St. Louis's Baseball-Loving Valkyrie

12, May 2017
Black-and-white portrait of Helen TraubelHelen Traubel, ca. 1940. Missouri History Museum.

One of America’s greatest Wagnerian sopranos first graced the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House on May 12, 1937, in a new opera by Walter Damrosch. She had this to say of the experience:

All I recall is that my tenor was a man much smaller than I. In one scene I had to teeter across a gangplank, arms out, singing lustily to him. It was a rough few seconds for everyone in the house. If I had slipped and fallen on that fellow, The Man Without a Country would have been The Country Without a Man.

Helen Traubel was a feisty and proud St. Louis native determined to live her life in her own way, convention be damned. Known as much for her hearty, heartfelt laughter as her powerful voice, she spent her earliest years living with her family above her father’s drugstore at Jefferson and Chouteau avenues.

The Early Years

Black-and-white photo of young Helen TraubelHelen Traubel as a young girl in St. Louis, ca. 1910. Missouri History Museum.

After much urging by fellow church-choir singers, Traubel began taking voice lessons at age 12. Her teacher? None other than Louise Meyerson Vetta-Karst, a relation of St. Louis’s founding Chouteau family who had spent 17 years studying music at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Vetta-Karst was a demanding instructor who seemed to feel it was her life’s mission to take Traubel’s raw talent and shape it into that of a maestro. Traubel flourished under Vetta-Karst’s tutelage, learning how to handle criticism; care for her voice; and always, always produce a beautiful, pure sound.

Over the course of her 18 years of study with Vetta-Karst, Traubel’s friends would ask her when she planned to move to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a famous singer. Her earnest response consistently shut them down:

I’m perfectly happy right here in St. Louis. I’m following my own dream. I have the best teacher I can get. I want to sing as beautifully as possible. Until I'm sure I can do it, until I’m ready to leave—I’m satisfied right here, thank you.

Facing Off with the Met

Black-and-white photo of Met Opera House interior as of 1966Interior view of the Met, looking toward the stage, 1966. Photo by Jack E. Boucher. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Although Traubel officially debuted at the Met in 1937, her 1939 performance there seemed to hold more weight in her memory—perhaps because it was such a hard-fought battle.

As she describes in her autobiography St. Louis Woman, Traubel had spent early October 1939 preparing for her “stratospheric” recital at New York’s Town Hall venue, a “proving ground for so many neophytes in music.” After her October 8 performance, glowing reviews filled the newspapers. Although the compliments paid varied, one observation was consistent: Traubel deserved to be on the Met’s stage.

Sure enough, the next morning she received a call asking her to a meeting with Edward Johnson, the Met’s general manager. He offered her the role of Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, but she refused. The character of Venus was “a siren of sirens [who] must be supremely aware of her power over men.” It wasn’t the role for her, of that she was sure.

Traubel then traveled to Detroit for an October 15 performance, returning to New York to sing with the Philharmonic on October 22. Again, the rave reviews rolled in, and critics clamored for the Met to bring her on board.

Black-and-white photo of Helen Traubel as the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in Die WalküreHelen Traubel as the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, ca. 1940. Missouri History Museum.

Once again, Johnson offered Traubel the role of Venus, but Traubel countered with a request to sing the part of Sieglinde in the Wagnerian opera Die Walküre. Sieglinde was a simple character with beautiful songs, and Traubel believed firmly that she could handle the role. Johnson balked, trying to put Traubel in her place by noting that it took a lot more to carry an opera than the ability to sing an aria. Undeterred, Traubel asked to sit in on rehearsals so she could observe what not to do. A yelling match ensued between the two, with Traubel walking out in a temper after “telling him what to do with the Metropolitan Opera House.”

Traubel continued receiving calls from the Met—and left them unanswered. She focused on singing in various venues, and, as before, the positive reviews poured in. Following her second performance with the New York Philharmonic in December 1939, the Hartford Courant said:

Miss Traubel sang with a musicianly understanding and deep appreciation of the text. Now for the Metropolitan and a high place among Wagnerian signers who have made deserved names for themselves.

The Met caved after that review and brought in a mediator named Bill Sullivan. Although he had been hired by the opera house, he disapproved of Johnson’s techniques and put his legal skills to use advising Traubel how best to proceed. He wound up writing a letter on her behalf stating that she would forever be glad to sing at the Met—but that she would need it in writing that her debut would be as Wagner’s Sieglinde.

The Met’s second-in-command, Edward Ziegler, responded agreeably right away and asked Traubel to come to rehearsal the next Monday. She went, fully prepared not to sing a note until she had a signed contract granting her the role she desired. Johnson again tried to fight her, but Ziegler intervened, making clear the Met could indeed agree to such a thing—just this once. So it was that on December 28, 1939, Traubel debuted as Sieglinde:

I was the home-grown Wagnerian big-time soprano, never out of the country, who had achieved her goal on her own terms—a goal set as long ago as when my pigtails were hanging down my back. 

Operatic Success and Other Pursuits

For her first couple seasons with the Met, Traubel performed less than a dozen times. By the mid 1940s she was singing in nearly 25 operas, appearing quite regularly as the Valkyrie Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.

Yet opera had begun to lose its appeal for Traubel by the 1950s. She wound up parting ways with the Met in 1953 after the manager at the time, Rudolf Bing, had reprimanded her in writing for a performance of popular music at Chicago’s well-known Chez Paree night club. She shot back:

To assert that art can be found at the Metropolitan Opera House but not in a night club is rank snobbery that underrates both the taste of the American public and the talents of its composers.

Black-and-white clipping from newspaper article about Helen Traubel buying stake in St. Louis BrownsHelen Traubel shortly after becoming a part owner in the St. Louis Browns baseball team, October 10, 1950. Image courtesy of The Kansas City Times.

Traubel continued to perform in night clubs nationwide throughout the 1950s, adding television and film appearances—and even a Broadway musical—to her credits as well.

Rounding out this Renaissance woman’s accomplishments? A brief ownership stake in the St. Louis Browns and the publication of two mystery novels, one of which you can find in the Missouri History Museum’s Library.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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