Who knows how it all began?
All I know is that I've been in love with opera for as long as I can remember being alive. Growing up in a strict Seventh-day Adventist family did not, however, permit much time for the enjoyment of what was considered to be the most frivolous of art forms. While my parents shunned opera, they did enjoy singing and so while not with the frequency of Judy, Ella and Trini Lopez, the voices of Mario Lanza and Lily Pons did, on occasion find their way into our home. Real opera was lumped together with candy, tobacco, red meat, alcohol and sex as "wrong." But I was a child who would walk around Ozone Park in a Batman cape, wearing Chiquita Banana stickers on his head while putting on outdoor extravaganzas featuring the music of Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf, so it made sense I would gravitate to so forbidden an art.
The most holy Sabbath day was, of course, reserved for religious observances and neither radio nor television were permitted to be turned on until after sunset. By the time I was eight I realized I could retire to my room to read the Bible or some prophetic volume without causing the folks to be suspicious. It was there, in my room, with my Juliette clock radio with faux walnut trim, that I became addicted to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. I would listen only to the music, taking a break during the quiz and plot analysis to make "appearances" in front of my family. These usually involved accompanying myself on a hymn, inserting portamenti, gruppetti and trills into "There's room at the cross for you" or "Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus." The family would get a chuckle and Dad would pronounce me "another Mario Lanza!"
The first voice that I fell in love with is the voice I listen to each day still. La Divina. I thought I would grow up to marry her, age difference be damned, I would save her! The first thing I heard was her first recording of the Lucia Mad Scene. I'd never experienced anything like it. Her voice, like her picture on the box, beautiful and heartbreaking. Shortly thereafter I heard Medea and my whole world changed. I'd never heard such violence emanating from a human throat; such torrential explosions of sound tearing through a body. I visualized her soul, her blood, even bits of internal organs flying out through the speakers for me to drink in, inhale, devour. The sheer schizophrenic cacophony of pure, raw emotion in her voice traversed fury, erotic longing, nobility, pity, terror, and most of all revenge -- within the space of a single recitative. Obsessed, I would play it, over and over, often wrapping myself in a deep burgundy quilt, jumping onto the sofa and in my most menacing 10 year old voice hurling "Taci, Giason, e affisimmoto il solo?" into the farthest reaches of the living room.
I'm not certain I was even aware of what these emotions were and yet, it mattered not at all. I was feeling. I was alive. And I needed more. I needed everything. I'd save my allowances for another "fix" of Maria.
At boarding school I cut classes to hitchhike into the city to buy more Maria. I procured a job as an accompanist in the music department, the only place on campus with a turntable. I would often skip meals so I could be alone in the building with Maria. Tosca, Traviata, Butterfly all became "real" to me here. Closing my eyes I could see her lay the candles at Scarpia's head, watch her tearfully read Germont's letter, and peering through the shoshi I watched her plunge the dagger into her breast.
Not for me the restraining artifice, or the pretty warblings other singers could provide. I was an addict and as such I needed the pure stuff, the real stuff, the stuff that made Puccini, Verdi, Bellini and Cherubini write as passionately as they did. I needed it sung by this woman; this sorceress, capable of transforming herself into the composer's slave, obeying his will with savage abandon, offering herself proudly and without hesitation as the ultimate sacrifice and, whether unaware or unconcerned, always accepting of whatever harm he should inflict upon her. That is what La Divina did for this little boy. It is what she does still for the man he became.
A few weeks ago, I was doing some house-cleaning, and ran across some of my old textbooks. I thumbed through a particular tome, and there, staring me in the face, was the "autograph" of my all-time favorite singer, Zinka Milanov. This "autograph" was really one of my day-dreaming doodles, as I sat in the classroom at Queens College (why does that school name seem most appropriate?) centuries ago, awaiting the end of class, so I could run madly to the Met and stand for yet another Zinka Milanov performance, one of 87 that I attended during the "last Golden Age' at that beloved old theater where my opera life began.
