Although she has not sung publicly – except for teaching, for benefits, and for fun – in the last thirty years, and was never heard, even in her prime, at the Metropolitan Opera, the rich mezzo-soprano of Gloria Lane (b. Trenton, NJ, 6 June 1925) has been widely appreciated as one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century. Most of her best years were spent in Europe, where she triumphed in over 500 performances of Carmen in the 1950s and ’60s, as well as in roles as challenging as Ariadne (in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos), Katerina (in Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova), and Baba the Turk (in Britten’s The Rake’s Progress). In her native country, she sang with the New York City Opera, and on Broadway she originated the roles of the Secretary in Menotti’s The Consul and of Desideria in the same composer’s The Saint of Bleecker Street. Many an enduring opera legend has been generated by her exceptionally quick wit and practical good sense under fire.
Gussie Siet’s (pronounced “sigh-et”) earliest exposure to music was hearing her father sing in a Trenton synagogue (he had sung as a boy soprano in his native Russia) and listening with him to Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Differing sources describe him as a harness-maker, a junk dealer, and an avowed Communist, and although as she says, “he worked his ass off,” the family was very poor.
Although she had no training, she knew she was good at singing. “I started singing when I was about five and trooping with my sisters around the house, and my father said to my mother, ‘This one’s got a voice.'” She won a ten-dollar prize as a kid, singing at the YMHA, and at sixteen she had a regular – though unpaid – weekly radio gig (hosted, remarkably, by Ernie Kovacs) on Trenton’s WTTM. Walking home from the station one day she met Arthur Levin, a fellow student at Trenton Central High School, and they became sweethearts.
Following the events of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II, Arthur enlisted in the Air Force. When he returned, Gussie was working as a secretary in the New Jersey State Department of Agriculture. They married, and soon she found herself in a worse situation than the poverty at home: her husband was hotly jealous, not just of other men, but of her music. “I was like a pressure-cooker and couldn’t live without singing and was ready to explode.”
She did a free commercial for the Department of Agriculture singing about Jersey peaches, and her boss arranged for her to audition for an agent in New York. “The guy liked me and said he could introduce me as a middle-eastern Arab because I was ‘so exotic-looking.’ I came home and told my husband how happy I was. He immediately tried to swallow a bottle of iodine.”
The agent had promised to call, but she heard nothing. “On Monday I went in to work and my boss said, ‘Well, how’d you do?’ I said, ‘OK, I think.’ So he said, ‘You’re so modest, I’m going to call him myself.’ He called [the agent] and it seemed that my husband and father-in-law had been in his office and threatened him with a lawsuit. He didn’t want all that hassle so that was that.”
By chance she saw a notice in the Philadelphia Inquirer about its annual Voice of Tomorrow Contest. Without a word to anyone and giving her boss’s office as a return address, she sent in her application. “I knew I was a mezzo as I did the low parts in the operettas I did in high school. I learned “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saëns, by listening to a recording I had of Marian Anderson.”
She won the prize. The lady at the piano asked her, “’Who do you study with?’ I said, ‘No one.'” The prize enabled her to study with that very accompanist, Elizabeth Westmoreland of the Curtis Institute of Music, and soon thereafter to audition for Gian Carlo Menotti, who was writing a new opera called The Consul. Following Westmoreland’s advice, Gussie Levin changed her name to Gloria Lane.
She did an audition for Radio City Music Hall and was enthusiastically received; they planned to have her sing the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, flying in a harness from one side of the stage to the other as she sang her aria – until they discovered she was pregnant. Instead, they contracted her to sing four shows a day for their Easter Pageant, doing “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” with the dancers.
At her audition with Menotti, she was “pregnant, quite unhappy, thinking about getting a divorce, and Menotti said I was maybe too ‘phlegmatic’ to play the leading part. ‘But,’ he said ‘there is a part in The Consul that was going to be a speaking part, but you do it and I’ll write music for it.’” He sent her the first music to study while waiting for her son Robert to be born. After his birth, she managed to get herself a scholarship for summer study at Tanglewood where, under director and impresario Boris Goldovsky, she did her first scenes from Bizet’s Carmen.
