Sunday, February 28, 2010

Phoenix rising

Singers need to have a set of ears , knowledgeable ears, listening to them throughout their careers in order to keep themselves on the straight and narrow technically and musically. It is so easy in a busy career of performing and teaching gradually to find oneself in a rut that one has dug without realising that that was what was happening. Once one is in that situation, it is hard to dig one's way out without some help. It is also difficult at certain times in one's life to admit to oneself that there is a problem. When is a problem not a problem?

The wise singer makes the decision to damn the torpedoes, find someone who can help them rediscover what they have lost, and go full speed ahead.

One of my students did that about a year ago. She began studying with me on a regular basis after years without a teacher. She had built herself a lovely rut in which she was fairly comfortable, but in which she was not really satisfied with the way she was singing. She told me that often, while demonstrating for a student in a lesson, her voice would crack. She thought 'What's going on here?' This is the type of insidious trap one can fall into. Nothing is so bad that it seems to need fixing, but then, nothing is really working.

Very gradually, over this year-long period, we examined the various problems she was experiencing and tried to correct them. This is not an easy thing to do. When one has been singing a certain way for a long time, even if it is not very comfortable, that way has become a safe place in which to sing because you know exactly what will happen when you go there and can depend on that knowledge. It may not be a very good safe place, it probably isn't a safe place at all, it may not be very comfortable or sound very good, but it's your safe place. So there! Damn it!

After a year of intense work together, we both agreed that the thing that solved the cracking problem was changing her breathing pattern. This has to be at the base of every singer's technique. Read Sing On! Sing On! if you haven't already done so. I cover this subject thoroughly. The correct use of the breath in singing seems so obvious that many people seem to think it just happens. With some people, it does. They just have always breathed deeply. Olga Averino used to call some of these people 'Natural Singers'. They could just always do it.

A dear friend, neighbor, and sometimes student of mine,Ben Luxon, is such a singer. He just always could sing. And wonderfully well! His international career took him from Covent Garden to La Scala to the Met. Benjamin Britten wrote Owen Wingrave for him! When he came to me to see if I could help him when he was losing his hearing and was having trouble with pitch, I thought that I would begin by having him match pitches with me to see what was happening. I said to him, 'Ben, how do you usually warm up?'. He answered, 'I don't warm up, I just SING!' This is what a 'Natural Singer' is all about. It just happens until something goes wrong. Even with a cochlear implant, which has helped his perception of speech, it has thrown his sense of pitch even further off. He hears pitches a third higher. Obviously, there is no way he can sing in tune with this malady. This is the kind of problem where a voice teacher feels helpless. Here is this magnificent musician with this still incredible voice, slapped down by his own body. On the other hand, he is one of the greatest actors I have ever seen and has added a new dimension to his career. I was moved to tears when I recently saw him perform L'Histoire du Soldat of Stravinsky. And that voice is just as potent when spoken as it ever was when singing! He also recently did some wonderful Shakespeare roles.

I often liken developing a bad vocal habit to ironing the same wrinkle into a garment over and over, even though you don't want a wrinkle in the garment. Eventually it has become 'Permanent Press' without your realising it. And it's tough to iron it out again. It takes hard work, determination, and a lot of swear words to un-wrinkle this. But trust me, it's worth trying.

My student was willing to put in the hard labor that this takes. And she won!

For some reason, don't ask me why, I have always had the ability to hear someone sing for the first time and put my finger on the problem they are having. This is not something I was ever taught. Maybe it can't be taught. Maybe it's like good taste. Olga Averino once said to me, after having taught a Master Class for some of my students as well as for some other singers, 'I can always tell when it's one of your students singing. As soon as you sit at the piano to play for them it's obvious that they will sing well, technically and musically.' And I said to her, 'And as soon as I stand up they don't?' She said, 'You can't teach taste.'

Maybe it's my Italian-Dutch blood (talk about a lethal cocktail!) that has given me this gift, but I seem to be able to do this without half trying. Maybe it's because I think that the most important job of a voice teacher is to listen and respond to what one hears, not to teach from a list of things to do. One size does not fit all! I'm sure I have a mental list of the techniques I want every one of my students to achieve, but I don't always approach them in the same order. At some point I will cover all the essentials but probably not twice in the exact same way.

