Singers sometimes tell all
By Joel Kasow
Crespin: A la scène à la ville.
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.
Doda Conrad: Dodascalies: Ma chronique du XXe
Arles: Actes Sud, 1997.
Hugues Cuénod: D'une voix légère.
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
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edition have been replaced by four new chapters and an epilogue, with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has been replaced by a simple listing of operatic roles or works sung.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