Posts Tagged ‘Kiepura’

Screen tenors: Kiepura and the Polish question

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Jan Kiepura tneor

One of the difficulties of writing any sort of history is that you’re always at risk of colouring your narrative with the ideologies of the present. In Tenor: History of a Voice I had a small section on screen tenors and commented that history has tended not to look kindly on successful opera singers who later went on to have commercial success through recordings or films. Mario Lanza, Richard Tauber and Jan Kiepura were among those whose reputations seemed to have suffered in recent times in part because of spectacular success in their own lifetimes, reaching beyond the opera world with wider repertoires in different media.  I was taken up on this point by the pianist Marjan Kiepura, who is the son of Jan Kiepura and the great soprano Marta Eggerth.  Marjan reminded me that success on the screen (or with lighter material) in no way diminishes what these singers achieved in the opera house. He pointed to the example of the Three Tenors, whose legacy is surely to broaden the appeal of good singing, and who certainly wouldn’t have turned down the opportunities their commercial success brought them. Kiepura was ahead of his time in this respect: in the 1930s film was the new cutting edge medium, and no singer would have passed up the chance of screen stardom.  Of course, we can’t imagine what a reputation would consist of without all its constituent elements, but I wonder if in the case of Kiepura, Lanza and others our sometimes rather snobbish attitude to commercial success has coloured our judgement of their place in history. Kiepura, in contrast to Lanza who hardly set foot on an operatic stage at all, became a screen star as a result of his successful career in European opera houses. He happened to be blessed with the kind of full visual package that the new medium was crying out for, and the studios could expect considerable benefit from his already stellar reputation.

Kiepura arrives in Warsaw

Most tenor enthusiasts would acknowledge the art of Kiepura as equal to the finest examples of his time. In his native Poland his reputation was close to that of a national hero, with streets, monuments and even stamps and trains in his honour (if you want to travel from the UK to Poland by train, you take a lunchtime Eurostar to Brussels, a high-speed train to Cologne, then the overnight sleeper ‘Jan Kiepura’ from Cologne to Warsaw).

Kiepura was, of course, successful all over the world (becoming an American citizen in the 1940s), but the old division of Europe into East and West has often resulted in the marginalising of composers and performers from the central and eastern republics. The former Soviet bloc, by isolating the East from research into both the post-war and pre-Soviet period, effectively prevented the development of a coherent historical narrative.  I’ve touched on the cantorial tradition, the roots of which go back into and beyond the history of eastern Europe, but I also hope to give much more attention in future to the wider tenor history outside the conventionally recorded West.

I’m extremely grateful for the assistance of Marjan  in writing this short post.The family’s history is an extraordinary Marjan Kiepuraone, and YouTube will provide hours of audio and video of Jan Kiepura and Marta Eggerth, and indeed of Marjan himself. A good starting point for those wanting to explore the Kiepura legacy is Marjan’s own website, where you’ll find details of his own Chopin recording and a double CD of Marta Eggerth.  The latter, ‘My Life in Song’ is a wonderful compilation of Eggerth recordings between 1932 and 2002 (when Marta was 90) and features both Jan and Marjan. There are YouTube clips of Marta performing at 80 and 90, and many clips of Jan, ranging from Verdi and Puccini to operetta. I will update the Kiepura entry in the Biographical List of Tenors in due course, though there are surprisingly few authoritative sources.  Open Library contains links to books and articles, and there is a biography (in Polish) from 2006 by Wacław Panek. You’ll find a short web biography at History of the Tenor which also has some sound clips. The German Wikipedia entry is more comprehensive than its English counterpart, but both are eclipsed by the Polish entry.  CD Re-issues of Kiepura’s substantial catalogue are not extensive so far.  Volume 2 of the Pearl collection My Song For You (GEMM CD 9079) is also available; the Lebendige Vergangenheit site has a detailed breakdown of their Preiser compilation.

KiepuraThe NME site gives access to a huge number of audio and video clips of Kiepura singing in various languages. Almost all of them are examples of his exquisitely lyrical sound and fine control, especially when combining a diminuendo with a rallentando.  There are extraordinary clips of Marta Eggerth singing as freshly as ever at  80 (video) and 90 (audio), accompanied by Marjan Kiepura.

If anyone would like to add more info about recordings and literature on Jan Kiepura, do use the Comments box.

photo of Marjan Kiepura by Diane Brown

other photos by kind permission of the Kiepura family