A critic once said of a performance by Tallulah Bankhead, 'Miss Bankhead, as Shakespeare's Cleopatra, barged down the Nile, covering the range of emotions from A to B'. Too many voice teachers that I have encountered use this rather limited range of ideas in their teaching. They have an A to Z list that everyone must learn in that exact order. That sort of approach has never worked for me, either in my own vocal studies (which have been rich and rare) or in my teaching. Every student comes to a teacher from a different place; from a different experience of life and of study; with different hopes and different aspirations. And with different problems. Sometimes a teacher needs to begin at Q rather than A if that is what is required in a specific case. I find myself constantly making up new images, vocalises, and psychological tactics to get an idea across to a student. I guess you might say, I teach from the seat of my pants.

Nine times out of ten, breathing will be the first item on any singer's agenda that may need some minor surgery. Even the best of professional singers with whom I have worked, get careless about this most important area of vocal technique. I had a wonderful tenor sing for me once, who was in the midst of a brilliant career, who, when he sang for me the first time, had about four different ways he took the singing breath within the same aria. The sound changed slightly with each variation of inhalation since there is only one kind of singing breath that allows the larynx to relax each time. A relaxed larynx is a wonderful thing to sing through. Consistency is not the Hobgoblin of Tiny Musical Minds; it is the very basis of a good vocal technique.

Often, when one learns to take the same deep, open, lively breath every time, fifteen other problems immediately disappear. Then it is the job of the student, aided by the teacher, to build this new, dependable breathing system into one's permanent vocal technique. Olga also used to say 'We singing teachers are really cheer leaders, revving up our team when they do well as well as becoming the stern football coach when they don't'. It takes time. The mind can accept a new concept and say, 'Hey, what a wonderful idea. I will always breathe like this from now on', but that old Devil, Muscle Memory, rears it's ugly haunches and whispers, 'Sez you!'. There is that wrinkle we ironed into the fabric a while ago!

Well, my student faced down her ogre, Old Habits, did a year of dedicated, meaningful hard work, and came out on top by singing a wonderful concert just recently. Nothing warms the cockles of a teacher's heart more than to see this kind of success achieved by someone one has worked with over time. This is the teacher's reward.

Brava! From your teacher.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thank you, Blogophiles

I want to express my thanks to the many Blogophiles who have written to me with nice comments about my scribblings. I have always enjoyed writing and this outlet is perfect for me at this stage of the game. I just dump out whatever is in my head, give it an edit or two and send it up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes it. Apparently, some of you do!

You are all more than kind to take notice of my thoughts, however silly they may sometimes be.


Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! Grrrr.

A BLOG a day keeps the doctor away... or something. Here I am awake at 4:15 a.m. again thanks to the Prednisone I have been taking. So I might as well write a brief note on the weather. A friend of mine, who was a composer, used to say he composed something every day, even if he didn't have much to say, just to keep in practice. I guess this is better than phoning my friends to chat at this hour!

It has been like living in Greenland here in Sandisfield these past few days. Constant snow, slush, ice, the works. I guess we call it Climate Change now instead of Global Warming, though I guess in parts of the world, large lakes are turning into deserts. Put the blame on el Niño, Mame.

Living on a dirt road in a very rural town in the Berkshires of Massachusetts has it's charms; but about now, I would like to see some different ones. When I came home from teaching at Smith on Wednesday at about 2:00 p.m., my driveway had already been plowed three times so I only had about six inches of snow through which to drive uphill; but I walked up my front steps in snow up to my knees! I practically had to carry Casha over the drifts; she weighs 43 pounds! My plowman will undoubtedly be retiring to Florida soon on what I'm paying him this winter.

This weather trend is supposed to calm down a bit but will continue into next week. I plan to get back to Smith for Karen Smith Emerson's Sunday concert. Wish me luck!

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?


Friday, February 26, 2010

One for my baby...

It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me.......

Blame it on the Prednisone I've been taking to help with a terrible bout of sinusitis and bronchitis I've been suffering with these past days, but as much as the drug helps me breathe easier, it also wakes me up at these weird hours with all sorts of brilliant thoughts racing through my head!

One should never write about a subject about which one knows absolutely nothing, so, of course, that is exactly what I am about to do.

