Monday, December 20, 2010

What's going on?

I had an interesting conversation today with a friend of mine who is also a voice teacher about the current state of the art of teaching. We agreed that too many singers are coming out of music schools without an idea of how to sing.

I have had any number of singers come to me after years of study, either private or in music school, who when asked about breathing, shrug their shoulders and give me a pathetic look. My friend said that she has had the same experience.

To me, the knowledge of how to sing begins with the knowledge of how to breathe. Not just every day ho-hum breathing, but deep singing breathing. How anyone can complete a degree from a reputable music school and still not know this technique is beyond me.

I begin every first lesson with a full explanation and demonstration of what I consider a good singing breath. I advocate listening to the sound the air makes as it passes down your throat. One should hear 'ah' or 'aw', never 'ih'. The latter sound means that the singer is not allowing the larynx to relax with the inhalation. When one inhales with the 'ah' or 'aw' sound in the air passage, one gets a deep breath and allows the larynx to relax.

To me, Ça va sans dire. The deep relaxing breath solves a multitude of vocal problems. Rather than try to solve each problem separately, this kind of breath is a panacea, a way to breath and sing with flexibility and ease.

One student of mine, who had worked with me for only a year when I had to close my New York and New Jersey studios, told me that she was studying with a new voice teacher who 'taught just like you do!' When she sang for me, all the work we had done together was lost. She was right back where she started. I asked her what her new teacher had said about breathing, since hers had deteriorated radically since I last had heard her. She told me that after several lessons she asked him why he had never mentioned breathing to her. He answered, "I never will'. I ask you!

We discussed how teachers are hired by music schools. Often it is on the basis of having had a career in opera or concert singing. Does anyone ever ask to see the person actually teach a lesson? Many fine singers make rotten teachers, simply because while they know how they sing, present them with a student who has problems, and they are lost as to how to solve them.

I find that as soon as a student learns how to take a deep, open breath, and the larynx relaxes, ten other problems disappear at once. It's not magic, it's technique.

Someone once said: 'Art is the emotion expressed on the technique'. This is true if one is a painter, a dancer, or a singer. Without a good technical background, the most beautiful voice will have a short career. Wonderful singers who had to face this problem include Renata Tebaldi and Renata Scotto. They both started with extraordinary voices that simply didn't hold up. I heard each of them scream out a high note on the stage of the Met toward the end of their careers.

My friend and I agreed that a woman's voice has a harder time stabilizing after menopause than a man's voice at the same age. Régine Crespin for instance, after having had a long career as a dramatic soprano, and, on experiencing some difficulties in her vocal range, after some time off, retooled, came back and had a long career as a mezzo. Not everyone is this wise.

We agreed that as the voice matures, very often the singer, either male or female, may need to change their repertoire to fit the current state of their instrument.

One of my pet peeves is the amount of vibrato I hear in many soprano voices today. Listening to the Met last Saturday, I had to turn off the radio. The soprano's vibrato was making me dizzy. If you listen to singers back a generation or so, you never, or seldom heard this kind of vibrato in a trained voice. Maria Callas, in her later days of singing, developed a vibrato you could drive a truck through. She, and some others, were 'natural singers' who were wonderful until something happened in their life to upset their equilibrium. I doubt if they ever really knew how they sang.

It would be so fine if voice teachers learned how to transmit this kind of information to young singers. The singers would have longer careers and I would get fewer head-aches!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A new Mantra for those over 30!

My dear friend Mary Carter gave this mantra to several of us who all turned 80 this year.

"Old is our game. Mere failure to be young in not interesting!"

Here, here!!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hey! I'm on Youtube! At my age.

Thanks to a very bright young friend of mine, Ryan Salame, I am now on Youtube. Ryan has been my technical advisor on all things electronic since he was about 13 and still is at the advanced age of 17. I have no idea what he does, but it always works!

I asked him if he could put a DVD that was made in 2005 on the web and here it is. It is my farewell performance as a concert organist. The reason for my coming out of retirement to do this concert was that it was the thirtieth anniversary of the installation of the magnificent tracker organ built for the First Methodist Church of Red Bank, NJ, under my supervision, by the wonderful Austrian organ builder Gerhard Hradetsky.

For twenty-one years I was the Director of Music and Fine Arts at the church. I had met Gerhard in 1970 when performing at Stefansdom in Vienna, heard some of his organs, and determined that this was the man I wanted to build the new tracker organ for the church. It was installed in 1975. It is a marvelous instrument.

I have played organ concerts throughout the United States and in Haderslev and Copenhagen, Denmark, Hamburg and Berlin, Germany, Vienna, Austria, and at the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris. I have made organ tours of the British West Indies, performing in Barbados, St. Vincent, Trinidad, and Tobago. I appeared with Gertrude Neidlinger, concert comedienne in Bemuda following my Carnegie Hall début with her in 1967. I was at the piano for the performances with her. I stopped performing publicly on the organ in the late 1990's. I emerged from retirement in 2000 to play the twenty-fifth anniversary of the organ and again in 2005 for its thirtieth birthday party.

The composition I chose to play, Clérambault's Suite du Deuxième Ton, was the first composition to be heard publically on this instrument at its dedication in 1975. It opened the morning service which included  a brass quartet and a chorus of one hundred singers. My own choir was joined by The Shrewsbury Chorale under Paul Grammer, for which I had served as organist for many years. It was a glorious day!

The movements of the suite are Plein Jeu, Duo, Trio, Basse de Cromorne, Flûtes, Récit de Nazard, and Sur les Grands Jeux. As in most live recordings of concerts, someone had to have a coughing fit during the softest piece: Flûtes. The choir, as you will see, at this performance, was seated all around me in the rear gallery of the church, and the culprit was evidently right in front of the mike! 'C'est la vie', as Clérambault himself might have said. I don't appear even to hear him as I played. Concentration!

If you would like to view this DVD,go to  to the Search line at the top of the page and type Herbert Burtis organist. If God is good, this should get you to the right place. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


As I look back over my 80 1/2 years, I seem to be always reinventing myself. I've decided that's the way to stay young.

To many people today I am known as a voice teacher. A new student is sometimes surprised that I can sit down at the piano and play whatever song they bring to sing for me.

I started life in Battle Creek, Michigan as a pianist at age 9. It was the depression, so I couldn't start lessons until we could spend the dollar a week. I worked hard at my craft and began performing concerts throughout my high school years. I often accompanied singers in their recitals.

Then I went to Michigan State College for two years and became an organ major. I still played the piano, of course, and I accompanied for one of the voice faculty who was preparing a concert. A member of the piano faculty played the concert; and not terribly well!

I had begun studying voice in high school with Maylon Searns, a Scandinavian tenor who would have me stand on his stomach to show me how strong those muscles should be to sing. I'm not kidding! It's a wonder I didn't kill him. I was good sized even then

I continued studying voice at Michigan State with Harriet Hiller Birchall. I was never asked to stand on her stomach. She was a good teacher. I majored in organ under Helen Roberts Sholl, a great teacher.

I came to New York City in 1950 to continue my undergraduate work at Columbia University. I studied organ with Claire Coci and Vernon de Tar. I studied voice with Mrs. Neidlinger, a good teacher if a bit crazy. But then, aren't we all? I also studied harpsichord with the great Gustav Leonhardt. In a moment of madness, I studied harp with Nancy Shank and actually played a few times in public. I had no shame, apparently.

A bit later I started accompanying lessons for
Anna Hamlin, a very good teacher, with whom I also studied. She was the head of the voice department at Smith and came to New York every weekend to teach mostly former Smithies, most notably, Judith Raskin. Judy was a lovely soprano and died much too young. She would sometimes coach with me after her lessons with Anna.

