19 January 2005

Roberta Knie

The Kundry

"Her four notes, incidentally, sounded dandy," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on Knie's Kundry Act III Parsifal responsibilities (consisting of "two moans, a scream, and four sung notes") in their review of the Philly performances of the their orchestra's magnificent Berio/Parsifal pairing. They came to Carnegie Hall to do the same program last evening. I don't know about the four notes (I may have done an equally effective dienen in the shower this morning), but her two moans and scream were appropriately haunting and powerful. She came out with Gurnemanz, took her place and sat in the midst of the violins, shifted and gyrated as the scene pushed gradually, moaned theatrically, shrieked, then stood for her four notes, proceeded to gesture in reaction to Gurnemanz's words, and then upon Parsifal's appearance walked up and gazed eerily at him pretty much through the rest of the music. She had clear "magnetic emanations" (borrowing from the Zucker/Gencer intervista erotica).

I will try to write about the rest of the performance in the coming days. Meanwhile, I've been fascinated by her career recently, which had mostly come and gone before I knew who Wagner was. Fellow blogger Lisa Hirsch sent me a copy of a feature by David Patrick Stearns that appeared in the Inquirer in August 2004. I couldn't provide a link (can't seem to locate it in their web archive), so I will quote extensively:
In her day, you'd have heard opera soprano Roberta Knie at least a mile off, whether singing in the chorus of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in her home state of Oklahoma, in Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, or in G├Âtterdammerung at the famous Bayreuth Festival in Germany.

The 66-year-old Knie (pronounced knee), who so seamlessly blends with the denizens of Philadelphia's gracious Midvale Avenue, talks freely about having sung alongside some of the great opera talents of our time - and about maintaining "my Salome weight" or "my Isolde weight." And she could easily be singing still, because her retirement from performing wasn't prompted by loss of voice or lack of appreciation. In fact, her one commercial recording, a Tristan und Isolde recently issued on DVD, has won her renewed acclaim.


At a time of life when singers consolidate their careers, Knie walked out on Patrice Chereau's then-controversial, now-famous production of Wagner's Ring Cycle in Bayreuth, wrestled with viral pneumonia for three years, and lost a legal tangle with the Met. None of those would necessarily have finished her career.

Then, in 1991, she was diagnosed with a detaching retina. The physical stress of future singing, she was warned, could cause blindness. Immediately, Knie canceled plans to sing the title role in Strauss' Elektra, which might have restored her international standing. Four years ago, she survived colon cancer.


(At home), the room downstairs from the kitchen, where she conducts lessons, is stuffed with posters, photos and shelves of LP recordings. Being there isn't always pleasant for her: "I was going through some songs by Brahms the other night," she said, "and I sat and cried. There's all this wonderful music I never sang."


Her U.S. career had successes, but also her most conspicuous failures. She lost her voice in the final moments of a 1981 Tristan at the Met and had to speak the final scene. A Houston Turandot was even more vocally compromised. Finally ridding herself of pneumonia, Knie was hired for the Met's 1984 tour. Despite a successful rehearsal - and those who heard her in practice rooms verify that she was in fine voice - she was fired for reasons that made little sense, and when the American Guild of Musical Artists took on the Met, she lost on a technicality. Retreating to Europe, she found that managers were afraid to touch her for fear of crossing the Met.


But while walking her dog on a cold night in Graz (where she was teaching), she kept seeing gnats where there were none. It was her retina detaching, and when her doctor told her to choose between seeing and singing, the decision took 15 seconds: "I'd rather read than sing. Think of how much beauty there is to see that I haven't seen." Luck takes many forms: Had the Met incident not put her career on hiatus, Knie might now be blind.