The Forest boasts quite a roster of remarkable residents from a variety of backgrounds: professors, librarians, homemakers, gardeners, engineers, community volunteers, CEOs, authors, and artists, to name a handful. Resident Myra Kornbluth is no exception to this collection of intellectuals and creatives. A shining star in her own right, Myra brings something extra special to the Forest table. Myra, known professionally as Marisa Galvany, is an accomplished career soprano. She is widely recognized for her riveting performances in the United States and abroad.
Born Myra Beth Genis in Paterson, New Jersey, she chose a stage name with the same initials as her maiden name and which suggested that she might be of Italian origin. In the world of mid-20th century opera, where performances were largely dominated by Italian singers, such a name quickly drew extra attention to Myra’s already extraordinary voice.
The youngest of three daughters, Myra took piano alongside her sisters as a child, but she was the only one to continue in her lessons. She was found to have a striking voice at a young age, and her mother – whom Myra credits as one of her greatest encouragers – told her, “If you’re gonna sing, you gotta study.”
Sadly, Mr. Genis passed away before Myra’s opera career really took off. This is one of Myra’s greatest regrets. He was never able to see this gifted daughter perform in that capacity. Mrs. Genis, though, ever on her daughter’s personal cheering squad, arranged for Myra to take voice lessons to build upon her talent; as Myra was given solo performances at school and around town, people began to hear her voice and acknowledge her gift.
A growing family, a growing career
As the years passed, Myra continued to grow in her craft, singing frequently with the New York City Opera and performing in a number of concerts in the city. She became especially well-known for her portrayals of Tosca in the Puccini opera of the same name and Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. In the mid-1950s, she was hired as a soloist to perform with a community chorus. It was there she met her future husband, George, a CPA who had a tremendous love of music.
After three years of friendship and courting, the two married on June 28, 1959. Their marriage was a place of comfort and sanctuary for Myra, a retreat from the demanding and critical nature of the music world. “As soon as I turned my key in the door at home, I was Mrs. Kornbluth,” she recalls. “I was home, and I was at peace.”
In early December the following year, the Kornbluths welcomed a daughter, Sally. Entering motherhood came with a myriad of new challenges, just as it does for many young women. This was especially so for an acclaimed soprano like Myra. Much of her career was spent out of town – in the city for practices and shows, and in other states and across the sea for performances.
Giving their signature stamp of approval and encouragement for Myra’s life as a respected soprano, George and Mrs. Genis provided seamless care for Sally while her mother was away from home.
Marisa Galvany takes flight in New York
In her late 20s, thanks to her mother’s continued efforts on her behalf, Myra broke her way into New York and got in with one of the leading voice teachers of the time, William Herman. A demanding tutor, Mr. Herman was angry that Myra was already a wife and mother, because, as he saw it, she was supposed to devote her life to singing and nothing else. “Too bad,” she said.
Mr. Herman was a very critical man and never let Myra get away with any kind of mistake in her singing. However, she ascribes her “secure technique” to his strict manner of teaching. Largely because of his influence, Myra is fluent in Italian, understands German, and knows a bit of French. Mr. Herman didn’t just want his singers learning pronunciation for a part, he wanted them to know the languages in which they sang.
Even more influential to her voice and success, Myra also spent a great deal of time learning under Arman Boyajian, an accomplished piano accompanist and one of the foremost voice coaches in the world. “He primed me,” she remembers. “Everything happened when I started to work with him.”
As Myra recalls, Mr. Boyajian was a very kind and patient man, and he catered his lessons specifically to her voice and skill. “Because of him, I’m still singing. He’s responsible for my voice, period.”
Myra made her professional opera debut at the Seattle Opera in 1968, filling the title role of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. It was around this time that she auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera and music director Jimmy Levine hired her. Through her history of performances over time, she steadily grew a devoted following. These fans were obviously alerted in time to attend her Met debut at 4:00 p.m. on March 12, 1979.
When mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, suffering from a chest cold, couldn’t sing the title role in the Met’s first Norma of the season, Myra was called in to take her place. After this replacement was announced to the audience, a loud and encouraging reaction resounded through the opera house. Indeed, Myra turned lots of heads that afternoon. In his review of her performance in Norma, Manhattan-based music critic William Zakariasen remarked, “Galvany turned in a performance that was a credit to the house and to the professional she is.”
Sharing the spotlight
Myra’s voice continued to command respect and appreciation from domestic and international audiences in the decades to come. She shared the stage with a number of renowned tenors, including José Carreras and Harry Theyard. At one time, she even played the title role in Aida with a menagerie of live animals on set.
Ahead of the latter, Myra arrived early to the wings of the stage; something she often did, this habit gave her an opportunity to breathe, think, and prepare ahead of her performance. Backstage, she spotted a full grown tiger looking at her, his mouth agape, impressively sharp teeth fully exposed. She expressed her anxiety about the creature to his trainer, who replied, “Don’t worry, he’s trained.” In disbelief, Myra responded, “But does he know that?!”
All the world’s a stage
In 1972, Myra made her first international appearance at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. There she portrayed the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. Among a number of other performance halls, Myra appeared at the Frankfurter Schauspielhaus (Frankfurt, Germany), Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona, Spain), and operas in Brazil and Venezuela. She also performed with the New York Grand, New Orleans, and Cincinnati Operas.
Myra became known for many roles, including the fiery Lady MacBeth (MacBeth) and the title characters in Salome and Tosca. She was noted for her very deep “chest voice,” which worked especially well for Lady MacBeth’s nasty character.
Though music was her great love and passion, life in the spotlight often felt lonely. Once, when Myra was in Strasbourg, France, following a performance, she felt exceptionally homesick. She was preparing to fly to Toronto for another show the next day and missed her husband terribly.
Calling George from her hotel room, she tearfully shared her heart with him. Ever the gentle friend and supporter, George reminded her, “You have to remember, you don’t belong to me. You belong to the world of music.”
The next chapter
Myra’s singing career, which took off when she was in her 20s, continued well into the early 2000s.
Now a happy, comfortable, and enthusiastic resident of The Forest at Duke, Myra continues to practice her singing every day. Her apartment is located near a stairwell, away from most people; as such, she takes advantage of the space (and the upright piano she brought along with her) to sing often. “I want to keep my voice for myself,” she says. Myra is very thoughtful and courteous about the times of day she chooses to practice, so as not to disturb others. Still, people tend to gather outside her door to listen whenever she sings.
She certainly appreciates the applause and admiration of her audience. However, she sees music and her role in it as her identity, above all else. Just as she always has, Myra takes great care of herself. This is not only to maintain her voice, but her health as well. She walks a mile or so every day, is very careful about what she eats, and drinks plenty of water. “Practicing silence is worthwhile,” she adds. “The body is my instrument.”
Singing for all to hear
Forest residents and team members alike are thankful that Myra continues to share her gift. In addition to singing at a number of events on campus and in the surrounding Durham community, Myra also enjoys serenading others on their birthday. Hers is a powerful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” As she belts out those big, beautiful notes, passersby stop to listen and appreciate her incredible voice.
But residents and team members in acquaintance with the gifted Myra have stumbled upon quite the conundrum. When it’s Myra’s turn to celebrate her special day, do we sing to her in return, or don’t we?
—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist
Header image: Myra continues to enjoy singing for her friends and admirers at The Forest. (Photo via The Forest at Duke's Portrait Project)