I had a series of church jobs, but the best and most rewarding was as Searle Wright's Assistant Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia. I did that until about 1958. At this point I began coaching and teaching singing to some of the members of the St. Paul's choir. I also worked with a very fine mezzo-soprano, Pamela Munson, who wound up at the Met.

I went on to get my Master of Sacred Music Degree at The School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary, right across Broadway from Columbia. I came under the spell of many musicians and great theologians who were teaching there.

I continued in church music in Red Bank, NJ for twenty-one years, teaching piano, voice, and organ. Students in all of these fields often went on to music schools and careers in music. I was a general factotum, also directing plays, hanging art shows, and doing organ recitals. Twice I performed the complete organ works of Bach; once in Red Bank in sixteen concerts, and a year later at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia, in fourteen concerts in fifteen weeks.I also conducted the St. John Passion of Bach in Red Bank and played a total of sixty organ concerts that year.At the same time I directed and produced Tennesse William's The Glass Menagerie. Whew! It was quite a year.

Through all of this I continued to teach voice. In 1979 I left Red Bank and taught voice at Harvard University for ten years. I left Harvard in 1990 and kept teaching voice in New Jersey (flying down once a month for forty-four students) and at Harvard for twenty-eight students. I opened a New York City studio on West 90th Street off Broadway where I taught another twelve or so singers.

At this time I did some vocal work with the amazing and fascinating Olga Averino. I didn't always agree with her technically, but she was an inspiration to me as a friend and mentor.

In 2005 my life partner, John Ferris became very ill with Parkinson's disease and I had to close both the New Jersey and New York studios. I did a little teaching at my home, Rood Hill Farm, in Sandisfield, MA. After John's death in 2008, Jane Bryden, a long-time student and friend who was on the voice faculty at Smith College, asked me to teach there; which I did until this fall. I now teach exclusively at my home in Sandisfield.

In the meantime, six of my students have sung at the Met and other major opera houses throughout the world, most notably, the late, very dear, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

So reinvention is my game, voice teacher is my name- for the moment. So far it has worked just fine. Try it!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The fabulous Elektra Ensemble

The Ferris-Burtis Foundation of the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, is pleased to announce that The Elektra Ensemble is being added to the roster of young artists whom we assist in furthering their careers. A brilliant trio, they will be a welcome addition to this list.

The three extraordinary musicians are Brunilda Myftaraj, violin, Melissa Morgan, 'cello, and Igor Lovchinsky, piano.

Ms. Myftari is the first prize winner of the Van Rooy Competition, the Emerson Quartet Competition, and has been a finalist in the Young Artist Guild of New York, the Indianapolis International Violin Competition, and the Lipitzer Competition in Gorizia, Italy. Her teachers have included Piero Faulli of the Quartetto Italiano, Alberto Lissy, Phil Setzer, Eugene Drucker, Rafael Druian, and Renato Bonacini.

Melissa Morgan has performed throughout the United States and Canada as a member of the Bella Cosi String Quartet, at the Piano and Friends Chamber Music Series in Tucson, Arizona, the Mostly Mozart Series in Napa Valley, and the Shubert Club in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has also been featured on radio stations in New York, Conecticut, and Massachusetts. Her teachers include Stephen Doane and Bonnie Hampton. She has studied chamber music with Isaac Stern, Isadore Cohen, Daniel Asholomov, Paul Katz, the Juilliard String Quartet, the Guarneri String Quartet, and the Saint Louis String Quartet.

Igor Levchinsky has been hailed by Gramophone Magazine as 'a star of the future', by Germany's Piano Magazine as 'Having elegance and rapturous beauty in his musicianship.' He has performed at Carnegie Hall's Weill Hall, the Bushnell Center in Hartford, CT, and the Ohio Theatre. He has played solo piano recitals in Warsaw, Beijing, and Calgary among other international engagements.

The Ferris-Burtis Foundation will help support this exciting trio in their musical career. The Foundation was established in 1987 by the late John Ferris, University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard for thirty-two years, and by Herbert Burtis. Mr. Burtis's career includes teaching voice at Harvard and at Smith College, and an international career as a pianist and organist. He is a well-known voice teacher, whose student, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang throughout the world. Six of his students have performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The Foundation encourages interested people to help us support these young artists, who with violinist, Yevgeny Kutik, also under the Foundation, are in emerging careers at the highest musical level.

Tax-free gifts are welcome. If you would like to assist the Foundation in its work, you may contact the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, Ferris-Burtis Foundation at 800 North Main Street, Sheffield, MA, 1257-0400, or on line at:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

For Phyllis

This seems to be my day to blog! Three, or two and a half, in 12 hours. It's the Prednisone!

A friend in New York City sent me a message this morning after reading my Sondheim blog, about the time she was taken backstage at City Opera to meet Phyllis Curtin after a performance of Carlyle Floyd's Susannah. She had been enchanted by Phyllis's performance. Well, who wasn't enchanted by Phyllis? Anyway, I forwarded Lily's email to Phyllis at once and got a sweet reply. Susannah has been playing a part in my life recently since one of my students has been performing 'Ain't it a pretty night' in concert with me.

Phyllis and I have been friends for a good long time. I heard many of her performances at City Opera and at the Met as well as places like Sanders Theatre at Harvard. She may shoot me for telling this story, but at Sanders,some years ago, she was performing Pierrot Lunaire. For some reason I was seated in the front row, just at the level of her feet. With her usual elegance she sailed through that difficult work with blazing colors, looking cool as a cucumber. I was impressed that in the open-toed shoes she was wearing, I could see her great toe keeping accurate time throughout the performance. The ultimate artist, but you still have to count.

I heard Phyllis sing Vittorio Giannini's Taming of the Shrew more times that just about any one, I think. My good friend, Dorothy Fee, a composer and kindergarten teacher in Newark at the time, was Vittorio's librettist for the opera. Actually, of course, Shakespeare was the librettist.

Dorothy told Vittorio that she was not going to try to match words with the Immortal Bard. So she lifted words from Romeo and Juliet,  and from the Sonnets when Vittorio would call and say, 'Dottie, I have to have more words. The music is still happening in this aria and I'm out of words!'. Dorothy would go on a poetic search through the works of The Bard of Avon (whoever he really was) and come up with appropriate texts.

The reason I saw Shrew so many times is that Dorothy attended every performance that year and I went along as her escort. I think that Phyllis sang every performance but one, when the wife of the baritone (whose name I can't remember) sang, not all that well. I heard them all.

I also saw her in Susannah many times that same season. I can still see her leaning back on the rooftop of the house, her long dark hair trailing, singing 'Ain't it a pretty night?', stage moonlight giving her a warm glow that was matched by her golden voice.

Later I saw her at the Met and other venues, got to know her personally, and often attended her master classes at Tanglewood. Several of my students were in those classes over the years. So we have shared teaching responsibilities.

We also shared the same teacher. Olga Averino, whose name has appeared many times in these pages was a great mentor to me, as I'm sure she was to Phyllis. There is a wonderful tribute to Olga on You Tube now, if you'd like to take a look. It was put together by her grandsons.

Phyllis will be celebrating her birthday on December 3rd. Why don't you all send her a Happy Birthday card? She is an amazing musician and I feel lucky to have known her all these years.

Phyllis this is my birthday card to you! Happy, Happy, Birthday!! Go girl!


After going back to bed for a while at about 5:30 a.m., it occurred to me that since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, it could be that the gasping ladies in my blog about the Stephen Sondheim birthday bash last night are trying to emulate Elaine Stritch's shtick. If so, they missed the mark. She is the alpha and omega of this style of performing.

It is the same thing that happened with Edith Evans, who did the definitive Lady Bracknell in the first film version of The Importance of Being Earnest  Ever since then, everyone has tried to outdo her rendition of the phrase 'A handbag?????'. No one ever has. She and Elaine would make a great pair.

Judy Dench wisely avoided comparison by sort of muttering the phrase in the more recent film version.

Read on below-

Happy Birthday to You

I am blogging at four in the morning today because the Predisone I am taking for my annual Fall Sinus Event wakes me up raring to go about three hours before my usual rising time.

Last night I caught some of the 80th Birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim. He is surely one of the great Broadway composers of our lifetime. We are also the same age, so even though I don't know him, I feel that we have something in common. Our Golden Years, and we're still here!

I missed the first part of the show and came in on the scene from Sweeney Todd when Patti Lupone, as Mrs. Lovatt, was croaking her way through 'It's Priest', with George Hearn and Michael Cervaris as sort of cloned Sweeneys. ('Send in the Clones?).The men were tolerable but Patti needs vocal help! Give me a call!

Then, a dark-haired young woman, whose name I don't know, sang a song I really didn't know. I think it was from Sondheim's first show. She sang it in the manner that Sondheim apparently likes, spitting out bits of the song in a disjointed manner, rather then using the motto that will be on my tombstone, Just Sing the Damned Song!! This  kept happening over and over as several of the others sang or rather, croaked, in disjointed phrases. 

Patti then had the cojones to sing 'The ladies who lunch' with Elaine Stritch sitting there stony-faced, often in camera view. I don't blame you, Elaine. Having just seen you in A Little Night Music on Broadway a week ago, and blogged about your performance, there should be a law that prohibits anyone but you from singing this song. Patti hollers, grimaces and fights her way vocally through the piece.

Marin Mazzi, one of the women who actually sang, rather than choked out the song, gave us her version of 'Losing my mind', which was excellent.

Audra McDonald beautifully sang 'The Glamorous Life'. This lady knows how to sing. I just wish she would take deeper breaths. It's a very fine instrument.

Donna Murphy was equally good singing 'Could I Leave You?' She built the dramatic tension just right and gave it the dramatic finish it needs to come across.

Bernadette Peters sang 'Not a Day Goes By' in the Sondheim approved style of belching out chunks of phrases while looking sad. I already have commented on Bernadette's one dimensional singing and acting in my blog on the current Broadway production of A Little Night Music.  Where is Glynis Johns when we need her? This style of singing (croaking?) may be fine for you, Mr. Sondheim, but to my taste I would rather hear songs actually sung!

Then, the icing on Stephen's birthday cake, Elaine Stritch, all 84 years of her, strode to center stage and simply showed the others how to do it by performing 'I'm Still Here'.  And is she ever! I think I have fallen in love with this woman, even though she is a bit older than I; apparently, she can do no wrong. She is what Broadway used to be all about- truth, in acting, and truth in singing or sing-talking. I think I first heard her in the 50's singing 'Zip' in a revival of Pal Joey. She stopped the show then and, a half century later, did it again last night!

When I first began seeing Broadway musicals actually on Broadway, instead of with touring companies that came to the Bijou Theatre in Battle Creek, no singers were amplified. Amazingly, you actually had to be able to stand up there and sing and be heard in the last row of the balcony all your own, to be cast in a show. All the singers of that era had legitimate voices that carried to the last row of the balcony in any theatre. I can't exactly remember the date when everyone began wearing body mikes in their hair, their bosom, or wherever else they could be tucked. It was at that point in the history of musical theatre that glamorous movie stars, many of whom couldn't sing at all, became the norm on the Broadway musical stage. Star name recognition sells tickets. It also meant that you had to look closely to see whose lips were moving at any given moment to identify which actor was singing. All of the sound came from one source.

If they had ever put one of these mikes on Ethel Merman, she would have blown out the back wall of the theatre! She actually did that several times, I am sure!

So, 'Here's to the Ladies who Sing'. And to the ladies who can't. Keep showing them how to do it, Elaine!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A commercial message

We will be spending part of the winter in Vero Beach, Florida. I will have a piano at our house and would be happy to do some voice teaching while I'm there. If you know of singers in that area who might like to work with me, please ask them to email me either at  or through my website

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Perils of an Accompanist

Last night I performed a concert in Hartford, CT with an exceptional soprano, Kathleen Callahan. Kate has been studying with me since last June and has made enormous progress. She came to me with a gorgeous voice and a fine background in vocal study: The Eastman School and Juilliard. The problem was, as a student of mine from many years ago (who wound up at the Met, incidentally) used to say: 'The voice had her, rather than her having the voice.'

This is not unusual with large, voluptuous voices. Often singers with this kind of instrument get by on their wonderful sound alone. As Olga Averino used to say, having heard a gorgeous, big voice: 'Now, what else can you do?' In short, any singer, whatever her vocal endowments, must have a wide range of sounds- volume, color, vocal range, emotional involvement. The voice alone is never enough.

This is what Kate and I set out to determine beginning last summer. Last evening proved that we are on the right track. She opened the concert with 'Ain't it a Pretty Night' from Carlyle Floyd's Susanna, much of which depends on pianissimo high singing. I still have fond memories of Phyllis Curtin singing this in the first performances of this opera at the old City Center on 55th Street.

She also sang 'The Willow Song' from Verdi's Otello, which has some of the same requirements. While she can certainly provide the forte climaxes in both of these arias, she has now learned how to produce an effortless pianissimo, even on high 'A's' and 'B's'. This is what happened last night to the delight of the audience, as well as to that of her teacher. Her songs by Rodrigo, Strauss, Duparc, and Copland also benefited from this new ability that she is mastering.

Last night the problem was her teacher and accompanist- Moi! I was suffering from an acute allergy attack. Somehow when using both hands on the piano keyboard, it is almost impossible to take care of the symptoms of an allergic reaction. To put it bluntly, I was performing with a very runny nose! Remember the one-armed paper hanger with the itch?? I was somehow able to hold back a couple of sneezes until we got to the really loud parts of several pieces when, thanks to her enormous voice and the volume of the piano at the moment, I could release a muffled sneeze or two that I hope did not bother the audience. I think that this is the first time I have ever performed with some kind of cold or allergy when my adrenaline did not shut off this condition. Must be old age?

All in all, my condition did not adversely affect our performance; it just presented me with a challenge I had never had to face before. Now I know why Pavarotti always carried that big handkerchief! I may start doing likewise.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Two for the Show

We have just returned from several days in New York City. Ostensibly our reason for the trip was to hear the brilliant young violinist, Yevgeny Kutik. The Ferris Burtis Foundation has been helping Yevgeny in his education and career for a number of years and I try to attend as many of his performances as possible.

It turns out that we got two brilliant performers for the price of one. On Tuesday night we were able to get tickets for Stephen Sondheim's brilliant piece of musical theatre, A Little Night Music, which is based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, which, in turn, is based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not a bad plot line!

An excellent cast portrayed the various characters in the play. But the standout was eighty-four year old Elaine Stritch as Madame Armfeldt! Talk about investing one's self in a role, she commanded the stage in each of her appearances. In 'Liasons', she was on stage alone for a good seven minutes mesmerizing us poor mortals in the audience. I don't know when I've been more captivated and moved by a performance.

From the rest of the cast I especially admired Stephen R. Buntrock, who played and sang the part of Fredrik Egerman. Both his singing and acting were superb.