I was watching women's figure skating from the Olympics last night. The first skater I saw was a 17 year-old American woman who skated what, to me and to the commentators, looked like an inspired, wonderful, artistic, involved performance. She was followed by a young woman in a Cleopatra costume (and we all know how much Cleo enjoyed figure skating up and down the Nile) who skated a lumpy, unimaginative program with lots of slow, heavy jumps and twiddles. More jumps than the first skater.

Guess what? The lumpy jumps and the inartistic twiddles came in ahead of the artistic performance.

To my eye, if you do any of these things and don't fall on your butt, you are remarkable.

After that, it's got to be what is artistic and emotional and totally involved. There is now one judge at these competitions whose only job, apparently, is to look at a slow motion film of whomever has just skated, analyse exactly where their foot landed, how much it was turned, and give merits or demerits accordingly. This, on top of the fact that in the 'free program', the skaters now have a number of 'required' moves they must make. It's like telling Ella, 'Go right ahead and scat this piece, but include this and this and this, or we don't want to hear you do it!'

In trying to equate this kind of judging to singing, we would have to insert little cameras in the throats of the singers so that one judge could watch the vocal cords in slow motion as they sing each note and make a judgement on whether it's thumbs up or thumbs down for the singer. Bring on the lions!

Have I confused you enough by now?

Birgit Nilsson used to say that all Scandinavian singers sing a little sharp. What a shame. That would eliminate Nicolai Gedda, Kirsten Flagstad, Jussi Björling, and probably Jenny Lind, at very least from the running, to say nothing of Birgit herself. We all know how no one liked to her her Elektra because it sat on the top edge of the pitch rather than some other boring place. I heard her Elektra many times and trust me, I didn't mind it one bit! I also heard all the other Nords I just mentioned (with the exception of Jenny. Even I am not that old!) What an exciting bunch!

Lily Pons used to have many of her coloratura arias transposed up a half step for more brilliance. At the point in the Met broadcast when this aria was sung (remember, I was at home in Battle Creek listening to this on the radio in those days, usually reclining on the davenport, as we called those things in Michigan), Milton Cross would quietly announce, 'And Miss Pons is singing this aria up a half step!!' Lily, at this point, would sing sol do, to some very high note (I guess it would be a very higher note), come in slightly flat, and with good luck (sometimes), raise it up to pitch before she got off the note to a standing ovation.

Now I ask you.

Listening to Maria Callas sing some of her coloratura roles was often equated by critics to watching an aerialist perform without a net. 'Will she make it or won't she?' With Maria, it was always a fifty-fifty proposition.

With skating, the 'up-close, slow motion judge', apparently watches the camera after the fact at the point where the skater's foot landed after a major jump. It they are an inch off where the judge thinks they should have landed, they get a demerit. If their foot didn't turn to an exact point, they get a demerit. I guess they must get demerits for falling on their butts, too. That, at least I understand. And so should singers!

Now I am all for as close to perfection as we poor humans can possibly come both as skaters and singers. But when we leave artistry, technique, and overall beauty out of the equation and count jumps and lumps, we have tossed out the baby with the bath water.

Neither the young American nor the lumpy Cleopatra won a medal last night, but the fact that dull and lumpy comes in ahead of brilliant and spectacular gives me pause.

Am I making any sense at all? It is after all, 4:00 a.m.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just sing the damned song!

My students are always asking me how I prepare myself the day of the concert. I have a routine that I have tried to use consistently for years. In my salad days as a young organist in New York City, I was Searle Wright's Assistant Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University, my Alma Mater.

Shortly after I was awarded the position, Searle said to me, "Our schedule will be that during the week we will play three noon-time religious services and two half hour long recitals. You take Tuesdays; I'll take Thursdays!".

Recitals-schmitals! At that point I had played exactly one full-length organ recital in my life.

Prior to this I used to get overly nervous and excited the day of a recital, so when I decided I couldn't go through a snit once a week, I had to find a way to be excited about playing but not let my nerves get in the way. Having to get up and perform this often, I soon found that having a pre-concert technique is just as important as having a concert technique.

So here is mine. Try it on for size if you like. Part way down I have made the examples especially applicable for singers, but similar tactics are good for other performers.

