Elza Szamosi and Carmen: a starring role
21 June 2021
In his 1920 sonnet entitled Carmen, the Hungarian poet Gyula Juhász wrote about pleasure and grief (alliteration in Hungarian: ‘gyönyör’ and ‘gyász’), about the hot and painful (‘forrón’ and ‘fájón’, again alliteration), and the cruelly creative and destructive instinct of a ‘wench’; moreover, in the first line of the poem, he meaningfully mentioned the names of Friedrich Nietzsche and Otto Weininger! Who inspired the poet to use such words and associations? The answer is revealed in the dedication of the poem: Elza Szamosi, one of the greatest Hungarian opera singers of the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Elza Szamosi was a controversial singer: during her short career she sang not only mezzosoprano roles like Erda, Dalila, Mignon, Carmen or Amneris, but also soprano roles such as Massenet’s Manon, Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, Tosca, and Cio-Cio-San; furthermore, she achieved success both in operetta and in opera. The reception of her talents was also ambivalent: her singing was sometimes described as unqualified – her few early sound recordings, made between 1905 and 1913, do not do her justice – and yet her art was adored by Giacomo Puccini, Eugene d’Albert and even Franz Lehár. This article may be considered the second part of my essay on the reception of le beau idéal, published also on the Carmen Abroad website. It is dedicated to Szamosi’s career, commemorating the 140th anniversary of her birth, and to her portrayal of Carmen, which, alongside her Cio-Cio-San, remained the gold standard of the performance of the role for decades in Hungary.1
Elza Szamosi was born in 1881 in Budapest into a well-known family of Jewish origin; her original name was Erzsébet Samek and she appeared on theatre playbills as ‘Elsa Samek’ in her early years in Germany. She studied singing with Rafael Quirino Merli, who had a private singing school in Budapest. In 1901, she sang at an audition in Dresden, where Georg Henry Pierson, the director of the Königliche Hofoper in Berlin, was also present and offered her a contract. However, Pierson died in February 1902 and, very likely, Elza Szamosi did not sing any performances in Berlin. However, Pierson’s successor, Count von Hochberg introduced her to the audience in Magdeburg on 17 April 1902 in the title role of Carmen. In the 1902–1903 season, Szamosi was a troupe member of the Stadttheater in Leipzig and sang altogether twenty roles, including mainly smaller parts, but also such principal roles as Carmen, Anita in La Navarraise by Massenet – her most successful role there – and, surprisingly, both Elisabeth and Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, as well as Fricka in Die Walküre and Erda in Siegfried.
In 1903, she returned to Hungary to the newly opened operetta theatre Király Színház, and soon became popular as an operetta singer in Budapest. The artistic weekly newspaper A hét [The Week] published her portrait on the front page of its first issue of 1904.
Soon she revoked her contract and became part of the troupe at another operetta theatre, the Népszínház [People’s Theatre]. There she immediately became embroiled in a ‘primadonna war’ with the theatre’s illustrious soprano Klára Küry. The young and attractive Szamosi obviously surpassed Küry in a very short time. Moreover, she was extremely ambitious: already in November 1903, she appeared as a guest singer at the Royal Hungarian Opera as Carmen and Anita, and in April 1904 as Mignon. Moreover, in September 1904 she gave a guest appearance at the Hofoper in Vienna as Carmen, but by then she was already a member of the troupe of the Royal Hungarian Opera.
During her short career, she was extremely popular, at home and abroad, with her modern renditions in two different repertoires. On the one hand, being a mezzosoprano, her most successful roles were alluring exotic female characters such as Carmen, Anita, Dalila, Amneris, The Queen of Sheba and even Mignon. In the context of the Hungarian fin de siècle, the eroticism and the ‘strangeness’ of these roles became intensified by the – then well-known – Sephardic Jewish origins of Elza Szamosi. On the other hand, she sang the main soprano roles in the Hungarian premieres of La Bohème (1905), Madama Butterfly (1906) and La Fanciulla del West (1912).
