Marta Eggerth, Operetta Superstar, Turning 100

There's no denying either the sheer beauty of Eggerth's singing or the overwhelming accomplishments of a (so far) 90-year career.
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What do folk icon Woody Guthrie, classical colossus Georg Solti, legendary bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins and relaxed pop crooner Perry Como have in common? And what do they share with the amazing singer/actress Marta Eggerth, queen of the Viennese operetta during that undervalued genre's Silver Age?

All five musical greats were born in 1912. But while the four men will observe their centennials from the heavens, Marta -- a living link to Franz Lehár, Fritz Kreisler, Robert Stolz, Oscar Straus and other leading operetta composers, many of whom composed works especially for her -- will mark her hundredth birthday (April 17) drinking in accolades and making music with family at her home in Rye, New York.

The name Marta Eggerth is largely unknown today outside a small circle of operetta buffs and music obsessives. This has nothing to do with her talent, which was, and still is, astonishing. But operetta -- which Gustav Mahler defined as "simply a small and gay opera" -- faded from public consciousness some 70 years ago, and now it's too often dismissed as an anachronistic bridge between "real" opera and musical comedy.

Arguments about the merits of operetta notwithstanding, there's no denying either the sheer beauty of Eggerth's singing or the overwhelming accomplishments of a (so far) 90-year career.

Marta's earliest performances in her native Hungary included child roles in major musical productions. By age 12 the wunderkind had a broad repertoire which featured "Olympia's Aria" from Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann.

Marta's gorgeous voice, charming acting and striking appearance attracted filmmakers while she was still in her teens. In 1932 alone, she appeared in seven movies, including Es War Einmal ein Walzer, Franz Lehár's first film operetta, which was translated into the English Where Is This Lady. Both screenplays were written by none other than Billy Wilder.

By the mid-1930s, Eggerth had become a star of stage, screen, operetta and opera. In 1934, she met the love of her life, the dashing Polish tenor Jan Kiepura -- they married two years later -- and the glamorous couple starred in a series of stage productions and films, including Mein Herz (My Heart Is Calling You) and Zauber der Bohéme (The Charm of La Bohéme). (In all, Marta made some 40 films.)

In 1938, Marta and Jan -- who both had Jewish mothers -- fled Europe just before Hitler marched into Austria. Not long thereafter, as operetta waned, Eggerth set forth to Hollywood, where she appeared in the MGM Judy Garland vehicles For Me and My Gal and Presenting Lily Mars. She was not taken by Tinseltown -- "I was used to playing the lead, and in Hollywood, I was second," she told the New York Times -- and returned to New York, where she and Kiepura starred in a Broadway production of Lehar's The Merry Widow that logged 322 performances. This run turned out to be a fraction to the 2,000 or so performances of the show the couple gave in many venues and almost as many languages. (One source pegs Eggerth/Kiepura's Merry Widows at 3,000, but who's counting?)

Following Kiepura's death in 1966 a devastated Eggerth retreated from the public eye but eventually returned to the concert hall and stage, including a 1984 turn in Follies, where she sang "One More Kiss" -- what else? -- Sondheim's valentine to operetta.

In 2005, Eggerth released the double-CD retrospective Marta Eggerth: My Life My Song (Patria), an extraordinary document combining stunning vintage recordings with wonderful contemporary tracks. Samples can be found here.

Taking in these mini-masterpieces, one can appreciate why fans and critics use words like astonishing, perfect, staggering, overwhelming to describe Marta's work -- words reserved for artistic masters like, well, Guthrie, Solti and Hopkins.

Marta has remained active through her 90s, singing -- accompanied by her son, the excellent pianist Marjan Kiepura -- at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Café Sabarsky in Neue Galarie, accepting honors at cultural events here and abroad and teaching master classes at the Manhattan School of Music.

Asked how she'd like to be pictured on her upcoming birthday, Marta told us, "Imagine instead of me at 100, you would have a bottle of Chateau Lafitte!"

Here's to a satisfying and, one hopes, a widely honored centennial year for a superb, shining star. (Hat tip to Don Hauptman for inspiring this blog.)

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