1.I try to get a good night's sleep the night before.
2.I give myself a very lazy morning the day of the concert. If it's Sunday, I do the Times crossword puzzle.
3.At some point I carefully go through parts of the program I want to touch upon for a last time before the concert.
4.I do not play (or sing) through the entire program! Don't give your performance at 11:30 a.m. if the concert is at 4:00 p.m.!
5. Depending on the time of day I must perform, I often take a brief nap. This is optional, especially for singers. I'll speak of singers from here on.
6. Depending on the time of day I eat something I like. I prefer not to eat too close to the time of the performance. My dear friend and long-time student, Mary Carter, a wonderful singer, always said she had to eat sautéed liver before she sang. She said it gave her strength. I would rather die! But that's me. You do what works for you.
7. I take a hot shower or bath to relax. These days, at 80, if possible, my friend Lisa comes and gives me a massage that morning. Lorraine always like to have a massage the day she sang and I borrowed this habit from her, I guess. I feel like I could fly to the moon after a massage or even walk onto the stage, release all that stored-up energy, and do a great concert.
8. Find something relaxing to do until concert time. I do a crossword puzzle or read a murder mystery. Very relaxing and sort of mindless.
9. Get to the hall early enough to settle into Concert Mode.
10. For singers, if there is time, glance over any places in the music you want to review.
11. Do some easy humming.
12. Take deep nose breaths off stage to completely relax the body and mind.
13. Float on stage and
Just sing the damned song!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Politicians heal thyselves

I know that I said that this BLOG would be about music and musicians, but having spent the last few days seeing a Pulmonologist, a Physician's Assistant, and an X-Ray Technician to try to get rid of a Sinus-Bronchitis infection that was generously given to me by one of my dear students (who shall remain nameless, but whom I shall call Typhoid Mary, for this purpose), which was making me very, very ill, I have had a lot of time to think about the Health Care debacle that has been going on in Washington for the past year.

As a loyal life-long Democrat, I am as disgusted with that party as I am with the Republicans, the Libertarians, the Tea Baggers, and any other political group which is out there posturing wildly against a health reform plan while so many people in this country can't do what I was just able to do this week. The reason that I was able to receive all of this medical expertise is because I pay AARP through the nose every month for my 'gap' insurance to have it available. With my history of asthma and quintuple heart by-pass, I would be dead if I didn't have this kind of coverage. I am fortunate enough to be able to pay the premiums. A lot of folks are in a different boat; one that is sinking fast.

These political groups, especially our Senators and Congresspeople, who have excellent health care plans of their own, seem unwilling to provide this same benefit for the rest of the country, and especially for the less fortunate among us. Crying Socialism, Government Takeover, and I don't know what, they run to their own doctors any time they wish, while many in our country die after a few days in an ER, because they have not been able to get preventative treatment prior to their last week of life. We are really paying for this week for them anyway through our own excessive insurance fees. Dying isn't free!

I guess the response of these politicians is a historic one: 'Let them eat cake!.' Well. Mr. and Ms. Politician, do you remember what happened to the lady who said that? She didn't need any more health care after that remark! Mme. de Farge just may be waiting in the wings to take care of you at the end of the story.

I have had two different Pharmacists in the past week or so (I also saw one of them today!) tell me that the pharmaceutical companies have been raising prices on all their medications to get a jump on any control the Government may place on their pricing fees.

Is this the great American Way?

I suggest to the entire Congress of this great country that they stop raising money for their re-election, taking large donations from lobbyists, whose only end game is self aggrandizement, get off their butts and pass a health reform bill. Not to do so is immoral and criminal.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Go for the Gold!

I have been watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics these cold February nights, seated by the fire, while the young athletes there are risking life and limb on the (sometimes) icy slopes of British Columbia. John and I visited British Columbia some years ago and found Spring-like weather there in January. So it's no wonder that they have had a problem getting enough snow to work with.

It has occurred to me this time around, as it has in the past, that 'A performance is a performance is a performance', as Gertrude Stein almost said. Whether in sports or in music, it is the physical and mental preparation that gets one ready for the big moment.

These athletes work hard for years to prepare their event so that when they have their five minutes on the ice or the snow, they can excel. Musical performers must follow the same kind of regimen. If you are performing a quadruple flip or singing a difficult aria, the same preparation must go into it. The young red-headed man who won the Gold on the Half-Pipe last night has literally spent years getting ready to do what he did last night in about three minutes. As he said, he has had many falls along the way, but last night, when the chips were down, he delivered in Spades! (I'm mixing my metaphors, but then...).

