Maralin Niska, 1926-2016: ‘Formidable talent’ stunned opera audiences from NYC to S.F.

Maralin Niska. Courtesy William Mullin

Correction appended.

Maralin Niska, who sang the role of Madame Butterfly in 1968 at what was then a brand-new Santa Fe Opera house, died Saturday at her home in the city. She was 89.

Niska was known as a singing actress back in the days when most opera singers would just stand on the stage and belt out their parts in high volume. Her husband, musician and conductor William Mullen, said when Niska was in Hector Berlioz’s The Trojans with the Boston Opera, “They had her running up and down stairs from the edge of the stage to the balcony.”

Today, with live transmissions of the opera in high definition, there’s a premium on singers who can act, but that wasn’t always the case, Mullen said. At the time, “She was one of the few.”

Niska sang opposite many of the best-known singers from her era, including Placido Domingo, George Shirley, Sherrill Milnes and José Carreras. She also appeared with some of the great conductors, including Pierre Boulez, Erich Leinsdorf and André Kostelanetz.

She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in the 1970 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, in the role of Violetta, and was a mainstay of the New York City Opera and regional opera companies from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Niska was also a popular teacher with many longtime students. “I always said she could teach anybody off the street to sing,” Mullen said. “She didn’t mind taking any level or any age. She loved the process of it, and she got great joy out of it.”

The Santa Fe Opera is dedicating its Thursday night performance of Don Giovanni to Niska’s memory with “deep admiration and gratitude,” said general director Charles MacKay.

He was an insignificant player — an orchestra librarian and extra musician — and she a star soprano, MacKay said, when Niska sang as Madame Butterfly in a performance that opened The Santa Fe Opera’s newly rebuilt theater. “I was immediately just so taken with her luminous voice,” he said.

She returned to Santa Fe to sing the roles of Violetta in La Traviata, the title role in Tosca and Verdi’s Requiem in a concert at the opera, all under its founding director, John Crosby.

“She was an formidable talent,” MacKay said, “a marvelous performer who had a riveting stage presence and brought her characters to life in a vivid manner.”

MacKay said Niska sang extensively at the Met and took part in its first “Live from the Met” telecast in 1977, when she sang Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème, with Luciano Pavarotti in the role of Rodolfo.

As a respected teacher of voice in Santa Fe, she was a “strong and positive presence on the musical scene for many years,” MacKay added.

Niska was born in San Pedro, Calif., and studied violin, piano and voice. In her teens, she sang solos in church and appeared in high school productions such as The Three Twins. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of California at Los Angeles and taught second grade in the public schools in the state for seven years, while also performing with local musical organizations.

In 1967, she gave her first performance with the New York City Opera as the Contessa Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro and went on to perform more than two dozen leading roles with the company, more than any singer in history.

The Los Angeles Times named Niska “Woman of the Year” in music in 1967.

A year later, at the 1968 Butterfly production, she met Mullin. They married in 1970 and began living in Santa Fe in 1978. In Santa Fe, she opened a private vocal studio, while continuing to give performances and master classes.

Her last performance was in Santa Fe on Christmas Eve of 1996, when she sang Mozart arias with the Música de Cámara Orchestra conducted by her husband.

No public service is planned.

Contact Anne Constable at 505-986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Niska's husband. He is William Mullen.