The latter two premieres were directed by the composer himself and Puccini was so satisfied with the singing of Elza Szamosi that he recommended her to be the first Cio-Cio-San at the US premiere of Madama Butterfly in Washington DC in 1906. In the United States, as a member of Henry Savage’s Castle Square Opera Company, she solely sang the role of Cio-Cio-San in several cities, as the first of the four primadonnas of the ensemble.2
Although she had several great successes between 1907 and 1914 at the Royal Hungarian Opera and even at the summer festivals of Ostend, her best years were probably between 1908 and 1910, although press reviews of her performances were often ambivalent. She even had some problems in her private life which resulted in scandals which flourished in the popular press of Budapest. Szamosi’s first husband was Nándor Somló, a prosperous doctor who was an enthusiastic opera fan. They married in July 1904, after which Somló suspended his practice as a doctor and focused on the management of his wife’s career. At the end of 1910 her marriage deteriorated and she divorced her husband in 1911. She may have got tired of his aggressive management but, at the same time, she fell in love with Béla Környei, the new tenor of the Royal Hungarian Opera with whom she had sung many performances since his debut at the Opera in 1908. Yet events ended tragically: Nándor Somló lost his mind and died in 1912 in a psychiatric hospital. Szamosi’s exhausting US tour, the diversity of her repertoire, her hectic private life and perhaps also her insufficient training caused her voice to tire prematurely.
During World War I, Szamosi had few opportunities to appear in operas in Budapest. The Royal Hungarian Opera closed its doors for several months in September 1914, and operas were performed only at the Népopera [People’s Opera], founded in 1911, with guest appearances by the singers of the Royal Hungarian Opera. In 1916, Szamosi moved to Vienna with Környei, who there became a member of the troupe of the Hofoper. In Vienna, Szamosi had no employment but gave private singing lessons while Környei enjoyed success in several Heldentenor roles and in the world premiere of the Viennese version of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It is very likely that Szamosi could not accept her new role in the shadow of her singer husband, and her second marriage also ended in divorce around 1918.
After the end of World War I, Szamosi returned to Budapest. She did not become a member of the Royal Hungarian Opera troupe again, but she occasionally sang in guest performances of Bizet’s Carmen in Budapest and Szeged. Her last performance at the Royal Hungarian Opera was memorable, singing Carmen to Karel Burian’s Don José. The two great singers inspired each other to such an extent that Szamosi inadvertently injured Burian when she knocked him over in the duet of the last act.
Szamosi married for the third time, József Reisz, a merchant, in 1922, but their marriage soon deteriorated, Reisz filing for divorce in 1923. Szamosi began to teach singing at the Fodor Music School in 1923, but she died unexpectedly on 15 July 1924. She did not have any children. Her grave is to be found at the Kozma street Jewish cemetery in Budapest, but it had not been cared for for many decades. With my assistance, Márton Karczag, the archivist of the Hungarian State Opera, found her grave in May 2018 and a new tomb stone was inaugurated in September 2019 as the closing event of the Puccini year of the Hungarian State Opera.
Szamosi’s name has remained part of the cultural memory in Hungary, appearing in poems, short stories and novels by, for example, Gyula Krúdy (A 42-ős mozsarak [The Horwitzers of 42], 1914), Gyula Juhász (Carmen, dedicated to Elza Szamosi, 1920) or Janka Fábián (Az angyalos ház [The House with Angels], 2011), and her name has become inseparable from the performance history of Puccini operas in Hungary.
Szamosi’s unique performance style drew on three interpretational schools: the French musical stage of the turn of the century, Italian verismo and operetta. The presence of le beau idéal can be detected mainly in her attitude towards the balance between singing and acting: as she said in an interview, the most important and primary element for her in the course of learning a new role was the acting, and the singing was only secondary.3 It is remarkable how similar her statement is to the account that Albert Vizentini, the stage director of the Opéra-Comique, gave about the first Mignon and Carmen, Célestine Galli-Marié.4 While the contemporary critics frequently labelled Szamosi’s acting as ‘realistic’, her singing was often described with the word ‘naturalistic’, which was rather used in the contemporary Hungarian operatic reviews as an element of verismo. Le beau idéal and verismo as interpretational schools were also mixed in the performance style of some of her famous contemporaries such as Geraldine Farrar, Florence Easton or Emmy Destinn, but the performance style of operetta gave a specific colour to Szamosi’s style. It brought to her portrayals not only lightness, but also eroticism, which was a fundamental element of the genre of operetta.
