| "La Gran Scena is UNBELIEVABLE! Ira Siff is the GREATEST artist in the world! Though they are calculated to be a spoof, they are the FINEST singers I have ever heard. They have EVERYTHING that is top-drawer in an opera ambiance. I JUST ADORE THEM!"
The inimitable speaking voice of Leontyne Price soars through the East Village studio of La Gran Scena's impresario/diva Ira Siff. His eyes twinkle as we listen to taped interview in which the great American soprano gushes about a recent program of the company. He stops the tape, and after our delighted giggling sputters out, Siff finishes telling the story. La Price heard him (in his persona of "traumatic soprano" Vera Galupe-Borszkh) sing the demanding "Poker Scene" from Puccini's La fanciulla del West and rushed backstage to offer her congratulations, confessing that she (Price) counted Minnie as one of her few failures on the operatic stage. "It wasn't the notes, my dear. I had the notes - the highest of which is only a C-sharp " The 60-something diva then demonstrated that tone directly into the ear of the astonished but delighted Siff.
That's just one a myriad of great backstage tales Ira Siff has amassed in his 16-year career with La Gran Scena, as well as over 30 years as a regular attendee at virtually every "event" in the New York opera firmament. Meanwhile he has built a solid reputation as one of New York's finest coaches in the operatic and cabaret repertoire; the latest of his "discoveries" is club superstar Varla Jean Merman. Siff took an hour off recently from rehearsals of the company's new show "Vera: The Life of a Diva" to talk about, well, life and art, what else?
James Jorden: If you were going to live your life as another person .
Ira Siff: (laughing) If? How do you think I have spent my life so far?
JJ: I mean, besides Vera
IS: Not Mother Teresa! Do you have to take the whole life, or just the brani scelti?
JJ: You can have just the one disc.
IS: I would love to be Leonie, but I know how she must suffer. I've had the fantasy part of being some of those great divas. I get to draw my own costumes with, as Renata Scotto would say, "sleeves importante." I get to come out and hear a wall of screaming, which is the big "I'm not worth this" level of self-fulfillment. You know, I think I would go to another place entirely - like maybe be a shrink. In a sense, a lot of what I do with my voice students is therapy, so maybe I could be a therapist - and get paid like a therapist instead of like a downtown opera coach. And definitely to have a villa in Tuscany, which I've longed for and longed for - and realized that I would have to settle for something in the Catskills.
JJ: If you were going to change something about yourself
IS: I won't go cosmetic, because that could all be changed anyway-either a thicker skin or a stronger sense of self, maybe, where I could be as diplomatic as I like to be but more assertive. Not in a "nineties" way-to be there, be present, be secure, to have enough confidence so that when I balk at something, people will not be so shocked that it doesn't go over well. I'm not a good networker, not really aggressive. If I were more like that, maybe Gran Scena would be farther along, even the way some of my travesty counterparts are in, say, the pop field.
JJ: If you had the opportunity to work with one artist -- from past or present?
IS: Speaking as myself-- because I know what Vera would say: "Visconti and de Sabata, doing Anna Bolena - I still can trill" -- but as me, I would love to be involved in a production with Scotto, as a director, as a stagehand, as the hem of her dress, even as her "sleeve importante." She is the one left who can still draw from that well of "then" that is now going very dry. Plus she is still coherent - the other ones, I'm not so sure.
JJ: Now, if you could cast one favorite opera, including the production team, for your favorite opera - what would that be? Since it's a fantasy, you can draw on artists from now or then.
IS: Whoa. Well, I love Adriana Lecouvreur, but I've seen Magda, and Scotto and Caballe, and that opera has a certain potential that I think was very much fulfilled by those performances.
JJ: So what I'm saying is, an opera that has potential that you haven't seen fulfilled?
IS: I've never seen a great Norma, though I've heard plenty of tapes of great Normas, which makes me suspect that Norma improves if you don't have to watch it. Don Carlo is one of my favorite operas. I would have to go with a five-act Italian version, not the French version, because that's just my background. Who would do it? Oh, dear! For the production end, Visconti, because he understood mise-en-scene and characterization. This opera calls for a setting that looks incredibly real and impressive, in which the characters are vivid and human. The scope of the physical production would place in relief the pain of Elisabetta, the intellect and the heart of Posa. That's much more interesting to see than bits and pieces. I would love to have Christoff as Filippo, Talvela as the Grand Inquisitor, because that was the most menacing noise I ever heard in that role, Mattila as Elisabetta I have not yet seen, but in my mind's eye and ear, it's heartbreaking. Leonie's was heartbreaking too, though not so well sung at the time she was doing it, and Scotto was transcendent. Choosing a soprano is always tough. Gobbi as Posa, and you can take that from 1948-1952. Carlo: an amalgam of Bergonzi with someone else's body. Eboli. There are some mezzos from the 30s that I love. Do you know Meghini-Cattaneo, a demented woman who sang at La Scala, a real wild woman? Her Azucena's fabulous, but could she get through the Veil Song? I would have to say Cossotto about 1968, or Shirley about 1968. I saw them both, but of course I preferred Cossotto's Italian. The conductor. Serafin. The opera needs a strong hand, but not his propensity for cuts. Don C really needs the shape and sense of pulse he can give this music. But I get to choose the cuts.