Years ago a very fine Mezzo-Soprano, who had studied with me for a number of years, had learned the famous Verdi aria 'O don fatale', with its perilous last page where the singer must stay at the top of her range throughout that entire section at full throttle, after already having sung a difficult and dramatic six or so pages. As a dear friend of mine, the late Jane Lafetra, who was a mountain climber, used to say when crossing a dangerous pass in the Rockies, 'This is no time to think of home and Mother!!'. Well, the Mezzo could sing the whole aria flawlessly until the last page, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. After a lot of work on the aria, she was determined to use it as an audition piece. I told her 'Absolutely not! Until you can sing it through twice and come out smiling after that fiendish last page!'. Amazingly, she took my advice and continued working on it until as I told her, 'I should be able to wake you up from a sound sleep and you would breeze through it beautifully and ask if I wanted to hear it again'. Roberta Peters reputedly sang the Queen of the Night arias in her Met audition about six times as they brought more and more listeners to hear her.

My Mezzo had done the work and when her version of the Olympics came, in her case, also an audition at the Metropolitan Opera Company, she delivered the aria that she had perfected and was added to the roster. She became one of six of my students to sing for that illustrious company.

Whatever song or aria you are preparing must reach this point of perfection, so that whether you are soaring 20 feet above the half pipe, or soaring on the stage of the Met, you win the gold!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lorraine, revisited

We are having a very snowy, wintry, beautiful day here at Rood Hill Farm and I had nothing much to do besides keeping the bird feeders filled for my hungry flock of chicadees, finches, tufted titmice, blue jays, and a pair of cardinals. It was a perfect afternoon to sit down and listen to the CD Richard Dyer sent me recently of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Das Lied von der Erde with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra). The conductor was Edo de Waart and it was recorded live in Utrecht on September 9, 1999. Richard told me that he had always wished that he had heard Lorraine sing this role but thought she had never done so.

Lorraine and I worked on Das Lied in New York City and I think that she sang it at Alice Tully Hall. I remember we worked together in the apartment of a member of the Lincoln Center Chamber Group, who lived right across the street from my New York City studio, which wasn't available that night for some reason.

In this performance the tenor was David Rendall. He starts out seeming to want to fight the orchestra with much pushing and a very fast, tight vibrato. He calms it down a bit in the later movements, so perhaps this overly agitato wobble was caused by nerves.

But then Lorraine sings. And heaven opens its arms. Whereas the tenor seems to be standing apart, having an argument with the orchestra, Lorraine sings from the center, both of the orchestra and of her very being. Undoubtedly her years as a violist gave her a special feeling when singing with instruments of how to become a part of them and yet stand out.

I realised, listening to her again today, what a great black hole exists in my life not being able to work with her any more. I know that I am incredibly predjudiced, but there is just no one singing today, whom I have heard, at any rate, who performs with the all-encompassing passion, musicality, variation of tone, and over-all love, that she did. It's as if she and the orchestra are making love to each other as well as to the music.

Thank you so very much, Richard, for this incredible gift by this wonderful artist we both loved.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Oy, Canada!

I realise that I am totally out of touch with what passes for singing in the pop world these days, but last night's otherwise spectacular opening of the Olympics has to have been a new low for the human voice.

The pop singers, only one of whom I had even heard of before, moaned and screamed their way through various songs. The rendition of Oh, Canada was a close second to Roseanne Barr singing the US national anthem which scratching her unmentionables at some sports event some years ago.

Then came the opera singer. Please tell me that this wobbly singer is not in a major career. And would someone please write an abridged version of the Olympic Hymn? It makes Götterdämmerung seem like the minute waltz! I practically wore out the 'mute' button on my TV remote.

The native tribes were the best thing musically that happened.

I keep remembering the incredible opening of the Barcelona summer games some years ago with a line-up that included Montserrat Caballe, Teresa Berganza, Alfredo Kraus, Juan Pons, and Victoria de los Angeles. Vive la différence!

Sorry, but I just had to vent!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Herb and Jerry

In the mid 1950's I was the Organist and Choirmaster at the Short Hills, NJ Community Congregational Church. I had a paid quartet of soloists who acted as section leaders in the choir. The bass, Bob (I wish I could remember his last name) took me aside after a choir rehearsal one night and asked if I would be interested in working with Jerome Hines on an opera he had written. He was looking for someone to do a small orchestration. Naturally, I jumped at the chance and got in touch with Jerry, as he asked to be called, and set up a meeting at the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 40th Street.

I went to the stage door, which was on the side street in the back, and gave my name. It was a lot easier to get backstage at the Met in those days than it is now! Jerry came down to the reception desk to greet me and we went upstairs to a studio. There was an upright piano and not much else in the room. This was the 'old' Met, remember.

We sat down on the bench together (quite a bench full; with Jerry at about 6 feet 5 inches and me at six feet three and a half inches) and Jerry produced the score of his opera The Life of Christ. We began on page one and went all the way through with me playing and Jerry singing. My left ear has never been the same since. I had never been that close to a voice that size before. The opera is a pastiche of snippets from Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner, but very pleasant to listen to. I took the score with me and began to arrange it for organ, violin, and harp (I think. This was a long time ago, remember). Kind of an unusual orchestration

The opera was to be produced at the Salvation Army Temple on West 14th Street in Greenwich Village. Jerry was very active in the Salvation Army at that time which was why we were able to use this large auditorium. It had a full stage and wings, a wonderful lighting board, and interested people to take care of all of these things.

Jerry, of course, was to sing the part of Jesus, and with a little work on his Irish nose and an added beard, he bore a remarkable likeness to some of the paintings one sees depicting Christ.

Jerry's wife, Lucia Evangelista, was to sing the part of Mary Magdelene. The rest of the characters were sung by some very fine singers whose names I can't remember. I have a feeling that many of them were in the Met chorus at the time.

A wonderful set was built and the costumes (which may have come from the Met as well) were accurate and fine looking.

We rehearsed for several weeks and were due to open on Good Friday evening. Jerry was also scheduled to sing in Parsifal that afternoon at the Met. In those days, the Met always gave Parsifal on Good Friday afternoon as its last performance of the season.

Part way though the matinée Jerry announced that he was having vocal problems and dropped out. His cover took over to finish the opera. That night, miraculously, he had not only recovered his voice, but sang incredibly well. We wound up being reviewed on the front page of the New York Times with this Good Friday miracle. He looks enough like Jesus to cast a miracle, so maybe that's what happened. I never had the nerve to ask him if he was really out of voice in the Parsifal.

We did weekend performances for several weeks and then Jerry asked me if I would go on tour with him and the production. Between my job in Short Hills, and the fact that I was also the Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul's Chapel. Columbia University, I had to tell him that, regretfully, I couldn't go on tour with him. I lined up a friend of mine, Donna Brunsma, who was also involved at St. Paul's Chapel somehow, to join him on tour.

He continued to present this opera in cities all over the country for many years.

Jerry was a wonderful person and a terrific singer. He continued to sing at the Met, and sing well, for at least forty years after that time.

Coincidentally, it was about this time that the first of my vocal students, Pamela Munson, began singing at the Met. Nothing to do with Jerry, but she continued to sing comprimario roles there for many years. My sixth student to sing there, Jim Maddalena, made his début this season.

I must be getting old, or something?

Monday, February 8, 2010


The emails back and forth between Richard Dyer and myself today got me thinking about the wonderful singers I have had the privilege to hear in my 80 years. I have already mentioned the Otello I heard in Cleveland with Ramon Vinay, Licia Albenese, and Leonard Warren. After I came to New York I would attend the opera as often as I could afford to buy 'standing room'.

After standing in line in the cold outside the old Met on Broadway and 40th Street for four hours, I was able to get a standing room ticket for Kirsten Flagstad's farewell performance. It was in Beethoven's Fidelio. Several years later, after she had supposedly retired, she came out of retirement to sing a concert with The Symphony of the Air, which had been the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. After Toscanini's death, the orchestra tried to make it without a conductor for several years and had asked Flagstad if she would return to sing with them. She sang the Wesendonck Lieder and the Immolation Scene of Wagner in fine fettle. Toscanini's grand-daughter, Liana, lives just around the corner from me in Sandisfield today. Small world! Alex Williams, a long ago friend of mine from New Jersey, was principal clarinetist in that orchestra.

I remember hearing Zinka Milanov and some tenor standing on the stage of the old Met belting out an incredible 'Anything you can sing, I can sing louder' duet from La Gioconda. The walls would still echo with that sound if they had not torn down the building to build Lincoln Center. I often think I can still hear it when I walk down Broadway in that block. I heard Milanov many times and she is still one of my favorite singers. Like the little girl with the little curl, 'When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad she was horrid'. But I loved her anyway. Of course it was Mae West who said, 'When I'm good, I'm very, very good, and when I'm bad, I'm better'. But I don't think she was talking about her singing!

Speaking of Mae West, in 1950 John and I saw and heard her on the stage of the Broadway Theatre in Diamond Lil. She sang a very risqué version of 'Frankie and Johnny.' Her legendary bust preceded her onstage by at least 30 seconds! But that's another story.

I saw Joan Sutherland's but at the old Met in Lucia. A student of mine called one morning and told me that someone had given her tickets for the Met that evening. Some British soprano was making her début! I guess so!

I saw Leontine Price and William Warfield in the revival of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Broadway Theatre. Now there was a Bess! I also heard her sing songs by John La Montaine in the Miller Theatre at Columbia University when I was Searle Wright's assistant at St. Paul's Chapel. Searle took me to the party at John's apartment afterwards where I met her. I heard many of her appearances at the Met.

I saw Monserrat Caballe sing a concert at Carnegie Hall where the bows and encores went on for a half hour. The stage was filled with flowers, looking like a Mafia funeral. As her final encore, she sang a Spanish folk song and literally danced all the way around the piano so the people seated onstage behind the piano for this sold-out concert, could get a chance to see her head-on. Amazing grace, as this super sized Señora, her arms lifted over her head, danced around the Steinway D. They don't make 'em like that anymore!

I must not give short shrift to the New York City Opera Company. When they were still at the City Center on 55th Street, I heard Beverly Sills in the first performances of Douglas Moore's Baby Doe. Moore was the head of the Music Department at Columbia when I was getting my degree there.

I also heard Phyllis Curtin sing the title role in Carlyle Floyd's Suzanna many times as well as the title role in Vittorio Gianinni's Taming of the Shrew. I saw every performance of that opera because a dear friend of mine, Dorothy Fee, was the librettist (along with William Shakespeare) for the opera and asked me to accompany her to all the performances.

Dorothy was also a composer and studied composition with Vittorio. I got to know him and his amazing wife, Lucia, through my friendship with Dorothy..

I was also happy to hear Judith Raskin's début at City Opera as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. Judy studied with Anna Hamlin, with whom I also studied as well as playing for her lessons when she came to the city from Northampton where she was the head of the voice department at Smith College, where I now teach. Judy often coached with me in those days and we did one performance together. She died much too young.

And, of course, I was at the Met when Lorraine Hunt Lieberson made her début there in John Harbison's Gatsby. She was one of six students of mine who have sung at the Met. I was also in the Palais Garnier in Paris for her début in that hallowed hall. She died at age 52, breaking my heart.

Well, that's enough for now. This one not-so-hot Otello has brought forth a million memories; a sort of mental diarrhea. I'd better quit while I'm ahead.

I'm so glad I saw and heard all these singers and I am just as glad that I am working with fine young singers at Smith College these days. I have had the enormous honor to teach some of the world's greatest singers over my career. As somebody (Yogi Berra?) once said, 'It ain't over 'til it's over!'

Truer words were never spoke!


This morning I had an email from Richard Dyer who kindly sent me the program from the Met archives of the Otello I heard in Cleveland all those years ago. Richard was for many years the chief music critic on the Boston Globe and has a vast knowledge of music and musicians. He has written wonderful reviews of the work John did at Harvard, as well as offering a magnificent eulogy for John after his death in 2008. He has also written great reviews of several of my students, including Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Janet Brown. He is a good friend to have.

Here is the cast list from April 9, 1949 (I was a year off in my date);
Otello-----Ramon Vinay
Desdemona------Licia Albenese
Iago------Leonard Warren
Emilia-----Martha Lipton
Cassio------John Garris
Lodovico-------Nicola Moscona
Montàno-----Clifford Harvuot
Roderigo-----Leslie Chabay
Herald-----Philip Kinsman

Conductor---Fritz Busch

Richard wrote that he saw the next Cleveland Otello in 1959 with Mario del Monaco, Zinka Milanov, and Leonard Warren. He was living in Cleveland at the time.

