Teresa Stratas Is a Lulu, a Soprano Siren Who Wowed the Met and Mehta (Among Many Men)
Her roles of late included both Marenka, the virginal catch in Smetana's The Bartered Bride, and Jenny, the hard-hearted harlot in the Brecht/Weill opera Mahagonny. On TV, Stratas keeps turning up as the court temptress in Strauss' Salomé and as the pious mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors. In last year's Paris premiere of Alban Berg's horror opera Lulu, she appeared in the title role of the rich, sadistic mistress who winds up a low slut, stabbed to death by Jack the Ripper. On that occasion, a flu-ridden Stratas sang full of antibiotics and anxieties. "The director insisted that I be Lulu, and not act her," she recalls. "He knew there is a lot of her life in mine. That filled the performance with borderline schizophrenia."
She was born Anastasia Strataki on a dining room table in a Toronto tenement. "My mother tried to get rid of me," she has said, referring to the family's poverty. Teresa did the first singing she can remember at 5 for an audience of three sewer rats in the basement of the diner run by her immigrant parents. Pistol Packin' Mama was her aria until her mother broke up the show and whipped her. As a teenage torch singer in Toronto clubs, Teresa learned to hold the center of attention in rooms filled with drunks, a skill which still works for her, she notes, in opera houses. At 20, after studying three years at the Toronto Conservatory, Stratas sang Smoke Gets in Your Eyes on Arthur Godfrey's talent show, and a listener phoned to tell her she should try the Met. She did later that year.
At her audition Met manager Rudolf Bing asked her to do some Mozart, and she told him she didn't know any. That seemed odd, and Bing asked if she could sing Isolde. Nope. "Ask her to sing Tristan. She won't know the difference," she heard one of Bing's aides suggest. "At the time, of course, I didn't," she laughs. But she was an unusually fast study. The Met rushed her onstage one night to replace an ailing soprano as Liù in Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. "I was too dumb to be terrified," she said. The reviews were too good to believe.
In the mid-'60s she teamed up with conductor Zubin Mehta, after he left his first wife. The affair was stormy, and in time Stratas said he asked her to give up singing. "I just couldn't see myself going through life as Mrs. Conductor," she says. They split around 1967 and a couple of years later he married TV actress Nancy Kovack.
British poet Tony Harrison is Teresa's current amour, and his framed manuscripts now outnumber Mehta's gift icons in her Upper West Side study. Even before she fought off a mugger on a New York street, she was a recluse. "I make my own dresses; I never go to the hairdresser; I never go to parties," she sums up. "With my background I find it very hard to justify the privileged life I have. It takes all my energy to do this very elitist thing. So why don't I channel these energies and be something like Mother Teresa?" she asks rhetorically. Versatile as Stratas is, that would seem an impossible role. But Stratas can't drop the thought. "Mother Teresa's really doing something that matters with her life," she says. "I'm just trying to justify mine."