Screening at

The Princeton Club
January 4, 2010

Donald Collup presented a film tonight at the Princeton Club that he has produced on Astrid Varnay, entitled, "Never Before: The Life, Times and First Career of Astrid Varnay." It started just a bit late, and was running for two hours, and unfortunately I had to meet someone at a time I couldn't change, so probably missed about the last 15 minutes of it, but certainly, as the young people would say, 'got the gist'. I have read Varnay's autobiography, and have familiarity with her work from the time of her return to the MET, all in multiple performances, and of course a fair amount of her pirate material over her entire career. The film is very much a labor of love and dedication, and is largely a sequential narrative of her professional life - there were no film clips, which was a bit of a disappointment, but still pictures of productions, photos, programs and some narrative of an interview between with Varnay with Donald, along with a number of audio excerpts, largely, I think, from familiar material, although not less interesting for that. You have to get the Zinka story out of the way first, because there always is one. Varnay has her own funny and admiring things to say about Zinka, and also some appropriately insightful things (she could be 'sloppy' in the ensemble work, which was Varnay's word, but was wonderful always in the arias). In any event, Collup and Varnay are talking about Zinka and Trovatore, I think, and Donald says that when Zinka was once asked the story of Trovatore, she answered, "How can I know? I only sing one role."

The Yugoslavian Gracie Allen. RIP Zinka.

I have always struggled with Varnay, and I went because I wanted to get some clarity and hopefully resolution of that struggle, and in some respect the film helped, if not completely. I don't think that there was a role in which I saw Varnay in which was not indelible for me, and frankly I don't think that anyone will ever be able to eclipse that second act of Jenufa. If there was anything I was less than impressed with, it was the Mahagonny, and that was largely, seen in retrospect of three decades, because of every element of a distorted (in my view) staging and elephantine conducting. It wasn't 'just' that she was magnetic on stage - my dear, beloved Grace Bumbry was pizzazz and magentism incarnate - but it's like Varnay was a very concentrated tornado. Completely intense and focused, and yet without making me feel that she was making an effort to be focused.

Completely unforgettable.

I almost never get that with just the audio side, and I don't know why. I suspect some of it is because the voice as an instrument just doesn't speak to me. I don't need a beautiful sound, but some sounds just don't, and her's doesn't. I also don't hear, try as I might, a lot of 'tone color inflection' in what she sings. If you take Schwartzkopf as an extreme example of coloring each word, Varnay is at the complete other end for me. I just don't hear those nuances. Perhaps it is my insensitivity still to in German how subtlely one can inflect, but still, I don't hear it, and didn't hear it again tonight even in the few Italian excerpts. It may also be that ultimate unfairness, which is that she was not ultimately a 'beautiful' person in a conventional way. She had very strong features, and a lot of character, and I think she was more attractive as she was older, but there is always 'something' that attractive people get an edge on, even if it's unfair, and maybe that's a part of it too. I have loved a lot of not very attractive singers, but maybe somehow that plays into it.

What did some across finally in the film is that she must have been always a complete force of nature in her singing, not just her stage presence (which is of course most of what I got after her return). In the interview, as in the book, she comes across as very bright - maybe not intellectual bright, I don't know, but sharp and canny and nobody's fool. I am not sure it's always even 'good singing'; in a funny way, she reminds me of what a very smart guy once said about Crespin, which was that he doubted that she (Crespin) had ever really vocalized on runs and trills and so on, and that ulitmately it showed in the thickness of the voice. I thought that a bit about Varnay - it doesn't sound like there was ever any real flexibility tried for (I don't mean coloratura, of course). I would suspect that what it 'is' in the voice is an intensity that carries all before it, rather than primarilty nuance or shading, and that's the best I could do out of the experience of the film.

---Richard Garmise on