As opera legend Teresa Stratas gives a rare tour of her salon-like Manhattan apartment, she seems most proud of the furnishings she rescued from the building's trash. "This came from the garbage room," Stratas says matter-of-factly, pointing to a unit of dark wood shelves. On it sit two antique dolls sent by a German fan who had fallen into a suicidal depression and credited Stratas's performance in Madama Butterfly with saving her life. In another room is a discarded antique Victrola, which Stratas lovingly refinished. The waif-like singer, who was first hired by New York's Metropolitan Opera House at 20, is determined to rhyme off a list of her damaged treasures - as if needing to counterbalance a glamorous life among the world's arts elite with a fidelity to her roots as the daughter of poor, Greek-Canadian immigrants. "This I got on the street for $25," she boasts, pointing to a turn-of-the-century brass standing lamp. "A bargain." It is one of the many ways Stratas repeatedly asks herself the question, "How did I get here?"
The soprano - who, according to Juilliard School president Joseph Polisi, "set the standard for operatic dramatic interpretation in the late 20th century" - has just emerged from a mini version of one of her notorious disappearances. Her first CD in nearly a decade has just been released, a recording of Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's 1933 work, The Seven Deadly Sins. Although she has continued to appear occasionally on stage in recent years, the reclusive star is giving select major interviews for the first time since 1990, when - according to Stratas - a writer for The New York Times Magazine "just didn't get it." And so the tour of personal effects continues through her dimly lit, heavily draped rented home in the Ansonia, a beaux arts landmark near the Met where Stratas has lived since 1969. A fluffball of a dog called Sweetie clicks its way along the parquet floors behind her.
The vestibule is lined with honorary degrees and awards - among them three Grammies, an Emmy and a Drama Desk award, all from 1986, and a 1996 best supporting actress Gemini, for her role as a faded opera singer in Canadian Kevin Sullivan's film Under the Piano. She has a clock that belonged to the father of Tony Harrison, the English poet who has been Stratas's most constant companion, although the two live on different continents. Stratas gestures nostalgically towards "my mom's dining-room table," on which she was born 59 years ago above a Chinese laundry in downtown Toronto. "Here, I sit and contemplate things," she says, an ironic tone in her startlingly low speaking voice. And there is a 1965 portrait of Weill's wife, Berlin cabaret star Lotte Lenya, which was painted by Lenya's second husband, Russell Detwiler.
Before she died in 1981, Lenya anointed Stratas her successor, the singer whose pure voice and dramatic range interpreted Weill the way his wife believed he most wanted his works to be performed. Stratas's latest interpretation of Weill's music - there have been others, including the landmark release The Unknown Kurt Weill (1981) - was recorded live during the making of the 1993 Peter Sellars film of The Seven Deadly Sins. It comes at a time when Brecht, Weill and the Berlin scene of the 1920s and '30s is back in vogue. But for Stratas, The Sins - with its fortune-seeking sisters Anna I and Anna II - has long held a deep fascination. "That piece has a lot to do with me," she says. "It is about our two extremes. Anna I and Anna II are really one person: the yin and the yang, the evil and the good, the earth and the heaven, the mind versus the spirit." Weill's work, she continues, expresses her own vain quest for equilibrium. "I fluctuate between being very disciplined and being very lazy, being very careful in what I eat - not to put poison in me - to swilling beer with Dorito chips, being celibate or the other extreme."
Such extremes are also reflected in a four-decade body of work that defies convention. The little girl who got her start at neighborhood Greek folk-song festivals went from playing Puccini's Mimi at Covent Garden in 1961, to the role of an immigrant Jewish mother in the Broadway musical Rags 25 years later. Nor has she been loath to tackle difficult, atonal modern roles: her 1979 Paris performance in the first full-length production of Alban Berg's Lulu was widely considered a pivotal event in musical theatre. She played Violetta opposite Placido Domingo in Franco Zeffirelli's classic 1982 film La Traviata - "an acting performance of breathtaking intensity," in the words of New York Times critic Vincent Canby. Yet she has also appeared on the same roster as rockers Lou Reed and Elvis Costello in another film of Weill's music, September Songs, which was nominated for a 1996 Gemini.
