career remains a mystery to me. The voice was absolutely
first-class: a suave, velvety lyric baritone that was heaven to
hear in the bel canto repertoire. Some fellow regine that I
respect highly tell me his Riccardo in I Puritani
with June Anderson at City Opera was a very exciting
And yet, Elvira never went any further than some modest successes on the international circuit. Could it be his medium-sized voice was found wanting in the big-gun roles like Rigoletto and Tonio that he was partial to? Or was his short, dumpy physique a handicap? Perhaps its was both factors. Or neither. Who knows? Whatever the problem, I still remember Elvira's frequent appearances in New Orleans with pleasure.
While he sang a wide variety of roles for us, ranging from the Count di Luna in Il Trovatore to Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, I particularly cherish his superb Don Alphonse in La Favorite. Here, Elvira was really in his element, spinning a silky legato line in the hushed "Viens, Leonor." It wasn't his fault that he and Mignon Dunn looked like a circus act standing next to one another. With voices like these, you hardly even noticed. Elvira was a real gentlemen, too, kind, genial and sincere in his contacts with everyone around the opera house. When I worked with Elvira in Ballo, he signed my copy of his Cavalleria recording, "Your friend forever, Pablo." I will always remember this Puerto Rican mensch with fondness.
Ferrucio Furlanetto- Every summer, Arthur Cosenza would depart for Italy in order to scout for unknown talent. To be very cynical about it, Cosenza was trying to hoodwink subscribers into thinking they were hearing great artists by importing foreign singers with exotic sounding names who were willing to work for cheap. These operatic "Star Search" ventures netted just what you might expect: great names, lousy voices.
Year after year, impostors like Adriana Anelli, Giorgio Tieppo and Odabella Lacambra came to town, all plucked from their second year of study at some conservatory outside Civitavecchia or Francofonte. Needless to say, the audience and critical reception ranged from indifferent to hostile and the singers were shipped home, never to be heard from again (mercifully).
One exception to this annual turkey slaughter was the 1978 American debut of a young basso named Ferrucio Furlanetto. Furlanetto bowed as Zaccaria in Nabucco and immediately impressed with his imposing presence and voluminous, jet-black sound. He returned to New Orleans in 1982 for Pagano in I Lombardi, holding his own with co-stars Carlo Bergonzi and Christina Deutekom. Furlanetto went on to achieve welll-deserved fame. For his sake, the New Orleans Opera "Star Search" ritual cannot be counted a total waste. I did take away one valuable lesson from it all: opera is about substance, not packaging.
Marisa Galvany, New Orleans' all-purpose dramatic soprano, appeared regularly in such classic falcon roles as Rachel in La Juive and Valentine in Les Huguenots, as well as in more standard repertoire. A tall, crazed-looking woman, Galvany brought a train-kicking, chest-pounding vehemence to everything she sang. This was an Elena Nicolai, Notte a Napoli, hairy armpits style of emoting that had Galvany's colleagues watching their backs.
Galvany's voice was even more weird than her stage deportment. Her soprano sported a metallic, edgy timbre combined with a freakish upper extension. In addition, Galvany employed all manner of vocal tricks (glottal attack, souped up chest register, etc.) Galvany even had her own Gallery of Grotesque moments, like when she interpolated an high E flat at the end of the Triumphal Scene and was greeted with laughter, not cheers. Or in Macbeth, when she diverted attention from problem passages by hitting a chorister or knocking a chair over.
Galvany was one of those artists who is three parts willingness, one part ability. Others of her ilk include such donne di pazzie as Adelaide Negri and Nelly Miriciou. Simultaneously campy and compelling, this type of high-voltage performer should not be dismissed lightly. So brace yourselves, New Yorkers--Galvany is back! La Cieca tells me she was let out of her cage this summer to sing Lady Macbeth in Central Park. Nuovo delitto! Nuovo delitto!
Rita Hunter holds a very special place in the affections of New Orleans Opera queens. Unfortunately, this has less to do with her vocal excellence than with her mirth-inspiring girth. Hunter debuted with the New Orleans Opera in 1976 as the Walkure Brunnhilde. As the curtain rose on Act Two, Hunter charged down a ramp, spear in hand, wearing a moss green gown with sequins. Someone in my row yelled: "What the hell is that?" A voice behind us responded: "It's Monkey Hill." (It should be explained that Monkey Hill is the only elevated land mass in below sea-level New Orleans. The elders of New Orleans built Monkey Hill so native children would know what elevated land looked like. Obviously, it still left everyone unprepared for poor Rita.)