In her first years on the stage, her most performed role was Carmen. Perhaps it was her best role, considering that she sang Carmen in almost all of her debut performances. Already at her audition in November 1901 in Dresden she sang – probably excerpts from – the roles of Rosina, Cenerentola and Carmen. She sang Carmen at her first appearances in Magdeburg (17 April 1902, her stage debut), in Leipzig (13 July 1902), and in Budapest at the Royal Hungarian Opera (21 November 1903). She appeared as Carmen at her guest performances in Arad (June 1904), at the Hofoper in Vienna (15 September 1904), in Ostend (3 September 1905), Temesvár (today: Timişoara, 23 January 1911), at the Summer Theater in Buda (3 June 1912) and in Székesfehérvár (March 1914). Between 1908 and 1913 she sang the role of Carmen 8-9 times per season at the Royal Hungarian Opera. During World War I, her most performed role was Carmen: among her 8 performances at the People’s Opera she appeared five times as Carmen; in the 1915–1916 season she appeared only twice on stage and both times as Carmen. We know of only three operatic performances from the years after 1918, all of which were of Carmen, including her last operatic performance in Szeged, on 27 May 1920.
In February 1914, the Royal Hungarian Opera revived Bizet’s opéra-comique. Although the revival was announced in double cast, with Elza Szamosi and Ilona Dömötör in the title role, Szamosi’s voice was already compromised and the stage director Sándor Hevesi decided to pull Szamosi from the cast. The role of Carmen was entwined with Szamosi to such an extent that the audience protested against Hevesi’s decision by not applauding after the ‘Habanera’ (for the first time ever) at the Royal Hungarian Opera. Journalists were sharply critical also: ‘the best [in the performance] was that which was not new: the dramatic power of [Béla] Környei’s José and the silver-toned, gorgeous Escamillo of [Lajos] Rózsa. […] On the other hand, the new Carmen, Ilona Dömötör, does not live up to the former one, Elza Szamosi (whose best portrayal is, anyway, Carmen).’5
However, initially her Carmen was not well received by the critics. As a beginner in Magdeburg, her acting may have been inflexible and full of clichés, and only her timbre was found to be appropriate for the role.6 The journalists of Leipzig were not so cautious when criticizing an ordinary member of the troupe: they resented her for her ‘unnatural and repulsive’ Carmen, the distorted rhythm in her dances and her inflexible motions.7 However, she achieved success with the audience, according to Rudolf Krause, with her interesting and graceful appearance, captivating eyes, passionate temperament and pithy voice.8
There were similar reviews after her only guest performance at the Hofoper in Vienna. Julius Korngold disapproved of not only her portrayal, describing it as an operetta character, but also her voice.9 However, Szamosi captived critics with her appearance. In the same review Julius Korngold continued by writing: ‘A raunchy brunette with passionately expressive eyes, perfectly suited to tracking down the Don Josés and holding onto them – Ms. Szamosi certainly looks like a Carmen. Obviously, hot blood rushes through the singer’s veins; she is feisty, a true head-strong character in both acting and singing.’10 Another reviewer adored Szamosi’s eyes (even pitting them against her voice): ‘This Carmen presented herself to us as a lithe, sweet girl with deep black curls and equally black, large, even gorgeous eyes who immediately embodied the entire range of the character in her acting If only those eyes could sing…!’11 The critic of Tagblatt confessed honestly: ‘She makes it easy to believe that gypsies invented love: dark eyes, a raunchy figure and temperamental female charms are very persuasive.’12
It is striking that similar statements occur in the reviews of her first Budapest Carmen, in November 1903. Szamosi’s Carmen was sharply criticized by journalists mainly because of the quality of her singing.13 Moreover, her acting was unusual, or too natural,14 and she definitely exploited the experience gained on the operetta stage. Yet some critics enjoyed her portrayal: her stage presence, including her beauty, her telling eyes, expressional mimicry and her temperament held the audience spellbound. As a Hungarian singer in the role which had been performed many times by foreign guest singers, her clear enunciation also met with critical acclaim.15
