Tuesday, June 10th, 2014...12:52 pm

Steber and Vanessa

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This post is the second in a series on the Eleanor Steber collection to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. The first post can be seen here.

Having an opportunity to explore Eleanor Steber’s music collection has been a real treat for me. Way back in another lifetime while studying opera at The Juilliard School, I had the honor of coaching briefly with Miss Steber in her last decade. She taught singing and as in my case, occasionally coached students as they prepared opera roles. I thought she was the height of diva fashion as she favored a black silk turban!

2006MT-18 Steber Vanessa Photo

I wish I could relive that hour now: I’d have so many questions about her life and career. Ahh, regrets. Above is a photo of Steber in even more stylish headgear for one of her most famous roles, that of Vanessa, in the opera by Samuel Barber.

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Vanessa was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on 15 January 1958. Sena Jurinac was originally cast in the role of Vanessa, but Steber stepped in six weeks before opening night when Jurinac unexpectedly withdrew. Steber’s collection includes an annotated copy of her vocal score for the production, complete with blocking notes as seen above.

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As was common at the time, she worked from a diazotype reproduction of a copyist score, which looks (and smells!) kind of like a blueprint. This first version of Vanessa was in four acts, which Barber later tightened up considerably into the three-act version with which we are familiar today. Steber’s score shows some of the inevitable changes wrought in rehearsal to Barber’s original conception. For instance, in the opening of Vanessa’s first act aria “Do not utter a word” seen above, Barber clearly thought better of accompanying Vanessa’s first line. This first phrase, so haunting and vulnerable after the tumult of Vanessa’s agonized anticipation and Anatol’s entrance, simply wouldn’t have had the same effect accompanied by the orchestra, which must have been evident during rehearsals.

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Other annotations in the aria continue to show additions and corrections to the score itself, but Steber’s annotations also betray how fast she had to learn the music. The counting of beats on the measures above are unusual in the annotated scores I’ve seen so far in her collection, as she had excellent musical skills and would not normally have needed to note such reminders. This middle section of the aria also illustrates some of the major changes Barber made later, as the vocal line and text from number 25 through the next page seen below, are quite different from the later version.

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The music from the text of “How bitter –“ through “The hardest gift to keep” is less cumulative, less urgent in this version. You can listen to Steber sing this early version of the aria, which seems to be from a commercial recording of the Met cast recorded in February and April 1958. I find Barber’s conception of this text, and his later changes, to be particularly illuminating as they prepare for the climax of “All this I have done for you” and its subsequent musical explosion in completely different ways.

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Other big changes can be seen near the end of the aria, in the second line of text “begins when love has died …” What a tremendous opportunity to study the evolution of Barber’s score!

2006MT-18 Vanessa Souvenir Music

Another fascinating discovery in her collection was that souvenir music was given out at the premiere. The cover reproduces one of Cecil Beaton’s designs for Vanessa’s costumes, and the music is for one of the most-often excerpted pieces in the opera, “Under the willow tree.” I’ve only poked through half of the music boxes so far, and can’t wait to see what splendors await in the rest of the music assembled by this iconic soprano.

[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]

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