Teresa Stratas was born on May 26, 1938, in Cabbagetown, Toronto, into a family of Greek decent. Her family owned a restaurant, where the young Stratas sang Greek folk songs in exchange for pennies. When she was twelve years old, she appeared on the CBC Radio’s program Songs of My People, where she performed Greek pop songs.
When Stratas was sixteen years old, she attended her first opera, which happened to be La Traviata. Stratas was astounded by the performance and, the same year, decided to audition at the Royal Conservatory of Music, having never previously received any formal vocal training, and having only ever seen one opera in her entire life. At the audition, she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, and yet her artistic potential was so great that she earned a three-year scholarship. At the Conservatory, Stratas studied with U of T Voice’s own Irene Jessner who said about Stratas’ talent and perfectionist nature, “Something has to be absolutely 100 per cent. Otherwise she doesn’t do it.” Stratas later returned to Toronto to study at U of T, and graduated from the Faculty of Music with an Artist Diploma in 1959, again under the instruction of Irene Jessner.
Stratas’ professional opera debut was at age twenty, at the Toronto Opera Festival (which later was to become the Canadian Opera Company), where she sang the role of Mimì in La bohème. The next year, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, from which came the opportunity to perform the role of Poussette in Manon at the Metropolitan Opera. Thus began a thirty-six year career at the Metropolitan Opera, where she appeared in 385 performances of 41 different roles.
While having a strong partnership with the Metropolitan Opera, Stratas also had the opportunity to perform with several of the world’s largest opera companies, including the Bolshoi Opera, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera, Paris Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Salzburg Festival and the Canadian Opera Company. Interestingly as well, on the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night of 1995, Stratas performed both the lead soprano roles in Pagliacci (opposite Luciano Pavarotti), and then Il Tabarro (opposite Placido Domingo).
It is her renowned acting prowess that sets Stratas apart as “the singing actor”. Not only did Stratas have an extremely successful career on the opera stage, but she also became well known for her performances on-screen. Her work in film took off in 1974, when she performed the title role in Strauss’ Salome, directed by Götz Friedrich, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm. She went on to participate in several movie-operas, such as The Bartered Bride (1978) with Nicolai Gedda and Jon Vickers, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1979) with Astrid Varnay and Richard Cassilly, La bohème (1981) with José Carreras and Renata Scotto, Pagliacci (1982) with Placido Domingo, and La Traviata (1982) with Placido Domingo. One notable later film performance in 1996, is Stratas’ role as the controlling mother of an autistic child (Megan Follows) in Under the Piano, a Canadian film directed by Stefan Scaini, for which she won a Gemini for best supporting actress.
Stratas made history by creating roles in such important works as John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles (as Marie Antoinette), and Friedrich Cerha’s completed version of Alban Berg’s Lulu (in the title role), which premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1979 and was subsequently recorded, winning two Grammys.
Stratas also premiered and recorded many previously unpublished Kurt Weill songs which she received from Lotte Lenya, Weill’s widow with whom Stratas developed a very close friendship. Stratas released two albums featuring these Weill songs, The Unknown Kurt Weill and Stratas Sings Weill.
Stratas was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1972, and in 2000 was presented with the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts.
by Alexandra Brennan