Obviously, it was not her voice which enchanted the critics. Some words from a review by István Gergely reveal the skills of a singing actress, including elements of le beau idéal: ‘Her singing is tasteful and intelligent, her breathing is excellent, her articulation is mostly artistic, and her rendering is natural on the whole.’16 She surprised the critics with her musicality, her sense of rhythm and with the ease and freedom of her interpretation.17 These features can be heard in her first ‘Habanera’ recording, made in 1905. Her rhythm is free, and she changes the initial tempo set by the pianist and conductor Emil Lichtenberg at the first possible opportunity. At some points of the aria, she sings extremely long fermatas, which are unique; I have not found anything similar to it on other recordings of the ‘Habanera’:
In these fermatas both the vocal and theatrical elements of her Carmen portrayal can be investigated. Musically, they are professionally executed. The scene (and time) is frozen, and the audience has no way of knowing when Szamosi will continue the aria. But it is not a capriciously long note without any coherence. Even if we do not see the singer, this surprising gesture and the intensity in Szamosi’s voice during the fermata force the audience to watch and listen to the singer with bated breath. On stage, in a role such as Carmen, this technique can be a primary erotic element which forces the spectator to keep their gaze on the dancing female singer. Furthermore, the ornament after the last long note comes as a surprise, a gesture of ‘something more’: when we think that she has ended the note, she has an extra, very sensual gesture, like a flick. As a result, she holds the (metaphorical) gaze of the spectator until, and even after the last moment. Her performance is thus a mesmerising or hypnotising slow dance, both in her singing and her acting.
The reception of Szamosi’s operatic debut in Budapest evokes that of the guest performances of Charlotte Wyns in Budapest, discussed in my former article, posted on Carmen Abroad. It seems that the Hungarian critics recognized the elements of modern French operatic performance practice in Szamosi’s interpretation. The question may arise as to where she learned this style but there is no clear answer. Before she worked in German theatres, her singing teacher had been an Italian singer in Budapest. The Carmen interpretations which she probably saw before 1904 were not those of French singers but rather performances by the American Olive Fremstad, the German Ottilie Metzger or the Czech singer Emmy Destinn in Berlin and Leipzig. Perhaps the mixture of performance styles resulted in a peculiar, modern musico-theatrical performance style. Szamosi’s stage experiences forced her to evolve a specific acting style, as in the case of the creator of the role, Célestine Galli-Marié.18
Szamosi obviously performed Carmen differently to Charlotte Wyns and yet the overall effect and unusualness of her interpretation bore resemblance to that of Wyns some years earlier. In this sense it could be said that Wyns’ performances opened the doors of the Royal Hungarian Opera to Elza Szamosi, who later used her own, initially criticised but later fully accepted performance style not only in French opéras-comiques, but also in Puccini’s operas, creating a coquettish Mimi and a childlike Cio-Cio-San, her interpretation halfway between opera and operetta.
- My examination of the career of Elza Szamosi is based on my PhD dissertation: Szamosi Elza (1881–1924) művészete [The Art of Elza Szamosi (1881–1924)], PhD Dissertation, Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, 2018. The research was supported by the National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NKFIH, K 123819). I would like to offer my thanks to Dr. Clair Rowden, Dr. Monika Hennemann and Ágnes Lux for their generous help.
- On the Madama Butterfly tour of the Castle Square Opera Company see the article by Jim McPherson, ‘The Savage Innocents. Part 2: On the Road with Parsifal, Butterfly, the Widow, and the Girl’, The Opera Quarterly 19/1 (Winter 2003), pp. 28–63.
- Elsa Szamosy, ‘Meine Rollen und ich selbst’, Neues Politisches Volksblatt, 11 April 1909, p. 9.
