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Subject: Varnay the Magnificent: The Debut Season
From: "G. Paul Padillo" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:G. Paul Padillo
Date:Fri, 12 Jan 2018 16:45:34 -0500
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For my money, no singer’s career had a more spectacular beginning than 
the debut season of Astrid Varnay. There was talk of it in another thread, 
but she deserves her own!

Varnay was at her Friday afternoon lesson at the Met with Maestro 
Leinsdorf who, for some reason was putting her through the paces of 
Sieglinde instead of what they were working on (I believe Senta). When he 
seemed satisfied, he marched her down to the costume department where 
she learned she would not be making her Met debut as Elsa in January, but 
rather as Sieglinde, “tomorrow,” going on for Madame Lehmann. The next 
day her mother cooked her a steak and the young soprano hopped the 
subway (the subway) to go make her Met debut with some of the world’s 
greatest Wagnerians.

When she approached the house, she discovered her girlfriends, fellow 
standees, disconsolate at seeing the name “Astrid Varnay” plastered over 
Lehmann’s name. “Who is this singer we’ve never heard of?” Of course, 
Varnay did splendidly (as seen in reviews shortly thereafter) and also of 
course, her girlfriends recognized her and clamored backstage to her 
dressing room, shocked and delighted, one to the point of being rendered 
mute, as she just stood there pointing at her friend, silently mouthing the 
word, “You?” (They all knew Varnay by her first name, “Violet”). The 
celebration was short lived as a Met staffer told them to break it up, the 
dressing room was needed for Bidú Sayao, who’d be singing Susanna to 
Ezio Pinza’s Figaro in an hour or two.

Varnay couldn’t believe her good luck and couldn’t wait to see the review in 
the late edition the next day. Of course, the news was dominated by a 
more major story: Pearl Harbor.

The following Saturday, Varnay would appear in Walkure yet again, this 
time as Brunnhilde filling in for Trauble. She eventually sang the scheduled 
Elsa, than Elisabeth in Tannhauser.

A few nights after one of her performances Varnay sang in what has to go 
down as one of the stranger, more fascinating galas put on by the 
company; a tribute to the Red Cross.

The gala opened with a staging of Bach’s dramatic cantata (and the closest 
he ever came to writing an opera) “Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde: Der 
Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan” (better known as “The Contest Between 
Phoebus and Pan”). The cantata was broken up with 7 ballets from Bach’s 
French Suites, orchestrated by Eugene Goossens and conducted by Thomas Beecham.

Beecham.

Following intermission was the Overture and Act III of “Nozze di Figaro, 
featuring Pinza, Albanese, Rethberg and Novotna. On its heels came the 
Beethoven “Leonore No 3”, followed by Act 3 scene 2 of Lohengrin, with 
Melchior and Varnay. The final operatic offering was Act IV of Carmen, 
before the orchestra launched into Victor Herbert’s “American Fantasy.”
I’ll let the NY Times review finish it from there:

"The rising of the curtain for the final number revealed on a raised platform 
a group of Red Cross nurses, soldiers, sailors and marines. Behind them, 
still higher, were the principals and singers of the Metropolitan Company, 
and still farther fack on the raised platform were chorus and ballet. Mr. 
Pelletier then led the orchestra in Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" as 
two Red Cross nurses, each carrying a Red Cross and an American flag, 
entered, flanked by a squad of soldiers, sailors and marines.

The entire assemblage then sang a stanza of "America, the Beautiful," 
followed by "The Star-Spangled Banner." As the audience filed out, Mr. 
Pelletier again led the orchestra in the Sousa march."

Now THAT’s a gala . . . and a half!

Varnay’s debut season also included the female lead in the world premiere 
of Menotti’s “The Island God.” She spoke highly of the work which she 
thought had music that fit her beautifully, if not the greatest score known 
to man. Reviews were mostly mixed to polite, save for the cast’s high 
marks, yet Menotti, in a fit of rage, destroyed all copies of the opera, which 
Varnay found to be an unfortunate act.

At the age of 23, Ms. Varnay went from zero operatic experience, to 
singing four of the leading Wagnerian roles in the repertoire, an impressive 
gala with some of the days’ most important singers and a world premiere. 

Nice work if you can get it!

p.

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