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Singular Sensation

The glamour, charisma and thrilling voice of tenor Jan Kiepura cast a powerful spell. BRIAN KELLOW reports.

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Kiepura with Eggerth, prior to a 1955 concert they sang at London's Royal Albert Hall
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis 2013
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As Calàf in Turandot in Vienna, 1928
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Kiepura in Hollywood, 1935
© Paramount Pictures/Photofest 2013

In October 3, 1954, fifty-two-year-old Polish tenor Jan Kiepura emerged from the stage door at Royal Albert Hall, where he had just sung a concert. A large crowd of fans who had gathered at the stage door rushed him and pinned him against his waiting car, screaming in six languages, while extra police arrived on the scene to try to control them. Many of the fans were Polish exiles, and while his wife, the diminutive soprano Marta Eggerth, was hustled to safety after nearly being trampled, Kiepura climbed on top of the car and became a street singer, performing songs and arias in Polish for some thirty minutes. 

From today's far cooler audience perspective, it is astonishing to think that a tenor — even one as prodigiously gifted as Kiepura — could create such a sensation. But a careful assessment of some of the best of Kiepura's recorded work gives you some clues about the kind of effect he had on his listeners. Few tenors of the time matched Kiepura for charisma and dramatic imagination. A performance of "La donna è mobile" from the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1930s remains a marvel of how to spin out messa di voce and play with the musical line, the note values and the inflection of the words. A recording of him singing "En fermant les yeux," from Manon, at the Met in 1939, bores quietly into you in the most visceral way; you feel that you are physically suspended in the dream along with des Grieux. When Kiepura sings "Nessun dorma," he spins out the opening lines not in thundering forte but in the most exquisite pianissimo. Kiepura also recorded a great deal of lighter music, including Bronislaw Kaper's "Ninon" and Robert Stolz's "Mein Herz ruft immer nur nach dir, oh Marita!" In these selections, his voice sounds amazingly free and vigorous, as if he could fully relax only in this kind of music. 

Kiepura was a singer whose natural vocal gifts were matched with a keen sensibility and intelligence. Listening to him in a cluster of different roles, one is struck by how completely his approach to them makes dramatic sense. There's a sound logic to just about everything he does that makes him one of the most intensely communicative of twentieth-century tenors. His Don José in a 1940 Carmen from St. Louis is heartbreaking in its open-hearted innocence. Frequently, when coaching his wife, he told her, "Don't study so much the lyrics. Study what the lyrics mean to you. Not every word is important. What it means to you is what's important."

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As the Duke of Mantua, above, at the Met
in 1938

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Kiepura was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1902. He studied law and singing at the University of Warsaw and made his opera debut in Lvov in Faust in 1924. Stardom arrived two years later, when he sang Calàf in the second performance of the Vienna premiere run of Turandot. Leo Slezak had sung the opening night, but at fifty-three, he was considered too old and paunchy for a role that calls for youthful dynamism. As Calàf, Kiepura had an unqualified triumph, and he moved on to star roles at La Scala, Paris Opera, Teatro Colón and other major international theaters. In 1927 and 1929, respectively, he sang in the world premieres of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Wunder der Heliane and Felice Lattuada's Preziose Ridicole; Korngold also wanted Kiepura for the premiere of Die Kathrin, but by this time, the tenor was busy at the Met. His screen debut came in Die Sing­ende Stadt (1930), and he became a popular leading man in the movies, while carrying on a busy concert career. 

In 1934, Kiepura made his first film opposite Marta Eggerth, also a popular screen personality in Europe. Mein Herz Ruft nach Dir was filmed — as was often the case with the movies Eggerth and Kiepura made in the 1930s — in several languages. A scene would be shot in German, then the German director and members of the German supporting cast would depart to make way for the French director and actors, and sometimes again for the English version. Eggerth and the exquisite, effortlessly charming Danielle Darrieux were splitting the leading-lady role in Mein Herz Ruft nach Dir in the German- and French-language versions, respectively. Kiepura gave a heated performance of a love scene with Darrieux, and when he did the repeat with Eggerth, his attitude was a bit E-flat. The soprano was annoyed, but not enough to decline a series of dates with the tenor when he eventually came around to noticing her. 

On October 31, 1936, Kiepura and Eggerth were married at City Hall in Katowice. The reception was held at the Hotel Monopol. The wedding was supposed to be a secret, but about twenty reporters had made their way to the hotel, with a crowd of fans following. Downstairs, the crowd called out "JANEK! JANEK!" until Kiepura finally obliged and appeared on his balcony to sing for them. Then he and Eggerth left for respective singing engagements, without spending their wedding night together. "But we made up for it," she laughs. "Double." 