The Consul, with Lane in the role of the Secretary and starring Patricia Neway as Magda Sorel, premiered on March 1, 1950, in Philadelphia and moved to Broadway two weeks later for a run of 269 performances. In spite of its being an opera and very noir – not the usual Broadway fare –, it was a great success. Conductor Lehman Engel won a Tony Award®, Laurence Olivier insisted that it play in London the next year, and Gloria Lane won the Clarence Derwent Award as the Most Promising Female performer of the year – even though she was a member of AGMA and not Actor’s Equity, the sponsor of the Award. She also took two Donaldson Awards, for Best Supporting Actress and Best Debut in a Musical.
In London she was lionized by the likes of Peter Finch and Michael Redgrave: “It was just wild for me, this little girl from Trenton who had no idea what was happening. There I was, sitting in Laurence Olivier’s dressing room while he’s putting on his makeup and talking to me. It was fantastic, some kind of dream.” From London, The Consul proceeded to Paris, “and I was given one of the greatest thrills of my life: Poulenc came backstage to speak to me and predicted I would become a soprano, which turned out to be right, many years later.”
Back in New York, Gloria Lane sang her first traditional operatic roles, Carmen and Amneris in Aïda, with the New York City Opera at the City Center on 55th Street. Before this, she had never attended a full performance of either opera – but she had done her homework. By 1953 her Carmen was already the talk of the operatic world. “I did a lot of research on Gypsies,” she recollects: “It’s a matriarchal society. I took it very seriously… I have never played [Carmen] like a vamp. I played her like a person who was aware of her sexuality but was never overtly sexual.” In San Francisco, where the City Opera performed on tour, a critic described her characterization as “very animal, very unscrupulous, but fascinating; her feline grace made her the most believable Carmen that our stage has ever seen.” In the concise words of her colleague Beverly Sills, she was “one of the best Carmens I ever saw.”
Gian Carlo Menotti in the meanwhile was composing a new opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street, with Gloria Lane in mind. Her character, Desideria, is the protagonist’s mistress, a sensual and passionate woman who stands in stark contrast to the “Saint,” his sister. When the opera opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York in December 1954, the part of her lover Michele was sung by tenor David Poleri, who had sung Don José to Lane’s Carmen many times and who, as in the Bizet opera, would stab her to death on stage at each performance. ”I’ve been dying [this way] for a couple of years,” said she at the time, “I wonder if there’s any future in it.” (Poleri was notorious for his “temperament” – another instance of which will be cited at the end of this article – as Lane complains, “He used to hit me so hard, I still have a sore back.”)
Certainly there was a future – fifty years, in fact – in the relationship she struck up with the opera’s associate conductor and vocal coach, Samuel Krachmalnick. Although she would characterize it as “stormy,” the couple clearly shared a down-to-earth attitude toward their milieu. Krachmalnick had taken up conducting himself after concluding, as a French horn player in the Washington National Symphony with ample opportunity to scrutinize guest conductors, that “if these jokers can do it, it’s got to be easy.” Lane and Krachmalnick were married in New York on the day The Saint of Bleecker Street closed, April 2, 1955, and immediately went with the production to La Scala in Milan. “It was like our honeymoon … We were met at the plane by Menotti and Leonard Bernstein, who knew my husband well.”
From this point on, both the Krachmalnicks shuttled frequently across the Atlantic. While Sam Krachmalnick was on the conducting staff at New York City Opera, and earning a 1957 Tony® nomination as the conductor of Bernstein’s Candide on Broadway, she was taking Milan by storm as “the American Carmen.” She aroused jealousy among her female rivals, and terror among her tenor co-stars: “Singing with her,” admitted Giuseppe Di Stefano, “can be pretty tough on a hot-blooded Sicilian like me.” Even on Milan’s enormous stage, Gloria Lane’s voice was “opulent, brilliant, rich as piled velvet” (Time Magazine). After Carmen would go proudly and defiantly to her death, the house would burst into round after round of applause.
On two occasions she returned to New York to sing under Leonard Bernstein on the historic “Omnibus” television series: some parts of Handel’s Messiah at Christmas 1955, and in March 1957, portions of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. (While doing the Messiah, she writes, “I was pregnant with daughter Magda. When I sang ‘Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son,’ the orchestra broke up!!”)
But for the most part during this period she was busy at Glyndebourne (The Rake’s Progress, 1958), Covent Garden (Carmen, 1960), the Vienna Staatsoper, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a bullring in Seville, and smaller houses in France, Denmark and Italy, where she had occasion to sing Carmen in English, Italian, and German as well as the original French. She came back to Philadelphia in 1963 to share the stage with Jon Vickers, but immediately returned to La Scala to sing the Widow Begbick in Mahagonny. Later European high points were an Italian version of A View from the Bridge in Yugoslavia, Carmen with Mario Del Monaco in Sicily, appearing at La Scala as Edvige in William Tell, Marina in Boris Godunov, and Miriam in Rossini’s Mosè, and revisiting Amneris in Treviso.
