Maggie Teyte: The Pursuit of Perfection

While studying the teaching of Jean de Reszke, the famous Polish Tenor (who will be the subject of another post), I learned that one of his students was the English soprano Dame Maggie Teyte.

Teyte's operatic career stretched over four decades, from her debut in 1906 as Zerlina to Lilli Lehmann's Countess when she was 18, to her farewell to opera in 1951 at the age of 63, singing Belinda to Kirsten Flagstad's Dido. She also memorably sang the title role in Debussy's opera Pelléas and Mélisande at the fledgling New York City Opera in 1948.  Her last concert appearance was in 1956.  

What a life! Teyte learned the role of Mélisande from Debussy himself, coached with Reynaldo Hahn (whom she adored), knew Melba, Tetrazzini, Garden, Flagstad and Fauré,  Ravel and Puccini, was married thrice, and counted Sir Thomas Beecham and George Enescu as her lovers.

Most readers, however, will know Teyte from her recordings of Mélodie, which won her great acclaim.

Here she is singing Debussy's L'heure exquise in 1945. The voice is still luminous and effortless.  And here she is singing Voici ce quil Pelléas in recital a year before her debut with New York City Opera. It takes one's breath away, knowing that she sang so beautifully for so long, doesn't it?  There are quite a few recordings, broadcasts and interviews posted on Utube which you can can peruse your leisure. The Melodié are considered a model for interpretation.  One is a recording of  Duparc's Phidylé which can be found at cantible-subito, a wonderful site.

How did she do it?

Teyte credited her vocal longevity to her technical studies with Jean de Reszke, which are outlined in a most excellent biography, The Pursuit of Perfection, written by Teyte's grandnephew Gary O'Conner in 1979 (Teyte's autobiography, Star on the Door, was published in 1958).

That de Reszke's pet little pupil, this "pink and white rosebud" should receive her first public challenge in Mozart, under Hahn, could not have been more auspicious. Learning Mozart was one of the first disciplines de Reszke set his students and finding her tessitura or vocal range was crucial to Maggie during those formative years, as it had been earlier to de Reszke. The traditional Italian practice of cementing a range out of two different methods of voice production- the chest voice, the voix de poitrine, and the head voice, the high soft palate- were rejected by de Reszke, as their effect was to weaken the chest of cords at their limits; and so he had to find what Maggie called a "medium" to bridge these "breaks" without harming the chest of cords. This he found by putting the sound in these traditional passages through the nose.  Maggie gradually settled down into the difficult tessitura of the lyric soprano (her voice, much to her disappointment, never had the weight of the full dramatic roles of Carmen and Tosca) by linking the three placings for the voice- the natural or speaking voice (or baritone, in a man), the chest voice, and the head voice- by "blending" them through the nasal passages.   From The Pursuit of Perfection by Garry O'Connor, p 64. 

Though I understand what O'Connor is getting at, I think he mistakes registration for matters of 'tonal placement,' a term which canny readers of this blog will know as not being outside the provenance of bel canto teachers. Simply put, there is a great difference between singing in the 'mask' and singing in the 'nose', the latter to be avoided as much as guttural timbre. Of course, this is a paradox: how does one sing in the 'mask' without singing in the nose? The answer (if one is not an autodidact) is to have a teacher who can teach the difference between the two via demonstration, which is what de Reszke undoubted did (hint: de Reszke has been credited with having the student sing while holding the nostrils closed so as to ascertain the difference).   

O'Connor's biography of his famous great-aunt is a witty, engaging and quite entertaining read. It also contains an appendix with de Reszke's exercises, a full discography of Teyte's recordings, an interview with Debussy, as well as Teyte's observations on singers and singing.  

Nothing less than perfection.