Teresa Stratas was born on May 26, 1938, in a poor neighborhood of Toronto known as Cabbagetown. She was the third child of Argero and Emmanuel Stratakis, who had both emigrated from Crete in the 1920s, before meeting in Toronto. At the time of Stratas's birth, the family lived in a small flat over a Chinese laundry. She was born at home, on the dining room table.
When Stratas was a young girl, her parents began running a small restaurant just outside Toronto. At one point they bought a piano, and she learned to pick out tunes by ear. She had a very strong voice, and soon was singing in programs at the Greek community center. While attending high school she sang in nightclubs, movie theaters and on the radio. She was about to quit school and try to sing for a living, when she decided to audition for Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music. The head of the school, Dr. Arnold Walter, convinced her to stay in school by promising to give her a scholarship to the Conservatory if she graduated from high school. Soon she began studying with the distinguished soprano Irene Jessner, who became her principal teacher.
Stratas discovered opera as a teenager, and in 1958, at the age of 20, made her professional opera debut as Mimi in a Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The following year she entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York. She won, and was given a Met contract. Her Met debut on October 28, 1959, was in the small role of Poussette in Massenet's Manon.
Other small roles followed. Two years after her debut, she replaced an ailing Lucine Amara as Liú in a new production of Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli. Critics and audiences took note, and Stratas began getting more important assignments at the Met. She also tried her luck in Europe, and in the next few years sang principal roles frequently in Vienna, Berlin, London, Salzburg and Munich. (She also made an early appearance at the 1961 Athens Festival, in the title role of the world premiere of Peggy Glanville-Hicks's opera, Nausicaa. Her success in Europe helped her land leading roles at the Met, in operas that included Madama Butterfly, Le Nozze di Figaro, Pagliacci and The Queen of Spades. Back in Europe, she starred in films of The Bartered Bride, Der Zarewitsch, Salome and several other operas and operettas.
When James Levine and John Dexter took over the artistic arm of the Met in the 1970s, Stratas's career reached its peak, as she began working in even greater depth. During this time, she starred in new productions of The Bartered Bride, the Met's premiere of Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli's classic production of La Bohème and the world premiere of Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles. At the Paris Opera she performed the title role in the long-awaited complete version of Berg's Lulu, repeating the assignment in Amsterdam, Brussels and the Met. She appeared in a number of "Live from the Met" telecasts, as well as in celebrated movie versions of La Traviata, Pagliacci and Amahl and the Night Visitors.
She also starred in a Broadway musical — Rags — for which she won a Tony Award nomination. Among her many awards were two Grammy Awards for her recording of Lulu, and another for the soundtrack recording of La Traviata.
Twice during the peak of her career she cancelled all engagements to help those around the world in extreme need: in Calcutta, she worked in Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, with sick children and in the Home for the Dying. A few years later, she volunteered at a hospital in Romania to help tend to orphans with AIDS. As she later said about her work in India, "I think it was one of the wisest things I've ever done it confirms for me that though I may sing at the Metropolitan Opera, I am my father's daughter and he was a shepherd, a barefoot shepherd in Crete. and that we are all one. I'm not singing to make a career anymore. I've sorted things out and will sing fewer performances, but I truly know the reason I'm singing now. It's important to say something positive, even to just one person."
Stratas's singing career came to an abrupt halt in the mid-1990s, after, during what she thought would be routine sinus surgery, most of her vocal resonators were irreversibly removed. Her performances are now part of opera legend.
In a career lasting over 35 years, Teresa Stratas transformed herself into an extraordinary singing actress, able to explore the depth of her roles in ways that are rarely seen in the opera house. A typical Stratas performance was a personal experience that resonated with its audiences for many years to come.
The range of characters to which she brought life was as wide as her talent. Onstage, she could easily alternate between the femme fatale Lulu, the fragile Mimi and the jaded prostitute Jenny, giving each a unique interpretation. Her voice was also unique, carrying its own vocal fingerprint.
Stratas's tremendous success on the stages of the world came with a price. She suffered from extreme stage fright that, along with remnants of childhood tuberculosis, forced her to cancel many performances. Still her dedication to her audiences won out: at the Met alone, she sang 385 performances of 41 roles.
Her dedication to humanity is just as strong. Although others came to hear about her work in India and Romania — and of her financial support for people in need — only her friends know of the countless times she has devoted herself to the health and welfare of others. Throughout her career, she felt uncomfortable about publicizing her performances, much less her private deeds. It is not an exaggeration to say that onstage and off, she has changed the lives of countless people, whether or not they ever witnessed her work as an artist. A unique product of three cultures — Greece, Canada and the United States — Teresa Stratas remains an inspiration for other artists and for the audiences of classic music and great theater.