Hunter caused yet another stir in 1979 when she returned as the evil Abigaille in Nabucco. The audience had been tolerant of her afro wig, black face and basketball-size earrings, but when she was carted out for her death scene on a bier held aloft by half a dozen wobbly-kneed supers, they howled with laughter.
It's a shame La Hunter had to work so hard to overcome size prejudices. If memory serves me correctly, she sang the shit out of both roles and I remember shouting a hearty brava for her easy delivery of the fiendish cabaletta in Nabucco. If only some of today's Two-Ton Tessies were half as talented.
Isolde (as sung by Johanna Meier)- The steady and sturdy jugendlich sopran of New Orleans Opera was Johanna Meier, who appeared frequently with the company as Sieglinde, Senta and Elsa. Both in voice and presence, she projected a golden, gleaming aura. She always wore her own blonde hair for the Wagnerian ladies--up, down, braided, bouffant, whatever was required. This practicality reflects an even sensibility that one does not associate with the prima donna myth and may have, in some perverse way, worked against Meier.
Her biggest career coup was appearing at Bayreuth in the early '80's as Isolde. She brought her portrayal of the Irish princess to New Orleans in 1983. Observing Meier at work backstage, I saw the soprano's uncomplicated makeup. She rehearsed day and night without complaint. (Soloists were usually dismissed in the evening so the chorus could learn their blocking. However, because of Tristan's length and the minimal choral requirements, the soloists were asked to rehearse all day.) She wore flats and comfortable clothes, not diva wear. Meier was the most composed singer I ever worked with. She didn't have a neurotic bone in her body.
I found Meier's Isolde very effective. If she lacked the power and bite of Nilsson in this role, she brought a tender womanliness that illuminated many facets of the role. One final example of Meier's sensibility: The director and designer could not agree on the right visual image for the end of Isolde's Liebestod. Should she die standing up in a transfigured pose? Should there be some lighting effect to suggest oblivion? Meier interrupted and suggested, "What if I just do what's in the score?" And that's just what she did. When the Liebestod concluded, Meier lay down and died over Tristan's body. You have to admire the lady's integrity.
Siegfried Jerusalem-Boy, talk about a voice in the wilderness. I first heard Jersualem in an absolutely ghastly Fidelio at New Orleans Opera in 1980. The sets were Wieland Wagner abstractions that had seen better days ( and were crudely lit, to boot). The audience left en masse after the first scene, erroneously thinking an intermission was taking place. Despite every effort, very few were coaxed away from the bar and back into the house. They didn't miss much except the spectacle of Teresa Kubiak fucking up the scales in "Komm, Hoffnung" and giggling about it right there on stage.
I knew it would take a miracle to salvage this mess, but against all expectations, a miracle took place. A clear, focused, beautifully textured tenor sound penetrated the darkness of Florestan's prison. A buzz went around the house as this sweet, mellifluous voice only got bigger and more expressive. Pages started turning in programs, flashlights were switched on, the muttering swelled-who was this guy? Jerusalem was the name and Wagner, as we soon discovered, was his game.
By the time he returned to New Orleans in 1985 as Lohengrin, Jersualem had begun to exhibit some of the vocal problems that to this day continue to compromise his many sterling qualities: shaky top notes, forcing, constricted tone, etc. However, Jerusalem's keen musical intelligence and subtle acting skills keep me in his corner. His Siegmund at Lyric Opera was marvelous: poetic, ardent, heroic, eloquent. All the same virtues that, long ago, lifted a wretched night at New Orleans Opera to a more exalted plane.
Whatever happened to Baby Roberta Knie? This youthful heldensopran, so promising in Wagner and Strauss, disappeared after a few brief seasons on the international scene. Her one and only appearance in New Orleans was as Salome. I saw her on the night of the worst flooding the city had experienced in years. There really were more people on stage than in the house. The year was 1980 and Knie still had enough voice left to make a very positive impression. She was a hefty Jewish princess but becomingly gowned in a flowing white gown. Her interpretation was very intense but sparing with gestures and movement. Everything had a strongly concentrated impact. She braved her own dance and even ended up standing on the cistern nude, genitals discreetly upstage. This was a Salome as imagined by Rubens but even the way she bared her ass was convincing.
