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Singers sometimes tell all

By Joel Kasow

Régine Crespin: A la scène à la ville.
Arles: Actes Sud, 1997.
Edition revue et augmentée de l'ouvrage publié par la Librairie Arthème Fayard en 1982 sous le titre La Vie et l'amour d'une femme.
Published in English translation: On Stage, Off Stage: A Memoir.
Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Doda Conrad: Dodascalies: Ma chronique du XXe siècle
Arles: Actes Sud, 1997.

Hugues Cuénod: D'une voix légère.
Entretiens avec François Hudry.
Paris/Lausanne: La Bibliothèque des Arts, 1996

PARIS, 20 February 1998 - Singers' autobiographies are a special genre, and two of the titles under review represent the extremes of the spectrum, from total personal discretion (Conrad) to nothing left out (Crespin). There is no doubt which is more fun to read but opera fans who as a consequence set aside Doda Conrad's memoirs will be depriving themselves of a fascinating chronicle of the 20th century by a "lesser" singer who knew the movers in many spheres, as he never hesitates to remind us.

The first appearance of Régine Crespin's book in 1983 was already a great treat, but was never translated into English, surprising when we consider the diva's reputation in the United States, but this omission has been rectified with the new edition. Crespin's discussion of her love life, her sex life, her abortion, her cancer, are refreshingly frank, perhaps too much so, but we would not like to be without her perceptions of Karajan, Wieland Wagner, the terrors of recording, the art of aging well and, of course, reflections on singing. The last two chapters of the early edition have been replaced by four new chapters and an epilogue, with no changes in the early material, so that we do not know if the friend who was no longer a friend in 1983 had returned to the fold in 1997. The pictures in the earlier edition were printed on glossy paper so that they are easier to look at, while the chronology of performances has been replaced by a simple listing of operatic roles or works sung.

Doda Conrad's aims were other: born in 1905 in Poland and dying only recently (January 1998), he was a participant in much of this century's history. He seems to have known everyone and used this access successfully, from the salons of Paris (the Polignacs) to America's cultural magnates, to such cultural figureheads as Nadia Boulanger. His engagement in the American army at the start of World War II makes a good story, and his subsequent service in post-War Germany offers many another good story alongisde reflections which are unfortunately pertinent today as well. We are party to his enormous dislike of artists who collaborated with the Nazis and nonetheless had enormous post-war careers thanks to the powers of such "diabolic" figures as Walter Legge, and a scene of Arnold Schoenberg's domestic tyranny, but also to his close relations with such figures as Artur Schnabel, Wanda Landowska, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, and many more. It's a fascinating tale, including much of Conrad the American soldier, but what is missing is any clue about the person behind the persona, other than learning a great deal about another "intelligent" singer, Marya Freund, Conrad's mother and the first interpreter of Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" and "Pierrot Lunaire" as well as Satie's "Socrate".

That is certainly not the case with the work of another recently deceased nonagenarian, Hugues Cuénod. D'une voix légère is a series of conversations with François Hudry which took place over the last ten years of the tenor's life, in which he recounts - with suitable discretion for someone his age - his experiences, nowhere as dramatic as those of his sometime colleague Doda Conrad. Nonetheless, the glimpses of some monstres sacrés are amusing and revelatory, without the admonitory note sometimes encountered in Dodascalies.

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