Regina Resnik, Metropolitan Opera Star, Dies at 90

August 15, 2013 | Alumni

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

August 9, 2013

Regina Resnik, a Bronx-born opera star who sang more than 300 performances at the Metropolitan Opera and who made the shift from soprano to mezzo-soprano in the middle of her career, died on Thursday in Manhattan. She was 90.

The cause was complications of a stroke, said her son, Michael Philip Davis.

Ms. Resnik made her Met debut in 1944 as Leonora in “Il Trovatore” and over the years performed many of opera’s most important roles on its most prominent stages, including those of the New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden and other European houses.

Her best-known roles include Ellen Orford in Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and the title role in Bizet’s “Carmen.” Later in her career she performed in musical theater and became a sought-after instructor and opera director.

She was known for her strong dramatic skills and impeccable musicianship onstage and for her bold personality offstage. She displayed fearlessness from the beginning.

In 1942, she made her debut at the New Opera Company of New York after being given 24 hours’ notice that she was needed to substitute. Two years later, she made a similar last-minute substitution in her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora, the starring role in “Il Trovatore.” Each time she impressed.

“All things considered, Miss Resnik’s debut was an auspicious one,” a review of her Metropolitan debut in The New York Times said. “She has a strong, clear soprano, which, though occasionally marred by a tremolo, is both agile enough for the florid passages allotted to Leonora and forceful enough for the dramatic ones.”

Ms. Resnik became a much-admired soprano and toured widely through the mid-1950s, when she and others began to notice that her voice was darkening. A friend, the baritone Giuseppe Danise, helped persuade her to change, telling her he believed she had always been a mezzo.

“It was the biggest gamble of my life, when I decided over two tumultuous years that perhaps I was not a soprano after all,” she told The Times in 1967. “There were many opinions: I was a soprano with low notes, or mezzo with high notes.”

The gamble paid off, she said, and it ultimately provided her with better roles, including some of her most notable, as Carmen, Klytemnestra in “Elektra,” Mistress Quickly in “Falstaff” and the Countess in “Queen of Spades.”

“I have really run the gamut,” she added, emphatic that she had not lost her upper register. “And my range is exactly the same today. Not one note higher or lower. But I was happier in the depth of my voice than in its height.”

Regina Resnick was born on Aug. 30, 1922. Her parents, Sam and Ruth Resnick, emigrated from Russia. Ms. Resnik, who dropped the c in her surname before she began performing, recalled her father as having a sweet tenor — he liked to sing Italian arias and songs in Russian — but said she was unsure where or why she knew she could sing.

In junior high school, when a teacher once asked if someone could sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Ms. Resnik volunteered. Then as later, critics were impressed.

Ms. Resnik graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx and studied music education at Hunter College, graduating in 1942.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a brother, Jack H. Resnick. Her first marriage, to Harry W. Davis, a lawyer and judge, ended in divorce. Her second husband, the artist and designer Arbit Blatas, with whom she collaborated on several opera productions, died in 1999.

“She was a totally American original,” said F. Paul Driscoll, the editor in chief of Opera News. “She was always very proud of being educated in the United States and beginning her career in the United States.”

Mr. Driscoll emphasized Ms. Resnik’s resilience, particularly under Rudolf Bing, the sometimes autocratic general manager of the Met, for much of her career.

“She embraced the opportunities she was given, and whether or not Mr. Bing thought they were star parts, she made them star parts,” Mr. Driscoll said. “Directors loved her, conductors loved her, and the audience loved her.”

On at least one occasion, however, she boldly took an unruly section of an audience to task.

“Stop! Stop!” Ms. Resnik shouted from the stage in French as hecklers interrupted a performance of “Carmen” in Marseilles in 1962.

They had hooted and howled and hurled vegetables toward her and her co-star, Richard Martell, who, in the role of Don Jose, had just finishing professing his love for her. Ms. Resnik’s defiance prompted cheers from the rest of the audience, and a clarification from the hecklers that Mr. Martell was their target.

Yet when they proceeded to heckle more, Ms. Resnik glared long and hard toward their place in the balcony and then erupted with a single powerful “Silence!”

Silence is what largely ensued, at least until the performance was over, when bunches of radishes struck the drawn red curtain.

Originally published by The New York Times