Cher Public

Laughing song

We now come to the sorbetto portion of my Edita Gruberova 50th anniversary tribute (I am actually taking a break from being in the middle of a piece about her singing style, which is more complicated to try to explain clearly than I had fathomed). It can be confidently asserted that Gruberova is one opera’s most gifted comediennes. 

Of whom can you summon up in opera who truly has a talent for mannered comedy and farce?

What makes funny, funny?

My take on that? It depends on the person and how they are, and how they operate in life.

In my personal dealings with Gruberova over the course of nearly a decade working with her on my book on her (yes – I feel very close to you all, and can summarily divulge my great secret; so don’t tell anyone), I have observed what makes her so skilled in both tragedy and comedy.

Edita is one of the wittiest, funniest people I have ever known. Her sense of humor is of the cosmic, philosophical kind, a keen realization of the ironies and “dramedy” of life.

Edita and La Gruberova are two people: first and foremost she is at heart still that nice young girl from Ra?a, a grape-producing village in the provinces of Bratislava. Growing up desperately poor, in post-war, grim, communist Czechoslovakia, she is still humble, down to earth, and unfailingly polite; she has never forgotten from where she hailed.

On the other hand, she is the operatic version of Margo Channing, sagacious, experienced in her realm as one of opera’s true stars, yet self-effacing, completely unimpressed with stardom itself – and refuses to take herself too seriously.  Gruberova is a prima donna and a diva in every sense by dint of her artistic excellence rather the pejorative one; either on or off the stage, she is too secure and has too much integrity to put on a fake or imagined-real temperamental-megalomaniac guise (those types are a royal pain in the ass to everyone who works with them).

A tough, hard-working veteran of the cutthroat world of being in the entertainment business, she has never dealt in intrigues or one-upmanship; she never had a need to. Her never-ending quest to being the best she can be is something borne in her latently-propagated devotion to statist loyalty; she demands much of herself, and agonizes over being less than what she expects herself to be.

Edita actually has far less of anything one might feint to be of an ego, than a number of neophyte-amateur sopranos I have known. Never once did she ever say to me, “Oh, you must hear me in this performance,” nor would she ever elaborate or hold forth on her successful nights in any respect; bragging or expanding in self-importance is anathema to her very being.

Her razor-sharp wit was something that became evident early on.  A superb mimic and a mistress of the double-take knowing-glance, Gruberova has frequently, actually caused me to double over with laughter.

I vividly recall one night in New York City, 1991, when we were having dinner at the Czech restaurant Vašata on East 75th street.  The discussion centered on all the working relationships with conductors with whom Gruberova collaborated.  I would name a conductor from a list I had compiled, and she would give a detailed explanation of each of their particular professional facets and personal traits.

What I had not bargained on was how, in describing each one, Gruberova would, rather astonishingly, become them, mimicking their accents, facial expressions, and their overall manner of being, even down to how they conducted!. All while being respectful, absent of derision, and no trace of malice implied or intended.  I witnessed for those two hours a master impressionist, someone who is a close, studious observer of human traits. At that time, though the greatest praise and reverence were given to two of her favorite conductors: Carlos Kleiber and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, both of whom she termed as “musical geniuses.”

That same week, after the last performance of I puritani, we made our way to an all-night diner near the apartment where she was staying.  Once we were seated, a waitress arrived at our table and began rapid-fire jack-hammering off the day’s specials in a voice that could only be described as Minnie Mouse in an impenetrable sort-of Bronx accent.

This alien manner of speaking completely flustered Edita, whose skills in English might be termed “basic,” and she looked at me intently, and said, “Niel, please, I cannot understand a word she is saying.” I asked the waitress to give us a few minutes to decide what we wanted, to which she flounced off with evident annoyance.

The waitress out of earshot, Edita said to me, sotto voce, in genuine puzzlement, “What was she saying,” “what does this mean,” and then proceeded to give a dead-on, imitative impersonation of the waitress’s tone, timbre, vocal inflections, and facial expression.  It was so uncannily accurate and comical yet without trying to be funny that I just lost it, and trying so hard not to burst out in gales of laughter in the restaurant, that my face was probably turning purple at the effort, and tears were streaming down my face. It took me several minutes to regain my composure. Edita was innocently, guilelessly funny without even trying to be funny, and that, I think, is her secret.

Apropos of that, pride of the top place among her comic gems is as Adele in the Vienna State Opera’s New Year’s Eve performance of 1979 going into 1980, Die Fledermaus. Available on DVD, this uproarious, rollicking staging is one of the greatest performances ever captured by the entire cast of this evergreen operetta.

If you by default hate the operetta, this performance may change your mind; there’s not a sane, ho-hum moment in this entire evening (OK, two examples: in the first scene, Bernd Weikl, as the Eisenstein, comes charging down the stairs humming-vocalizing a crude-comic imitation of the Queen of the Night’s 2nd act vengeance aria as he is happening upon two renowned exponents of the role, Lucia Popp and Gruberova. In that same scene the two ladies start speaking Slovak to each other, much to the hilarity of the audience).

The has-to-be-seen-to-believed moment of Gruberova’s Adele is in the 3rd act audition aria, which has also become her frequent last-encore staple, “Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande.”

Gruberova related to me that when Otto Schenk, the director, approached her about appearing in his Fledermaus, she assumed she would be given the starring, prima donna role of Rosalinde. Schenk told her, no, Adele was perfect for her.

This performance , which stops the show, bears out Schenk’s instincts:

This is a side-splittingly funny, comic tour-de-force masterpiece. Carefree physicality wedded with vocal technique, superb mimicry, impeccable timing, the most infectious sense of wit: Gruberova gives here an object lesson in operetta farce (Stay until the end of the video. Even the acknowledgment of the applause is in character).

Almost three decades years later, in concert, just as funny and charming:

Rossini’s Rosina was Gruberova’s first, debut operatic role, on February 19th, 1968 in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia.

Here in the “Io sono docile” section of “Una voce poco fa,” she presents us in 1982 with her wily, minx-like Rosina, brilliantly using the copious ornaments she utilizes as part of her scintillating characterization, not to mention the concluding, triumphant high F:

In the same performance is Gruberova’s account of the lesson scene, “Contro un cor.” Watch as she gives a virtual master-lesson of her own as to how to play farce. Always with the sense of the absurd, never coy, or descending into pleased, complacent cutesiness. At 2:42 she even pokes fun at prima-donna antics, vaulting up to a high E, holding it forever, and looking around to see if everyone is paying attention.:

Marie in La fille du régiment is another one of Gruberova’s outstanding comic assumptions. This whole performance from Barcelona in 1993 should be watched to savor her charming but edgy verve in the role, but the character’s entrance scene gives one an idea of her astonishing physicality: 

Finally, a short one-minute clip of Gruberova on The René Kollo Show inspires strong regret that operetta, a genre done so poorly now, was never a main part of Gruberova’s career: she shows an affinity here for a cabaret act: