Thursday, 2 May 2013

Deanna Durbin EXCLUSIVE personal tribute

"How many child-prodigy artists or entertainers fulfil their youthful promise, pull out of the public eye entirely by their late twenties of their own volition, and are still remembered fondly—by millions—more than six decades later?"

Here is a beautifully written tribute from one singer to another, written by Danielle Woerner, my friend.

 "Deanna Durbin died earlier this week. She was 91, and though she committed her last film to celluloid in 1948, the singer-actress wasn’t forgotten. The darling of Depression-era and 1940s Hollywood, Durbin kept Universal Pictures afloat; and by 1947, at the age of 26, she’d surpassed even Bette Davis as the highest-salaried woman in America.
Unlike Davis, though, Durbin’s characters were never permitted to mature along with the woman who played them. She was typecast as the “plucky” (NY Times obit) young lady who was always able to save the inept adults around her from ruin--often with the help of friends from the less ritzy rungs of the social ladder. (Hayley Mills would take on that can-do girl-next-door role for a while in the early 1960s.) Though Deanna’s singing voice was mature and full for her age, even at 13 when she started in pictures, neither the studio nor her audiences accepted her as anything but a stock ingénue as she herself matured, and the gravity of World War II ruptured our sense of innocence. This was one of the frustrations that caused Durbin to choose retirement in the French countryside (with her third husband, director Charles David) over the “goldfish bowl” she had endured in the film industry. Before she was 30, yet. Since she was brought to Hollywood when just a year old, singing children’s songs by the time she could talk, perhaps that qualifies as one lifetime already.

I was both saddened to hear of her passing this week, and a little surprised she had still been with us. Her self-imposed private exile had worked well. But the obituaries and wikipedia are full of her life’s details. To me, as a singer-actress, what was so special about Durbin was not just the maturity and richness of her voice and technique even in her teens; the naturalness of her acting in 21 movies (they did call them “movies” when she made ‘em); the number of fans she gathered around the world. It was the enduring emotional connection she created with those who watched her in black & white, and listened to her recordings—not only at the time they were made, but for decades after she’d exited the scene. Though ”purity” is often used to describe her, that’s a gloss. Her naturalness was grounded in a quality older and deeper than her years. And she played an iconic role, much bigger than the girl next door. 

 My first exposure to Durbin was in the mid-’80s, when I stumbled upon One Hundred Men and a Girl on the late-night movie, probably Channel 11, in New York City. I was a young classical/operatic soprano, and of course had heard of her—a name always uttered with fondness, it seemed. The 1937 comedy was a sweet predictable story: Durbin persuades world-famous conductor Leopold Stokowski (playing himself) to conduct an orchestra of 100 unemployed musicians, including her trombonist father, portrayed by Adolphe Menjou. The moment when she began singing the Mozart “Alleluia” from the first tier box of the concert hall, walking downstairs and to the foot of the stage as she sang, was etched in my mind as a kind of artistic heroism—albeit chutzpah, in the real world of the music business. Only in the movies. My father, a professional bass soloist in Philadelphia, had worked with Stokowski during the latter’s fitful tenure as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. My childhood included stories of the chimerical, moody Leopold: how he’d pass Dad on the street one day, turning his face away as if he didn’t know him, and the next day would grab Dad by the arm, greet him like a long-lost brother and wonder aloud why Dad had been about to walk by without saying hello. Watching the scene in the movie, I knew Stokowski wasn’t always that lamb in the script who indulgently greeted the young upstart soprano co-opting his rehearsal.

As it happened, a few months after seeing the film, I was late for a rehearsal (another stalled subway train!) at historic Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. As I hurried into the dimly lit sanctuary, I could hear the motet that included my solo already starting overhead. I dashed up the stone stairs to the choir loft just in time to begin singing my part, right on cue. The director—also indulgent—teased me later about my “Deanna Durbin moment.” Thanks to Channel 11, I knew exactly what he meant. The Deanna Durbin moment. The moment when beautiful music, artfully and heartfully executed (OK, ok, by a solo soprano), saves the day for everyone. We could use more such moments, couldn’t we?

Bless you, Deanna. Even if you outgrew the part."

This lovely tribute ties in with another personal remembrance of Deanna Durbin. Five years ago, I was at the Cadogan Hall, where José Serebrier was being interviewed by Edward Seckerson before conducting a concert. The discussion turned to Stokowski, who was Serebrier's mentor and close friend. A lady in the audience stood up to add some words. She must have been in her mid 80's but she was tall, straight and elegant, silver hair immaculately coiffed. She wore expensive slacks and a silk shirt. Quietly, she added, "I knew Stokowski too. I am Deanna Durbin".

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