Voice and nothing else: Pursuing a vanished diva
Published in the April 2004 issue of Black Lamb, a Portland-based literary magazine
Maybe because I had the luck of coming to know when quite young some of the creative world’s more celebrated talents, I have never considered myself the celebrity-stalking type. But I also have the incorrigible curiosity of the journalist, the historian, and the common house-cat, and I confess that all these factors were put toward the pursuit, until a few years ago, not of a celebrated personage still in full flower of fame, but concealed by the shadows of an unexplained withdrawal from it.
The actual pursuit began quietly enough, and started with the purchase, in my late teens, of an opera recording. I had just discovered the music of Richard Wagner, specifically his Tristan und Isolde; and while on a trip to New York I found a recording in the Times Square Tower Records. The clerk couldn’t spell Wagner’s name, but I bless him, because the recording he fetched for me from the back room was the brand new 1981 Decca Tristan, with already-immortal Sir Reginald Goodall conducting the Welsh National Orchestra and a completely unknown Scottish soprano in the role of Isolde, Linda Esther Gray. It’s not enough to say that, having listened to this recording, I was overcome by revelation of the opera’s greatness¾who with ears doesn’t know that?¾or, courtesy Ms Gray, a jaw-to-floor epiphany of insight into arguably the most complex and heart-rending role Wagner ever created for soprano. What I couldn’t get over was two things. (1 Nobody I knew, including people involved in opera for years, seemed to have heard of Linda Esther Gray; and (2 Nobody I knew, including people involved in opera for years, seemed to have heard Linda Esther Gray¾not, that is, until I played her “Liebestod” for them, and their eyes grew wide and glassy. Now they were asking me: What happened to Linda Esther Gray?
The mystery only deepened with enquiry, and as with a professional detective on the trail of a long-standing case, it got to the point where I shortened her triple name to LEG. There was a certain irony to that acronym, since the first and last part of her person exposed to the audience by a canny striptease artist of the Gypsy Rose Lee school was that shapely appendage, emerging from behind a velvet curtain, beckoning and refusing in a single elongated gesture. As far as I was concerned, LEG didn’t even consist of a little toe. But with the sound of her Isolde in my ears, I had to find more than just part of this LEG.
Let me say something about the sound of her Isolde, and I trust you will bear with my expertise in this narrow field when I confess to owning some 35 or 36 different recordings¾as wax cylinder excerpts, 78 transfers, LPs or CDs¾of T&I, featuring Isoldes ranging from the great Olive Fremstad and Johanna Gadski, to Nanny Larsen-Todsen and Germaine Lubin, to Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, and Waltraud Meier. (The collection even boasts such an oddity as the ill-advised Barcelona T&I of Montserrat Caballé, whose lurch from her penthouse atop the ship’s deck in Act One, all floor length golden hair and false eyelashes nearly as long, overshoots the camp mark and hits horror full bull’s-eye.) None of these recordings or live performances ever gave me the real sense of who, what, and where Wagner’s Isolde was and would be as LEG’s does. To start with, the woman had a large but supple, silvery tone combined with a frank English timbre, legacy of being a pupil of the great English soprano Dame Eva Turner. LEG’s was a voice that could fling itself not just to but out the back of the opera house, only to reel it in not like the steel cable it began but like the trembling silken web it had become, in pianissimi that showed just how much bel canto Wagner’s music can sustain. LEG could caress a phrase, polish it, and having mesmerized her listeners, hold the gleam in the air as long as it took to assert her accomplishment. By that same token, she could suddenly withdraw the steeliness to reveal beneath a core of tenderness that caught the heart as much by surprise for its candor as for its aching beauty. Conversely, she would commit an operatic no-no which, in fact, Wagner himself had encouraged: The speaking of certain lines during moments of highest drama. In her Act I scene in which the degraded Irish princess hurls a curse on the head of Tristan, whom she saved for love but who is now transporting her to a loveless marriage with his uncle, all for the sake of those male obsessions known as honor and custom, LEG sings “Fluch dir, Verruchter!” (“I curse you, villain!”), not just shouting, not just screaming the final word, but hoarsely barking it, as if she can hardly bring herself to say it, and at the same time as if she would say worse if her anger were not so great, or do worse if Tristan were standing before her. At the end of the curse, when she sings “Tod uns beiden!” (“Death to us both!”), holding the high G natural of “Tod” like a knife over her head, she brings it down in a weeping fumble that misses the mark, intentionally—because how can she kill the man she loves?
