Nedda Casei, Mezzo-Soprano Turned Labor Leader, Dies at 87


Nedda Casei, who in the 1960s and ’70s could be reliably heard as Suzuki, Maddalena, Lola and other bread-and-butter mezzo-soprano characters at the Metropolitan Opera before transforming herself into a pathbreaking labor leader, died on Jan. 20 in hospice care in Manhattan. She was 87.

A niece, Janice Arponen, said the cause was a stroke.

Ms. Casei sang in some 280 performances at the Met, from her debut as Maddalena in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in 1964 until her final curtain, in 1984, as Larina in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

She also sang “Carmen” there. In one performance, in 1978, as the understudy for Elena Obraztsova, she had to go on at the last minute.

After her first scene, “‘Boo’ rang out like a clap of thunder, full-throated, resonant and shocking,” the critic Jack Hiemenz wrote in the newspaper The News World. “For a moment there was stunned silence, then the audience, outraged, shot back vehement applause and a few bravos.” Mr. Hiemenz suggested that a plant in the audience might have emitted the “boo” to generate sympathy for Ms. Casei.

Then he gushed.

“She was simply splendid,” he wrote. “It’s been a long time since the Met gave us a sexually exciting Carmen, one who repels you and arouses you at the same time.”

Other critics were not always so enthusiastic, although Ms. Casei often received positive notices. In The New York Times, Donal Henahan found her “overly cute” as Suzuki in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in 1969, but four years later Raymond Ericson called her “vocally rich” as the character, Butterfly’s maid.

Nedda Jane Casey was born on Sept. 9, 1932, in Baltimore to Howard T. Casey, a realtor and retired engineer, and Lyda (Graupman) Casey, a homemaker. Nedda changed her surname to Casei as a young performer in Italy, partly because that (kah-ZAY) was how Italians pronounced it, Mrs. Arponen said.

She grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., and studied voice privately. Her professional opera debut came in 1960, at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and she went on to sing at numerous houses in Europe and across the United States, and at the White House for Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Ms. Casei married John A. Wiles Jr. in 1971; they were divorced in 1979. In 1983, she married Samuel Strasbourger, who died in 1987. A brother, Robert, died before her. Mrs. Arponen and two other nieces are her only survivors.

Ms. Casei’s labor career started when she helped negotiate a contract for solo singers at the Met amid a bitter dispute with management that delayed the 1969-70 season. The performers received better pay and a reduction in the long hours they were required to be at the house.

Ms. Casei had just bought an apartment in the Dakota on Central Park West and had a mortgage to pay, so she decided to join the negotiating committee to seek better compensation, Mrs. Arponen said.

“She always took care of herself,” she said. “When she saw a wrong, she wanted to right it.”

In 1972 she joined the board of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union representing opera singers, chorus members, ballet dancers and other theater denizens.

She began studying at Fordham University in the waning years of her career and in 1982 received a bachelor’s degree in performing arts management. Around that time she was asked to run for president of the union. “It was the perfect opportunity to put some of this new knowledge to work,” she said in a statement as part of the guild’s 70th-anniversary festivities.

She won, becoming the first woman to head the guild, which at the time had 5,800 members nationwide. Her signature achievement was to build up an emergency fund to help members in times of trouble. It amounted to about $1 million when she left office in 1993 (the equivalent of about $1.8 today).

“Nedda used her fame, her warm and generous personality, and powerful friendships to create an endowment which continues to provide a secure future for the Relief Fund,” Linda Mays, a former guild president and current Relief Fund trustee, said in a statement.

In later years, Ms. Casei, while living in a richly decorated Sutton Place penthouse in Manhattan, judged voice competitions and taught singing, including for a time at Aichi Prefectural University in Nagoya, Japan.

By then she had retired from the stage, but she agreed to sing a recital there even if she was out of shape. That caused an attack of nerves, she said in an interview with the blog Classical Voice.

“Surprise! The instant I walked onstage the nerves were totally gone,” she said. “I realized: ‘These are your friends. These are people you want to sing for.’”

It was the best she had ever sung, she said — “and,” she added, “that’s the way I finished.”

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