JJ: On the other hand, which opera would you prefer never to hear again?
IS: I have some operas like Tosca that I really feel like I have heard everything anyone can do with the part. "Don't make me" is the feeling, having seen Callas and Olivero -- having seen them all. My mind just goes away, I can't get through it. But I never say never. While I was teaching in Italy this summer, I went to La Scala and I heard Millo do the part, and it was like hearing Stella. So Italianate, the way she did the enunciation, the declamation was so beautiful. And of course at this point the role of Tosca holds NO vocal hurdles for her . Even the C in "io quella lama", which I thought might be a problem because it comes after a lot of stressful singing -- piece of cake!
JJ: She's bringing the role to New York, I hear, opposite Jose Cura
IS: Great! They didn't give Millo a good supporting cast in Milano. The conductor, Bitchkov (however it's spelled, that's the way it should be pronounced) favored Gorachakova, but Aprile was fabulously non-dishy about that. She made the best of what she got. The only thing was that Bitchkov, who led everything like a bizarre Elisabeth Schwarzkopf wetdream, the tempi were so peculiarly slow all evening. - in the "Vissi d'arte", Millo hit a rather excellent B-flat, and Bitchkov rushed the orchestra forward. What do you do? I literally wanted to leap from the box and kill him.
JJ: Of all opera performances, which left you feeling the most cranky?
IS: Mmm. A 27-way tie, I think. Certainly well up there would be the Lucia the Met did for June Anderson - or should I say against June Anderson - that plot against poor June. There was a Tosca with Pavarotti and Caballe in the mid-80s where they both just walked through it. That's the one where she was playing with her jewelry before the murder. I couldn't figure out what was going on. She started to take off her bracelets and rings, and I thought, he just said he's not "venal", and then I realized suddenly she was undressing to have sex with Scarpia! That's the one where she didn't jump at the end, just strolled offstage, like she was looking for a better spot to leap from. Now, something that made me quasi-cranky was the Francesca da Rimini - at that point, making that choice of that repertoire. If they really wanted to do a verismo opera for Scotto, that wasn't perhaps the most desirable choice. I personally would have chosen Zaza
JJ: You know, they were talking about a revival of Francesca for Vaness-but she turned it down.
IS: Well, she's getting smarter. She must have looked at the score and did a Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?' You really have to be a Magda, with that vocal thrust, to make the "nothing" that's there seem like something, and at that point, Renata's voice was thickening, and no matter how you gussied it up with sets and costumes, there was just no "there" there. It does come off better as a video, but-this was very sad-the following season, she had it much more under control. Sometimes, you know, these things take a while to get into the voice. I went back, because I had to see what I could see of her, because it was clear there wasn't going to be much more. They gave her Mauro, and the house was half-empty, but the performance was the performance she should have given opening night. Much more voice in the center, much more thrust to the voice. But even when it became a heavier voice, it wasn't the right voice - Freni's had more the rapidity of vibrato and thrust that makes this music work.
JJ: In your career, what do you most regret?
IS: I never sang the final scene from Salome.
JJ: Now, how is "Vera Life of a Diva" different from your other shows?
