A Boy and His Diva

Once upon a time, when I was first discovering this thing called opera, I would tell anyone silly enough to ask that my favorite singers were Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Leonie Rysanek. I'm surprised that I left Renata Scotto out of the primal triumvirate, for Scotto was always there (although she'd be more there later on): that first Boheme telecast suggested that opera might be a good place to turn now that I'd run out of Gilbert & Sullivans to memorize, and perhaps my first staggeringly vivid memory of a diva in action is of Renata, garbed in what looked like Miss Ellen's portieres, putting out her candles during the second act of Adriana Lecouvreur. But even if I'd answered Sutherland, Schwarzkopf, Rysanek and Scotto, I'd still have left out the name of the prima donna who inspired the greatest love in my very gay and very lonely heart.

I spent my tortured adolescence in Beverly Hills, but, from time to time, my mother and I would pop off to New York for a week of culture and dysfunction, leaving my father alone for a few days of quiet he no doubt appreciated. On one of these trips I heard Dame Joan live for the first time in Don Giovanni (I think I'd rather have heard her in a role with notes above high C). As my mother and I inched our way out of the orchestra at intermission, I was making little secret of the fact that I disapproved of the casting of Huguette Tourangeau as Zerlina (could you blame me?). This earned much angry and loud shushing from my mother, who came perilously close to saying that she didn't like the idea of her son, still clad in his three-piece bar mitzvah suit, carrying on like, well, like the little opera queen he was. The same week I first gave vent to an opinion in the foyer of the Met and saw Renata's Adriana, I also had my first contact with the standing room line, since I simply had to see Leonie Rysanek as the Kaiserin, and the performances were extremely sold out. Although my mother insisted on meeting me after the final curtain (she complained that I stayed and clapped too much), she couldn't protect me that Friday morning from most-of-you- probably-know-who with the tape recorder and Maria's Aida E-flat and nearly two hundred Leonie queens, some of whom would play major roles in a life which was then very much yet to come. I had also heard Varady, Bacquier, Carreras, Cossotto, Verrett, Milnes, King and Berry. How would I ever readjust to Southern California and a world in which people didn't talk about who held the final high C longest in the Böhm Frau recording?

Although it wasn't easy, at least I had Anneliese Rothenberger. Worshipful though I was of Rysanek and Scotto, of Sutherland and Schwarzkopf (I'm the only person I know who likes her Giulietta), there was something a little too public about such established monstres sacrées, particularly for a young man whose life took place almost entirely within the confines of his own head. I needed a diva I could call my own, and, since there was no one around who might have explained the relative importance of Rothenberger and Rysanek, I let my judgment be guided by the record bins at Tower. As they had a lot of Electrola imports, I soon found my way to (in the words of her EMI bio) "the most charming of all prima donnas.". One of the advantages of the LP format was the big album cover photos which gave one an idea of how a singer looked. EMI always made an effort to show Rothenberger in costume, albeit in the kinds of costumes which looked as though they would fall apart with more than ten minutes' wear. But whereas her partners usually looked fairly goofy (except for Gedda, who looked extremely goofy, and Adolf Dallapozza, who looked kinda cute to me as Offenbach's Orpheus), Rothenberger exuded a friendly glamour and a visible belief in what she was wearing. Without seeing her on stage, or even in motion, I felt I knew just how she would look as Konstanze, Lady Harriet or Hanna Glawari. Why was I so smitten with a singer whose hairstyles matched those of a few of my older female relatives (Viennese taste apparently not having changed since my family fled to America in the late thirties) and whose glamour gowns looked as though she might have sewn them herself?

Being (or having been - it was years before I realized what I'd been listening to was actually late Rothenberger) a coloratura soprano certainly helped. I love coloratura sopranos. So did the appeal of the voice itself. I like a nice healthy vibrato. And how could one resist the personal charm which had made friends of such formidable operatic dragons as Lisa Della Casa (Rothenberger was her favorite Zdenka) and Lotte Lehmann (who dubbed her "the best Sophie singing today")? I am sure I also responded to the way her singing always seemed such a natural and plausible response to the world around her. For someone who could stand at the top of a flight of cement stairs, survey the kids in the schoolyard, and begin his descent singing Lisa's Entrance from Das Land des Lachelns this aspect of the Rothenberger vocal persona suggested that I had found a kindred spirit. I could imagine Anneliese coming down her own stairs just that way, even if it was only to breakfast with her husband (Gerd W. Dieberitz, whose presence in non-singing roles in a few of his wife's recordings seemed like an in-joke for the Rothenberger "club" I'd imagined. If there were Leonie queens, why not Anneliese queens?)

None of this explains the magic which kept me plunking down big bucks for imports of Offenbach in the wrong language (that's a huge act of devotion for a student at a Lycée Français). When Rothenberger began singing Lisa's entrance, I felt the presence of someone in the process of lighting up a room. Maybe today I'd say this was a result of her unique combination of real divahood with a highly developed popular touch, but as a teenager, I just delighted in the experience of a singer who communicated, who could (despite my then patchy German) make me laugh out loud (her kvetching about Jean Styx in Orphee) or feel a real lump in my throat (as when Lisa says "aber Gustl, diese Schmerz…")

Note that these are moments in which she speaks: thanks to the dialogue in her operetta recordings, I got to know Rothenberger's speaking voice better than that of maybe any other singer. That made for a unique intimacy with my private diva of choice. I'm sure the concept of opera as escape from the trials of gym class and being called an "espèce de pédé" by boys who might have done well to look to themselves is familiar to plenty of gay men. (Although the ones reading this were more likely called "faggot")

But opera can bring a turmoil of its own, what with Renata dying all the time, Leonie screaming as golden fountains appear and disappear, the schöne Elisabeth relinquishing Christa, and the Joan's high E-flats doing a number on my respiratory system. While I desperately needed catharsis (and helped myself to it generously), I also needed to feel safe, and Rothenberger is the diva who came closest to doing that for me.

Even before playing Wiener Blut, I knew that Rothenberger's Gräfin Zedlau would pick up where her Lisa had left off and share with me a few moments of sunny happiness. I needed sunny happiness a lot in those days. I probably still need it, which is why the recent CD re-releases of the Rothenberger/Gedda operetta series have provided a series of extremely Proustian experiences. There are plenty of other records which were staples of my adolescent musical diet, but, somehow, Rothenberger's evoke a special nostalgia for my lost (not that I miss them) teenage years: they allow me to remember my younger self in some uncharacteristic moments.

-- MDG