I attended my first opera, Aida, on the afternoon of November 11, 1951, in an orchestra seat that cost a fortune, an amazing seven dollars! Now, who, I wondered, could fat lady with the frizzy hair be? Why was she wearing a purple queen-sized bed sheet? And why did she keep hugging the scenery? She reminded me of the silent film actresses. . . maybe someone who would have appeared opposite Valentino or John Gilbert? I have no specific recollection of her voice, only the visual element; little did I dream that only a few months later I would be wearing out the grooves of a recording of an aria called something that sounded like "Damor Sally Rosie." As I look back and listen to "D'amor sull'ali rosee" and all the other treasurable moments in the career of my great Zinka, I shed a tear or two, remembering what is was like to spend all those many freezing hours on the line, waiting for the moment when my first favorite diva would make her entrance in Gioconda or Aida or Forza or whatever it was that evening. I see an actual bloodstain on the jacket of the old RCA "Milanov Sings" album...next to her REAL autograph. I have been really excited that night-or maybe one of those high ppp's caused it!
Yes, that was the era of my very misspent youth, a time I would not trade for all the millions I might have made had I spent my time on Wall Street instead of on that line.
Ah! The line! Now, that was the only place to become a diva-lover! All those endless conversations that often evolved into fist-fights as we extolled the praises of our beloved favorite divas! What a child I was then! Fortunately I have more recently learned impeccable maturity and good taste, thanks to my new mentors, the editors of this magazine.
But, meanwhile, in the past. I did make a terrible error, I must admit, in admitting the existence of a person named Renata Tebaldi, who appeared to be a tremendous threat to some of the members of the Milanov clan. How, they wondered, could I POSSIBLY like Tebaldi -- or ANYONE else who DARED to sing Zinka's roles, except possibly Herva Nelli ("Helluva Nervi"), who did not matter anyway. It irked them no end that Renata called me by name and treated me (and everyone else) like her adopted family. They even brought TEABALLS to the Met and screamed, "TEA-BALL-DEE!!!!" Somehow I managed to survive all this horror (I even lived through admitting that I liked Antonietta Stella's Aida MORE than Zinka's) and I was proud to be a member of Zinka's fan club.
You know, I was even more naive then than I am now. Would you believe I actually WATCHED THE STAGE during the performance? I never knew what was going on I never realized, as I was later informed, to my chagrin, that there were some "goings-on" behind me in the standing room. I did take note of the fact that one night, when it was more crowded up there than the NY subway system at rush hour, I felt a kind of "pressure" upon a certain part of my body that made me wonder if it was really THAT crowded -- but to this day I never figured out if it was the pressure of all those people, or if that was the night I lost my virginity.
So, you very young prospective opera-lovers, I tell you -- go out and find yourself a diva you can adore and worship and worry about and fawn over and defend-a diva whose every hiccup you collect on live recordings -- a diva whose entire repertory you can rattle off, role by role, year by year. A diva whose voice one day, when you are in your twilight years, you will hear-- and the tears will well up within you, and you will remember what it was like to be young and foolish and happy . Well, I am a bit older, but I am still foolish and eternally happy that I loved Zinka and Renata and Regina and Virginia and Diana.
And for all of it I give thanks to thanks to Zinka Milanov, the greatest singer I ever heard. Zinka adorata! Ah, come t'amo!
-- Charlie Handelman
Unlike many operaphiles I had the luck to grow up in a household permeated by opera: my musically cultivated parents take their vocal music seriously. So I crawled and ran and played to the sound of Tourel, Danco, Callas, Steber, Deller, Fischer-Dieskau. Moreover their excitement and expertise imparted the sense that operatic singing could be an event to prepare for and discuss and recall with relish and feeling. Lucky boy! And yet my interest remained passive, since I had no musical talent and as a child was drawn chiefly to history and politics. Still, as new enthusiasms entered my parents' musical lives I would hear amazing new sounds and try to imagine the people that made them. Sutherland, Horne, Baker and Sills broke in successive waves across my father's turntable. Initially I would ask of any female voice, "Is it Goan? Is it Goan?" (By the time I was old enough to say "Joan", my parents had grown disenchanted with Sutherland's increasing bent for moaning and she was rarely played.)
The first singing that I recognized a "face" to was Baker's: "It was a lover and his lass," and then a BBC broadcast of "Erlkoenig" that held me (intuiting the precipices stretching avid before my youth?) riveted in a hotel room in London. The first recorded sounds I found so beautiful that I needed to know, instantly, whose they were came from: Milanov: the pianissimi and broad phrasing in her early "Madre, pietosa Vergine."
With trips to London came increasing sophistication and a wide exposure to theatre, well-performed. In a real sense my first divas were actresses like Janet Suzman, Susan Fleetwood, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright. Unlike music this was something I could do, and I memorized the seating plans and histories of Broadway theatres, tramped off to acting lessons at HB Studios and spent my allowance at the TKTS booth ($8 for a Broadway show). The more I knew, however, the less I enjoyed (A Critic is Born) and the riper I became for an operatic awakening.
