WILMINGTON - Seldom does such a strong, complete vocal personality leap across the decades - full of steely confidence, haunting mystery, and emotional gravity - especially one attached to a name that's completely unknown.
Mascia Predit was a Latvian soprano who retired to Wilmington before dying in 2001 in her 90s. Now, she unexpectedly reappears on disc, thanks to Philadelphia-area sound archivist Ward Marston - and thanks to a decade of work by friends whose devotion to her is very nearly unconditional.
"I can't tell you why she isn't better known," said Opera Delaware music director Jeffrey Miller. He was instrumental in tracking down rare recordings for Predit's CD resurrection. "She had a shimmering quality to her voice . . . and every note that comes out of her mouth is connected to intent. There's not one empty note on the entire CD. So that's great singing."
The few who know her work - until now, documented mainly on anthologies of great 20th-century singers - would agree. But how could anybody that good become so lost? Therein lies a tale of a picaresque life. We see Predit emerging from Italy after World War II, fielding offers from the Metropolitan Opera, disappearing behind the Iron Curtain, reappearing in the 1971 classic film Death in Venice, and then finding a home in the Washington/Baltimore/Wilmington area - on her own, sometimes abrasive, terms.
"The lady was - my God - an artist from the top of her head down to her toenails. You could just tell," said Philadelphia singer Janice Fiore, who took lessons with Predit and became enthralled with her teaching without having heard her perform in person or on recordings. "But it wasn't at all happiness and bliss. I'd leave lessons and want to drive my car into a stone wall. She was hard to deal with . . . but opened my eyes and ears to exactly what was going on vocally."
"Art is jealous," Predit once wrote. "If you give your whole soul to art . . . only crumbs are left . . . for private life. And for crumbs, you only get a miserly reward."
Miller talks about how the 80-something Predit (she claimed not to know her age) needed only to walk into a room to command attention. During her 1940s career, she hobnobbed with royalty and worked with some of the great artists of her generation. But later, it was far different. Her student and friend Jean Scalessa recalls shepherding the elder Predit around Wilmington, "and people would look right past her and talk to me as if she didn't exist. I learned how easy it is for others to misjudge somebody because she had an accent and she was old."
Coming from the upper classes of Riga when it was one of the most glamorous cities of pre-World War II Europe, Predit was discovered by the great Russian bass singer Feodor Chaliapin. In an unpublished autobiographical sketch, made available by Scalessa, Predit recalled Chaliapin's evaluation of her talent, an evaluation borne out in her recordings: "He said I sing with such coloring in my voice that correctly corresponds with the meaning of the words."
Despite family protests, Predit made brief trips to Italy and Switzerland for vocal training - and with a singular work ethic. She would work on a single song for five straight hours, and a single concert program for eight months. Reviews in Riga and Italy were worshipful. But then came a fateful trip to Italy during World War II. Predit found herself barred from returning to Latvia and to her husband and family. With the Soviet Union occupying wartime Latvia, tens of thousands were killed or deported. Among her family, only her son survived, somewhere in Siberia.
London was a receptive haven for Predit's talent. She sang with many of the great conductors, and was offered the role of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro at the Met - one of several opportunities she curiously turned down. Two recording labels in the 1940s gave her optimum working conditions, Cetra with an orchestral recording of Mussorgsky songs conducted by Igor Markevitch, and HMV with Russian songs accompanied by Gerald Moore.
In one of his books, Moore dissects Predit's interpretation of a Tchaikovsky song as a model of vocal art. The vibrancy of her voice, combined with her strength of interpretation, created what Moore called "the iron hand in the velvet glove." Yet, after 1952 - when Predit rerecorded Mussorgsky songs in Berlin with Markevitch - she disappears. Miller's theory: premature vocal decline. Or maybe not premature: She may have been six years older than she said she was.
After remarrying in Italy, Predit did, indeed, vanish. In the late 1950s, she returned to Latvia with hopes of being reunited with her son - and then was unable to get out. In Italy, she was presumed dead. When she finally emerged in 1970, she discovered husband No. 2 hadn't waited for her.
Somehow, she contacted director Luchino Visconti - with whom she had discussed opera film projects years before - and was cast in Death in Venice in a scene near the end that was apparently improvised for her. Dressed as an aristocratic Russian tourist, she sits in a wicker beach chair, singing a haunting lullaby as the camera pans across a beach deserted amid a cholera epidemic. The voice was still there, though it had dropped to something close to the tenor range.
That renewed visibility led to connections - perhaps not the ones she wanted, as she wanted to live out her days in Florence. She found it more viable to teach in Washington and then to retire in Wilmington. Her grandson visited from Russia. Miller made sure all of her personal collection of her recordings were preserved, but she hardly had her entire output. Even the celebrated Markevitch recordings from 1945 are so rare only two or three sets are known to exist. How do such losses happen? Postwar chaos, says Marston. And when a performer has little stage visibility, recordings aren't promoted or reissued. Some Predit recordings remain missing, says Miller.
Even now, her reissues aren't easy to access. The 1952 Berlin recordings can be found on Amazon.com on the small Audite label. Marston's disc is available only as a bonus for subscribers to his Marston label. Miller is glad the recordings are published at all. "Let's be realistic: There are maybe 25 of us left on the planet who are going to be interested in Mascia Predit. But this is the recording that may end up in the Library of Congress. And people will be able to hear her in the best possible sound."