Feminist Chanteuse

From chanteuse in the ’50s, to feminist cantata composer and performer in the ’70s, to composer and lyricist of a spooky post-Holocaust operetta in the ’80s, Mira J. Spektor has lived multiple musical lives.

Today, she continues to compose—new CDs of some of her work have just been released—something she feared she would be unable to do after her husband’s death three years ago. Spektor works at her grand piano overlooking the Central Park Reservoir in one of New York’s fine old Central Park West apartments. When we met, she was wearing a blue muumuu, feet bare, toenails painted red, glasses pushed back on her head. By her side was the passionate Pekinese, Figaro (“Figgy the Piggy, as in male chauvinist pig”).

On her new CD “Lady of the Castle,” Spektor’s chamber opera tells the story of a young Jewish woman held captive during World War II by a count who both protects and imprisons her.

Born in Berlin, Spektor lived in France during her early childhood, where she spent summers with Mama at the Deauville casino’s summer matinees, eating ice cream and listening to Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier Her family left Europe for the U.S. in 1939, and Spektor wrote her first musical when she was a high school senior in New York. She became a chanteuse, she says, at Sarah Lawrence College.

Her long-standing feminist claim to fame is the music for “The Housewives’ Cantata,” with lyrics by June Siegel. Written in 1973, the year of Ms. magazine’s first issue, the drama is pointed but not barbed. “Nora” (an allusion to Ibsen’s “Doll’s House”?) finally finds fulfillment as the first woman president of the United States. Spektor sings the title role on the original cast album, now reissued on CD. Her music ranges from the jazzy “Dirty Dish Rag” to the 1960s ballad sound of “Song of the Bourgeoise (sic) Hippie.” Spektor’s daughter, Charline, wrote the words for the romantic “Early Morning Rain.” As Spektor tells it, “It was raining. She was kvetching. I told her. “Why don’t you write me some lyrics.'”

The young Mira Spektor is the charming chanteuse of “Mira Chante” (Mira Sings), a remastered collection of songs recorded from 1955 to 1975. Spektor’s voice is sweet and sexy. “Je suis belle, cheri,” one of the two songs on the CD that she composed, is about a happy newlywed (“I am beautiful, my love, because you say so, and my heart struts in a parade”).

Spektor is currently arranging performances for the Aviva Players, the ensemble she founded in 1975 to research and perform the music of women composers from the 18th Century to the present. And she’s working on recording two new CDs. In “Ladies of Romance,” she wrote the music to existing librettos about famous women, including Lizzie Borden and Mary Shelley. “Give Me Time,” with lyrics by “Housewives” collaborator June Siegel, is a 17-minute musical about a “mature couple.”