Viennese operetta and film star of the 30s who fled to America after the Anschluss
Marta Eggerth with her husband Jan Kiepura in Zauber Der Boheme (The Charm of La Boheme), 1937. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Between the two world wars, during the so-called "silver age" of Viennese operetta, the coloratura soprano Marta Eggerth, who has died aged 101, reigned supreme on stage and, above all, on screen. In the films of the 1930s, the blonde, wide-eyed beauty's bright bell-like tones and charming personality provided a welcome relief from ruinous inflation, world depression and the approaching sound of Nazi jackboots.
The leading operetta composers of the day, Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán, Oscar Straus, Robert Stolz and Paul Abraham, all wrote songs for her films. However, by 1938, after the Anschluss, with the exception of Lehár, all of them, being Jewish, had fled Vienna for the US. Eggerth and her husband, Jan Kiepura, the celebrated Polish tenor, who both had Jewish mothers, also left Austria for America, where they continued their singing careers.
Hitler loved Viennese operetta, dominated though it was by Jewish composers, lyricists and directors, the Führer's favourites being Kálmán's Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess), the 1934 film version of which starred Eggerth, and Lehár's The Merry Widow, the title role of which Eggerth sang, reputedly, 2,000 times in five different languages, all over the world.
Eggerth was born in Budapest, the daughter of a retired operatic soprano, and a bank director. Realising that Marta had a natural singing voice, her mother encouraged her to sing in public from an early age. Eggerth began studying singing in Budapest, gradually taking on demanding roles such as Olympia in The Tales of Hoffman and Rosina in The Barber of Seville, both sung in German, but she rejected the discipline required for opera. "I venerate Mozart, but I'm not a Mozart singer," she told the renowned conductor Clemens Krauss when he offered to accept the teenager at the Vienna State Opera if she would spend five years learning Mozart's soprano roles.
Instead, she triumphed in the role of Adele in Max Reinhardt's famous 1929 Hamburg production of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus. In the same year, she was understudy to Adele Kern in the title role of Kálmán's operetta The Violet of Montmartre at the Vienna State Opera and stepped in to great acclaim when Kern was unable to appear.
Eggerth's film career began in 1930, blossoming in 1932, the year in which she starred in seven features, if one counts the same films shot in two languages, with different casts, a tortuous method used instead of dubbing or subtitles. The musical numbers were filmed live with no lip-synching to a playback, as in Hollywood. Only Eggerth, who spoke English with a heavy Hungarian accent, appeared in both versions of Where Is This Lady? and Es War Einmal ein Walzer (Once There Was a Waltz), based on a script by Billy Wilder with original music by Lehár. Wilder also wrote the screenplay of Das Blaue vom Himmel (The Blue from the Sky), in which Eggerth was praised by the New York Times.
Eggerth then appeared as Countess Eszterhazy in both the German (Leise Flehen Meine Lieder) and the English (The Unfinished Symphony) versions of this fanciful biopic of Franz Schubert. Another schmaltzy film, which accentuated Eggerth's high tessitura, were Italian and British versions of the life of Bellini, called Casta Diva and The Divine Spark (both 1935) respectively.
It was as co-stars of My Heart Calls You (1934), a British-French film written by Emeric Pressburger, with music by Stolz, that Eggerth and Kiepura fell in love. They married in 1936. Among Eggerth's last German films were Das Hofkonzert (1936), which the director Detlef Sierck (later Douglas Sirk) called "Viennese pastry", and Zauber Der Boheme (1937), also starring Kiepura and with a score by Stolz.
In New York, Kiepura joined the Metropolitan Opera, remaining in the company for three years. Meanwhile, Eggerth was attempting to adapt to new circumstances in America where operetta had morphed into the Broadway musical. She had a leading role on Broadway in Higher and Higher (1940), by Rodgers and Hart, in which she had four numbers. It was not a success, but she was offered a contract with MGM studios, where she was ill used.
Accustomed to being a star, she was offered what she described disdainfully as "a little thing" – a supporting role in For Me and My Girl (1942) starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Insult was added to injury when her numbers were cut from the film on release. At least Eggerth had a few numbers in Presenting Lily Mars (1943), a vehicle for Garland. However, Garland takes Eggerth off, operatic hand gestures and all, in a comic variation of the aria Caro Nome from Verdi's Rigoletto. It was enough to drive Eggerth from Hollywood forever.
She joined her husband on Broadway in The Merry Widow (1943-44), in Polonaise (1945-46), a musical based on melodies by Chopin, and in two more films, Valse Brillante (1948), a French comedy musical, and Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles, 1952), a German production based on Lehár's popular operetta.
The couple continued to tour in The Merry Widow for another decade. After Kiepura's death in 1966, Eggerth retired for a few years, but she returned to the stage and concert hall in the 1970s, continuing into her 90s, when she would frequently sing, still in perfect pitch, her signature tune, Wien, Nur Du Allein (Vienna, City of My Dreams).
She is survived by two sons.
Marta Eggerth, actor and singer, born 17 April 1912; died 26 December 2013