The one fly in the ointment was Bernadette Peters, cast as Desirée Armfeldt, but actually playing Bernadette Peters. She has a limited dramatic range. As Alexander Wolcott once said of Tallulah Bankhead: 'She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.' The original production, which I saw in 1973, starred Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold in the leading roles. Bernadette is no Glynis, trust me.

But that Elaine! What a trouper! What a performer! I guess when you have been doing something for as long as she has, you just know how to get it right. She's a remarkable lady!

Then on Wednesday night, going from the sublime to the even more sublime, we heard Yevgeny Kutik in concert at The National Arts Club in Gramercy Park.

This historic building, once the home of Samuel Tilden, is not the ideal place to hold a concert. The concert room is a rectangular space with folding chairs, much like the concerts I hold in my music studio. But Yevgeny surmounted all odds, playing like a cross between an angel and a demon. Opening with several Preludes from Opus 34 of Shostakovich, and continuing  with Beethoven's Sonata # 3, Largo from the Bach third Sonata for Solo Violin, the amazing Schnittke Sonata No. 1, two excerpts for solo violin from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, and ending with the Wieniawski Polonaise No. 1, Op. 4. It was a brilliant program in every way.

His fleet-fingered pianist was Akira Eguchi, who played very well but I much prefer the work Yevgeny does with his long-time piano partner, Tim Bozarth. Familiarity breeds other things besides contempt. 

One distraction was the fact that in a near-by room some group was having a lively, and very audible, dinner party.This bit of poor planning on the part of the National Arts Club distracted me, as I'm sure it did many others in the audience, but Yevgeny has the ability to go so deeply into the music that a bomb could go off and he would not hear it. What an amazing young man. And what an incredible musician. What amazing concentration! Now I want to hear him in Alice Tully Hall and Jordan Hall and with a major symphony. He is more that ready for the big time.

So we heard two performers, born almost a century apart, whose commitment to their art is so enormous that they can bring their audience completely into their heart and hold them there. Bravo to both of them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Come to the Cabaret!

Recently I have been performing a series of Cabaret performances with my long-time friend and student Peggy. She is a classical singer who has flown the heights of The Queen of the Night, but who can also sing show tunes convincingly. I, at 80 and a half, am amazed that I have any voice at all, but if Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook can still do it, so can I.

A number of my students have sung both classical and show songs but that doesn't work for all voices. Men have an easier time going from opera to pop than women, especially women opera singers. There are several disastrous examples of Divas trying to let their hair down and 'get with it'. Renée Fleming's cross-over albums attest to this fact. Eileen Farrell, who had a much bigger voice than Renée, made the switch brilliantly.

I tell my students who sing show, pop, and even rock, that your technique must not change when singing a different type of song. It is really a matter of style.

One of my students has his own band, for instance. He also is a soloist in church and has done regional theatre successfully. He told me only yesterday that in the past his voice would tire when singing with his band. It no longer does that. He has learned a good, free technique which he can adapt to what ever kind of music he is singing.

Years ago a young woman came to me with serious vocal problems. She had been singing rock for a number of years and her vocal cords were threadbare. It took a long time and a lot of convincing, but I finally got her to sing on a lower breath and a much better technique and she was vocally happy for the first time in a long while.

Early music singers for a long time, especially the sopranos, sang with what Anna Russell called the 'British Pure White Tone'. This is popular to this day, unfortunately, with some choral conductors who expect forty year old women to sing like six year old boys. Here it's all a matter of vibrato. Any voice with absolutely no vibrato is a voice that is being held. Vibrato  is a natural result of the muscles of the larynx working (involuntarily, by the way) and the air passing between the vocal cords. Thank Heaven, along came Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who proved that one can sing early music with a full rich tone and be perfectly in the correct musical style for the period.

We only have one set of vocal cords. They are endlessly adaptive if one uses them properly with a low breath and a free technique. So- Cabaret-Smabaret.

Just sing the damned song!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Visiting singers of the past

This evening we played a VCR that has been gathering dust in my archives for much too long. It is First Ladies of the Opera filmed for the Bell Telephone Hour in 1967. The Bell Telephone Hour used to be a staple in my home growing up, first on the radio and later on TV.

Donald Voorhees introduced each Diva and had a brief interview with her. First was Birgit Nilsson who opened with 'Dich teure Halle' from Wagner's Tannhäuser. With her brilliant, radiant tone she blazed her way through the aria in fine fettle. She then sang 'In questa Reggia' from Turandot, which she apparently sang at the Met. I heard her sing many roles there but, somehow, missed that one. While hers is certainly not an Italianate voice, she could belt out the high tessitura required for the role. It brought back memories of Salome and Elektra that I had heard her do in the house. Her Tosca, on the other hand just didn't work in her Nordic voice.  But it was truly a voice for the ages.

Next came Leontyne Price, that great American soprano. She sang 'Io son l'umile ancella' from Ariadne Lecouvreur of Cilea and 'Pace, Pace, mio Dio' from La Forza del Destino. I had heard her sing the Verdi many times in the hall but never the Cilea. The thing that amazed me the most about her singing was that every breath she took was a nose breath! That's a no-no in my Book of Singing Rules, but for her it worked. Later in her career I heard her sing this aria with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall. By that time in her career her middle voice had almost disappeared and the malediziones started in a very strange nasal place in the middle of her voice. Perhaps if she had taken a mouth breath and relaxed the larynx it would have worked better.

Then came Joan Sutherland, whose recent death saddened the world of opera. She sang the 'Bell Song' from Lakme with incredible bravura and amazing agility. Nobody could nail those high 'E's' like Joan! She also sang an oddity, 'Io no sono piu l'Annette' from Ricci's Crispino e la Comare, which I had never heard of. Her coloratura was simply incredible. Every note right on pitch, a perfect natural trill, and a speed in fioratura that boggles the mind. I had always heard that she had never sung the 'Queen of the Night' role, but recently, when visiting a friend, heard a rcording from Covent Garden in which she did just that. We won't see her like soon again, if ever.

The last was Renata Tebaldi who sang 'Voi lo sapete' from Cavalleria Rusticana of Mascagni and 'Suicidio' from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. This was an amazing voice that often flatted the top notes but had an enormous 'chest voice' akin to that of Marilyn Horne.

A trip back into musical history. I was fortunate to have heard all of these women on stage during their heyday and, sometimes, into their decline. I remember hearing Tebaldi at the Met toward the end of her career. She had a high 'C' to sing and turned and simply screamed offstage left. She was one who should have retired a little earlier.

What a lucky discovery to find this film which I hadn't looked at in years and remember all the glorious times I had been in the audience for these four Divas. Each was unique. Each had a brilliant career, and each will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace by anyone in today's stable of artists.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Three for the price of one!

This evening I was privileged to present the Elektra Ensemble in concert through the Ferris-Burtis Foundation of the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation. This brilliant young group of artists raises the emotional temperature of the room in every note. They are Brunlida Myftraraj, violinist, from Albania, Melissa Morgan, 'cellist, from Connecticut, and Igor Lovchinsky, pianist, who is from Russia.

Their riveting program started with the Trio für Klavier, Violine, und Violoncello by Frederic Chopin and concluded with the Trio, Opus 15, by Bedrich Smetana. Their approach to both pieces is through excitement, intense emotion, and brilliant technique. The concert was a gift of the Ferris-Burtis Foundation, Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, Sheffield, MA which supports young artists in their musical careers.

This amazing group of fine musicians has a brilliant career in its future and the Foundation hopes to continue to help them in their future concert life.