In 1971 Gloria Lane resurfaced at the New York City Opera as a dramatic soprano, with no real change in strength, color, or beauty of tone. She was Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana that year, Ariadne and Lady Macbeth (Verdi) at Glyndebourne the next; she sang Desdemona in Hawaii.
Her crowning achievement of the decade was singing Katerina Ismailova in Russian in Torino in May 1976. The opera is Shostakovich’s revision of his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1936), delivered in 1962 in response to the ban on the original by the Soviet regime, but resulting in some undeniable improvements. Fortunately – for there are very few recordings featuring Gloria Lane (the only other CDs available are a Leopold Stokowski compilation that includes her 1963 BBC performance in Falla’s El Amor Brujo, and a 1955 studio recording of Carousel on RCA, on which she sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone”) – the Shostakovich performance was repeated in Rome for a live radio broadcast and recording. Gloria Lane knew, and knows, no Russian, and sang the entire text of the opera by ear. Still, many Russians came backstage to congratulate her in Russian, convinced she was one of their own. “It’s something that I’m very proud of, because it was extremely difficult, musically and vocally also.”
Sam Krachmalnick’s career was no less peripatetic than his wife’s, and the family found themselves moving frequently – first to Milan, then to Zurich, where Sam conducted regularly at the Stadttheater, back to Milan, then to Bucks County, PA, while Sam toured the States with the Metropolitan Opera, Gloria flew back and forth to La Scala, and the children went to school. They moved to Seattle when Sam was offered a job at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1971, and again to California in 1976, where Sam took an academic position as director of the UCLA Symphony and Opera Workshop.
After her last performance in Milan (as Marie in Wozzeck in 1977), Gloria Lane took selected private vocal students in and around Los Angeles; her husband retired in 1991 but also continued to teach privately. He became an invalid in 1999, requiring intensive care from her until his death from a heart attack in 2005, exactly one day before what would have been their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
The performing traditions that Gloria Lane has left to the opera world are probably innumerable, but there is one in particular that resists eradication. She was singing Carmen’s “Seguidilla” – the first-act aria “where I have my hands tied behind my back.” Her Don José, the scenery-chewing tenor David Poleri, was (probably intentionally) distracting the audience by playing with his rifle. “So I figured, ‘I have to get [their] attention.’ And so, with my hands behind my back, I leaned over and picked up my skirt with my teeth and pulled it up. That’s become famous. I’m the first one who did that. I just did it because I was angry.”
She was surely not the last one to do that. Fifty years later, both Carmens in the 2004 Los Angeles production, Catherine Malfitano and Milena Kitic, did the same, as now do hundreds of Carmens worldwide.
Never to be replicated, however, was Lane’s storied solo performance of the final murder scene in Carmen. It was 1953; New York City Opera was visiting at the Lyric in Chicago, the tenor once again was David Poleri. Poleri had grown more and more frustrated with the conductor’s tempos over the course of the evening, and in the final duet, when Don José threatens to kill Carmen if she will not come with him, and she refuses, the tenor had had enough. Poleri strode to the center, faced the conductor, whose nose remained buried in the score, said “Goddammit, finish it yourself!” and stalked out of the house and onto the Chicago street, still in his costume.
There was no way Lane was going to follow him. She thought, “Well, I’ve got some high notes to sing, so damned if I’m going to get off the stage.” The conductor was apparently still oblivious. “So I sang his part and mine, and killed myself with an imaginary knife. I got press from all over the world. As a matter of fact, I was on the Edward R. Murrow show, showing how I stabbed myself. I have a feeling that when I die, they’ll tell that story.”
Opera lovers will tell that story no matter what she does – and they will inevitably embellish it according to their own perspectives (take warning!). There is one widely current urban ornament to the legend that is patently untrue but amusing enough to be repeated: that she sang Don José’s penultimate line herself, but changing the pronouns around: “Vous pouvez l’arrêter; c’est lui qui m’a tuée.” (“You may arrest him; it is he who has killed me.”) It’s not true; at that point Carmen was quite still.
– Lucy E. Cross