It seemed all the awful since just four days before, Opera Philadelphia had cautiously but thrillingly opened the door to live opera with Tosca. How could another door be shut so firmly now?
It was not a complete surprise. In November 2020, I corresponded with Ghena (as he was universally known), and he told me he’d been diagnosed with and treated for cancer. Even then, he was characteristically upbeat, pleased that he was feeling well enough to accompany an Academy of Vocal Arts recital—via Zoom, of course—in December.
He did indeed preside that night, and it was the last time I saw him. He looked more gaunt, but as he introduced the program, his warmth and charm were undiminished. So was his masterful piano playing.
Ghena could astound all of us by playing entire opera scores on the piano, which he did regularly. But it was only one of his skills. On the faculty of both the AVA and the Curtis Institute, he was the Philadelphia authority on Russian opera and vocal music in practice. In every aspect—from language coaching to interpretive nuance to exposure to often largely unfamiliar repertoire—his tutelage expanded the horizons of hundreds of aspiring classical singers.
Nowhere was this more visible than in the Russian Opera Workshop that he founded. Each summer on the AVA campus, young artists at various stages of development would live in residence and take part in coaching, masterclasses (these led by a stellar lineup including Benita Valente, Florence Quivar, Thor Eckert, Angela Meade and others), and performances. The repertoire they learned were often mournful (this is Russian rep, after all)—but the Workshops were filled with joy and artistic growth.
It was my pleasure to attend these events regularly, and to see Ghena in action. “Mensch” is a word I rarely use, but I will now. He was generous, wise, kind, and gregarious. His pupils and audiences adored him. Russian Opera evenings often found Ghena surrounded by his beautiful family—son Leonard was even a sometime page-turner at the piano, and at other times took excellent photographs of the productions.
And in that spirit, let’s remember Ghena in a major key. The loss is huge, but his contributions to Philadelphia’s music scene… and through that pipeline, to the world… are far more so. A few reviews below give some sense of his mission and success.
May his memory be for a blessing.
December 13, 1957 – May 8, 2021
A sampling of Ghena’s Philadelphia projects