Tax-free donations may be made to Ferris-Burtis Foundation, Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, 800 North Main, Sheffield, MA 01257-0400.

The Ensemble may be contacted at  or

I can be reached at

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Give him a hand!

Last night I played a concert with a soprano in which something happened to me for the first time in a long while: my right hand worked almost as well as it did in 'the old days'! 'The old days' represent all of my performing life that went on before I slipped on the ice about eight winters ago while walking Casha on Rood Hill Road, and broke the fifth metacarpal in my right hand. The moment I hit the ground on this apparently dry dirt road, having stepped on the one patch of ice available in Berkshire County, I thought, 'You've done something really bad!' Casha came over to me lying there on the ground and looked down at me, as if to say, 'What are you doing down there, Dad?' She's not exactly a St. Bernard with the cask of brandy around her neck, (which I could have used at that point), but she knew this was not a part of our usual winter walk.

I agreed!

At the ER they X-rayed the hand and gave me the bad news. I had cracked the fifth metacarpal, which is the bone that runs through the hand below the fifth finger. They temporarily splinted it and sent me to an orthopedist who put on a permanent cast.

After a few weeks the cast came off and I found I was unable to make a fist. I could scarcely bend my fingers. So much for playing with curved fingers as I was taught by Pearl Fairchild seventy-one years ago.

I did months of therapy on the hand, which helped, but I was not able to do much at the piano. I had had to cancel a number of concerts that had been scheduled that spring. A one handed pianist is not much good in a Strauss song! I did go to New York City on a bus while still in the cast, (since I couldn't drive yet) to work with Lorraine on something or other. She seemed happy to have a one handed voice teacher.

Little by little I tried to play simple things on the piano. I think it was a full year before I tried to perform again. I found that first, I had developed some arthritis in the hand (which the rheumatologist said was not unusual) and second, I had lost a good bit of stretch. Previously I could reach one note over an octave with that hand. Now I had trouble barely reaching an octave.

I set about 're-writing' anything I played; shrinking large, filled-in chords to smaller versions of the harmony, so I could at least make it sound as if I were playing the right notes.

Bit by bit the hand has improved over the past eight years and last night, for the first time in a very long while, I was able to play Strauss, Duparc, and Rodrigo without pain and without cheating too much on large chords.

I am surprised that at my age this kind of recovery, however long in the coming, is possible. I thank my wonderful mentor, Carolyn Willard (a student of Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, who, in turn, studied with Theodor Leschetizky) who taught me how to play the piano. Had it not been for the careful study I did with her in the 40's and my eight hours a day at the keyboard perfecting the technique in those days, I would be doing something besides playing the piano these days, which is, along with teaching, my life.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back to the past

For the past two nights we have been listening to that Italian Blue-Plate Special, Cav and Pag. But with a difference. The tenor was Beniamino Gigli. Good night! I had forgotten how wonderful he was. He lived from 1890-1957 and was considered one of the finest tenors in the recorded history of music. The son of a shoemaker, he won first prize in an international singing competition in Parma. He débuted in October, 1914 in La Gioconda in Rovigo and débuted at La Scala Milano in 1918. He rose to prominence after the death of Enrico Caruso in 1921. His voice, in contrast to Caruso's, was lighter and sweeter. But he could bring intense drama into any role he portrayed.

In this recording from 1934 and 1940, he was assisted by Iva Pacetti as Nedda, Mario Basiola as Tonio, Giuseppe Nessi as Pepe, and Leone Paci as Silvio in the Pagliacci, and by Lina Bruna Rasa as Santuzza, Maria Marcucci as Lola (of whom more later), Gino Bechi as Alfio, and Guilietta Simionato as Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana. Both operas were recorded with the Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milano.

His singing is effortless and beautiful. He soars where Caruso sometimes sounded like he was going to blow up, which, of course, he eventually did. Gatti-Casazza made the mistake of firing him from the Met when he refused to take a pay cut in 1932. Lily Pons and Rosa Ponselle also refused to sell themselves short at the same time. Much later Maria Callas did a similar thing that caused her unfortunate departure from the Met.

But the voice- It is simply amazing to hear this effortless, gorgeous production of sound and emotion. We seldom hear this happening in today's singers. Pavarotti did it for a while, but should have stopped sooner. Domingo can still do it. Alfredo Kraus did it practically up to the moment of his death as did Jon Vickers. There are several tenors now singing at the Met, from Mexico and South America, who have this resilience and beauty in their voices. Everyone else might as well stay at home.

I often wish that today's young singers would listen to some of these great voices from the past and see what they are missing.

Going back to Italy after being fired from the Met he became the favorite singer of Mussolini. After the war, a concert at Covent Garden showed the world what they had been missing during those years, and his fame increased.

His recordings should be studied by every young tenor who wishes to have a career. He was simply wonderful.

Giulietta Simionato went on to have a brilliant career in Europe and in America. Maria Marcucci wound up in Chicago. In the early fifties I heard her sing in Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall) in a bizarre concert that equalled anything Florence Foster Jenkins ever did. Not a happy ending for her, I'm afraid.

My dear friend, the late great soprano, Lucilla Udovich, with whom I performed many times, was on a train going from Milano to Rome. She was speaking with another singer, who happened to be sitting next to her. The woman said to Lucille, 'You should sing for my teacher.' Lucille did. The teacher was Beniamino Gigli, who immediately launched Lucille's career in Italy and abroad. She continued to sing in the great opera houses of the world until back problems halted her career. When I met her in Rome in 1982, she was no longer singing in public. Through a mutual friend, Sister Camella Gambale ( who is no slouch as a singer, either) we met Lucille and asked her to sing for us. This gorgeous voice poured out of this woman who could barely walk and who had to sit when she sang. I told her that she must be heard. We did a series of concerts together with her sitting and singing. Gigli was right. She was also an amazing singer. That was a very joyful moment in my life when I first heard her sing. Serendipity!

I tend to harp on the fact that most of today's singers just don't seem to know how to sing. You be the judge. Listen to some of these old masters of the voice. Listen to Gigli; listen to Lucille's Turandot. They are a hard act to follow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Something different!

Now for something completely different-

I usually write about singers and singing on these pages, but tonight, just back from a magnificent violin concert by a young man who is destined to have a great career, I want to write about him.

Yevgeny Kutik.

I first heard Yevgeny play about seven years ago when he auditioned for, and won, the first Ferris-Burtis Foundation Scholarship. A very accomplished young woman had played for us first; she was also a violinist. Then Yevgeny played and removed all doubt that here was someone very special. At 17 he played with the emotion and musicianship of a much older performer. He blew us away!

Over the past seven years the Ferris-Burtis Foundation has tried to help Yevgeny in his education and now, in his career. We made a gift of tonight's concert to Smith College, where for the past two years I have been Adjunct Professor of Voice. A packed house roared their approval after each selection. Beethoven, Franck, Silver, Schnittke, Williams, Saint-Saens. Each delivered with passion and a blinding technique. To me he is a young Heifetz! And I had the pleasure of hearing that virtuoso several times in my youth. Yevgeny has the same silken tone which can turn to steel when appropriate. Infallible fingers and an unerring sense of style and musicality.

His pianist Timothy Bozarth equaled him in depth of emotion and flawless technique every step of the way.

When John Ferris and I established the Ferris-Burtis Foundation at the Berkshire-Taconic Foundation we had no idea that we would turn up a genius on the very first outing. But we did. And I was there tonight to cheer him on. The Foundation will hope to support him in the future, in what is bound to be a brilliant career, with enormous pride.

Bravo Maestro!!

