|The addiction simply took over the
adolescent void called my life.
I think I would have to put my first "diva experience" into three categories:
Each was vivid and each contributed to changing my life. When I was 15, I was dragged (pun fully intended) to the opera by a high school chum whose parents actually loved opera. Such a thing was previously unknown to me in Brooklyn (Yes, unlike Maria, Vera was born in Brooklyn. In a finished basement, to be exact.) I had been to a number of Broadway shows with diva resonance: Gypsy, Mary Martin's Peter Pan, Jamaica with Lena Horne, etc. But the bug didn't quite bite in that way on the great white way. (My high school chum, by the way, became a research doctor in Florida with a wife and two children. I became... well, never mind.)
Meanwhile, back at the Old Met, we tried to go, for my first opera, to La fanciulla del West with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker (I'd heard of him) but the standing room places were all gone when we got there. Strike one. A short time later, however, we did get into a Bohème with Lucine Amara, Daniele Barioni, Laurel Hurley and Lorenzo Testi. Yes, Lorenzo Testi. A Golden Age indeed. Lucine was lovely (she still is), but this did not provide catharsis. (I remember, though, that Lucine used to have a fan magazine called LucineArama.) Anyway, strike two. Three strikes and I would probably now be retired from the New York City school system with a lovely pension and a country home.
But no such luck; on the third try the bug bit bigtime. It was Joan Sutherland's debut season in Lucia. The old production, you've all seen it gentlemen. Not until Renata Scotto in Vespri did a staircase mean so much. If you never saw the young Sutherland, slim (well, for an opera singer), striking, with that amazing mountain of red hair, nearly six feet of tone-producing tartan column, towering over the bewigged Scottish cantor, well, you haven't lived. In the Mad Scene she was completely marvelous: voice, body, spirit, all of it. Darting around like a crazed moth, with that wonderful jaw pointed heavenward, and the hand raised, palm forward, just beneath the face-- you know the pose from countless album covers to come. She made a sound that was at once otherworldly and superreal. It was huge, warm and so agile that only her warmth and that of the instrument saved it from sounding mechanical. There was simply no end to what she could do, or so it seemed.
And she was radiant, very much in the first flush of incredible success. At the end of the Mad Scene there was a half hour of carrying on, and remember this was 1961, pre hype, pre standing ovulations. This crowd meant it. I had no idea what I was hearing, my status being pre-neophyte. And yet somehow I knew. I had never heard anything like that before from a throat, nor from an audience. I remember finding Tucker rather moving in the tomb scene that evening. Or maybe it was that great tune "Bell'alma innamorata." Or maybe it was the glow from the astonishing experience which had just preceded it. Who knows and who cares? That was it. The beginning. Life was never the same; my radio never returned to AM, my Broadway records grew dusty. I became a regular on the standing room line (how can the word"regular" be applied to the people on the standing room line?)
There was no looking back. The addiction simply took over the adolescent void called my life. Everything was either openly or secretly planned to cater to the need to be at that house and to see whatever I could afford to see, which wasn't much. Since my first experience was a diva experience, as opposed to a Wagner experience or a libretto experience or a production experience, I thought opera was this thing about divas.
This odd (is it?) slant was reinforced unwittingly by my brother, who gave me a gift for being the best man at his wedding a month later. The gift was The Art of the Prima Donna, Joan's sensational 16-aria collection of showpieces. This 2-record set (remember them?) contained NO TEXTS at all. That is to say, no libretti. The notes were a rundown of the various dive associated with the various arie. That clinched it: Opera is about Divas and Tunes and Florid Music. The End. After wearing TAOPD down to a grooveless platter in no time, I tormented my parents into thinking it might be nice to hear a seventeenth aria. So, as a birthday present, they coughed up the enormous sum of $15 dollars and pointed me in the direction of E.J. Korvette's and the new complete Joan Sutherland Lucia.
But Korvette's was out of the Lucia. Despondent, I combed the bins. There it was. With that face on the cover. Even Andrea Charmant, the school slut, never used that much eyeliner. And the disc was "highlights" so I was left with cash. I asked my friend Bob the expert, who said he had her in Cavalleria but that was another story vocally. I had no clue what he was talking about, so I bought it. My first Callas record: highlights from the '59 Lucia. Well! I had certainly never heard sounds like that before. My first response was: has she no shame? Any lady in the chorus can sing better that! Then: there's something wrong with the turntable. But Harvey the repairman said there was nothing wrong with the turntable; there was something wrong with that woman. But a strange thing began to happen. As I had all of two opera recording, I was forced to play the Callas Lucia simply to provide variety from the sixteen arias. What began to happen was that I had to hear certain phrases again and again. "L'ombra monstrarsi a me" and "Alfin son tua, alfin sei mio." Over and over and over. I was lost forever. A far deeper place had been tapped, and there was not turning back. I had to have everything Callas recorded.
In 1965 when I first heard Callas "live" and I heard my first pirate Callas (Dallas Medea) a subcategory of the Buzz occurred. No commercial recording equalled this. Ten seconds into the final scene, I flew off the Richter goosebump scale.
And that brings me to part 3, the Leonie experience. Now a diehard Callas lunatic, critical of Joan's diction, this one's this and that one's that (problem: they weren't Maria), I attended an Otello: McCracken, Rysanek, Merrill. Everything from her hypnotic entrance, fixated on Otello as if walking in an erotic dream, to the heartwrenching third act duet concluding with the bloodcurdling screams as he dragged her offstage, to the soaring (that wonderfully slightly sharp pitch) high notes of the third act ensemble, to the hooty and eerie Willow Song, to the simply terrifying murder scene (unlike Zinka, Leonie did not sit up while being strangled in order to cover her ankles, then lie back down and continue to be murdered)-- this was an experience unlike any other I had previously had.
Incredible dementia followed: Callas's Toscas, Scotto's first Butterflys, Caballe's surprise Carnegie debut sensation, more Leonie roles, Zeani, Olivero. But Leonie was my first in-house sampling and it changed the course of my life, my work and my operatic tastes forever.
--- Ira Siff