One of the finest operatic singers of the century, Teresa Stratas remains, at age 63, a refreshing bundle of contradictions - a diva who eschews everything that word implies; a woman who could have spent the last four decades as the darling of Manhattan's glitterati but preferred wearing old blue jeans and singing for small groups of true music lovers; a devout humanitarian who has worked tirelessly to help the world's needy, yet chooses to live as a near recluse; a diminutive figure with greater presence, both on and off stage, than The Three Tenors combined.
Oft-repeated tales of her Dickensian youth are more melodramatic than any opera. Born on a dining room table in Toronto's working-class Cabbagetown district on May 28, 1938, Stratas remembers her manic-depressive father dismissing her as "just another mouth to feed." She barely survived a bout of tuberculosis and once attempted suicide after hearing her mother weeping over unpaid bills.
She also recalls venturing into the dark, dank basement of her family's home at age four in search of an audience, and singing for an assemblage of sewer rats. Her first contact with human audiences came soon after, as she meandered from table to table in the meager restaurant owned by her parents, singing Greek folk songs for tossed pennies.Stratas began formal voice training at age 12, the same year she made her professional debut singing Greek favourites for audiences on CBC Radio's Songs of My People. Next, her exquisite lyric soprano earned her a three-year scholarship to Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music, where she studied under the legendary Irene Jessner.
In October 1958, when Stratas was 20, she won unanimous praise for her professional debut as Mimi in a Toronto Opera Festival production of La Bohème. The following year, Stratas was co-winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and made her debut with the company as Pousette in Manon.
Quickly established as one of the Met's most popular and skilful performers, Stratas sang major roles season after season, including Mimi, Liù in Turnadot, Micaela in Carmen, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Cherubino and Susanna in The Marriage Of Figaro, Violetta in La Traviata, Marguerite in Faust and Gretel in Hansel And Gretel.
While with the Met, Stratas found time to perform with the Bolshoi Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Canadian Opera Company.
Other career highlights include her starring role in Norman Campbell's 1972 production of La Rondine for CBC-TV, her creation of Marie Antoinette in the 1991 premiere of Corigliano's The Ghosts Of Versailles and her performance as Desdemona in Otello at Montreal's Expo 67.
In 1995, Stratas made Met history by performing both lead soprano roles in an opening-night double bill, singing Nedda in Pagliacci opposite Luciano Pavarotti and then Magda in Il Tabarro opposite Placido Domingo.
Her professional pinnacle, however, might have come in February 1979 at the Paris Opera, where Stratas sang the title role in the first full-length performance of Alban Berg's Lulu, an event The New York Times called "perhaps the most important and glamourous operatic premiere since the Second World War."
Despite her mastery of more than 50 roles, Stratas has always been highly selective about her performance schedule. "I won't go where the easy money is," she once observed. "The primary function of what I'm doing, of art - and who am I to say this but I'll say it anyway - is to somehow enrich. If I have a primary function past my own development, it's to give something further to other people."
Nor is such generosity limited to the stage and screen. In 1981, Stratas travelled to Calcutta to work side by side with Mother Teresa. A decade later she spent several months in Romania, caring for sick and dying orphans.
As gifted an actress as she is a singer, Stratas is often singled out by critics and beloved by composers for the breadth of her emotional range. Kurt Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, once declared that she "sings Weill like he wrote it for her," and trusted her with an unpublished collection of Weill's songs. Stratas's recording was subsequently named "record of the decade" by Time magazine.
Though her catalogue of recordings is relatively thin - Stratas has never been keen on studio work - she has received six Grammy Award nominations and won three times. Her performance in the Broadway musical Rags netted her a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination. She also has an Emmy and a special Academy Award citation for the film StrataSphere.
Stratas holds five honorary degrees - from the University of Toronto, York University, McMaster University in Hamilton, the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, New York, and the Julliard School of Music in New York.
Stratas was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1972 and last year was presented with the Governor General's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts.
Fiery and demanding one minute, playful the next, Stratas detests snobbery, hates being interviewed, adores men - most notably, Zubin Mehta, with whom she was involved for eight years - would much rather spend an evening with a backstage seamstress than a society doyen and possesses an indefatigable zest for both the joys and complications of living.
If Auntie Mame was right when she said "life is a banquet, and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death," it's safe to assume that Teresa Stratas has never missed a meal.