I remember that Knie and the evening's Herodias, Sheila Nadler, seemed unwilling to speak to each other throughout the rehearsals and performances. Years later, I heard that the ladies were ex-lovers and neither one of them liked the property settlement.
This Salome production was especially memorable for me because it featured a mouth-watering super named Bill who ignited a passion that no apples or wine could quench. Bill was a very dark daddy number with a moustache and hairy chest. He was chosen to play one of Herodias' pretty boys and was directed to stick his head up Nadler's dress. Bill was hot and I held a torch for him long after the Salome performances.
Bill and I met during my initial season as a production assistant with the company. He was still mouth-watering and he readily responded to my blatant flirtation. It still ranks as some of the best sex I've ever had. We made time to fuck at least once every season and if I saw him today, the chemistry would still be there. New Orleans Opera supers were the biggest gay presence backstage. Some were gorgeous, some were not, but they were my buddies and, in the apolitical gay community of New Orleans, they taught me a lot about brotherhood and belonging.
Although I missed Evelyn Lear 's 1972 debut with the company as Tosca (with Giuseppe Taddei, no less!), the diva returned to New Orleans in 1976 with her famed interpretation of the Marschallin. It was a stylish, seasoned portrayal that owed more than a little to Schwartzkopf. My favorite borrowed item from Fraulein Blackhead was the now de rigueur staging of the Marschallin's exit in Act Three. The blocking goes something like this: Marschallin sighs "Ja, ja," turns completely upstage, walks to the exit, stops, extends her left hand to Octavian, draws hand away swiftly as Octavian kisses it, makes sweeping exit.
Lear executed this business beautifully. To this day, I have not seen any singer make such eloquent use of their back and neck. The aristocratic posture, the elegant line of her arched neck and those exquisite shoulders all linger in the memory. Lear was a clever animal di palco who managed to transcend one of New Orleans Opera's more atrocious visual efforts (Octavian changed from his Mariandel drag into a fluorescent purple velour waistcoat and breeches).Evelyn Lear under more favorable conditions in the years to come. She sang a moving Geschwitz opposite Catherine Malfitano's inspired Lulu at Lyric Opera. I interviewed her for one of the gay papers and she told me how frustrated she was with lesbophobe directors whose idea of an authentic dyke was a dominatrix in chaps, cracking a whip. She defended her refreshingly ladylike portrayal of Geschwitz by declaring: "All the lesbians in my life are femme to the point of being ridiculous. Look, honey, I'm straight and I'm the butchest thing around!"
Even Evelyn Lear isn't as butch as Sherrill Milnes, every junior opera queen's wet dream in the 70's. Milnes was a regular guest artist in my adolescent fantasies, a burly piece of beefcake envisioned in and out of a jockstrap. San Francisco fags are still talking about that Thais production with Sills where Milnes ran around in a loincloth during the storm sequences. I've been told that hordes of horny guys hung out at the stage door waiting to service the hunky baritone.
Given Milnes' abundant physical endowments, you might think the extent of my interest in him was purely sexual. Hardly. The term "larger than life" could have been invented for Milnes. He towered like a giant over everything around him--and that was artistic, not just physical, stature. A stage seemed to small a frame for this superman.
When Milnes debuted with the New Orleans Opera in 1973 as Rigoletto, I was floored by his immensita. You forgot about the sets, the costumes, the other singers--all you could focus on was this mighty outpouring of voice and spirit. His return visit in 1976 as Macbeth remains one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. Here was catharsis--I wept, shuddered and died as Milnes charted the course of the Scottish tyrant's destiny. The final scenes were an epiphany of numbing intensity. Milnes, upon hearing of the death of his Lady, laughed bitterly at the absurdity and waste of life. Then, the news that Birnam Wood was on the move. Milnes saw the chance for restored honor and atonement in Macbeth's impending death and stormed into his final battle with the courage of a man redeemed. Milnes wasn't just my pin-up boy; he was an artist who shook me to my foundations.
Heady stuff for an awkward kid who could only wonder at the croce e delizia of life, aware but not yet enlightened. Milnes was my Amfortas, branding me forever with the fervor of his suffering.
Diana Soviero triumphs, Carol Neblett takes it all off, and Enzo nearly loses his virtue in a tenor's dressing room in Part 3 .