When I came to New York City in 1950 to finish my undergraduate work at Columbia University, I studied voice with Mrs. William E. Neidlinger. Clifford Harvuot (the Montàno from the Cleveland production) had the lesson just before mine, which is probably why I decided to spend my performing time at the keyboard rather than as a singer. My 20 year old baritone suffered in comparison with his enormous voice, even heard through the closed door. Jean Madeira, the great mezzo-soprano also studied with Mrs. Neidlinger. Mrs. N. had a bulldog who had been returned from the Canine Corps of World War II. He was leashed to the piano leg and gave menacing looks at all of us students who were pretty much plastered against the far wall. As a result, we all had exemplary posture.

Richard has also promised to send me a CD of Lorraine singing Das Lied von der Erde with the Netherlands Philharmonic under Edo de Waart in 1999. I am eternally grateful for this kindness.

My many thanks to Richard for setting me straight. As I told him, I was dredging these memories up from 60-some years ago.

Wow! Leonard Warren as Iago! No wonder I remember that performance.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


The first time I saw a performance of Verdi's Otello was in 1948 in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places. I went down to the 'city by the swamp' with Suzanne Pfitzner, a voice teacher at Michigan State College, where I was enrolled at the time. She was not my voice teacher, who was Harriet Hillier Birchall, but, for some reason, I was accompanying her rehearsals for a concert she was preparing, The Secret of Suzanne. I have no idea why I was involved in this production but it got me to my first performance by the Met company on tour. She took a group of her vocal students and me to hear the Met in Cleveland! Ramòn Vinay was the Otello and either Bidu Sayao or Licia Albenese was the Desdemona. It was in an enormous auditorium which has probably been torn down by now.

Prior to this, my only encounter with opera or operetta was in Battle Creek, Michigan, my home town, when touring companies brought Blossom Time or The Student Prince to the Bijou Theatre. I also saw a performance of Rigoletto at the Kellogg Auditorium in which a coloratura, Jean Dickinson, 'Nightingale of the Airways', who had her own radio program, sang Gilda. She took the high E at the end of Caro nome. I was the managing editor of the high school newspaper at the time and went backstage after the performance to interview the cast- much to their horror, I'm sure. It was performed by the La Scala Opera Company of Philadelphia: not the one in Milano.

All of this leads up to the fact that I am puzzled by the performance of Otello I heard today at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, Ct., a part of their on-going series of operas filmed live in Europe.

This production was from the Salzburg Festival of 2008. The director was Stephen Langridge who, with George Souglides, produced a set that was pretty much incomprehensible to me. There was a large glass platform in the center of the stage which in the last act swallowed Otello whole. Stephen is reputed to be the son of the British tenor, Phillip Langridge. Tough luck!

The Otello of Aleksandrs Antonenko was pushed, covered, and sweaty. Apparently the Grosses Festspielhaus is not air-conditioned. Much of the cast was dripping. Marina Poplavskaya, the Desdemona came into to her own in the last act with a touching Salce and Ave Maria, including a high A at the end while lying on the floor flat on her back. Overall the voice does not thrill me. Bidu or Licia, or whoever I heard years ago, to say nothing of Tebaldi and others I have heard since, have made more hay out of that role. Admittedly, much of the role lies low in the soprano voice, which can be a problem. Dorothy Kirsten might be a Desdemona to remember!

Otello stabbed himself at stage left at the end and didn't make it back to Desdemona who, for some reason, was lying on the floor rather than the usual bed. Just as well, I think, as it would have been a very sweaty last baccio.

Stephen Costello, the Cassio, sang beautifully and looked the part of the ardent young man.

The Iago was Carlos Alvarez, the Mexican baritone. He sang with fervor, but again, with a very covered sound. I think I'm getting off on the covered sounds?? Whee! I'm a voice teacher! So, sue me!

The rest of the cast included Barbara di Castri as Emilia, Antonello Ceron as Roderigo, Mikhail Petrenko as Lodovico, and Simone Del Savio as Montàno. They were adequate in their roles.

Probably the Otello I remember best was that of John Vickers, who sang the role of his lifetime at every performance. I heard him many times at the Met with various Desdemonas, all of whom were better than this one.

I realized that Otello really comes off as sort of a jerk, believing everything Iago tells him and finally murdering his wife based on suspicion and rumors. Maybe the opera should have been called Iago; he's on stage more and has more to sing than Otello. He also manipulates Otello and the entire plot of the drama.

It was a puzzling afternoon. At least it made me think and reminisce. Where is John Vickers when we need him? And where in the world is Jean Dickinson?