A Little Bit of Soul

BRIAN KELLOW chats with the incomparable living legend Marta Eggerth on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

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Eggerth in a 1957 New York City Center performance of The Merry Widow with, left to right, George Lipton, Melville Cooper, Norman Budd and Jan Kiepura
Alix Jeffrey/OPERA NEWS Archives
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Eggerth in a 1995 photo by John Francis Bourke
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On Broadway in Rodgers and Hart's Higher and Higher, with Leif Erickson

She worked on the great silver-age operetta scores with Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. She and her husband, tenor Jan Kiepura, were huge box-office attractions at the movies and on the opera, Broadway and concert stages. She made two Judy Garland pictures at MGM in the 1940s, but she hated Hollywood and left abruptly. Marta Eggerth is living history — still active and still deeply connected to both present and past. Recently, BRIAN KELLOW spoke to her at her home in Rye, New York, shortly after her 100th birthday. 

ON: I was thinking that the first time I met you was in 1994. I had just heard you sing "Wien, Wien, nur du allein" at the Puccini Foundation gala at Alice Tully Hall. Now it's 2012, and you're 100 years old. Congratulations!

ME: What is 100 years now? Nothing! In my life, 100 years is nothing. Because all my life I had such a busy life — from Vienna to Paris, from Paris to America to Rio de Janeiro. My life is like a dream, you know? So time didn't mean much to me — except, of course, my beloved husband, the only love I ever had in my life. And I live with that, and I will die with that. We had a very interesting combination, you know? At first, I had my contracts, and my work, and he had his. He was singing one day at Paris Opera, one day at London, at Covent Garden. And I was one day making films in Germany. Then I made films in Austria and in France and in England. Something going normally — that didn't even exist in our lives. Today, I speak German. Tomorrow, I speak Italian. Next day, French. And thank God, I learned these languages even as a child in Hungary. Because Hungary was very little, and when you went over the frontier, it was already another language. 

ON: It must be wonderful to live a life in so many different languages.

ME: Wonderful and difficult. For example, I made films in various languages. Let's say I made the same film at the same one in three languages. There was a German director and a German cast. Now, the same day, when this scene was already shot, you have to shoot again, the same scene, in French, with a French director and a French cast. And not only the dialogue is different, but the whole personality has to change with the language.

ON: That's right. You had to be conscious as far as the kind of emotional tone of the scene, in a different language.

ME: Of course. Because a different language makes you a different person. "I love you." "Je t'aime vraiement." Totally different. 

It's very difficult to speak and not to feel, you know? It reminds me of a very interesting episode in my life. I sang a big benefit concert in New York. I devoted the whole program to Hungarian music — Bartók, Kodály, Liszt. At the end of the concert, I go to get my coat, and there was a very nice American lady, and she said, "You sang so beautifully. I wanted to cry." I said, "Don't cry — you didn't understand Hungarian!" She said, "I understood everything." I said, "Do you speak Hungarian?" She said, "No, but how you sang it. Your voice told me what you were singing about." This was very important to me. The voice told her what I was singing about. Not necessarily the lyrics. All my life, it was important for me to express with my singing voice what is in my soul. The word "soul" is very little used in America. They say, "With all my heart." It's not the same. 

Through my husband, I met the great Russian basso Chaliapin. And Chaliapin called me "dushenka." It means "little soul." And this remained in my ears for the longest time. "Dushenka." Doesn't it sound nice? Kiepura used to tell me, "Don't study so much the lyrics. Read what the lyrics mean to you. Not every word is important. What it means to you is important." 

ON: You once said to me that something people misunderstand in operetta is that sentiment and sentimentality are not the same thing.

ME: Sentimentality is a different language for me. It doesn't fit my temperament. 

ON: You had to get used to a very different way of making films when you came to America. In Europe, you didn't sing to playbacks. The film was shot as you sang.

ME: Not only that. Even later, I would come in to the studio, and they would say to me, "We do here the song or the aria, and we start with the end of it, because your voice is still fresh in the morning, and then you do it a couple of times, and maybe you get tired." I would say, "I cannot get in the mood in the morning to start at the end of the song!" They would say, "This is how we work in America." So, fine. I'm always willing to learn something. I did it. I said, "Let's do it once my way — beginning to end, like I do in any concert. I don't go to the concert hall and say, ‘Now I sing the end first!'" They all laughed. They said, "All right, you did it our way ten times, we'll do it your way once." I sang it from beginning to end, and it was fantastic! And they took that one for the film! 

ON: I was just watching For Me and My Gal, your first film for MGM with Judy Garland. And stop making a face. I know you don't like the movie very much. They cut your big production number, "The Spell of the Waltz," because it got a great reaction at the preview, and they said that it couldn't overshadow Judy Garland's numbers. Do you think if they hadn't cut it, you might have stayed at MGM, rather than getting out of your contract in 1943? Would that have made a difference?