Tax deductable contributions may be made to the Ferris-Burtis Foundation, Berkshire-Taconic Foundation, 800 North Main Street, Sheffield, MA 01257-0400. This Foundation plans to continue our support of this brilliant young artist as he enters a major career.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On becoming the song

'Mary becomes the song!' Olga Averino, my long-time friend and mentor, said this about Mary Carter years ago when we were sitting together in her Cambridge apartment talking, as usual, about singing and singers. After years of teaching and listening to singers from the past and present, Olga said that she had become slightly jaded about singers in general and about a few in particular. But she loved Mary's singing and her involvement in what she sang.

I have quoted this phrase several times in these pages, and have been wondering, can everyone 'become the song'? Is one born with this gift or can one learn how to do it? Both Olga and I were of the opinion that it is obvious to any careful listener when a singer is genuinely involved in the emotion of the text and the music and when they are 'play-acting'. The whole sound of the voice is different. It is the same when someone is telling you something untrue: a lie, even a white one, never rings quite right in the ear.

I guess it is truth that enables one to become anything, but a song in particular. I have always encouraged my students to study the text of the song carefully, learn the degrees of meaning and emotion found within, and then 'Just sing the damned song!' That's another of my pet phrases.

I have had students with wonderful voices who could never fully convince me that they knew what they were singing about. Memorizing the words is only one small step. Any parrot can do that. Whether one is singing in English or another language; whether or not one is fluent in the language in which he or she is singing, at very least within the song, one must have plumbed the depths of every word, every phrase. Otherwise, one is singing a lie. Maybe a white one, but a lie nevertheless.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson always became the song. Janet Brown always becomes the song. Jane Bryden, Karen Smith Emerson, Judith Gray, Peggy Noecker, all have that same gift that pulls the listener into the web that they are weaving. I'm bragging a bit because all of these women have studied with me. Nathaniel Watson and Jim Maddalena become the song. Ben Luxon, God knows, became the song. I'm still bragging because they have worked with me as well. I'm a very lucky teacher! They all were granted a wonderful gift which they helped to grow as they fully entered the world of song. I could mention a number of other well-known singers who do this out of hand. Christa Ludwig, Montserrat Caballe, Teresa Berganza, Phyllis Curtin, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, and on and on.

But then there are those, who shall remain unmentioned, who never quite reach that depth of intense commitment to their art. Pretty voices but superficial involvement. As Olga used to say after hearing a luke-warm rendition of a song or aria by a beautiful voice, 'Well, now, what else can you do?'

Becoming the song is not something a teacher can hand a student. The teacher can help the singer find a deeper meaning in whatever he or she is singing, but then it is up to the singer to give up 'wordly cares', push everything else out of the way, become the song and just sing it- with feeling.

A mezzo I once heard sing in a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, at which I was playing the organ continuo, asked the conductor, 'Do you want this with, or without, emotion?'

Well, if I have a choice.....

Saturday, September 4, 2010

It's not Kate and Allie

Richard Dyer invited us to listen to an amazing evening of rare recordings of the songs of two of the great singers of the 20th century: Kate Smith and Helen Traubel. I know this seems like an odd match; but Richard and I are both great fans of these two singers. I have written several times about the magic of Helen's singing, but this time I want also to write about the amazing voice of Kate Smith.

Kate Smith- now how can you be more American than that? I remember coming home from school for lunch in Battle Creek, Michigan, and hearing her fifteen minute radio broadcast from Lake Placid, NY, every day at noon. She and Ted Collins, her manager, would chat about whatever and she always signed off with 'Thanks for listening, folks'. I don't remember her singing on the noon program, but that was a while ago! She also had an evening radio show where she sang wonderfully and later had a similar television program. She was a good sized woman. In my book, Sing On!, Sing On!, I have said that I do not believe that fat resonates. Kate- and Helen, and more recently, Barbara Cook and Tyne Daly, may make me change my mind on that subject! Whether it resonates or not, they certainly know how to use their avoir du pois  to great advantage.  Someday I may write another book on this caloric subject: The Fat Voice?

Whatever it was- Kate could sing. We heard popular songs from the 30's and 40's that were recorded from various broadcasts she had made. Her sizable voice could have led her to an operatic career, but she chose to stay with 'pop' music. She could carry what I call a 'belt' up to D an octave above middle C without a hint of strain. She could also do the same thing in a sweet, mellow head voice. Her breath was simply amazing. Any number that ended on a high note, you knew she could sing the note as long as she wanted. I doubt that she ever had a voice lesson. She was what Olga Averino would have called 'a natural singer'. I wonder if Olga ever heard her?

In the CD we listened to, she sang many songs from that era of the thirties and forties: what I call my growing-up days; some of which I knew- like 'Deep Purple' and 'God Bless America', and many I had never heard. I think it was the Philadelphia Phillies that used her recording of 'God Bless America' to open their games just a few years ago. She became a sort of mascot for them. She was certainly an American legend!

She lived in Lake Placid, New York, and I think that those noonday broadcasts may have originated from there.

She was an American phenomenon. I was surprised, having just heard Tyne Daly a few nights ago, how much her singing reminded me of Kate's. Not the sound, but the ability to belt, sing sweetly, loud and soft with ease. This is a trait not often heard in today's pop singers. Today's group of pop singers needs a microphone tucked between their vocal cords even to be heard. They either mumble or scream. What ever happened to pop singing? Thank you Tyne Daly and Barbara Cook for holding up a great tradition!

The Helen Traubel recording was of her performance of "Frauenliebe und -Leben", the wonderful Schumann song cycle that encompasses a woman's emotional life from first sighting her beloved until his death in twenty glorious minutes. I have a fond memory of my dear Lorraine singing this work in Alice Tully Hall some years ago.

Helen, Kate, Barbara, Tyne, and Lorraine all have that incredible emotional energy that surpasses anything else. As my dear Olga would say, 'They became the song.' Would that all singers could do that!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mary Beth Lacey

Mary Beth Lacey strode on stage at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield tonight in spike-heeled, open toed, pink pumps and a lot of Irish wit. In her current role as Tyne Daly she sang and acted her way through a barrage of eclectic songs from Broadway and other venues in a voice that seemed to be able to do just about anything it wanted to. Belt, sweet, head voice; it all worked.

This was the first time I had seen her cabaret act, which is a relatively new venue for her, and she is sensational. In a black, short skirted two piece number, she waltzed around the stage relating stories of her career and of show business in general.

Having just seen Barbara Cook at the Mahaiwe a couple of weeks ago, a comparison was inevitable. Of course Barbara is 83 and Tyne is in her 60's, but they both have that show-biz edge that cuts through the crap.

Her wide-ranging choice of music was amazing. Many of the songs I had never heard before. There were also some old favorites starting with a George M. Cohan song from 1904. She sang a Piaf type song in very good French and could toss off dramatic numbers or funny songs with equal ease.

There is something indomitable about these Broadway Babies who have been around for a few years that knocks me out. The energy and verve that both women showed was vital. At one point, perched on a stool, showing her gams up quite a ways beneath her skirt, she quipped, 'These are my original legs!'  And they're still good.

Her pianist, bass player and drummer were excellent and it was a great evening. I was happy to be there.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Memory Show

Last night at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield we saw a most unusual piece of musical theatre: The Memory Show. The book and lyrics are by Sara Cooper and the music is by Zach Redler. It is billed as a comic tragedy and is difficult to categorize. There are funny moments, a lot of sadness, and a bitter reality about the horrors of Alzheimer's disease.