IS: The format of "Vera" is not the gala business hosted by Sylvia Bills. It begins at the end, with Vera close to demise in Villa Costatroppo, fading fast due to Opera Malaise, exacerbated by disappointment in love, vocal ups and down, the humiliation of having to teach master classes She feels that it is time her story be told, and if she doesn't tell the story, someone else will, and you know what that means: Master Class. So she comes back, "out of herself" and recounts her life. It begins with her birth in Russia, offstage, underscored by the Forza overture. Vera springs forth, the doctor slaps her, and she emits her first sound: a long, floated "PAAAAA-CE!" The doctor announces, "It's a diva!" And so the show recounts her life, with bits and pieces of arias and songs. For example, when Vera leaves Russia, she sings "Ebben? Ne andro lontana". On the long train ride from Odessa to Rome she meets Philine Wannelle, a disappointed Miss America contestant. They support themselves as gondoliers in Venice, singing the cabaletta to the Norma duet. Vera saves enough money to coach with Maestro Galupe, the last living castrato. Galupe falls in love with her and proposes by singing Denza's "Occhi di fata". They fall in love, and their singing is a metaphor for sex, but the maestro dies while chasing her around Mount Aetna (he can't get an eruption) singing "La danza." As Vera Galupe-Borszkh, she begins her "really great career", until demanding conductors leave her "totally fached up." She forms her own opera company, presenting such fare as Samson et Dalila with Philine Wannelle and Bruno Focaccia, and falls in love with Hungarian baritone Fodor Szadan. During a performance of Tosca - should I give away any more plot twists, or is that twisted enough? Suffice it to say that the second act follows the later life of Vera, when she is giving a master class on "Io son l'umile ancella" to the young American soprano Kavatina Turner. And Vera makes another comeback as Manon, in a program narrated by America's Most Beloved Retired Diva Sylvia Bills, and so the story comes full circle. The finale is suggested by the film of Sara Scuderi at the Casa Verdi singing along with her recording of "Vissi d'arte".
IS: It takes a lot of breath, that's for sure.
JJ: Are you an opera queen?
IS: Of course!
JJ: And exactly what does that mean to you?
IS: It means your heart beats a lot faster when you're considering any aspect of this cockamamie art form. And you have an especially deep commitment that seems idiotic to academics. Now, it's nice to transcend the opera queen thing, sometimes to get more intellectual- but mostly it's an emotional thing, that high B-flat in "Pace" or Gioconda. It's about who did what in which performance that was only surpassed by that other one in that other performance. It gives you, as Stefan Zucker said for so many years, "CATHARSIS" (only he said it an octave higher). If you achieve catharsis from opera, you're an opera queen. If you do, but you don't admit it, that makes you a closet opera queen, and if you don't - I feel sorry for you.
JJ: What opera today are you going to crawl over broken glass to hear?
IS: It's sounds depressing to say "nothing", but let me preface that by saying when you do this -not just sing, but also run a company - there are periods in your life in which you are so overworked and stressed out and overburdened time-wise, and trying to consider everyone. My head is in New York, Spain and London - and even right now I have to keep one ear out for the phone, because it may be the venue for the Spain show-- at those times you just can't stop and think, what do I want to see? Of course I'm going to hear Voigt do the Ariadne, and I would love to see the Don Carlos with Mattila and Alagna, but I couldn't afford to fly to London. Anyway, that's just not where my mind is now. And I think Leonie has retired once and for all, right? I wouldn't mind seeing Scotto's Kundry, which I've heard on tape. I've certainly done my share of walking on broken glass, sleeping on the street for three nights to hear Callas do Tosca, and all that stuff. I don't think it's over. But my mind right now is on the company: where it's going, it is over?
JJ: I mean, I don't like to think of you as one of the hundred neediest cases, but you perform this enormous service, and yet, what you do is so much fun...
IS: All I really want to do is to continue giving people that fun. The fun and the commitment from the performers are things that are lacking a bit in the real opera-that's why we're doing this. Of course, it was also an event for what I wanted to do myself, but there are other people in the company with tremendous amounts to offer in the line of searing intensity. Our main problem is: if we had the bookings, with just a bit of fundraising, we could be making it. The reason the company seems to be going under, and may go under this year, is simply that there is insufficient work.
JJ: Do you think that's because of the gay thing?
IS: I think that's a lot of it. The travesty thing, the drag. There is a kind of homophobia that affects us deeply. It's not so bad for Les Ballets Trockadero, because when a ballet company comes to town, everyone just assumes they're gay, so there's no surprise. We are a very hard booking in the US. Even Columbia Artists has trouble, and they were sure booking us would be a breeze. But when we do get a booking in the states, audiences adore it, the press adores it, the public comes to the reception on bended knee saying they never had so much fun in their lives. Yes, they do get it, because you know it's layered so everyone can get it. So we could make it if people would just RELAX and book us, or else if we had a couple of opera queens - or opera devotees - dropping $10,000 on us a season. All we need is for someone to understand that a not very large tax-writeoff for them would save our lives. We have a lot of fans who are wealthy people who support Glimmerglass or are on the board of New York City Opera, even on the board of the Met or OONY -- what they consider a "serious" opera company. And that's another dynamic: La Gran Scena is funny, and no one realizes being funny is hard work. When you go to, say, the Ridiculous Theater and you laugh and laugh, who guesses how much angst and trauma poor Everett [Quinton] is in? We got this ridiculously cumbersome grant from Alice Tully Hall, $5,000 to perform there - when it costs us about $25,000 to put on the show. If we can pull this off, it will be the most wonderful night - sixteen years will culminate in La Gran Scena INVITED to Lincoln Center. I wish I knew who those people are, who can help us.