ME: It did make a difference, yes. The number was such a success at the preview. I had the feeling that they didn't have very good intentions, you know? Also, at the time, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in a very difficult situation. Louis B. Mayer was suing everybody. I was engaged for an operetta by Emmerich Kálmán, Countess Maritza, and Kálmán didn't want to give them 100 percent of the rights so they could do whatever they wanted to do with it, and it burst. For a Kálmán operetta, I would have been marvelous, but since they got in a fight with Kálmán, they didn't know what to do with me. I was just another girl under contract. That's all. They had wonderful people there at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Roger Edens was someone who really knew music — a marvelous conductor and arranger. One song I was supposed to sing was too low, and he said, "Oh, darling, don't worry," and he could write music as fast as we speak, and before my eyes, he makes it higher. He was a genius — and charming. After I left Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, I kept in contact with him. He would say, "Oh, Marta, this new film would be wonderful for you." And I said, "Yes — but I'm not there!" 

ON: How hard did M-G-M try to talk you out of leaving?

ME: I told them I was unhappy there. I was promised certain roles, and they never came up. I never played — not because I think I'm so wonderful — but secondary roles I never played before. I wanted to play what I had been used to in Europe — big, first-rate movies. It was a marvelous studio. Everything you ever dreamed of was there. But I realized I was not born for such a big studio. I like a more intimate world and people who know me, and people who know what I can do best — something more complicated and meaningful, not just being in a movie and saying, "I'm in Hollywood." Big deal! 

ON: So many actors have said the executives really had no personal feeling about the people under contract — no gratitude at all.

ME: Gratitude! No. Your salary — that's their gratitude. I didn't pick up my checks for weeks at a time, because I felt they paid me for nothing. I said, "Why should I cash these checks? I didn't do anything." They paid me that I should be made up every day, the voice be in tune every day, because maybe they want to do something with me. Maybe they want to hear me sing a song they might use in a picture. And I could not live like that. Maybe

ON: Did they send you out to the theaters to sing live during the showing of MGM films?

ME: Yes, I did that a lot. I sang in New York City at the Capitol Theatre, and so many of the people who came at eleven in the morning came to every performance to hear me. At eleven in the evening, I would be so tired. I was there for three weeks. I earned more like that than in the movies! 

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Eggerth, center, on the cover of the August 1995 issue

ON: Who among the other MGM actors made a particularly striking impression on you?

ME: Clark Gable. He was the simplest person — modest and simple. And Leslie Howard. He said, "Draga!" "Draga" means "darling" in Hungarian. He was a fine actor. And Ava Gardner. She was somebody — if she would have been my sister at that time, I would shake her and tell her "Wake up! Be your own self!" I had the feeling that she was never permitted in her entire life to be herself. She was born to be somebody else. That's only my fantasy. 

ON: Even when you sing lighthearted music, you often have a sob, a tear, in the voice. And I've always sensed that as funny and positive-minded as you are, you have great sadness in you. You can hear it in the singing. 

ME: I always had it. I know, maybe, why. I was born in the wrong time. I was born in 1912. In 1914 was World War I until 1918. All of Hungary went upside down — a terrible situation. And there was Communism in Hungary. I didn't know what it was. But my grandmother had very sensitive ears, and from her youth, she wore a cap with two ears coverings, all made out of fur, when it got cold. And one day, after there was this terrible change in Hungary to Communism, a young boy took that little cap from her head and, while it was pouring rain, threw it in the rain puddle. I was a little girl, perhaps six years old, and I ran after to dig it out from the water. My grandmother tried to make it dry. And this I never forget. That little bit of fur was everything to her. And my mother had to work. She was in what is now the Franz Liszt Conservatory. She had a beautiful dramatic coloratura voice. She had to give up everything eventually, and what she gave up, she gave to me. We had a big, beautiful apartment, but nothing to eat. And when you ask me about singing from the heart, maybe it comes from there. All of that made a big dent in my soul.

ON: You once said to me that your husband was like no other tenor. Tell me what you meant by that.

ME: His singing was something you have to be born with. You're not only an opera singer because of your voice. It's not the language. It's what you sing and how you do it, that is the secret. When he had a performance at the Metropolitan, he would walk for hours. Sometimes I would walk with him, but I would get too tired. I would say, "Don't you want to practice?" He would say, "Practice? Why?" I would say, "To know it's there in the evening." He would say, "It's there. If I practice so much, maybe it won't be there." 

ON: Does it annoy you when people ask you, "How does it feel to have lived 100 years?"

ME: Annoy me? No. 

ON: Some people expect you to have all the answers and solutions, but it doesn't work that way.

ME: Not at all. It works the same way as when you are sixty. I can remember things back when I was twelve years old, when I was already in the profession. But I also remember what I had for dinner three days ago. My brain works, so far, very good. I even remember lyrics, and who did what and why. I even remember what my pianist didn't do well when we rehearsed two weeks ago! You have to learn, mainly, how to live. When I read The New York Times every day, from top to bottom, it's frightening. A frightening world. Life is short. But the only advice I would give to people much younger than me is — use every moment that you can. spacer 

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