Renowned opera singer Maria Winetzkaja was a spirited woman who refused to conform to societal expectations of female behavior. Born in Kishinev, Winetzkaja studied piano at the Russian Imperial Conservatory of Music before her family immigrated to the United States. She received an artist’s degree from the Institute of Musical Arts in New York and made her professional singing debut in 1917 with the Boston Opera Company. As a leading mezzo-soprano, Winetzkaja toured internationally with several opera companies including the Boston National Grand Opera Company and the New York Grand Opera. As a modern woman, Winetzkaja was a common-law wife to her husband, Schai Winett, and she had her children later in her life. In her retirement, she taught voice at the Juilliard School.
Early Life and Education
Maria Winetzkaja was a renowned opera singer, whose international career spanned twenty years, and a rebellious, independent woman. She was born to Woolf and Naomi (Nemeroff) Kleiner in Kishinev, Bessarabia (now Moldova), probably around 1888 or 1889; the exact date is unknown. She was the seventh of ten children, and the fifth of six girls. Her father was a cantor in a synagogue in Kishinev. Her love for his voice may have influenced her choice of a career, but she wanted nothing to do with Judaism, calling it ridiculous and foolish. She was particularly angered by what she perceived to be Judaism’s attitude toward women: “Women are nothing.” She informed her family early on that she would have no part of it.
When Maria was ten years old, she won a piano scholarship to the Russian Imperial Conservatory of Music. Around 1904, following pogroms in Kishinev, her family came to the United States. She received an artist’s degree in 1913 from the Institute of Musical Arts in New York and made her professional singing debut in 1917 with the Boston Opera Company. She eventually spoke eight languages through the study of opera.
Winetzkaja was a leading mezzo-soprano with the Boston National Grand Opera Company in 1917 and 1918, and toured Central and South America with the Bracale Opera Company from 1919 to 1921. She performed in many cities in the United States throughout her career, as a member of several opera companies, including the Puccini Opera Company of Philadelphia and the New York Grand Opera and Cosmopolitan Opera companies in New York. Winetzkaja also gave recitals at Town Hall, Aeolian Hall, and Carnegie Hall in New York, as well as in other major American cities. She never sang at the Metropolitan Opera, the pinnacle of success for American singers: the reason, she said, was that she refused to sleep with one of the Met’s directors.
Winetzkaja had a very rich, beautiful mezzo-soprano voice, and was an excellent musician. A spontaneous singer, she rarely marked her scores. During the 1920s, a reviewer wrote that her voice, “which ranges from big chest tones almost masculine in timbre to quite high tones, which have a clear silvery ring, is much like her person. It shows the same richness and powerful magnetism” (Dorothy J. Teall, Musical America). The Musical Leader reported, “Mme. Winetzkaja’s dramatic quality served her as well in recital as it did in the impersonation of a role. She showed extraordinary musicianship and versatility in English, French, Italian and Russian songs.”
She was also an excellent dramatic actor, and the roles she sang encompass some of the most dramatic in the mezzo repertoire. Her favorite roles were Carmen (Carmen) and Delilah (Sampson and Delilah), and she routinely sang the Witch/Mother in Hansel and Gretel, Amneris in Aïda, Azucena in Il Trovatore, and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly.
Winetzkaja lived as a modern woman in an age that did not encourage such behavior. She was a common-law wife to her husband, Schai Winett, although they claimed a wedding date for appearances. She also took the feminine version of his Ukrainian name, Winetsky, which he had anglicized when he arrived in the United States. Winett was a civil engineer and architect for the city of New York, and also managed much of his wife’s career. He had immigrated to the United States in 1903, from Ukraine.
Winetzkaja had her children late in her life, given the times: Ralph and George were born in 1915 and 1923, respectively. The demands of her career meant that she was often distracted or simply not at home.
Although it sometimes seemed she lacked the mothering instinct, she loved her family fiercely. For instance, she rejected the wisdom of doctors who suggested she allow George to die when, as a newborn, he threw up all food fed to him. She dragged the infant from doctor to doctor until she found one who correctly diagnosed and treated him for pyloric stenosis, a closure of one of the main gastrointestinal valves. George grew up to be a chemist; Ralph, a writer.
After retiring from the stage, Winetzkaja taught, both privately and on the Juilliard faculty, and traveled extensively. She was very active in her students’ lives, and several of them lived with her at various times. Her husband died in 1941, when she was in her early fifties.
Winetzkaja died in 1956 of the cancer she had had for several years. Despite her illness, she was energetic in her final years, traveling around Alaska a year before her death. She also remained feisty. When her first grandchild was born in 1954, her parents had to cope with the difference between the norms of cleanliness in the old and new worlds. Concerned for their newborn’s health, the parents would drape a towel over their grandmother’s shoulder and chest to “prevent the baby from drooling on her clothes.” Winetzkaja was not fooled. On one memorable visit, she stalked wordlessly into the apartment carrying a large bag and disappeared into the bathroom. She emerged dressed in a spotlessly clean nurse’s uniform. “Now can I hold your baby?” she asked.
Winetzkaja’s desire for an equal footing for women may have been unusual for her time, but she influenced her descendants. In terms of women’s roles, the daughter of her son Ralph currently practices medicine. Her son George married a professional musician and orchestra conductor; their daughter is a professor of feminist and comparative literature. The music lives on, too. Steven Winnett is not only a professional forester but also a singer and bassoonist.
Obituary. NYTimes, May 23, 1956, 31:4.
Recital programs of Maria Winetzkaja, 1918–1929, in author’s possession.
Winnett, A. George, and Elaine S. Winnett. Interview with author, February 1996.
WWIAJ (1928, 1938).