Remembering Tatiana Troyanos

Robert Wilder Blue


The September 1982 issue of Opera News featured Tatiana Troyanos on the cover, in honor of her Met opening night in Der Rosenkavalier. Inside, Robert Jacobson's interview with her begins, "An air of mystery enshrouds Tatiana Troyanos. She's a haunted Greek specter with the glamour of a tragedienne. It's doubtful that anyone really knows her to the core. She's enigmatic, elusive, shy of her public image, complex, fitting no particular mold, able to convey sultry beauty and boyish impetuousness on-stage. It is this sense of mystery, this febrile fiber that makes her stage performance so unique. That smoldering interior, that nervous edge, that sense of reaching out yet holding in, colors and shapes the characters she plays, the music she sings. There is nothing laid-back or predictable about anything she does. Yet mention this sense of wildness or even panic, and she seems surprised, cocking her head in astonishment. Troyanos inhabits a carefully formed world in which music and performing are her very sense of being. It's a kind of protective cocoon that shields her from the outside world, that gives her immense satisfaction, that steels her against memories of a jarring childhood, that gives her a sense of worth."

The first time I heard Tatiana Troyanos was in December 1978 on a visit to New York (from Eugene, Oregon). My first day there, I went to the Met and bought a standing room ticket for that evenings performance of Aïda. I had not heard of any of the singers. It turned out to be a rather dismal, routine performance; the production was lifeless and the singers struggled with their roles. All but one that is: Tatiana Troyanos as Amneris. I don't remember the details of her performance but I remember thinking, What a voice! Years later I read that she didn't like the role. "I was never crazy about Amneris. I don't have the personality for it. I'm not mean, bitchy, conniving, nor do I have the weight and color in the voice. Maybe as I get on in life, I'll get meaner." (Opera News, September 1982, p. 9.)

Between 1978 and 1993 I saw Troyanos many times, in most of the roles she sang in San Francisco and New York. The variety of those roles is amazing: Santuzza, Poppea, Julius Caesar, Didon, Brangaene, Venus, Eboli, Ariodante, Dorabella, Sesto, Octavian, Giulietta, Countess Geschwitz, the Composer, Orlofsky, and Clarion. Surveying this list one begins to see what was one of her most distinctive traits and one of the things that made her unique: her versatility. During the 1979-80 season at the Met, for instance, Troyanos sang Hansel and Kundry (both in house role debuts) and Eboli. There have certainly been other singers who have sung these three roles. But, it is hard to imagine another singer having the ability to sing them all as well as she did and in one season. Vocal requirements aside, not many would be suited temperamentally to such a diverse trio nor good enough actresses to pull them off. Troyanos commented, "I need the versatility! Jimmy Levine likes my versatility and says I will go into the Met annals as the most versatile singer in this period. [I am] excited by challenge. I need it fast-moving, with pressures." (Opera News, September 1982, p. 9.)

The voice was even throughout and seamless between registers; the breath control never failed. There was an intensity in the voice that was like that of Callas. The colors ranged from husky to steely with an extraordinary number of hues in between. It was powerful and beautiful -- at home in Handel and Mozart as well as Wagner, Strauss and Berg. Throughout her career she had thrilling, secure high notes. Her characters lived: they existed in the imaginary circumstances with the broadest emotional range and the most specific attention to the moment. In this regard she was like the greatest singing actors of recent time: Leonie Rysanek, Elizabeth Söderström, Teresa Stratas, Jon Vickers, Catherine Malfitano.

She was a combination of contradictions: goddess-like power and human frailty, a glamorous woman and an impulsive young man. She (like Frederica von Stade) was truly believable in trouser roles. Her "male" roles were not put together from stock behavior. Each was individual: her Hansel was a mischievous but touching child; Octavian was brimming with teenage sexual energy; Sesto was caught between adolescence and manhood; the Composer was an idealistic young man.

Looking at photographs of Troyanos in her various roles one can see the amazing gallery of characters. As Didon she stands with regal bearing, but the expression on her face is one of vulnerability, almost pain. As Geschwitz she looks strong and proud but guarded. Her Hansel is bursting with impishness; her Giulietta is glamorous and seductive. As Jocasta she has a white streak in her hair that makes her look 20 years older, an indomitable matriarch. As the Composer her energy and idealism burst from the page. One can almost hear her rapturous praises of music. As Caesar she is a tormented warrior caught between love (or lust) and duty to state.