Anyone who has ever watched a great stage actress knows that it is these compressed moments that show true genius for conveying a snapshot of a soul in torment. LEG’s interpretive prowess intrigued me further when I found someone who had actually been at the premiere of this Goodall T&I. The premiere took place in Wales, in 1980, a year before the recording I’d found in Times Square was released. Goodall was a master of the tireless multi-rehearsal ethic. He would run his singers and players through scenes, phrases, over and over again, till he had achieved that symphonic sheen by which all his best Wagner readings are known. LEG, I was told, was not a prepossessing stage presence. “In fact,” said my correspondent, “she looked rather like my Scots landlady.” But when LEG opened her mouth and sang, moved and entered into the heaving drama like a ship on waves, it was as if they were hearing and seeing for the first time what Wagner intended: An Isolde who had the strength to carry both voice and complex emotions over powerful music, yet who also had the ability to convey a maidenly fragility not normally associated with your typical linebacker Wagnerian soprano. In short, LEG was the young, frightened girl Wagner imagined Isolde to be, taken from her mother and sacrificed, like princesses since time began, on the altar of state affairs. A girl who, moreover, had a Stockholm-syndrome-like love for her captor, Tristan. I knew that I could believe what my friend was telling me, because I had heard precisely this fragility on the Decca recording. I also knew I could believe him when he told me that the old fish stories about this production were true : At the opera’s end, when LEG’s “Höchste Lust…” floated up and out of the theatre, wafted on the cool resolution of B major, people did actually have to be carried in tears from the house. Others confirmed my friend’s observations. No one who was there could forget the Wales Tristan, or LEG. It appeared, however, that the rest of the world had.
Haunted by vicarious imaginings of what that first LEG T&I was like, and by my inability to find anyone who actually knew where LEG was (one person thought she’d died in the late 1980’s), I tried to track down her recordings. I found a few tantalizing vocal footprints: Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, recorded in 1983, with LEG in the starring soprano role of Ada; a Mahler 8th Symphony she’d sung in. Nothing more. Then a few years later, an opera recording collector friend in Philadelphia told me he had found a source for recordings of LEG performances broadcast from the BBC, as well as another (shadier) source for pirated recordings, and sent me all he had. Some of these were so scratchy they might have been taken during a Gobi Desert dust storm. But there was that silver scimitar of a voice¾in Verdi’s Requiem, as Electra in Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Paris Opera, as Tatiana in a Russian-language Eugene Onegin in the Netherlands, a Dallas Walküre in which LEG sings the most exciting Sieglinde I’d heard since Astrid Varnay’s much-heralded Met debut in the role in 1941. And the most wondrous, valedictory performance of “Der Engel,” from Wagner’s Wesendonk-Lieder, that one can ever hope to hear this side of heaven, recorded at the Albert Hall in 1982 and therefore one of LEG’s last public appearances. The recordings crushed me with their beauty and with the greater implied tragedy: That all this artistry had been silenced so soon.
In the meantime, there were promising developments. A friend of a friend of LEG’s contacted me, offering to put me in touch with the singer, assuring me she was still alive and well. When he provided me LEG’s London address, I wrote her a letter¾a highly enthused one, to be sure, but tempered with as much good sense and self-control as I could muster. I waited for the response that surely must come. None did. I wrote another letter; more silence. My friend in London confirmed the address, and after a few years had passed, my friend got his and LEG’s mutual friend into the act. This ex-pat American opera afficianado wrote to me at once, explaining that LEG was highly chary of talking about her past, though he knew she still gave the odd voice lesson or coaching. “She can be something of a bitch about getting back to people,” he told me, “but she is one of the most delightful people you could ever meet.” He added that he would invite her and her husband to his house for luncheon soon, and that if he had to chase her around the room and force her to write something in lipstick on a napkin, he would do so.