Strangely enough, though my parents had taken me to Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan and all manner of theatre, they were very gingerly about opera, perhaps because my older siblings had been so quivocal about it--my sister's comment upon successive viewings of Boheme and Traviata was, "It's the same opera, she dies in the end." (With Moffo in both casts she was doubtless correct. ) Sills in Roberto Devereux (1971) I had enjoyed, but only as a dramatic performance. My first Met outing that year (an Arroyo/Domingo/Milnes/Giaotti/Schippers Ernani I'd love to hear today) left me bored and puzzled.
The misery of adolescence--from which all my parents' books and records could not protect me a whit-- readied me for opera. When the first thunderbolt struck, at 15 in 1975, I was all too well aware with Sills' Elvira that to love meant to cry. I don't know what I would make of that PURITANI today but Sills was electrifying in pain and exultation, with the whole audience "with" her through the evening. I saw and admired and craved the gift of riveting a crowd; if personal happiness was unthinkable at least one could communicate. My own dramatic efforts at this time took on the strain of this ambition, each demonstration of operatic power upping the stakes. Haunted by Bellinian cantilena I poured my soul into English class readings of Richard II and Becket, making crescendos and whispering and attempting feats of breath control. (Less happily, I tried to writhe through a Spoon River Anthology staging with the intensity of Maralin Niska in Salome.) Other performances that year that fueled my imagination: Brooks as Violetta, Hines as Boris (utterly magnificent), Jones as Leonore, Caballe and Verrett in Norma, Dunn as Amneris and von Stade as Penelope. Awestruck as I remained at the sheer fact of singing, I began to know the repertory; to make comparisons; to note that famous singers did not always sing well -- alas, to gain the understanding that passeth love.
My mother had given me the Boehm Walkuere for Christmas, and was good enough to indulge my demand that she exchange our subscription seats for the one (!) performance that year which reunited Rysanek and King. Fascinated by the sexy pictures of them in the LP booklet and by the odd, sometimes hollow and unearthly sounds she made ( I have to say I loved the scream right off the bat and love it still) I still focused with the records mainly on Nilsson and on the music per se. February 24th, 1977, we made our way to our seats (mid-orchestra on the right aisle) and my idea of what a night at the opera could be was changed forever. Was it (is it?) the pain in the voice? The fascination of its light and shade? The radiant high notes spoke for themselves. The yearning and the great sadness and the greater hope flooded the stage, and she roused King and Leinsdorf to something close to passion and the audience to a screaming standing ovation at the close of Act One. Of the rest I remember Hunter's impressively clean Battle Cry, a superb Fricka from Dunn and King all bronze command; but then it's back to Leonie, guilty and frightened and singing on her back, for God's sakes, then limp with devastation as her lover fell. I can't describe what she did during "O herstes Wunder" because she sang it so thrillingly that I experienced a kind of short-circuiting, a visual hallucination that the stage was filled with waves of radiant white light, and it took me most of the rest of the opera to settle down and concentrate on Hunter and Bailey's earnest efforts. Then and so often after Rysanek's great generosity lifted me onto a plane above critical analysis, beyond evident faults: beyond hers, and beyond mine. Free-- and in a throng-- simply to love!
-- David Shengold
What was the matter with me? Obviously I was different. I had no interest in Little League (especially not after getting hit in the side with a pitched ball.). My brief encounter with Boy Scouts was a disaster. I spent most of my time alone reading. I was the child of two sports-minded people; Dad was the star of his high school basketball team. It was difficult for someone with artistic leanings. Dancing lessons helped (until they were judged "unmanly"). It was, at least, creative. But I was drawn to the stage. I wanted to ACT. For some reason the "sports-minded people" found something unsavory about this. "Do you know what kind of people do that?" Did I? Probably. People like me.
We managed to reach a compromise. I was "allowed" to take voice lessons. My first instructor was a retired opera singer. -- she had played Santuzza and Aida (and had photos of herself in costume hanging on the wall of her studio to prove it). Her name was Miss (always "Miss") Kathryn Angle and she introduced this lonely child to a whole new, wonderful world. I started listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Instead of playing outside on a beautiful Saturday afternoon like "normal" kids, I holed up in my small bedroom with my ear pressed against the portable radio, fantasizing about the beautiful music enveloping me. There was an ad in an issue of Opera News for a 19 record set called Der Ring des Nibelungen. Miss Angle had spoken of this work. While not a Wagnerian soprano herself, she loved the music and transferred this love to me. I HAD to have this set for Christmas.
