Regina Resnik, an indomitable star for sixty years, dies at ninety.
New York, NY, August 30, 1922 —August 8, 2013
Regina Resnik's dramatic 1944 Metropolitan Opera debut, as Trovatore's Leonora at the age of twenty-two, heralded a monumental five-decade-long career that traversed soprano and mezzo-soprano roles and included directing credits, musical-theater performances and work as a teacher and documentary filmmaker.
Born in the Bronx to immigrant Ukrainian parents, Resnik earned her B.A. in music at Hunter College and — just ten months after graduating, in 1942 — made her professional opera debut under Fritz Busch's baton as Verdi's Lady Macbeth with the New Opera Company. Performances followed in Mexico City — Leonore in Fidelio and Micaela in Carmen, conducted by Erich Kleiber — as well as New York City, where she sang Frasquita and Micaela in New York City Opera's first season. Resnik would return to the company for her first Carmen in New York in 1950. Four decades later, in 1990, Resnik sang Madame Armfeldt in the NYCO premiere of Sondheim's Little Night Music.
In June 1944, Resnik won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air, and the resultant $86-dollar-a-week contract established the Met as her artistic home during the last six seasons of Edward Johnson's tenure there. During that period, Resnik deployed her eloquent musicality and sharp theatrical insights across a vast swath of soprano roles, ranging from Santuzza and Aida — sung just days after her debut in Trovatore — through Donna Anna, Alice Ford and the title roles in Tosca and Madama Butterfly, to Ellen Orford in the Met's first performances of Peter Grimes, Helmwige and Sieglinde in Die Walküre and the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte. In 1947, Resnik sang Delilah in the Met's world-premiere production of Bernard Rogers's Warrior. In the early 1950s, Resnik's Met assumptions began to include roles such as Donna Elvira and Tannhauser's Venus, which showed off her instrument's increasingly robust lower range.
At the 1953 Bayreuth Festival, Resnik sang Sieglinde under the baton of Clemens Krauss. Heeding the conductor's suggestion that her voice might be at home in the mezzo repertory, she began to study and retrain her instrument with Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise. Her first performances as a mezzo-soprano took place in Cincinnati, where she sang Amneris and Gioconda's Laura. In 1956, Resnik sang her first unambiguously mezzo role for the Met — Marina Mnishek to the Boris Godunov of George London, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.
In 1957, at Covent Garden, Resnik made her role debut as Carmen in what would prove to be one of the defining successes of her career. She went on to sing Bizet's Gypsy in Vienna, where she was paced in 1957 and '58 by Herbert von Karajan's exacting baton. Further performances followed in Berlin, Paris and Stuttgart, opposite tenors that included James King, Giuseppe di Stefano, Richard Tucker, Nicolai Gedda, Jon Vickers, Wolfgang Windgassen and Ramón Vinay. Between 1965 and 1971, Resnik also performed Carmen twenty-five times with Metropolitan Opera forces, both in New York and on tour.
Resnik's first Met Carmen was in 1958, in a Metropolitan Opera Guild student performance. Although Resnik sang some concert performances of Bizet's Gypsy with the company in 1965 and 1966, she did not appear in another staged performance of Carmen for the Met until 1968 — a gap that indicated her occasionally bumpy relationship with Met management. When Resnik made her Met debut in 1944, the company's general manager was Edward Johnson, a genial Canadian who always called Resnik "Baby" and consistently cast her in leading roles. Opportunities changed for Resnik when Johnson was succeeded in 1950 by the less sympathetic Rudolf Bing, who believed that Resnik was better suited to supporting parts, despite her growing importance to other opera companies and the respect that she was accorded by conductors, directors and colleagues. Resnik, however, was an artist who could not be sidelined: her undeniable authority and flair for characterization made every part she sang a starring role.
During the Bing years, Resnik won the affection of audiences and the admiration of critics in new productions of Le Nozze di Figaro (Marcellina, 1959), Der Zigeunerbaron (Czipra, 1959), Falstaff (Mistress Quickly, 1964), The Queen of Spades (Countess, 1965), Elektra (Klytämnestra, 1966) and La Fille du Régiment (Marquise of Berkenfield, 1972) and created the role of the Old Baroness in the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Vanessa in 1958. Resnik was a formidable presence in any cast, but there were several roles — Quickly, Tchaikovsky's Countess, the Old Baroness — that she effectively "owned" at the Met during her years there. Whatever her private feelings were, in public Resnik handled her thorny moments with Bing with shrewdness and wit. In 1972, when the company saluted Bing in a nationally televised gala, Resnik, dressed as Prince Orlofsky from Die Fledermaus, brought the house down with her superb comic timing in a specialty number that tweaked Bing's authoritarian management style — "Chacun à Bing's gout." Resnik's last Met performance was in 1983, as the Marquise of Berkenfield to Joan Sutherland's Marie in La Fille du Régiment.
Although the Met remained Resnik's artistic home in the U.S. — she sang 326 performances in New York and on tour during her thirty seasons on the roster — she was a frequent visitor to San Francisco Opera, where she made her company debut in 1946, as Leonore in Fidelio. During her years as a soprano, Resnik sang Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Gutrune, Alice Ford and the title role in La Gioconda for San Francisco. After she had switched to the mezzo repertory, Resnik returned to SFO for Amneris, Mme. de Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites, Fricka, Carmen, Azucena, Klytämnestra and the Countess in Queen of Spades, as well as Claire Zachanassian in the U.S. stage premiere of Gottfried von Einem's Visit of the Old Lady in 1972.
Resnik's career during the 1950s and '60s found her increasingly active in Europe. She was a regular presence at Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala, Stuttgart and Madrid's Teatro Real, and she made notable appearances at the Salzburg Festival, where she sang Eboli in 1960 Don Carlos performances, and Bayreuth, where she returned to sing Fricka in 1961.
Resnik's immediately recognizable voice, with its dark, cavernous depths and tangy top notes, recorded well, and her prosody and diction were impressive in any language. Her best recordings include the Met's original cast of Vanessa, recorded under Mitropoulos (1958); Klytämnestra in Georg Solti's 1961 Elektra with the Vienna Philharmonic; the title role in Carmen, conducted by Thomas Schippers (1963); Lalume in a 1963 studio recording of the Broadway musical Kismet; Quickly in Falstaff, led by Leonard Bernstein (1966); Herodias in Salome, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (1968); and Tchaikovsky's Countess for Mstislav Rostropovich (1977).
In 1971, Resnik — whose remarkable stage presence and finely tuned sense of drama had garnered her acclaim throughout her singing career — shifted focus, and she began to work as a director, staging opera productions in Hamburg (Carmen), Venice (Elektra) and Warsaw (Falstaff) in addition to San Francisco, Lisbon, Venice, Sydney and Strasbourg. Beginning in the late 1980s, Resnik took her career further afield, appearing in American musical theater. In 1987, she received a Tony nomination for her role as Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret, and her 1990 performance as Mme. Armfeldt in A Little Night Music at NYCO earned her a Drama Desk nomination. In 1983, Resnik wrote, produced, narrated and financed an hour-long documentary on four centuries of Jewish life in the Venetian ghetto titled Geto: The Historic Ghetto of Venice, which was shown on public television.
Resnik was a longtime Board Member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild and served as a member of the Guild Board's Emeritus Council at the time of her death.
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