When I watched Troyanos I saw and heard a vulnerability. Let's face it: standing on the stage of an internatinal opera house, singing a leading role, is a pretty vulnerable place to be, the voice dependent on two thin vocal chords and the ability to control and put to positive use a volcano of nervous energy. Some singers make it look easy. Others hold back, remaining at a distance and not quite giving 100% -- the more safe, the less vulnerable. Troyanos neither held back nor played it safe. She sang as if walking a tightrope without a net. Every performance was do-or-die. One heard rumors that she literally had to be pushed onto the stage at moments when she was in a crisis of stage fright. But once out there, she risked all by giving her all.

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Matthew Epstein, Troyanos's American agent, said of her, "She is as controversial offstage as she is on, but a total delight. With all her swings of happy and unhappy moods and periods of pressure, there is still a sense of incredible intelligence and instinct behind everything she does.... Her problems are understandable in light of the kind of performer she is, never placid or even-tempered. But she is not temperamental either, in the sense of doing personal damage to anyone -- only suffering in herself to perform.... What makes Tatiana special is that odd combination of enormous strength and an almost palpitating, sensual quality. It's a vibrancy that pleases the musical and emotional possibilities."

"She is a superb colleague who is adored and admired -- also by conductors and directors, even though she challenges them. She expects and accepts criticism and responds to it and develops through it.... Underneath is that fascinating combination of having to be directed and an incredible sense of what she needs to do, despite strong direction.... Everything is deeply felt." (Opera News, September 1982, p. 9.)

In Jacobsen's interview, Troyanos commented, "One of the problems is that I put so much energy into the music and the performance that things get overloaded in the wrong way. This makes it good and bad, with pluses and minuses. I'm learning to relax and not take things so seriously in a negative way. Believing in oneself, making insecurities work for you instead of being a hindrance, is hard to learn. My intensity is that insecurity, but it has to work in the rest of your life too. Music and the fear of failing can't be so intense that there is room for nothing else. You have to come to constancy in your relation to your work. With me it fluctuates. I am not constant or secure. I tend to lose track, but I work on it.

"There's a wildness about me. I am much stronger inside now, but certain things never go away. There are things in me which I live with and channel into exciting performances. I have this do-or-die determination, probably to overcome past difficulties, insecurities, fears. I tend to improve with performances and with the years. I hate opening nights! If only it could be the third performance. Calmness is just not there. Maybe I should use yoga to focus my energies, but I hold onto this -- it's the way I function, and habits are hard to break. If I were composed, you wouldn't know who I was. Let's call it exuberance! I bring pressures on myself, and the profession brings them, too. If my frame of mind is positive, it's easier, but there's always that fear of failure.

"You are only as good as your last performance, so it's tenuous. I think about these things, I'm concerned about the positive and negative, but I have to be less intense. I have given a poor performance and lost my voice and gotten bad reviews, but the world hasn't ended -- it just stood still for a few moments, and the next day it went on.

"I like to mimic and follow directions... I like strong directors, conductors, colleagues. I do what's written but am not overly analytical. I'm basically musical, which helps. My mind sops up technical things quickly, but I have to digest a character over a long period. I go over everything in my mind after a day's work, and I'm impatient to find the essence of the character.... I like liberty in direction, freedom to find my way of doing it. I ask a director for a list of adjectives about a character , about feelings I'm trying to find. Then I go home and think about it. I am specific.... Also, I'm lucky that I look like the roles I do, whether it's Octavian or Carmen or Kundry or Giulietta. It's a flexible look and I'm a flexible actress. I must get ahold of a role or die, once I say yes to doing it. I love rehearsals where it all happens, the work process. But a director has to be ready to for me!" (Opera News, September 1982, p. 9.)

As I think back on her performances there is one small moment, an almost inconsequential detail, which I have never forgotten. I once studied with an acting teacher who said that good actor can often be judged by what she is doing when not the center of attention. Watch a really good actor sometime when he or she is not in the forefront of the scene, when he or she is sitting in the background just listening. Sometimes you'll find that performance more interesting than what is going on center-stage. After Eboli sings the Veil Song in the Met's current production Don Carlo, she remains downstage, observing the proceedings between Elisabetta, Filipo, Carlo and Rodrigo. The scene is a garden in intense afternoon sun. One evening, I was watching Troyanos and I saw her glance up at the sun, take out her handkerchief and dab her forehead. It was a such a small detail but I remember it because it epitomized her ability to be the character in the moment. The first time I saw it I thought maybe it was Troyanos the singer dabbing responding to the stage lights. But it was a detail I saw in every performance. Clearly it was Eboli's reaction to the physical and dramatic circumstances.

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