an air of being larger than life, in her manner, her gestures and her gifts. Her English was spiked with a Central European lilt — Hungarian was her first language, but she also spoke five others, “badly,” she mourned in her little coquettish sing-song; and her diction had some of the elegance of a trained stage performer and singer, conveying, with its crisp roundness, a sense that each word had meaning.
And her manner was eternally that of the straight man, even when she was perfectly aware that she was the one telling the joke. The big blue eyes would widen, artlessly. Looking at a wheel of Linzer torte as big around as my forearm that she had brought to a housewarming party, another friend, scantily clad in the summer heat, regretted that she had come empty-handed. “But you did not!” Marta, dressed as elegantly as ever, protested. “You brought these!” — gesturing at the friend’s half-revealed breasts.
I’ve written about the stations of Marta’s life many times: child stardom, the flowering of international fame on stage and screen; the marriage to Kiepura; the resettlement in the United States; the hundreds of performances of “The Merry Widow” with her husband both during and after the war. None of that really conveys what great company she was; how involved she was in the people she talked to; how interested she was in the things around her. She didn’t dwell in the past at all. She was alert, and funny, and mentally agile.
But of course she talked about the past, because so many of us who came to meet her were so eager to hear about it: the anecdotes about Franz Lehar and Peter Lorre (a Hollywood friend) and George Balanchine (who choreographed “The Merry Widow” in the early 1940s) and Marian Anderson (who heard her as a child in Budapest — or did she? Could that be? Did the dates line up? Memory is a tricky thing).
Yet it took me longer, perhaps unaccountably, to understand her artistry. Marta was a popular artist, and popular art is not always accorded the same status as so-called high art in the opera-maven’s canon. But Marta was one of the most gifted communicators it has ever been my privilege to meet.
Indeed, at the point in her life at which I met her, she treated every act of communication with the same focus and intensity: the luncheons at her table, elegantly laid out and served by Jean, who had worked for the Eggerth-Kiepura household since the 1950s and who was only a few years younger than Marta herself, were in a way as carefully orchestrated as the cabaret evenings.
Marta wasn’t interested in the details of her past career — her daughter-in-law, Jane Knox Kiepura, took it upon herself to compile and archive those — but she was interested in reaching her listener and establishing a connection, whether you were sitting in an audience or were lucky enough to be in a small circle of guests at her dining room table.
Her surest way of doing this was through her singing voice. Even in advanced age, it remained a perfect reflection of her personality. It was not the voice of a young woman, but, like Marta, it retained the character of a young woman. And the point of the exercise was not vocal beauty, or vocal technique — though it takes a rock-solid technique to sustain a voice through nine decades of performance. The point was to get something across.
Marta knew and cared about the music she sang. She had lived it, and her life experience colored everything she sang. Hearing her was like unlocking an old box and finding a wealth of snapshots of the past, the color slightly faded over time, but the images no less vivid — a living link to a world not all of us knew we’d cared about so much until we heard her “Wien, Wien, nur du allein,” and found ourselves wanting to hear her tell us all about it.