January 30, 2011

Mrs. Hart

She sang on Broadway in the 1948 premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia. Did you know that? Serious stuff for a gal who is mostly known for hamming it up with the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and her wit on To Tell The Truth. The real truth is Kitty Carlisle Hart (neé Catherine Conn) studied voice with Anna E. Schoen-René, a student of the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia and her equally famous brother Manuel Garcia. She practiced measured trills assiduously. Sang scales, scales, scales, and more scales. In fact that's pretty much all she did with Schoen-René. Not repertoire, but scales to built technique. How do I know this? I interviewed Mrs. Hart a few years before she died (NYTimes Obit here). Her phone number was in the book. So I called her up. She answered the phone.







"Hello?"

"Hello.... Mrs. Hart?" I was told by a friend that she liked to be called by her married name.

"Yes."

"This is Daniel James Shigo. I'm researching Anna Schoen-René."

"My goodness! That's a name I haven't heard in a long while!"

"I understand you studied with her. I'd like to interview you about that if possible."

Pause.

"Do you have a publisher?" The last syllable was Mid-Atlantic, with nary an R.

"If you speak to me I might!"

"Oh!" Her voice a mixture of curiosity and wariness.

Pause.

"I don't have time right now, but call me again in a couple of weeks."







"Hello?"

"Hi.  This is Daniel James Shigo.  We spoke a few weeks ago about Anna Schoen-René, and about my interviewing you about your studies with her. "

"Oh yes! I'd love to talk to you!  She was so good to me!"  The /a/ vowel on the word love was conspicuously rounded.

We set a date. I showed up at a grand building on Madison Avenue at 10 AM, where a white-gloved doorman escorting me to her third floor apartment in an gleaming brass-gated elevator. The door opened right into her vestibule which glowed like a jewel box with its red silk walls. A maid greeted me, ushered me into a book and award-filled living room with a piano in one corner, and asked me to wait. Mrs. Hart swept into the room 45 minutes later, dressed in a flowing caftan; eyes sparkling, black hair freshly coiffed, bright red lips and rouged cheeks echoing the entry.

"So...you want to talk about my dear Schoen?" She said, shaking my hand and standing tall. We sat and plunged into conversation.







Hart's first teacher was Estelle Liebling (Beverly Sills teacher), who played bridge with her mother. But that didn't work out so well. Hart didn't learn anything from her. Since her mother only sought out the best, Schoen-René was consulted. Their association was a revelation. Hart credited Schoen-René with giving her a technique that made it possible for her to sing. She still worked with a pianist every Friday morning (Hart was 93 at the time.)  

Schoen-René classified Hart as a Dugazon (dark colored soprano), took her to the opera often, and instilled in her pupil the idea that the singer had to work incessantly on the instrument. 

"It never stops. You have to be disciplined about it." 








Schoen-René Hart gave her a technical foundation. And the devil was in the details. It took her a long time to be able to master a measured trill, but she did. She also learned how to sing messa di voce, crescendodecrescendo, mezza voce. All the finer points of the Old School. Yes. Schoen-René had her sing on /a/. That was the main vowel. Yes. She emphasized 'placement' and the 'attack'. It was always in the 'mask'. The sound was always 'forward.' Without Schoen-René her career wouldn't have happened. She wouldn't have been able to sing The Rape of Lucretia. Britten's music wasn't a walk in the Park after all.  

"I owe her everything!"

We talked for a good 45 minutes, the conversation ranging from technical matters to current musical happenings, the failings of certain sopranos, how she idolized Rosa Ponselle, her involvement with the New York State Council on the Arts, singing at the Met, and her one woman show. Afterwards, I walked out onto Madison Avenue feeling like I had touched another era, one where art had a capital A, and rounded vowels were synonymous with real class.

2 comments:

  1. I met Mrs Hart once, just briefly and by chance. I was with a client who had a show business connection through her parents, and she introduced me. Mrs Hart was incredibly gracious, and, yes, she was wearing a diamond heart necklace.

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  2. Great story, beautifully told.
    Many thanks!

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