Cher Public

The zoo story

A week from Saturday Will Crutchfield’s “Bel Canto at Caramoor” ends a 20-year run with Il Pirata. “Trove Thursday” salutes the finale of this important series with a live performance of the Bellini starring the inevitable Montserrat Caballè and her husband Yusi…oops I mean Bernabé Martí from another outdoor summer venue—the Cincinnati Zoo!

The cessation of Crutchfield’s bel canto performances in Katonah comes just weeks after the passing of Philip Gossett who occasionally participated in Caramoor’s pre-concert talks and who was of course a towering figure in music scholarship. His sparkling, fascinating book Divas and Scholars from 2006 remains essential reading for anyone interested in 19th century Italian opera.

Although I didn’t attend all that many Caramoor operas, some were especially striking, such as the wonderful and rare opportunity to hear two of Verdi’s French operas sung in their original language.

Although I recall a pale Linda di Chamounix and a bland Aureliano in Palmira that I fled at intermission, I prefer to savor memories of an involving Semiramide, a fierce Lucrezia Borgia, an engagingly elegant Il Trovatore (which featured a rare Azucena from Ewa Podle?, an occasional Caramoor visitor) and that surprising oddity–Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites–done with incisive power and special for showcasing Deborah Polaski’s riveting operatic farewell as Mme de Croissy.

Happily it was recently been announced that Crutchfield is inaugurating a new summer project grandly christened “Teatro Nuovo” and moving with it to another corner of Westchester–the expansive performing arts complex at SUNY Purchase. The first season promises Rossini’s Tancredi and Mayr’s Medea in Corinto.

Although I didn’t live that far away, I never had the chance to attend an opera accompanied by—as legend has it—trumpeting elephants and shrieking peacocks before the Cincinnati Opera abandoned the Zoo for Music Hall. Sometime after that move my family visited the Zoo and I connived to walk out onto the now-dilapidated stage: there a star-struck kid looked around imagining the many famous singers who had performed on that spot for more than 50 years.

As a budding opera-tot I had only just begun to listen to the Met Saturday broadcasts when Caballè sang her only two opera performances in Cincinnati. Today’s rare “in-zoo” recording isn’t in the best sound but it captures a resplendent Caballè in one of her early signature roles. Back then I pored over my local newspaper for details about her upcoming appearance and later discovered she had had a mishap during rehearsals and sang Imogene leaning on velvet crutches. “What commitment and dedication!” I enthused at the time. Today one might also remember Gossett’s merciless appraisal of the Catalan diva in his brutally forthright book.

I look forward to Crutchfield’s Caramoor farewell on July 8th, my first live Pirata. I wasn’t yet in New York for Aprile Millo’s sole Imogene with the (presumably now-defunct) Opera Orchestra of New York in 1989—it seems to have been quite an event.

I had planned to attend the Met’s 2002 production but as luck would have it my ticket was for of one of Renée Fleming’s rare cancelations and knowing I didn’t want to hear her cover, I just skipped the whole thing.

Bellini: Il Pirata
Cincinnati Zoo Opera
5 July 1969
In-zoo recording

Imogene: Montserrat Caballé
Gualtiero: Bernabé Martí
Ernesto: Julian Patrick
Goffredo: Dimitri Nabokov

Conductor: Anton Guadagno

To download Pirata, just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

In addition, more than 80 “Trove Thursday” podcasts are available from iTunes–for free, or via any RSS reader.


  • Zac

    My wife and I came to New York in 2002 for “Il Pirata” to hear her favorite singer, Dwayne Croft. We both thought Fleming was terrific, although the one lasting impression was that the production seemed to drag a bit once Croft’s character had bit the (proverbial) dust.

  • Dan Patterson

    I began attending the Cincinnati Zoo Opera in the late 1960s, and got to see many wonderful singers -- Sills, Moffo, Peters, Schwarzkopf, Tucker, Milnes, Treigle, Alexander, Verrett -- and Caballe, in this very performance. How thrilling to hear it again. Thank you so much!

    • Dan Patterson

      Caballe was on crutches for this performance, but sang up a storm anyway. She held her final notes forever and a day, very exciting -- and in fact they actually closed the curtain at one point while she was still roaring away.

      Also, in my list in the preceding email, I omitted Felicia Weathers, who sang a very febrile and very sexy Salome. She was so sweet and friendly backstage, too.

  • Michael Delos

    The fine American baritone Julian Patrick as Ernesto! A mainstay of the NYCO and the Met National Company, he made his belated Met debut as Alberich in the RING in January of 1988. The epitome of the term “Singing Actor”, and a respected voice teacher as well. Glad to see him documented here.

  • Donna Annina

    Thanks for the memories, Mr. C. I grew up during the final seasons at the zoo. It must have be hell for the singers; the dressing room shacks had no a/c. I recall a kids matinee of Barber of Seville; the singers makeup was literally dripping down their faces. But extraordinary performances and if you happened to be in the zoo when a rehearsal was going on, you could watch for free. The tickets weren’t a bad deal either. $1.25 for the way back. My dad took me to hear Sills in Lucia and it was a night to remember. The peacocks occasionally joined in.

    • Dan Patterson

      Yes, the peacocks frequently joined in, particularly with Sills. I saw her Lucia there too, as well as her Marguerite, Violetta, Rosalinda, and the Hoffmann Ladies. I traveled up from Louisville and the weekends. Can that really be fifty years ago? God, I’m OLD.

      One of the best memories was the Gala (and premature) farewell to the Zoo. Caballe canceled, so we missed her announced “Casta Diva” but I remember Edith Lang substituted, singing “Dich teure halle.” Many other singers delighted, including Mary Costa singing “Je veux vivre.” But most thrilling to me were the old stars visiting. Afterward, in the backstage crowd, I saw Stella Roman talking to Licia Albanese, and singing a phrase of such unearthly beauty that I’ve wondered ever since what it was. I might recognize it now, but alas, memory is too dim…