For opera fans of a certain stripe, few keepsakes are as fragrant as a photograph of a beloved diva in one of her signature roles, personalized by a quote penned in the lady's own hand. You would expect—would you not?—something along the lofty lines of Tosca's "Vissi d'arte": I lived for art. If so, you have yet to make the acquaintance, across the Great Divide, of Therese Malten, the third, youngest by more than a decade, and possibly most bewitching leading lady from the inaugural, stage-consecrating summer of Parsifal at the shrine Wagner built to himself in the Bavarian backwater of Bayreuth. Her inscription on a postcard depicting her as Kundry, the ageless, tormented seductress she enacted? "Nie thu' ich Gutes": I never do good.
Was this a joke? False modesty? Deadly earnest? cryptic souvenir is reproduced in Therese Malten: Wagner's Devoted Kundry, a labor of love by the artists manager Michael Letchford whose current roster numbers one maestro, one tenor, and one pianist you will not have heard of. A trim, exquisitely produced pocket album of words and pictures, it is meant, the author writes, as "a footnote to an as-yet-unwritten biography of an important and highly praised singer."
Absent that larger context, the curious flotsam and jetsam assembled here casts the tantalizing spell of a Borges ficción. The core material consists of newspaper clippings, posters, a pressed sprig or two, personal notes by a pair of Henry Jamesian sisters from London who followed Malten around tut-tutting and oozing endearments that set the teeth on edge, which is part of the fun. There is intelligence on the distinctive purple ink Malten used, on her medical concerns, on the Christmas presents she distributed to her loyal household staff. To the archival material, which came his way by chance, Letchford adds commentary based on tenacious research and the odd stroke of luck. One way and another, his pages convey with great immediacy the texture of lives not all that remote in time yet hopelessly beyond recall, practically alien. If not stranger than fiction, truth is certainly shaggier, denser with pregnant detail.
Born in 1855, Malten lived until 1930. Her final performance, as Isolde, came in 1903. We hear about the ovations and floral tributes in the diva's own effusions, worthy of James McCourt's cult legend Mawrdew Czgowchwz. What we cannot hear is Malten's singing, which alas was never recorded, though the requisite technology did exist, at least in primitive form. So our impressions of her art depend on the testimony of those who heard her. Letchford's cache includes reviews of her last appearances in St. Petersburg, where she was a pillar of Wagner seasons mounted by the great impresario and tour manager Angelo Neumann. According to the available reports, by 1898 the years had either taken their toll or left Malten's instrument untouched. No one denied her powers as a singing actress. In a schizophrenic, condescending notice of Die Walküre, the composer César Cui acknowledges Malten in passing as "a worthy daughter of Wotan," who "produces her exclamations and her glissandi to top C with inimitable assurance and chic." Never before reprinted, and translated now for the first time, Cui's essay attempts to demolish Wagner, yet perversely affirms his genius at every turn.
Though Malten by no means confined her repertoire to Wagner, his heroines form the leitmotif of her career. It was on the strength of her Senta, in Der fliegende Holländer, that the Master invited her into the original Parsifal cast. Amalia Materna, the Brünnhilde of the inaugural cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen, had a prior claim on the opening and closing nights of the run. But such was Wagner's satisfaction with Malten that he invited her to share his box on closing night. There he crowned her with laurel—no casual token from the creator of Die Meistersinger. Six months later, Wagner was no more, and Malten swiftly came into her own as a chief keeper of his flame. It was she who sang Kundry in the private performance of Parsifal for King Ludwig II in Munich on May 3, 1884, and at the London concert premiere of the opera at the Royal Albert Hall on November 10 of that year. Her reign as Kundry, Isolde, and Brünnhilde continued for nearly two decades, and she went out in a blaze of glory.
She retired to Villa Malten, a neo-Renaissance palazzo presumably built at her own expense in the garden district of Dresden, where it still stands, surrounded by baronial grounds. In a private communication, Letchford writes that the Communists converted it into one of their notorious tenements, but that today it is back in private hands, housing a gallery and a boutique pension with rooms for two or three guests at a time. The current owners seem to have known nothing of the mansion's history when they moved in. "Alas," Letchford concludes, "nothing of Malten remains apart from painted ceilings and her initials in the gates to the property."
Published nearly two years ago, Therese Malten: Wagner's Devoted Kundry is listed on amazon.com as unavailable. Not so. The word from the horse's mouth is that of the initial print run of 200 plus unbound sheets, 100 copies are still in stock. To place an order, visit Letchford's landing page. The advertised price of £26 or $42 may seem high for what is a very slender publication when all is said and done. But shipping and handling are included, production values cost money, and collector's items command a premium.
One more thing: the to-the-trade discount—£20, all in—may now be had for the asking.