This is a guest post by Zach Klitzman, the editorial assistant in the Library’s Publishing Office.
As soprano Elsa Vaughn sings the role of Brünnehilde during the second act of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” she notices that prompter Rudolf Salz is making funny faces. Then he starts convulsing, grabs his throat, and falls down the steps to the orchestra pit. He’s dead!
So begins “The Metropolitan Opera Murders,” the latest entry in the Library’s Crime Classics series. (Available at all booksellers and via the Library of Congress shop.) Launched in April 2020, the critically acclaimed series features some of the finest American crime writing from the 1860s to the 1960s. Drawn from the Library’s collections, each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author bio, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger.
The author in this case was none other than Helen Traubel, a star soprano of the era, with the help of ghostwriter Harold Q. Masur. She knew the material well, having played Brünnehilde herself. Her only novel, “Metropolitan” offers an insider’s view of the world’s most famous opera company and the high drama that occurs both onstage and behind the scenes.
Originally published in 1951, the novel features a memorable cast of characters who might have played a role in Salz’s death. It seems as if the poison Salz ingested was meant to kill Vaughn, the soprano. And it’s not the only recent attempt to harm her: ground glass in her cold cream, toppling scenery, flowers treated to induce an allergic reaction.
Detective-Lieutenant Sam Quentin must figure out who would want her dead. Is it her understudy, the ambitious Miss Hilda Semple? What do opera financier Stanley DeBrett and his family have to do with the murder, if anything? Or was the poison truly intended for Salz, an embittered, formerly world-famous Wagnerian tenor, now reduced to coaching other singers? When a second murder takes place, Vaughn can no longer deny that she may be a target.
Traubel, whose papers are held by the Library, lived a colorful life, though it did not involve murder. Born in St. Louis in 1899, she first sang with the St. Louis Symphony in 1923. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1937 and worked there for sixteen years, taking over as the primary soprano for Wagnerian roles in 1941. As one of the most famous opera singers in the country, she collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on a concert version of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in 1949. She even gave first daughter Margaret Truman singing lessons. (Truman herself would later write a series of mystery novels, including “Murder at the Library of Congress.”)
After performing at USO shows during World War II, Traubel believed that she could reach a larger audience by performing non-operatic works. She began singing in night clubs and appearing on television, often as a straight woman alongside comedian Jimmy Durante. She even appeared in an abridged production of “The Mikado” with Groucho Marx. The manager of the Met, Rudolph Bing, felt that these appearances cheapened the institution. But Traubel did not want to give up her popular acts, so she declined to renew her Metropolitan Opera contract in 1953.
The bet paid off.
In her post-Met era, Traubel appeared in films like “Deep in My Heart” and debuted on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Pipe Dream.” In 1959, she published an autobiography, “St. Louis Woman.” Two years later, she sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at a gala the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and had a variety of roses named after her.
Thanks to her success, Traubel became a minority owner of her hometown St. Louis Browns baseball team, but could not be the fan she wanted to be. The dustjacket to the original edition of “Metropolitan” reported, “One of the sorrows of her life is that she cannot go to many games because she roots so intensely and so vocally that she might damage her voice.”
When Traubel died in 1972, her husband and former business manager, William Bass, donated her papers to the Library. The collection documents her career through correspondence, photographs, scripts, scrapbooks, and her annotated music scores and orchestra library. Also included: a box of materials related to “Metropolitan,” including a draft of the book in German.
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