The writer of the book, and possibly the composer, seem to have gone through the role of care-taker for a parent suffering from this disease. The accuracy of description of the disease as the mother goes down the inevitable slide into insanity rings very true to anyone who has experienced this trauma.

I have watched several of my friends live through the drama of Alzheimer's and I, myself, have acted as a care-taker to someone suffering through sixteen years of Parkinson's disease, which has many of the same debilitating symptoms as Alzheimer's. Trust me, there are very few comic moments happening during the course of either disease. It seems an odd subject to set to music unless one is writing a tragic opera.

The play with music; one can hardly call it a musical comedy, is in one act of about ninety minutes. It begins with the mother making fun of some of her mental problems when she is still aware of what is happening to her. As the play continues the humor becomes darker and darker and the ending is as tragic as any opera I have ever seen.

The two women who played the roles of the mother and the daughter invested an enormous amount of talent and energy into their parts. By the end of the play they were both in tears. They are Leslie Kritzer and Catherine Cox.

The music was of an odd 'stream of conciousness' variety which eventually, to me at least, became annoying. Today, when talking to my good friend, Nancy Ford, who is an experienced composer for the musical theatre, she said that many of today's young composers are trying to write like Stephen Sondheim. Unfortunately, only Stephen Sondheim has the genius to do that. I felt the play could have stood on its own merits as a straight drama.

Barrington Stage this season has both thrilled and disappointed me. Their Sweeney Todd was fabulous; Freud's Last Session, which I had seen last season, held less impact on a second viewing that it did at first. Pool Boy was a fun romp through life among the rich and theoretically famous. Art, bored me to tears. Absurd Person Singular had a funny second act; acts one and three were much less amusing.

Julie Boyd is a fine director and it may be when others take her place at the directorial helm, things don't work as well. I hope that next season fares better than this one.

William Finn heads the workshop which produces new musicals like this one. He teaches at NYU. The products of the workshop seem to have a common theme and flavor. 'Clever' is the word that springs to mind. I think more variety of style would produce a more interesting group of songs and shows.

But this is only my opinion. We are lucky to have Barrington Stage in the area. I hope that it pulls itself together and has a great season next summer.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Sad Commentary on our Times

A dear old friend of mine from my days in New York City years ago used to say when something untoward happened, 'It's a sad commentary on our times'.

I was recently asked to perform with a young singer at a benefit cocktail party. After the food and drink and a couple of speeches, we were announced and she began to sing.

People continued talking as if someone had merely turned on a radio. One woman actually finally said 'We are really enjoying your singing even though we're talking.'

No kidding.

Apparently people have become so used to having background music in elevators, super markets, and their IPods, that the idea of a real person singing before them is an oxymoron.

Even at the Met, there is always some idiot in the balcony who screams out 'Bravi' before the last high note is out of the tenor's mouth.

I remember seeing Christa Ludwig sing 'Morgen' of Richard Strauss a few years back. At the end, during the piano postlude, she stood with her eyes closed and her hands clasped before her. No one dared utter a sound until she moved one finger, at which point, there was an ovation.

I have seen the same thing happen with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. At the end of performances of her husband's incredible Neruda Songs, no one dared clap for several seconds.

I realise that these cases are more formal venues than singing at a cocktail party, but talking so loudly while someone is singing that the pianist can't hear the singer is really beyond the pale.

Miss Manners, please help!!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sing On! Sing On!, and she did!

One of the most beautiful voices on the stage today. Cornflower blue eyes that matched the stunning necklace she wore with her black ensemble. Angelic blond hair. She strode on stage to thunderous applause and proceeded to wow the packed house at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barington, Massachusetts. Her voice is a little lower but no less appealing, she is a good bit larger than her days as 'Marian the Librarian', but Barbara Cook is a hard act to follow. Oh, she's 83!

We were lucky enough to be in the front row for tonight's performance and I'm so glad we were. For an hour and a half Barbara Cook commanded the stage, backed by her very able trio. No 'Glitter and be Gay' anymore, but a wonderful repertoire of songs by an amazing panoply of composers. Her intense investment in each song was palpable. In one sad song by Alec Wilder, tears slipped down her cheeks. This is hard to fake on stage.

Her voice, now singing in a lower tessitura, still held that youthful beauty I remember when I saw her in The Music Man and She Loves Me all those years ago. Her patter was as intriguing as her singing. She lambasted Catherine Zeta Jones for her performance in A Little Night Music; a well-deserved criticism. I heard Jones sing 'Send in the clowns' on the Tonys and couldn't believe that she was given the award for best actress in a musical! As Barbara said: 'I have never seen so much acting going on on any stage!'. Acting but no singing.

Barbara Cook, on the other hand, is all about singing. It is rare to find a singer at 83 years of age who can convince you she is 23! But Barbara does it in spades.

Many of her songs were familiar show tunes but she also had chosen some really 'out-there' pieces, which she delivered with verve.

Needless to say, there was a standing ovation at the end of the show from the packed house. What is it that keeps us old timers coming back on stage? Yes, I place myself in the same generation as Barbara and I, too, am still performing. It's the love that floods over us from the audience as we stand there in a spotlight having done what we were born to do.

I wrote a book called Sing On! Sing On! some years ago. It is all about keeping one's voice beautiful and healthy right into what I now laughingly call OLD AGE. I doubt if Barbara ever read it, but she didn't need to. Here's to lots more years of hearing her sing as beautifully as she did tonight.

At one point she remarked that she has been told that she was a part of the Golden Age on Broadway. She said she didn't realize that at the time. She was too busy worrying about her hair and her figure. She said that when she looks back at pictures of herself from that era, she looked gorgeous. She then said ,'I guess when I'm a hundred and two, I'll look back at today and think the same thing.' No question!! Sing On...and on and on, Barbara!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Le nozze di Figaro, old style

Yesterday we decided to watch a DVD of Le Nozze di Figaro that was filmed at Glyndebourne in 1973. I had watched it before, but it reminded me of the wonderful singing that was going on in that generation of artists. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was directed by John Pritchard and the cast included Knut Skram in the title role, Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, Benjamin Luxon as the Count and Frederica von Stade as Cherubino. Now where would you find a cast like that today?

Remarkable singing was the norm in this performance. Knut Skram, the Norwegian baritone sang with a fine vocal technique and physical agility that made him an ideal Figaro. The wonderful Ileana Cotrubas impressed me again as one of the finest lyric sopranos I have ever heard. Her beauty of tone was matched by her flawless technique. She was radiant in the role. I saw her many times at the Met and was always impressed with her artistry.

Kiri Te Kanawa was elegant and in fine voice as the Countess. This was relatively early in her career, as it was with the other singers, and she has gone on to become a legend in Mozart and Strauss operas. Her Marshallin was a joy to remember. Her recent brief appearance at the Met in La Fille du Régiment showed some wear on the voice, but she brought off what is usually just a speaking role brilliantly and added a song, which the Duchess doesn't usually sing.

My good friend, Ben Luxon, was in his glory as the Count. His rich baritone voice and his amazing presence on stage, electrified the role. Frederica von Stade was in her prime as Cherubino and sang very well.

The thing that struck me about the singing was that, especially in the case of the sopranos, no one seems to be able to sing like that any more. Seamless lines, natural vibrato, gorgeous spinning tone. Today's crop of Divas seems to go for loud and wobbly. Bring back the good old days!

I know that I have been spoiled by the wonderful singers I have heard in my 80 years, but this listening experience brought back many happy memories of the Golden Age of singing, 20th Century style. Today's young singers should listen to some of these great artists who no longer are on the operatic stage. Some of today's voice teachers should probably do the same!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Incredible Helen

I have been spending a rainy Berkshire afternoon listening to what is possibly the most beautiful voice of the twentieth century, Helen Traubel. My friend Richard Dyer, who loves her singing as much as I do, sent me three CDs of performances by her, gleaned from several sources. Richard, I am ever in your debt.

