27 December 2013
Marta Eggerth, 101, Incomparable Star of Operettas and Musicals on Both Stage and Screen, Has Died
Budapest, Hungary, April 17, 1912 — Rye, New York, December 26, 2013
n October 1994, at the annual Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation gala, New York music audiences made a major rediscovery when Marta Eggerth stepped onto the stage at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and sang “Wien, Wien nur du allein.” At the time, she was eighty-two, but she sang the song with perfect pitch, superb line and absolute control of dynamic shadings, and she received a thundering ovation. She had been away from New York audiences for a long time, but from that time on, she was a steady presence, performing annually at the Puccini Foundation and giving sold-out concerts at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky until she reached her late nineties.
Eggerth began her career as a child, initially studying in Budapest with Erzsi Gervay, who instilled in her a solid command of breath control. She made her professional debut at age twelve, in Paul Abraham’s There’s Only One Girl in the World, and soon after that played a key supporting role in Mannequin, starring Hungarian actress Franciska Gaal. She made concert tours through Scandinavia. At seventeen, at Vienna’s Johann Strauss Theatre, she understudied the lead role in Kálmán’s Das Veilchen von Montmartre, taking over the run when the star, Adele Kern, was unable to continue. In 1929, she appeared as Adele in Max Reinhardt’s celebrated production of Die Fledermaus in Hamburg. Clemens Krauss invited her to study Mozart roles at the Vienna Staatsoper, offering a debut within five years. Craving more immediate success, Eggerth turned him down in order to make her film debut in Die Bräutigamswitwe (The Bridegroom’s Widow), directed by Richard Eichberg in 1930.
Eggerth quickly became a major film star in Germany and Austria; among her early successes was Es War Einmal Ein Walzer, with a score written specially for her by Franz Lehár and a script by Billy Wilder. Frequently, she shot her movies in more than one language, with the musical numbers filmed live — no lip-synching to a playback, as in Hollywood. Other big successes of the 1930s included the film version of Emmerich Kálmán’s Csárdásfürstin (1934) and My Heart is Calling (1934), in which she met her future husband, the enormously popular Polish tenor Jan Kiepura. They were married in October 1936 and made many other films together, including the hit Zauber der Bohème (1936).
In 1938, Kiepura and Eggerth fled Europe and came to New York, where Kiepura had arranged a contract to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Eggerth soon joined the original cast of Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway musical Higher and Higher (1940). She subsequently sang opposite her husband in Chicago, as Mimi in La Bohème, and signed a movie contract with M-G-M. She disliked Hollywood, however, and after appearing in two Judy Garland pictures, For Me and My Gal (1942) and Presenting Lily Mars (1943), she returned to New York. There, she and her husband starred in a hugely successful revival of The Merry Widow at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre that opened in 1943, ran for 322 performances and continued at City Center in the fall of 1944.
Over the years, Kiepura and Eggerth starred in many more productions of The Merry Widow in a variety of languages. They also made several more movies, including The Land of Smiles (1952). Kiepura died suddenly in 1966, and after years of professional inactivity, Eggerth returned to the stage in the Harvey Schmidt–Tom Jones musical Colette, starring Diana Rigg. She also made guest appearances on European television and continued to delight New York audiences with her ageless charm and musicianship.
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