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Rosalind Elias, a popular American mezzo-soprano, dies at 90
Rosalind Elias, the mezzo-soprano, performs in the musical "Follies," at the Marquis Theater on Broadway, in New York, Aug. 6, 2011. Elias, an American mezzo-soprano with a rich voice and vibrant stage presence who was a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera for more than 40 years, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 90. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Rosalind Elias, an American mezzo-soprano with a rich voice and vibrant stage presence who was a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera for more than 40 years, died Sunday in Manhattan. She was 90.

She had been treated recently for a congestive heart condition, Robert Lombardo, her manager, said in announcing her death.

Though Elias appeared with the world’s major opera companies, she was best known for her association with the Met, where she sang some 680 performances of more than 50 roles, last appearing there in 1996 as Hata in Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride.” To every performance she brought plush sound, exacting musicianship and dramatic integrity, qualities that radiated even in supporting roles.

Writing of her performance as Suzuki, the selfless servant to Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Met in 1956 (a production starring Licia Albanese), a critic for Musical America wrote that Elias conveyed the character’s “loyal affection and pity for her mistress without forgetting her place as a servant,” adding that “her movement was exceptionally graceful and her singing lovely.”

A breakthrough came in 1958, when she sang Erika in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” at the Met. With a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, the opera is a Gothic tale of a wealthy, middle-aged, beautiful woman, Vanessa, who lives in isolation with her baroness mother and a meek young niece while awaiting the return of the lover who had jilted her 20 years earlier.

Eleanor Steber created the title role. As Erica, the niece, Elias “has the chance of her young career and handles it brilliantly,” critic Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times.

“She sings with vocal richness and musical understanding and acts with honesty,” he added.

Nearly 50 years later, Elias brought a commanding persona to the small role of the Baroness in a 2007 production at the New York City Opera.

Before long, Elias became a go-to choice for mezzo-soprano roles in productions featuring starry casts, including Emilia in Verdi’s “Otello” in 1958 with Mario Del Monaco in the title role and Vittoria de los Angeles as Desdemona; and Dorabella in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” in 1965 alongside Richard Tucker and Leontyne Price.

Elias can be heard on a series of classic recordings from that period, among them a 1959 “Il Trovatore,” with Price, Tucker, Leonard Warren and Elias as Azucena; and conductor Fritz Reiner’s historic 1960 account of Verdi’s Requiem, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic and Price, Elias, Jussi Björling and Giorgio Tozzi as vocal soloists.

In 1984, Elias sang Mrs. Lovett in the New York City Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” one of the first attempts to perform that 1979 musical with operatic voices. The limited run received mixed reviews.

But to her surprise and delight, in 2011, at 82, Elias drew accolades for her Broadway debut in a highly praised revival of another Sondheim work, “Follies.” Singing the small but crucial role of Heidi Schiller, the oldest of the former Weisman Follies girls who gather for a reunion at a dilapidated theater where they had once been in their glory, Elias stopped the show each night singing “One More Kiss,” a song written in the soaring lyrical style of Sigmund Romberg.

Elias became so engrossed in the piece that she looked beyond the book by James Goldman to invent a background story — actually two stories — for her character in order to lend depth to her portrayal.

“At first I imagined Heidi being in the Vienna Volksoper, very successful, with lovers, diamonds, everything,” Elias said in an interview with The Times during the run. But “life went awry” for Heidi, she added. After seeing the gorgeous costume created for her character, Elias completely changed the background story, deciding that Heidi was a former Follies star who had never married and who lived in the fashionable Dakota apartment building in Manhattan and gave the greatest parties. But now Heidi “is bored with everybody,” Elias said, and covers her age lines with makeup and her thinning hair with a wig.

Being in “Follies” may have brought Elias the closest to fulfilling her schoolgirl fantasy of becoming a movie star.

Rosalind Elias was born on March 13, 1930, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the 13th and youngest child of Lebanese immigrants: Salem Elias and Shelaby Namay. “I spoke Arabic before I spoke English,” Elias said in 2011, “because my mother was always home taking care of the children and hardly mingled in the neighborhood to learn English.” Her father, she said, had been successful in real estate, though “the crash ruined him” in 1929 until he picked himself up again.

Rosalind was the only musical sibling. She had a natural singing voice and learned to appreciate opera from listening to the Saturday radio broadcasts of the Met while doing household chores. She wanted to study singing and go into theater, or opera, but her old-fashioned parents resisted, especially her father, who believed that “only bad girls go on the stage,” she said.

But they relented. Eventually, intent on a career in opera, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, then continued her studies at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

On returning from Italy, she made her Met debut on short notice in 1954, filling in for a singer as Grimgerde, one of the Valkyrie warriors in Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” Smaller roles followed quickly, like Siebel in Gounod’s “Faust,” and, over time, larger ones, like Giulietta in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” Octavian in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” and Mozart’s Cherubino.

In 1958, the same year as “Vanessa,” Elias sang Cherubino on an acclaimed recording of “Le Nozze di Figaro” with Erich Leinsdorf leading the Vienna Philharmonic and a dream cast that included Giorgio Tozzi, Roberta Peters, Lisa Della Casa and George London. It remains a classic.

In 1966 Barber asked her to take part in the premiere of his “Antony and Cleopatra,” the opera that inaugurated the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. She sang the role of Charmian, the servant to Cleopatra, sung by Price.

In 1969 Elias married Zuhayr Moghrabi, a lawyer born in Lebanon, who became a longtime professor at New York Law School. A devotee of opera, Moghrabi often said that Rosalind means beautiful rose and Zuhayr means flowers, so that together the couple made a “beautiful bouquet.” He died in 2015. Elias has no immediate survivors.

In 2007, the year she turned 77, Elias sang in two world premieres: Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath” at Michigan Opera Theater and David Carlson’s “Anna Karenina” at Florida Grand Opera. Years earlier, in a 1985 interview with The Times, she predicted that she would keep performing for as long as possible.

“I feel we are all put on Earth for a purpose, and mine was singing,” she said. “If I don’t get sick, I will always be in some aspect of theater.” The thing “I never want,” she emphasized, is “to be bored with my life.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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