JJ: Who can take you seriously.
IS: When you go to something funny, you tend to forget the seriousness of the nuts and bolts that go into it. It doesn't feel like it's art, because it's funny. The humor is there totally to communicate an ideal. Ross Barrentyne has come back to us for our performances in Spain, and in rehearsal of the Trovatore scene, he said, "You used to do the register break there, and now you do it there. Why?" Now, the register break is funny in itself; it's a signature thing I do in Azucena's aria. But it's THERE because that's what Azucena does, chest voice is a tradition in this repertoire. Every tiny thing has a reason, tied to some tradition, something that really happened. I saw a Scarpia move after he was dead - Bastianini eased himself into a more comfortable position, and Tucci just GLARED at him. So our Scarpia sneezes.
JJ: I know exactly what you mean. The humor is a vehicle for truth, not an end in itself. Really, I flatter myself that parterre box does something similar-truth through humor, I mean.
IS: Oh, by the way just an aside, Inez
JJ: "Ah, narratami il strano avventimento!"
IS: Thank you. The only review quoted on the brochure for "Life of a Diva" is from parterre box. I mean, I'm not going to print reviews from certain sources I don't care to name (even though they have "expanded" arts pages, and therefore no excuse for not reviewing us on time), but your writer understands us. I open the zine, and I think, "Oh, I wasn't in the best voice, and this could have gone better ", but I read your review, and I feel so vindicated because you saw what we were trying to do. Other critics, say, the Times, we can be in phenomenal form, in great voice, and no matter what the review says, it's still disappointing because . they didn't get it. Audiences make the cognitive leap easily enough, and come backstage full of praise, even though I want to say, "Oh, you should have heard it last Friday!" But those "reportage" critics don't feel anything or have any opinion. They don't have that opera queen "heart-beating-faster" stuff. They just tell what went on - "this joke, that joke, this note, that note " Anyway, I think you said you wanted to have a word with Vera?
JJ: I know you're fiercely busy
IS: But this is my fun! Here's Vera
JJ: Mme. Galupe-Borszkh, if you were
Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh: Please, we are all friends here. You may call me "Madame."
JJ: Madame, if you were going to live your life as another person, who would that person be?
Mme. V G-B: Who could be better than I?
JJ: Is there anything you would change about yourself?
Mme. V G-B: I would like chromatic scales to be cleaner. I am working on this. I have joined a twelve-step program, but since there are thirteen steps in a chromatic scale, this may be the problem.
JJ: You are both diva and impresario
Mme. V G-B: I prefer "directa."
JJ: If you had the same choice I gave Mr. Siff earlier, how would you cast your ideal opera?
Mme. V G-B: I would not be in this opera? Ah, that makes it difficult. I am thinking I would like to see Norma. I would like to see Callas and de los Angeles (as Adalgisa). I would like to see Corelli, but I always would like to see Corelli, singing or no. And Christoff so I can find out first-hand what really happened during those curtain calls. For conductor, not Serafin, instead someone Callas could boss around. Which means anybody, really. Nicky Rescigno would be fine.
JJ: In your career, what do you most regret?
Mme. V G-B: I never sank the final scene from Salome.
JJ: Is there anyone who hates you?
Mme. V G-B: In all things I try to remain oblivious. I float above petty scandal as I float ravishing pianissimi above the staff. There are perhaps some composers who would hate me if they were alive, but fortunately they are not, so I can have my way with them.
JJ: Joan Crawford once said, "The most important thing an actress can have, after her talent, of course, is a good hairdresser." What, after your talent, is most important to you?
IS: My hairdresser. No, really, he is. My hairdresser has been my partner for 21 years now.
Mme. V G-B: He was asking me, I think.
JJ: Oh, yes. Next to your talent, Madame, what is most important?
Mme. V G-B: Next to my talent, nothing is important.
Ira Siff stars as Vera Galupe-Borszkh in La Gran Scena's production of "Vera Life of a Diva." The official New York premiere is at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse November 25, 28, 29 and 30. For more info, phone 212-460-9124 or check out their brand new website!