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Song of the Cold

It's now the most-sung piece from Vanessa, but "Must the Winter Come So Soon?" wasn't originally in the score of Samuel Barber's opera. PATRICK DILLON reports on how a great aria came to be — and why so many mezzos are grateful for it.

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Vanessa at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 1988, with Patricia Wells (Vanessa), Graham and Elaine Bonazzi (The Old Baroness)
© Ken Howard 2013
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Elias and Eleanor Steber (Vanessa) at Salzburg, 1958
Ellinger, Salzburg/OPERA NEWS Archives
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Cano, during her days as a Gerdine Young Artist at OTSL
© Ken Howard 2013

It's the go-to aria for young mezzos," says Susan Graham.

"It's the mezzo national anthem!" says Jennifer Johnson Cano.

"It's a gift," says Rosalind Elias, the very first to sing it.

The gift in question is "Must the winter come so soon?," Erika's brief but achingly eloquent solo in Act I of Samuel Barber's Vanessa. And if it's a gift that's kept on giving to singers in the five-and-a-half decades since the opera's premiere at the Met, in January 1958, it's also one that almost didn't get given at all.

Back in 1957, Barber and his librettist/director, Gian Carlo Menotti, were scouting for a singer to play Erika, the sensitive, introspective twenty-year-old niece of the title character — "a lady of great beauty" morbidly and melodramatically awaiting the return of a man named Anatol, the grand passion of her youth, at a gloomy country house "in a northern country," with its mirrors and a large portrait heavily draped. After two decades Anatol does return — but in the guise of the original's son, who with impressive efficiency proceeds to seduce and impregnate the niece and successfully court the still-alluring aunt — all under the silently censorious eye of the Old Baroness, Vanessa's mother and Erika's grandmother. 

"I was doing just small parts at the time," Elias recalls, "but when I heard that Sam and Gian Carlo were coming to hear me in ButterflyI tried hard to make Suzuki the opera's leading role. No one seemed to hold that against me, though! They offered me Erika and sent me the score — and I went through every page and saw that everyone had an aria but me. So I went to Mr. [Rudolf] Bing — I don't know how I had the nerve to do this, but at that young age, you do! — and said, 'Mr. Bing, I love this opera, and I'm so honored to do it, but I'm the only character who doesn't have an aria.' Well, he picked up the phone and dialed and said, 'Hello, Sam, I have Rosalind Elias here, and she wants to talk to you' — and handed me the phone!" She repeated her plaint, as tactfully as she could, and, as she says, "That was it. He knew my voice by then, and I like to think he wrote this wonderful aria especially for me, it was so perfectly suited to me." Many years later, composer Lee Hoiby told Elias that he'd been at Barber's house when the call came in. "What an upstart!" he'd remarked when Barber put down the receiver. 

A latecomer to the score it may be, but "Must the winter come so soon?" — just a shade over two pages, and two minutes, of music — in no way feels intrusive. Immediately preceding Vanessa's volatile solo outburst, "He has come!... Do not utter a word," it forms with that aria a cleverly devised expansion of a short but telling scene just before it in Act I, when Erika (calmly and simply) and then Vanessa (hyperemotively) read the same four lines from Sophocles's Oedipus the King. Menotti's libretto has taken its fair share of often unfair criticism, but it's hard to deny his skill in constructing a solid piece of theater, giving the neophyte opera composer a series of splendid opportunities, splendidly met, for displaying his lyrical prowess.

Vanessa scored an unequivocal hit at its premiere; it was given seven performances that first season and six the next; in between, it was recorded by RCA, traveled to Salzburg and won a Pulitzer Prize. Barber and Menotti revised the piece (not fully to its advantage) for the Met's 1965 revival — and that was the last of the company's stagings of what many consider not just its own best American opera but the very best American opera. So it's a fascinating statistic that at the Met's annual National Council Audition finals, "Must the winter come so soon?" ranks far ahead of "O mio babbino caro," from Gianni Schicchi — certainly the best-known aria ever to emerge from a Met world premiere — withten performances for the former, compared to just two for the latter. "You're my lucky charm," Barber once told Elias, and the aria he wrote for her has proved just that for most of those ten Met aspirants. 

