“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”

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Some of the press was very disappointed when I couldn’t tell them step by step what had happened. They kept asking questions until we got to Washington.

Do you think Mr. Hurok had been purposely trying to shield you, or do you think it was just because you were all the way across the country?

I was a long way away but also he was a very astute man and he knew I couldn’t do anything to help.

Wasn’t it very upsetting, though?

Well, when I first knew about it, it was. Music to me means . so much, such beautiful things, and it seemed impossible that you could find people who would curb you, stop you, from doing a thing which is beautiful. I wasn’t trying to sway anybody into any movements or anything of that sort, you know.

How did you feel about the performance at the Lincoln Memorial?

It was a tremendous thing and my heart beat like mad—it’s never beat like that before—loud and strong and as though it wanted to say something, if you know what I mean. I don’t like to use the word protesting but my reaction was, what have I done that should bring this onto my heart? I was not trying to cut anybody down. I just wanted to sing and to share.

Your never sang in opera until 1935, did you? Were you anxious to sing opera?

Oh, yes, indeed. To come home from high school, we had to go under a railroad trestle and the trains would be rolling along. And I remember thinking, “Oh, if just one of these days I could be on a train with the Metropolitan Opera Company going somewhere.” And I prayed to the evening star, and I prayed and I prayed. So I had dreamed about it for a very long time—from high school days through the better part of my career. Finally when the opportunity came, how nonchalantly it was proposed! I saw Mr. Bing [at a party at Sol Hurok’s]. He came up to me and said, “How would you like to sing at the Met?” as nonchalantly as you can imagine. My heart was beating so fast and so loudly that I could scarcely hear what else was said. I did make out, however, “Did you ever sing——?” After that I didn’t know what name he was saying. I said, “Well, no, I really haven’t.” That answer would have been true for any opera because I hadn’t sung opera.

H ow did it go?

It was a tremendous experience for me. I’ve never found the right words to explain what I felt about all that. I wasn’t ready for all those trimmings, so many people moving about at the same time, you know, and being one little segment of something. It was so joyful. I only wished that it had come earlier in life when I might have been able to bring more to it.

Were you readily accepted by the other members of the company?

Yes, I made some wonderful friends there. To describe what the feeling was, the first day I appeared at the stage door, there were cameras all over the place. It was a moment of speechlessness for me. And the first thing I heard when I got inside was a man, a stagehand, who said to me, “Welcome home.”

Your singing career was a very long one. Uo singers’ voices normally stay at their peak that long, or were you particularly lucky?

I might have been lucky, and yet I do believe that as the body begins to slow, slant, deteriorate—whatever one wants to say—the mechanism that singers must use can be affected by this decline. When I was young, I could put my head back a little, and sing high C without any trouble at all. I wouldn’t attempt a high C today unless I worked a very great deal. I have no idea how long a person should be able to sing, but I know there are some who sang very very many years longer than I did.

Does the thought of age bother you?

Not really. Of course, I don’t run upstairs two at a time like I used to. But if you realize you’ve had an active life, you don’t have to prove it now to anybody.

I have noticed that nothing written about you ever gives your age.

No.

 

And yet, there is going to be a special concert this month—sponsored by Young Audiences, in honor of your seventy-fifth birthday, isn’t that right?

Yes. I just decided, not really decided, but I was thinking whether or not I would let them have the concert at seventyfive or what, but that’s what they said they were planning. It reminds me of Mr. Hurok. Somebody said, Now, Mr. Hurok, we’d like to do this for you but we have to know how old you are. So he said, Yes. Just yes. And then after a while they said, You know, everyone says that you’re such and such a number of years old. And he said, All right, let them say it.

So you’re not guaranteeing anything?

[Laughing] No. No indeed.

In your autobiography you say, “I would be fooling myself to think I was meant to be a fearless fighter.” What did you mean by that?