To the parents' credit, they managed to get it for me. I played the records over and over again, driving everyone else in the house crazy - especially my brother, who loved Dean Martin. All too soon the discs were worn out, but I was already worshiping at the temple of my first diva - Birgit Nilsson. My God! What a voice! What a woman! I used to put on the "Immolation Scene" and act the scene out in my bedroom with the door closed, away from prying eyes. Somewhere along the way I saw the movie Interrupted Melody on TV which was about the soprano Marjorie Lawrence. Marjorie actually leaped on a horse when she sang he role and this was the staging I used ... leaping on my bed and riding into the burning funeral pyre of my dead husband, while singing in Birgit Nilsson's voice.
I never saw Madame Nilsson live. Indeed, I loved opera for quite some time before I saw an actual live production. I tried to win a school contest for "artistically gifted" students. The prize was tickets to various performances at the Met, New York City Opera, and the New York Philharmonic. Unfortunately, I was not judged "gifted" enough and I lost out to the accompanist of the school choir. This loss felt all the worse when he tried to molest me in the school nurse's office just a few days later.
Miss Angle took me to see a production featuring my first, "in the flesh" diva. The opera was Handel's Giulio Cesare and the diva was Beverly Sills. It felt like she was singing just for me. Everything seemed to have a meaning; each gesture, glance, movement, ornament. I was enthralled and immediately purchased the RCA recording. Unfortunately, Miss Sills and I were soon to be separated. I was about to go to college - in Kansas, to a school affiliated with the Quakers! But my going away present was a concert performance of Semele at the Waterloo Festival with Sills singing her heart out as the love of Jupiter. Afterwards, the ballsy Miss Angle pushed her way backstage where I met Miss Sills. I was so in awe of her, I'm sure I came off like a idiot, but she was exquisite.
Banished to Kansas, which really does look like the black and white segment of The Wizard Of Oz, I kept up with Miss Sills; her recordings of Roberto Devereux and Cesare and the "Bellini and Donizetti Heroines" album helped me stay sane. I know Sills has said that she didn't enjoy the recordings, preferring live performance. But I don't know what I would have done without them. And then, just when things got particularly rough my first year, my goddess made a personal appearance.
The school ran a trip to Tulsa to view a production of Lucia di Lammermoor. I had no great expectations for this (I mean ... TULSA, OKLAHOMA?) but at least it was opera and I was starved. On the bus, I settled into my seat and opened the program. Lucia: Beverly Sills. WHAT? What was Miss Sills doing in Tulsa, Oklahoma?
WHO CARED! She was here! And I was going to see her! I breathlessly awaited her first appearance. "Ancor non giunse!" Oh, God. All of my problems disappeared and for the next three hours I communed with my favorite diva. Yes, I cried during the "Mad Scene", because I was so involved with the character and partly because I knew that, once the scene was over, she'd go out of my life again.
But I still had my recordings. I used to sing along with the Roberto Devereux recording while trying to get my voice back after a nasty cold. You see, I had finally admitted to myself that I was in love with my college roommate only to have him get married -- and to request that I sing at his wedding. "Alma infida, ingrato core, ti raggiunse il mio furore!" That's what I should have sung, but instead I did a version of "Ave Maria" that was based on the "Meditation" from Thais - an opera I would see Sills do at the Metropolitan years later.
When I returned from Kansas I finally saw the Roberto Devereux production (and cried for Elisabetta and myself and what could have been. And then I had to see it all: Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, Barbiere di Siviglia and Il turco in Italia. Manon. Lucia, again. And Puritani. The Met Siege of Corinth, which I was able to get one ticket for in the second season, and later Don Pasquale and Traviata. Finally, too soon, La Loca.
So very many memories.
Renata Scotto is perhaps the finest artist of my generation, a truly poetic interpreter blessed with superb musicianship and fearless, almost reckless commitment to her art. She was also my first diva.