Stratas has paid no heed to those who warned she would harm her career - even her voice - by tackling such a range of works. "I've never planned a career - I hate that word - and sat down with advisers to think, 'Oh, I should do that role, I should sing this,' because I've been too busy living life," she says. But to each role Stratas has accepted, she has brought not only her formidable vocal talent, but an extraordinary ability to inhabit a character. "I don't approach roles like other people," she says. "I become the person. My job, what I do, is to inform on the human condition." It is less a technique than an organic approach to life.
Dealing with a gift which she feels chose her has been as much a burden as a blessing. She believes she is the instrument of a larger, God-given force, and strives to erase her self as she performs. "I try to let the light shine through - if I get out of my way," she explains. "I feel most myself when I am least myself."
That compulsion to immerse herself in the lives of others partly explains why, at various peaks in her career, Stratas has frustrated fans and critics by dropping out of sight for one, two - even eight - years. She assisted Mother Teresa in India in 1981, nursed her father as he died of Alzheimer's disease in the late 1980s, and tended sick Romanian orphans in the early 1990s. "I guess I'd call myself a seeker. I'm seeking knowledge in all the different areas." Now, in her mature years, she views those sojourns as part of an integrated life that has informed her art. She has been able to accomplish what she has, she says, "because I have come and gone, cancelled everything, gone away, done other things. We only live once. Why would I only live it as an opera singer?"
Yet that would be too convenient an excuse for the countless times Stratas has reneged on her commitments, refusing to perform or walking out on an entire theatrical run - as she did again last fall, just days before curtain time on the Met's production of the Czech opera The Bartered Bride. That unpredictability has branded her as a particularly temperamental prima donna, but its source may be less ego than compulsion. Stratas's obsessive perfectionism is well documented. "Something has to be absolutely 100 per cent," soprano Irene Jessner, who taught Stratas at the University of Toronto, once said. "Otherwise she doesn't do it."
Few, however, are aware that she has suffered from depression virtually since seeing her manic-depressive father banging his bloody head against a wall when she was three years old. That scene was the first of many traumatic memories she retains from her childhood. "We were told to shut up an awful lot," Stratas remembers. "I think it is amazing that one of the things I chose to do later was to make loud sounds." Stratas says she spends much of her time in psychic pain, but has never taken medication for fear it will blunt the beauty and anguish of life, which for her go hand in hand.
Another cause of much of her absenteeism is a history of respiratory illness. "It's weird to have something choose you that demands you use your lungs and breath, when most of my life I spent struggling to use my lungs and breath." And she has always lived with ambivalence about performing. Stratas says she is still showered with offers at the highest fee levels in the business. But she selects only a few projects, making just enough money to buy more time for herself. "I have lived a very free life, but in exchange, I don't have a huge nest egg like the three tenors. I don't even have a nest egg like someone who goes and does their performances on a regular basis," she laughs dryly.
As with many great actors, it is hard to know where the private person begins and the image-conscious performer leaves off. Beyond Stratas's master bathroom is a dressing room where she has always done her own hair and makeup before walking, half-costumed, down busy Broadway to her Met performances. For the Maclean's interview, she has donned a cropped red wig, because her hair was not quite right. Outside the Ansonia, a fan recognizes her, and the star nods graciously in return. At her local diner, Stratas claims to be famished but scarcely touches her soup and pasta, lost in the manager's 15-minute story - in Greek - about losing the restaurant he spent years establishing. After leaving, Stratas is still thinking about the Greek's troubles. This is the essence of Teresa Stratas - to take on the weight of others' lives both offstage and on.
Maclean's July 1, 1997