Marta Eggerth, the singer and actress who was a film and stage star in Europe in the 1930s, traveled from Hollywood to Broadway in the 1940s and continued to win audiences in cabaret performances well into her 90s, died Dec. 26 at her home in Rye, N.Y. She was 101.
She had a heart ailment, said her son, Marjan Kiepura.
Though Eggerth was known mainly to aficionados at the time of her death, she was a popular international star in the 1930s, when her light silvery soprano and her physical beauty propelled her to success in more than 40 movies, including German-language films written by a young Billy Wilder and two MGM movies with Judy Garland. She was the No. 1 box-office draw in Brazil in 1930s and was renowned throughout Europe.
Her stardom only increased with her marriage to one of her co-stars, the operatic tenor and matinee idol Jan Kiepura, in 1936. The two went on to make movies together, star in “The Merry Widow” on Broadway — in a production choreographed by George Balanchine — and raised two sons.
“On the Continent, Eggerth and Kiepura were household names,” University of Illinois film scholar Edwin Jahiel once wrote. “They were often referred to as Eggerth-Kiepura, the way, in America, one spoke of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy musical couple.”
Eggerth was an operetta singer with a light, melodious voice that was colored by a Hungarian accent in all six languages she spoke. The greatest operetta composers of the day, including Franz Lehar, Emmerich Kalman and Oscar Straus, wrote for her at a time when operetta was a thriving popular art form.
Singing with a deep connection to the texts that gave significance to even the slenderest of lyrics, Eggerth elevated a popular art form into the realm of artistry. “Operetta is really a very erotic thing,” she said in an interview for a 2007 article in the New York Times. “Today, there is no erotic. On the beach the bikini, two little leaves over the breasts: there it is. That is not sex. Sexiness is something which is not shown right away. The mysterious. You don’t see immediately, but you suspect, and the suspicion makes curiosity, and the curiosity you play around with.”
Marta Eggerth was born on April 17, 1912, in Budapest. Her father was a banker, and her mother was a singer who encouraged her daughter’s career.
A doctor, called in to look at young Marta’s vocal cords and evaluate her future prospects, predicted that her voice would give out in a couple of years — a prediction that proved to be off by about eight decades.
By the time she was 17, Eggerth was in Vienna as an understudy for the leading role in Kalman’s “The Violet of Montmartre.” In the best theatrical tradition, she went on for the ailing leading lady, Adele Kern, and became a star.
When Eggerth was 18, the conductor Clemens Krauss asked her to come work with him in Vienna, but on the condition that she abstain from performing for five years — despite an already-thriving career — and that she concentrate on Mozart instead of operetta.
“Although I venerate Mozart,” she said, shortly before her 100th birthday, “I need . . . more passion when I sing. I am not a Mozart singer.”
Her stage career took off rapidly, including a turn as Adele in the Hamburg production of “Die Fledermaus” under the director Max Reinhardt.
Soon she was cranking out film after film in Europe, mainly light romantic vehicles with pretty songs. In the days before dubbing, films were shot in several different languages, so she might find herself filming a scene first in German, then in English.
She first met Kiepura as his co-star in a 1934 film, “Mein Herz ruft nach Dir” (“My Heart Is Calling You”).
Both of their mothers were Jewish, forcing them to flee Europe for the United States in 1938. Eggerth, who was briefly under contract to Universal Studios in Hollywood in the 1930s, had a short stint on Broadway in the Rodgers and Hart musical “Higher and Higher” in 1940.
MGM brought her back to Hollywood in the early 1940s, but Eggerth made only two movies, overshadowed by the musical star MGM was grooming at the time: Judy Garland. Eggerth’s star turn in “For Me and My Gal” (1942), a song called “The Spell of the Waltz,” threatened to upstage Garland and ended up on the cutting-room floor. (It was later included on the original cast album.)
Eggerth also appeared with Garland in “Presenting Lily Mars” (1943). Although her mother played cards with Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and other members of the Hungarian expatriate community, Eggerth arranged to be released early from her contract.
In August 1943, she and her husband opened on Broadway in a revival of Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” which became their calling card. Over the next two decades, they performed the 1905 operetta together some 2,000 times. They toured frequently in Europe, separately and jointly in recitals and stage performances, but their home base was the house in Rye that they bought in the 1950s. It was stuffed with photos and memorabilia and included an upright piano that Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist, once pronounced “not bad.”
When Kiepura died in 1966, a devastated Eggerth vowed she would never sing again. She turned down a role in the original production of “Cabaret,” though a song from the show, “Married,” became a staple in her later performances. Her voice remained fresh and youthful, in part because of a self-described regimen of abstinence: She never smoked, drank or stayed out late.
Gradually she began singing again, appearing in a musical about the life of the writer Colette, making a few cameos on German television and singing the occasional recital. Encouraged and accompanied by her son Marjan, a pianist, she released a two-CD set, “My Life My Song,” in 2005, including many recordings she made in her 90s.
In addition to Marjan Kiepura, of Littleton, N.H., and New York City, survivors include another son, John Thade of Zurich.
When the Cafe Sabarsky in New York invited the 92-year-old Eggerth to do a cabaret evening in 2005, the managers asked whether she would be able to perform for 45 minutes.
She gave them an hour and a half.
She went on to perform in several other solo evenings at the Viennese-style cabaret, mingling banter, personal anecdote and song that emerged ethereally, with the sweetness of a pressed flower.