While I waited for this luncheon to occur, two more revealing glimpses of LEG came my way, one via a student of hers, the other via a gentleman who had been present at one of the few semi-public vocal appearances LEG had made since disappearing in the mid-1980’s. The student is a singer of note in the UK, a soprano specializing in early music, and took the precaution of first clearing with LEG the fact that she would be speaking with me about her teacher—a note of special affection I could not but respect. Some time around the mid-80’s, the soprano told me, LEG began having doubts about her technique. This is not unusual, even for a singer rising to fame and fortune, and LEG consulted with various people in the profession. All seem to have delivered the same answer: Don’t worry about it. You’re doing splendidly! But the doubts remained. LEG met with her former teacher, Dame Eva Turner, with whom she still coached on occasion. At this time, LEG was signed on to sing Turandot with Scottish Opera, a move which, it would appear, only intensified her self-doubts, despite the approval of management and admirers. The aged Dame Eva was far more cautious, advising LEG to withdraw from the role. As one of the most famed Turandots of the 20th century, Turner would know of what she spoke. Why did LEG proceed, then? It’s not entirely clear. Nor is what happened next. But some time during rehearsals, LEG did withdraw, not just from Turandot but from performing altogether, suffering some kind of breakdown—vocal, nervous, a combination of the two—so terrible that she couldn’t bear to talk about her career for years afterward, let alone to sing.
While I mused over this data, a testimony arrived from the gentleman who had been present at a double recital, in London in November 1994, with LEG and the lyric soprano Elizabeth Gale. I wasn’t sure what to expect, knowing that LEG had been silent for so many years, and now was paired with a fresh young singer. But my correspondent was clear on this point: If anything, LEG’s silver had only darkened to gold. This was especially clear in one of the Wesendonklieder, “Im Treibhaus,” which with its generally low-lying tessitura displayed a voice still clear and present, full and true . This voice that had been an ocean, he described, was now contained by the inlet of wear and tear, advancing age, and lack of constant use. But it reflected the sunsets and the stars as shimmeringly as ever.
And now entered the moment of truth. My American ex-pat friend had managed to get LEG and her husband to the house for lunch. When she was suitably cornered, my friend asked her why, after all these years, she had never once responded to the letters sent her by an admiring American music journalist friend of his. Her responses were curiously un-divalike, adding up to “The maid sometimes throws mail out,” as tall a tale as the old “dog ate my homework” story if I ever heard one, and far more endearingly human. “Well, then,” said my ex-pat friend, “you’ve got to write him something, now. He’s been waiting for this for years. He loves your work, has all these recordings…. Give him something, won’t you?” He then steered her toward a desk and sat her at it, with the command: “Write.” And so she did. On the desk happened to be a postcard, unused. LEG grabbed it, perhaps with an expletive, seized a pen, and wrote, crosswise, the few words my friend had requested.
Later on, after they had eaten and were enjoying wine, the host snapped a picture of LEG and her husband seated at the table, a photo included with the postcard when my friend mailed them to me. My first thought at seeing the moonish, rosy-cheeked face, the seen-it-all amused glance, the guileless smile, surrounded by platinum blonde tresses, was that my other friend, the one who had been present at the unforgettable Cardiff Tristan of so many years before, must have had one heck of a fun Scots landlady. A totally disarming face—broad, open, ready for anything. And honest. Was it any wonder, feeling insurmountable vocal and emotional troubles coming on, and finding none to help her, this artist had refused to compromise and had simply withdrawn forever from the field of play? And now I looked at the postcard she had laid pen to in my friend’s study. The picture side was facing me, and presented a view I had not expected¾of windswept, long-haired Highland cattle, gazing off into the blearily lovely distances afforded by Scotland’s purple and yellow hills. I turned it over, and there, scribbled in the corner, was handwriting loopy but echoing that wicked curvature of the lady’s own smile in the photograph. What did she have to say, after all those years, all those adoring letters?
“Thank you for the lovely letters,” with the final ‘s’ of the latter word underlined several times. “Having a great time with Bob and Gerry. Best wishes – Linda.”
I own many autographs of the greats of 19th and 20th century classical music and opera, including a whole gilt-framed photo wall of divas and divos. But to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, you could take them all away from me. Just leave me Linda Esther Gray (and her Highland cattle, too.)