First I read about her: a review of her first two Columbia recital discs in High Fidelity, strong praise for the beauty of her voice and particularly for the sense of style in offbeat Verdi and warhorse verismo. I tracked down the discs at Baton Rouge's one record shop with a decent opera section, and I heard: a uniquely energetic, lean sound, ravishing in pianissimo, fiery in forte, with an exhilarating sense of on-the-edge forward propulsion. Meanwhile I was reading about her in Opera News. This guy Robert Jacobson was (as I would say today) a very major Scotto queen. I remember his awe as he discussed her Met "comeback" in Vespri Siciliani, and his amazement and joy at her assumption of the three lead soprano roles in the Met's new-that-season Trittico. Wow, I thought, if these performances were anything like the excerpts on those Columbia discs, those lucky New Yorkers really must have heard something special. Lucky New Yorkers… then I found out that the Met's annual tour to Dallas included the Trittico. With Scotto! And Dallas is only 12 hours from Baton Rouge by bus! Well, as it turned out, I didn't get to Dallas by bus (another story), but I got there. And I must say the Met really put its best foot forward for me: Carmen with Troyanos and Leona Mitchell (what a voice!). Aida with Arroyo, Dunn, McCracken and Quilico (about which all I can remember is that Martina threw her back out during the Triumphal Scene, and thus had to die standing up). A perfectly passable Figaro in which Lucine Amara really SANG the Contessa (and how often does that happen even NOW?).
And then came the night that changed my life. Before Trittico, I enjoyed opera; after Trittico I knew had found my religion.
Now I should preface this with the confession that I approached this performance with one reservation: I couldn't figure out how anyone who looked like Scotto could be a real diva. Her album cover photos revealed a short, dumpy, fortyish woman with a taste for ruffled organza, heavy eye makeup, faux pearls and frosted hair. Frankly, she looked like Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers. In no way did she measure up to my standard of operatic glamour, which was Maria Callas, florid in red velvet (Tosca) or svelte in black chiffon (Carmen). Well, it's funny how these things work out. My first sight of Scotto was as Giorgietta in Il tabarro, and, hey, the blonde bouf and the come-fuck-me heels and the double chin all worked - she was supposed to look like a sgualdrina, right? And only five minutes into the opera, I was so mesmerized by her committed plastique (the exact visual analogue of her vocal style) that I forgot, then and forever, Scotto's limitations of appearance. From that moment until now, she has always looked to me like the character, period.
I recall the fire and passion of her Giorgetta, and the terrifying abandon with which she flung herself around that precarious barge setting. I recall the oddly moving blend of tenderness and revulsion with which she regarded Michele (Cornell MacNeil) in the final scene. Most vivid of all, still audible in my mind's ear, is the huge crescendo she made on the high C in her "nostalgia" aria, from whisper to full-throated cry, evoking with a single sound the character's desperate hunger to escape her stifling conventional life.
Scotto ruined the role of Suor Angelica for me. Perhaps Diana Soviero can match La Scotto (I have not been fortunate enough to hear Ms. Soviero live in this part) but no one could ever surpass her. Besides her hauntingly beautiful singing (the rubato and portamento effects in "Senza mamma" were those only the greatest of artists would dare-- and Scotto made every liberty she took sound inevitable), I remember best the look on her face as she returned to the stage to brew the fatal potion. She literally glowed from within. Her interpretation of the Miracle was breathtaking: with no help from the Meet's cheapjack production (a single white floodlight stood in for the Heavenly Host) she walked slowly upstage toward her "baby", then crumpled, as if the spirit had simply and suddenly departed her mortal form. After perhaps a minute of breathless silence, the 4000 in the audience burst into what can only be called a riot of cheers, bravos, applause and sobs. The weeping diva staggered out for perhaps a dozen curtain calls, and then THE APPLAUSE CONTINUED UNTIL THE MAESTRO ENTERED THE PIT TO BEGIN GIANNI SCHICCI-- a half-hour at least!
And her Lauretta was at once adorable and wonderfully funny-- one roll of her eyes during "O mio babbino caro" had the audience howling and applauding at the same time! The climax of this opera was Schicci's (Cornell MacNeil) entrance during the final love duet: he listened, rapt, to La Scotto soaring up to a radiant high D-flat, then hissed his final sung line ("Get out of my house") to the departing relatives in a tone that suggested, "You idiots almost made me miss my daughter's gorgeous singing!"
And that was only the first time I heard Scotto. There were many more, and she never, never disappointed. Now, about that fistfight in standing room with the jerk who called her "Miss Piggy" . . . perhaps some other time!
-- Dr. Repertoire