- ‘each detail, each pose, each gesture is thought out, examined, worked on [by Galli-Marié in advance]; she doesn’t learn a role, she “excavates” it… [and she is] very impatient … in rehearsals when she feels she hasn’t found “the right color”.’ Karen Henson, Opera Acts. Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 57.
- ‘A legjobb [az előadásban] az, ami – nem uj: Környei drámai erejü Joséja és Rózsa érces hangu, pompás Escamilloja […]. Ellenben az uj Carmen: Dömötör Ilona nem ér a régihez, Szamosi Elzához (kinek Carmen különben is legjobb alakitása.)’ ‘M. kir. operaház’, Pesti Hirlap, 22 February 1914, p. 7.
- ‘Ihr satter Ton, überhaupt ihre Art zu singen sind für die Carmenrolle wie geboren.’ –t., ‘Stadttheater’, Magdeburger General-Anzeiger, 19 April 1902, p. 2 (Supplement).
- Bruno Schraber, ‘Carmen’, Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten, 15 July 1902, p. 10.
- ‘In der gestrigen Aufführung der Oper debütirte Fräul. Samek von der Königl. Hofoper in Berlin, unser neuer Mezzosopran, mit der Titelrolle. Nicht ohne Erfolg.’ Dr. Rud. Krause, ‘Neues Theater’, Leipziger Tageblatt und Anzeiger, Morgen-Ausgabe, 15 July 1902, p. 5001.
- ‘Man hat Bizets Meisteroper einmal eine »tragische Operette« genannt. Der Gast scheint uns – derzeit wenigstens – nur etwa als Carmen dieser Operette gelten zu können. Die Durchbildung der Stimme, eines Mezzosoprans, der nur in der Mittellage voll in Betracht kommen kann, zeigt nicht recht das Opernmaß, sicherlich nicht das Hofopernmaß.’ J. K. [Julius Korngold], ‘Hofoperntheater’, Neue Freie Presse, Morgenblatt, 16 September 1904, p. 8.
- ‘Eine rassige Brünette mit leidenschaftlich beredten Augen, geeignet, die Josés aufzuspüren und festzuhalten, sieht Frau Szamossy jedenfalls aus wie eine Carmen. Offenbar schießt heißes Blut durch die Adern der Sängerin; sie hat Temperament, ein wahres durchgängerisches [sic] Temperament in Spiel und Gesang.’ Korngold, ‘Hofoperntheater’.
- ‘Eine biegsame niedliche Mädchengestalt, präsentierte sich uns diese Carmen mit tiefschwarzen Locken und ebenso schwarzen, großen, ja prachtvollen Augen, die sofort nach allen Rängen zu spielen begannen. Ja, wenn doch diese Augen singen könnten!…’ ‘Hofoperntheater’, Presse, 16 September 1904. Drawn from clippings in the Press collection of the Archives of the Hungarian State Opera. On the basis of the phrasing, it is possible that this review was also written by Julius Korngold.
- ‘Man glaubt ihr leicht, daß die Liebe von Zigeunern stammt; dunkle Augen, eine rassige Gestalt, temperamentvoller Frauenreiz überreden leicht.’ ‘Hofoperntheater’, Tagblatt, 16 September 1904. Drawn from clippings in the Press collection of the Archives of the Hungarian State Opera.
- (G–ly.) [István Gergely], ‘Operaház’, Budapesti Napló, 22 November 1903, p. 11.
- a. k. [Károly Antalik], ‘Magyar kir. Opera’, Hazánk, 24 November 1903. Drawn from clippings in the Press collection of the Archives of the Hungarian State Opera.
- ‘M. kir. operaház’, Pesti Hirlap, 22 November 1903, p. 6.
- ‘Énekmódja izléses és intelligens, lélekzetvétele kitünő, mondattagolása szokszor [sic] müvészileg kerekded, hangvétele általában természetes.’ (G–ly.) [István Gergely], ‘Operaház’, Budapesti Napló, 22 November 1903, p. 11.
- ‘Carmen’, Pesti Napló, 22 November 1903, p. 14.
- Henson, Opera Acts, p. 77.