Kiepura's technical command was so immense that practically nothing posed a problem for him vocally. Eggerth remembers him showing her how to perfect her decrescendo. "If you release the breath too quickly," she explains, "it becomes unwieldy. My husband showed me how to take my time and release the air slowly, slowly." He was also generous with colleagues, spending hours talking with the likes of Richard Tauber and Lawrence Tibbett about their vocal and personal problems. He had a particularly close connection with Bruno Walter. "When Walter wanted to tell him something," Eggerth recalls, "then he went into the dressing room after the performance and talked to Jan alone. I always said, 'What did he say?' And Jan always said, 'Nothing. It does not concern you.' He would not talk of Walter. He loved him very much. And Walter had a miserable life, you know? But this was it. They lived only for perfection." 

After a hugely successful run as a film star, Kiepura could see that his days in Europe were limited. Both his mother and Eggerth's mother were Jewish, and he knew it was crucial to get to America as soon as possible. Fortunately, he had received an offer from Met general manager Edward Johnson to join the roster in the 1937–38 season at $500 per performance, for a minimum of ten performances. The contract stipulated that Kiepura be ready with Rodolfo in Bohème, the Duke, Cavaradossi, Manrico in Trovatore, Calàf, Don José in Carmen and des Grieux in Manon

Kiepura made his debut as Rodolfo on February 10, 1938. His performance of "Che gelida manina" elicited an ovation so thunderous that he had to get up from the kneeling position to acknowledge the applause. In The New York Post the next day, Samuel Chotzinoff wrote that Kiepura "injected high spirits into the role of Rodolfo and turned that ordinarily pompous and bombastic poet into a musical comedy hero." Chotzinoff quibbled about some of the tenor's acting choices: when Rodolfo heard Mimì's voice for the first time, Kiepura rubbed his hands gleefully and cried "Una donna!" There were others over the years who agreed with Chotzinoff on this point; Julius Rudel once described Kiepura to me as "highly enthusiastic onstage … to the point of hubris."

For the most part, however, his reviews were glowing, and audiences — particularly in New York and Chicago, cities where so many European refugees lived — flocked to hear him sing. In Poland, he remained a national hero, despite the fact that his flight to America had cost him much of the property he had purchased, including the Hotel Patria in Krynica. At the Met, Kiepura's fee ascended to $800 a performance in 1938–39, when his roles included des Grieux and Cavaradossi. But his appearances with the Met were sporadic, adding up to only thirty-three performances encompassing five roles and four concerts over three seasons. His final Met role was Rodolfo, opposite Licia Albanese, four years to the day after he had made his company debut.

In 1943, he and Eggerth were approached to star in a new production of The Merry Widow at Broadway's Majestic Theater. Kiepura, who had mostly stayed away from stage operetta, was excited by the offer, but Edward Ziegler, one of the Met managers, was not. "Ziegler said, 'If you do The Merry Widow, you can never enter the Metropolitan Opera again,'" Eggerth remembered. "He said it was low-class." Kiepura chose Broadway. The show was a hit, running for 322 performances. Brenda Lewis, who filled in for Eggerth at matinée performances, remembers her first meeting with the tenor. "I did the part on twenty-four hours' notice," she says. "We met backstage just before we went on, and he told me how to do the last scene when we sing the waltz. He said, 'We hold hands on the B-flat, and when I squeeze your hand, you shut up.' So we sang the B-flat together, and he squeezed my hand, and I shut up." 

Kiepura was represented by powerhouse impresario Sol Hurok, who sent him off on grueling concert tours, which netted far more lucrative fees than his opera appearances brought him. (He earned his biggest money through a series of shrewd real-estate investments around the world.) Unfortunately, the tours were often planned badly, in cities not in close proximity. Kiepura also made additional movies and toured the world with his wife in The Merry Widow, performing it in many languages. In order to stay in good vocal shape during this draining performing schedule, Kiepura began taking Nujol, a medication composed principally of paraffin oil, often prescribed for asthma patients. Kiepura, who was otherwise scrupulous in his health habits — he insisted on living in Westchester County rather than Manhattan, because the air was cleaner — took Nujol in heavy doses for years. At some point while he was performing in the late 1950s, he began to notice a shortness of breath. He went to see a leading pulmonologist in Boston, who was horrified by what he discovered: paraffin oil doesn't dissolve, and the tenor's lungs were encrusted with it. A six-hour operation failed to reverse his condition. Kiepura returned to performing, feeling somewhat better but still short of breath. On August 15, 1966, while he was at home fielding a phone call involving a business deal, he collapsed and died instantaneously, leaving behind Eggerth and two young sons. 

Despite his enormous mid-century popularity, Kiepura's career is not widely discussed today. Once, during a particularly electric night in Rigoletto at the Vienna Staatsoper, Kiepura sang "pensier!" in full voice as he walked up the stairs to seduce Maddalena. As he ascended the steps, his voice became softer and softer. When he finished, Eggerth remembered, "The applause was something unbelievable. Afterward, the conductor, Bruno Walter, said to Jan, 'This performance of tonight the world will never forget.'" She laughs a little. "Where is the world now? It was only 2,000 or 3,000 people there, but for Walter, it was the world." spacer

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