When she won the National Council auditions in 1988, Susan Graham had already been cast in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis's upcoming production of Vanessa. "I'd never wanted anything so bad in my life!" she recalls, a quarter-century later. "Every mezzo in the country auditioned for Erika — it was the jewel of the decade to get that part." After singing the aria on the Met stage ("It felt auspicious!"), she sang the whole role in St. Louis that summer, "in what was to all intents and purposes my professional debut. That opera changed my life." And it was in St. Louis, too, nineteen years later, that one of Opera Theatre's Gerdine Young Artists had the pluck to sing "Must the winter come so soon?" for a Rosalind Elias master class. "People were saying to me, 'Are you sure you want to put yourself in that position?'" recalls Jennifer Johnson Cano. "But she was just wonderful — she made me feel that when I sang it, it was my piece." A year after that, in 2008, Cano took it to the Met auditions — and won. "Once again, people were cautioning me against doing it, but for different reasons. 'It's not a showpiece!' they'd say. But once again I trusted my gut, which was telling me you can do a lot with something very simple, by keeping it simple and doing it well.

"It's one of those arias everyone loves," she continues. "But it sounds a lot simpler than it is to sing, because of where it sits in the voice, right in the passaggio. And it requires a great deal of breath control." Marked "tranquil and sustained," with no note higher than an F, it's nonetheless filled with more hairpins than fasten the average opera wig — difficult to observe while maintaining a "tranquil" unfussiness. Just what is the secret of this unshowy yet challenging piece's appeal? "I love its sense of longing," says Cano. "It really tells the whole story of the opera in one brief passage." 

"I remember the feelings I had singing it," says Graham. "It's so very desolate — the desperation of a young girl who dreams that there must be something out there she doesn't know about. Barber set the text so brilliantly — 'Night after night I hear the hungry deer / Wander weeping in the woods,' 'the brittle bark' — I remember how it tasted to savor those words as I sang them." "Sam Barber's music is just there — there in your heart," is Elias's succinct summation. Both she and Graham have left cherishable recorded accounts of the complete role, and neither they nor Cano — who'd love the chance to make her own mark with it — can fathom the opera's lengthy neglect by the company that gave it birth. (The rest of the opera world's coolness is just as puzzling: according to Operabase, in the 2013–14 season Vanessa will have only one professional production, in Metz, France.)

By opera's end, Erika has lost — deliberately — her unborn child, and shallow Vanessa and her callow boy-toy husband are headed for a new life in Paris. For the unsmiling young woman who's long lived as Vanessa's "shadow," winter has indeed come too soon. Having set aside her dreams, she sinks reclusively into the old house's cushioned gloom, now herself the object of her grandmother's implacable silence. What becomes of Erika? "I think, maybe, that seeing Vanessa with her seemingly happy ending makes her think that she'll have one, too," Cano observes with youthful optimism. Graham imagines the girl's future through a different prism: "I'd like to think she snaps out of it," she says. "When I played Tina in [Dominick Argento's] TheAspern Papers in Dallas this spring, we were all commenting on the similarities between the two operas. I was the spinster who ends up a hermit. I bet Vanessa and Anatol go to Paris and have a high old time for six months. Then Anatol gets sick of this old broad and takes up with a can-can girl from the Moulin Rouge. So Vanessa goes back home, and she and Erika grow old together, and it becomes The Aspern Papers." Elias is much less fanciful. "It's my personal feeling that she stays there and dies there, by herself. If another Anatol came along, she'd never go off with him — she has an integrity that Vanessa lacks. She'd be there alone, like another Miss Havisham, with the light never coming in — alone with the curtains and the carpets and the dust.

"Every time I've done the opera, directors and colleagues ask me questions," adds Elias, who over the course of her six-decade career has inhabited two generations of Barber's women, moving from granddaughter to grandmother for several latter-day productions. "Did the Baroness have an affair with the Doctor? Is Erika Vanessa's child? I'm not sure that even Gian Carlo, or Sam, if I'd asked them at the time, would have answers." spacer 

PATRICK DILLON, an ardent lover of Vanessa since his early teens, is the New York correspondent for Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to OPERA NEWS. 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6