Remembering Helen Hagnes

after forty years

Tom Suárez, July, 2020

(Above and below) Spoleto, Italy, 1970; left to right, Tom Suárez, Helen Hagnes, Augusto Vismara, Batia Bergman. These are screen-grabs from a film from Luciano Berio’s series, C’è Musica e Musica, in which we were being interviewed by Radiotelevisione italiana during the Festival dei due Mondi.

On the evening of July 23, 1980, I was one of the violinists in the pit of New York's Metropolitan Opera House. The Berlin Ballet was in town with guest artists Galina Panov, Valery Panov, and Rudolf Nureyev. The program that Wednesday evening was Firebird, Five Tangos, Don Quixote, and Miss Julie.

We played Firebird, then left the pit for a long interval — Five Tangos used music by Astor Piazzolla that did not involve us. Like most of the musicians, I headed to the canteen, grabbed a coffee, and hung out in the backstage labyrinth.

Going back into the pit for Don Quixote, we awaited the close succession of the rising magnificent Metropolitan Opera house chandeliers, lowered lights, hushed audience, closing of the pit door, and finally the “A” from the oboe.

For perhaps a minute, it was not strange that Helen, the violinist sitting in front of me, was not yet there. But as the moments slipped by, we kept turning our heads around toward the door. No Helen. Concerned that she had suddenly fallen ill, I took her violin, which she’d left on her chair, and put it in its case outside the pit. The act began.

To say that it was “strange” that she was nowhere to be found even after the performance sounds oddly passive, but I don’t know what other word to use, because any scenario such as what had actually happened was unthinkable, especially in the fortress that is the Metropolitan Opera House. As efforts to contact her began, I walked the ten blocks north along Broadway to my small apartment on West 75th Street, the same street on which Helen lived, one block east.

The police found Helen’s body at 8:30 the next morning, July 24.

In the afternoon we were back at the Met for individual interviews by the police, followed by an 8 PM downbeat for Valery Panov’s ballet “The Idiot”, based on the novel by Dostoevsky. The ballet’s first terrifying notes, taken from Shostakovich’s symphonies, sent a chill through the shell-shocked orchestra. In the third act of the ballet, the heroine, Nastasya Filippovna, is murdered.

This July 23 is the fortieth anniversary of that terrible night at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Helen was one of those colleagues with whom I frequently worked but had never gotten to know well. My earliest memory of her was a decade earlier, in 1970, at the Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi in Italy.

She was the youngest of three sisters raised on a poultry farm in Aldergrove, British Columbia, where her Swedish parents had emigrated from Finland. She was married to the late Janis Mintiks, a sculptor. Helen’s sister, Delcie Hill, described Helen’s early years to the Associated Press: Their parents put a great deal of time and effort and money they didn't have into Helen's music, and for eight years, until she was 19, Helen was taken by the family truck to Vancouver for violin lessons. She had already soloed with the Seattle Symphony before she left Canada to enroll at Julliard, where she completed a bachelor's and a master's degree. After continuing studies in Italy and Switzerland, she moved back to New York to study with Nathan Milstein.

One day during Helen’s Juilliard years, she and pianist Judith Olson passed each other in the hallway and started chatting. Not only were they both of Scandinavian background, but Judith had also grown up on a farm. They quickly became inseparable. Their friendship widened to close musical collaboration, playing many recitals and embarking on two cruises organized by academics from Harvard and Yale.

Not long before Helen’s murder, Judith herself had narrowly escaped a parallel fate. In the elevator of the building I had years earlier frequented for lessons with Ivan Galamian, Judith, there to rehearse the Walton violin concerto with Kyung Wha Chung, was attacked in the elevator and forced to the roof, eerily mirroring what would happen to Helen.

Helen’s body was discovered too late for the crime to be in the morning’s papers. Friends tried to reach Judith by phone — landline in those days, of course — but missed her. The following morning, the 25th, she opened her apartment door to collect the day’s New York Times, saw Helen’s picture in the lower-right of the front page, and fell to the floor.

When on Tuesday, July 29, Judith gave the eulogy for Helen at Manhattan’s St. Peter's Lutheran Church, her grief was spiked with terror — terror that the killer was selective, serial, and present. More than a month would pass before Metropolitan Opera employee Craig Crimmins, then 21, was arrested and, ultimately, convicted.

Helen was neat and tidy — “domestic”, as Judith puts it — in contrast to Judith. She described both of them as “gigglers”, shorthand for the great fun they had together. When on the high seas they were supposed to participate in the ship’s costume party but had no costumes, they surveyed their room and scavenged its sparse provisions for “props”. The violin-piano duo attended the party as shower and shower-ee, Judith the shower and shower curtain, Helen wrapped in a towel under the “spigot“, complete with beer can hair curlers. (They won first prize.)

On that performing voyage, Helen, whose convictions included reincarnation, came face-to-face with what she had long believed to be home in her distant past: Egypt. So profound was her sense that in this land lay her ancient roots, that she made Janis promise that he would bring her ashes to rest there if anything were to happen to her.

Suddenly faced with that reality, Janis sought a way to honor her wish despite lacking funds and the relevant logistical knowledge. So he wrote to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Sadat arranged flights for Janis and Helen's ashes.

Helen’s wish was fulfilled.

Judith (left) and Helen in Egypt, mid-1970s.
Onboard masquerade party, Helen in the white towel under Judith, the “shower."

Judith Olson today, holding a photo of the violin-piano duo in Istanbul, mid 1970s