“She was always much too modest, but Helen did a hell of a lot too,” confides Mignon Dunn, who couldn’t say enough nice things about her friend and former Metropolitan Opera colleague, mezzo-soprano Helen Vanni. Dunn, one of the most versatile and long-lasting mezzos at the Met, jumped at the opportunity to speak with me about Vanni and the 402 performances Vanni gave at both the old and new houses.
While writing and researching a book on various singers, I kept coming across the name Helen Vanni. Who, I pondered, was this singer who must have had a very long and important career but today seems, perhaps, less known than other singers of the past?
The Metropolitan Opera online archives cleared up this mystery citing performances with some of the biggest singers of Vanni’s generation and beyond. I reached out to Vanni, now living in Santa Fe, NM, to speak with her about her longtime career and sharing the stage with so many great artists.
“I sang with Leontyne Price [as Ines] at her debut in Il trovatore as Leonora. It was a very successful performance—not because of me, but because of Leontyne and [Franco] Corelli,” says Vanni. (This was Corelli’s debut performance, also.) Then of course there was that other performance in which Vanni sang Flora on Anna Moffo’s debut as Violetta in La traviata. “I did lots of Suzukis [Madame Butterfly] and Floras in Traviata with singers like Renata Tebaldi and some of the other fine sopranos who were there,” Vanni recalls.
And though she adored Tebaldi’s voice, it was Moffo whom she preferred as Verdi’s tragic heroine. “Tebaldi had such a beautiful, rich voice—but I thought her vocal production was so heavy that is was difficult for her, while it seemed so easy for Anna Moffo,” she says. “I think Tebaldi limited herself because of the heaviness of the voice, but that’s just a singer’s opinion,” she adds.
And then there were performances with “La Divina,” Maria Callas. “She was a legend in many ways—personality, artistically, the voice, all of those things. I remember in Traviata, the first act, one of the straps of her beautiful red-laced gown came loose. So she came over to me and said, ‘Tear the other one off, too.’ I did that for her. She was very pleasant to be on stage with. She was a very exciting singer,” Vanni notes.
Born Helen Spaeth to German parents in Davenport, Iowa, Vanni started her musical lessons with piano at age seven. “My father was a musician in his family, so I had music in my bones,” she says. Starting her vocal studies with Ethel Waterman at age 12 in Davenport, she soon was studying German in high school and then college, where she was also majoring in music. “We heard a lot of German at home as my mother and father both spoke it. It happened to be a marvelous preparation for my education.”
Vanni’s association with Waterman was a long one—but when that ended, she found herself in New York with the legendary singer Edythe Walker. “Her career was mostly in Europe, and when she died, I was advised by some of the coaches at the Metropolitan Opera to study with Marinka Gurewich.” Among Gurewich’s early pupils was soprano Martina Arroyo.
Then suddenly Vanni’s career started to pick up. “I had been at the Met auditions in 1955 and got as far as the finals. They called me in 1956 to debut in the small role of the page in Rigoletto as the young singer who was to do the role had a nervous breakdown,” Vanni recalls. “They needed someone right away, so that’s how I debuted in the fall of 1956.
“Early on, I did a lot of ‘pants parts’—Cherubino [Le nozze di Figaro], Nicklausse [Les contes d’Hoffmann], Siébel [Faust], and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. I did Cherubino with wonderful artists like Eleanor Steber and Cesare Siepi. Siepi was a favorite because he was such a great artist. George London was also a favorite; I kind of liked the basses!” she laughs.
Moreover, Dunn, a Met legend in her own right, particularly recalls Vanni’s Dorabella in Così fan tutte. “It was just adorable!” she raves. “She just is so special. We were at the Met at the same time and we were very young, covering everything,” adds Dunn. “Helen was always totally prepared, totally charming—a very high-level performer and singer and her voice always carried in the theatre.”
But a singer’s career has many challenges, as Dunn and Vanni both relate, especially under the autocratic reign of Rudolf Bing, then the Met’s general manager. “It was a hard place to be if you were a young American singer,” recalls Dunn, “because we were not the favorites of Mr. Bing at all. He was not that impressed with the young American singers and didn’t treat us very well, but we kind of made it in spite of that.”
“When he invited me to sign another three-year contract, he wouldn’t give me the things I had proven myself in with other companies, including Santa Fe Opera, so I decided to leave,” Vanni says. “He told me he thought I was stubborn, but he didn’t change his offer, so I did leave. I was back later for partial pieces.” Bing, while having a penchant for European singers, did however, maintain a healthy roster of American ones as well.
In the interim, Vanni got to do those things she longed for: concert work, recitals, and recordings. “I began to work with all the orchestras in this country and recitals throughout the country for Columbia Artists.” André Mertens, head of Columbia Artists Management, had signed Vanni after she made her Town Hall debut in New York City in 1960. “I always loved the oratorios. Things like Verdi’s Requiem—a real thrill to do, and Mozart’s C Minor Mass was one of my very favorites,” she recalls. “And I also sang Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the role of Jocasta, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and West Berlin.”
Splitting her time in the summers performing for the Santa Fe Opera and the winter at the Met could sometimes challenge the singer, wife, and mother. “I had a busy life! My husband (Mario) was always there to help and was home if I was touring or performing,” Vanni recalls. One favorite memory in particular, was singing Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe in Santa Fe where her young daughter had a small role. “She just had a few lines but it was nice for her too, to be on stage,” recalls Vanni.
Another highlight of her long career was recording Schoenberg’s The Book of the Hanging Gardens with pianist Glenn Gould. “A pleasure,” Vanni says. Among her many opera recordings now available on CD, other important works such as Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Erich Leinsdorf, Ned Rorem’s Gloria, and Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum with Eugene Ormandy have all been recorded.
But Vanni’s career didn’t end there. Upon her leaving the operatic stage, she held teaching posts at both the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. One of her former students, mezzo Dolora Zajick, recalled the good fortune of discovering Vanni. “I got lucky,” says Zajick. “I got turned down by Juilliard, so I tried out for the Manhattan School of Music, and Helen Vanni was there. She recognized that I was a Verdi mezzo right away. Helen taught me how to sing with elegance.”
Still, Vanni recalls the glorious days of the old Met and lauds the new house as well. “When I first joined the Met, I sang two or three times a week, so I did count up quite a few [402, to be exact]. I think the acoustics in the new house are much better. When you were singing, you could feel the acoustics going right out—but it was kind of marvelous to be singing in the old house with all the gilt and gold,” she recalls. “It’s a thrill to be on the Met stage, period.”
Jussi Björling, Carlo Bergonzi, Victoria de los Angeles, and Leonard Warren were just a few of Vanni’s favorite singers and co-artists. “There are not too many of my colleagues alive anymore,” she says. “I started out never having been on an operatic stage before and grew into all of this—in the best way, of course, working with marvelous coaching staff at the Met,” she says.
Not bad for a singer whose career started out as the page in Rigoletto and whose last performance was that of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. “I was there a long time,” Vanni says. “That was part of the wonder of it all—to be with so many fine performers!”