This is a voice that is seamless from top to bottom. In the low register she sounds like a warm, creamy mezzo-soprano or even a contralto. As the voice moves up in the range, all of that cream is still there but the ease with which she takes her brilliant high notes is heart-stopping. She has endless breath. And she knows how to spin the tone. 'Spinning the tone' is a phrase I heard often in my own early vocal studies. No one seems to remember how to do it any more. It goes beyond the natural vibrato in the voice. Traubel had a very light vibrato, unusual in such a large voice. But the tone always moved. It simply poured effortlessly from that ample body into the world of music. This is what vocal 'spinning' is all about. I try to pass this concept on to my own students.

In listening to her Brahms songs especially, I was near tears hearing the way she caressed every note and every phrase without ever loosing line, legato, or the sense of messa di voce. Her presentation of the emotional text was perfect. She is what I call a 'true' singer. She removes herself from the equation and allows the music and the text to pour out from her in the most compelling manner. 

Olga Averino, one of my mentors, used to say, 'Get out of the way of the music. Don't put yourself in the middle'. She said of one of my students, whose singing she loved, 'Mary becomes the song.'

Traubel always 'became the song!. Her Wagner was always magnificent and it is a shame that the Met didn't allow her to do more of that when she sang there. That is what singing should be about. That is what Traubel always did.

Kirsten Flagstad was THE Wagnerian soprano at the Met at that time and got all the best roles. I also heard and admired Flagstad's singing, (I had standing room for her farewell performance in Fidelio at the old Met in 1950) but her voice had that icy, Nordic quality that, while exciting, did not have the heat and warmth of Traubel's voice.

The quality I hear in the voice of Helen Traubel is something I seldom encounter in today's singers. I admit to prejudice when I say that my dear Lorraine Hunt Lieberson embodied many of the same wonderful qualities that Traubel had. She became the song. She knew how to spin her tone. She was a 'True' singer. I think Richard would agree with me on this statement. I know that he loved Lorraine's singing as much as I did.

Too many of today's sopranos sing for effect. There is very little truth in what they are producing. There is no 'spin' in their voices. This is why so many of them are affected by unpleasant wobbles instead of natural vibratos. There are very few that I want to listen to these days. Maybe I should offer a course in 'tone spinning'. I wonder if anyone would come?

Richard, I thank you profoundly for this wonderful gift of music. It brought back into my life someone who was an early idol in a most poignant way and whose singing I cherish.

Friday, July 9, 2010


I feel the need to say something about the decision that was handed down yesterday afternoon by Judge Joseph Tauro in the Boston District Federal Court. His opinion was that DOMA is unconstitutional. Finally! I have been involved in this case for two years with GLAD. I realise that this will probably go all the way to the Supreme Court, but I am elated that we have passed this first hurdle.

Thank you Judge Tauro.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My war effort

For some summer reason, I seem to be going through a ruminative period as regards my ill-spent youth.

It has come to mind that perhaps I should write about my experience in World War II in the USO. I was in the 9th grade when some imaginative woman in Battle Creek decided that it was a good idea to put together a group of young people to entertain 'the boys'. Near Battle Creek we had Fort Custer (Army), Kellogg Air Base (US Air Force), Gull Lake (a Coast Guard unit, believe it or not), and Percy Jones General Hospital. The latter had originally been the Kellogg Sanitarium, famous for years for various healing methods devised by Dr. John Kellogg, brother of the cereal giant, W.K. Kellogg, who was also in Battle Creek.

This woman put together a show, I guess you'd call it, with a girl singer, a tap dancer, an accordion player, a monologist (fancy word for a pretty dreadful single act), and me. I played the piano for everyone.

My parents would drive me to the main USO Club on Capital Avenue a couple of nights a week, where our little band of youthful performers would meet. We would then be driven to various USO clubs in the area: Marshall, Kalamazoo, Augusta, and so on, as well as the several that were located in Battle Creek.

Our singer, Joan, had a very pretty alto voice, and sang 'I'll be seeing you', 'Sentimental Journey', and the other popular ballads of the forties. Our dancer, Brenda, would tap her way through a couple of numbers and our accordionist, quite a virtuoso, whose name I think was Jean, would wow everyone with 'The Carnival of Venice'.

Then would come our monologist. Her act left quite a bit to be desired. Several of her pieces required singing. Unfortunately, she was no singer. However, she always made a hit with 'the boys', since she flounced her skirts about showing a great deal more than was usually seen in public. The boys loved her. So much for ART!

We would sometimes be taken to Percy Jones General Hospital or to the Hospital at Fort Custer where they had upright pianos on dollies, which were wheeled from ward to ward. This was a sobering event for us youngsters. Men, not much older than we were, with no arms or legs. In wheelchairs or in beds. Just lying there happy to have any entertainment available. Even such as we could provide. It brought the true meaning of War to us at that very impressionable age.

By performing this often at such an early age, I very soon developed a feel for being 'on stage'. It was a great experience for me. I hope it helped the war effort. At least I know that we made a few young men happy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lucilla Udovich, my Roman Diva

In 1982 John and I decided to take a sabbatical from teaching. That is, he took a sabbatical from Harvard and I stopped teaching for three months, which is not quite the same thing.

We spent most of two months exploring the Iberian Peninsula at a time when it was still like stepping back into history.

After a brief foray into Provence with a friend, we returned to Barcelona with no definite plans in mind. A travel agent across the street from our hotel, the Astoria, was advertising a very reasonable ten-day trip to Rome. We had been to Rome several times but thought, 'Why not?'

A dear friend and student of mine, a Sister of St. Joseph from Milton, had told us that if we got to Rome we simply MUST look up her friend Lucille Udovich, an opera singer she had met some years before when she was studying in Italy.

Looking up friends of friends has never been a hobby of mine, but after a week in Rome, with sore feet from too much walking, and only one pair of shoes between the two of us that were comfortable (we wore them on alternate days) we called this opera singer friend of my student.

She issued a very cordial invitation to come out to her apartment on the outskirts of Rome for the afternoon. We took a bus that left from the Vatican and went out to her suburb, a very lovely garden area on the edge of Rome.

My student had told me that Lucille's career had been halted because of back problems she had encountered. After having sung in major opera houses all over Europe, her back problems were severe enough that she could no longer stand to sing comfortably and had had to retire.

We entered the lovely garden area that surrounded her apartment building and saw, waving from a balcony, our Diva. She waved for us to come up in the elevator to her second floor apartment that she shared with her sister, Ann.

She met us at the elevator door on her walker. Her back problems had reached the point where she needed this support to get around.

She was most cordial and fixed cool drinks for us right away. As we chatted, we began to learn her story: how she had come to New York from California in the late forties, been cast in the Rogers and Hammerstein Allegro, went on to be cast in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Carol Channing (which we had actually seen) and eventually had come to Milano to study with some Maestro or other. On a train going to Rome, she had been talking with another singer who urged her to sing for Beniamino Gigli, the great tenor. Upon hearing her sing, he said, 'I'm taking you on my concert tour of Italy as my guest artist'. And her career was launched.

For years she sang major roles in the principle opera houses of Italy: Tosca, Turandot, Aida. She had a magnificent dramatic soprano voice. Her video of Turandot  with Franco Corelli is the best singing of that role I have ever heard, bar none! And I've heard Sutherland sing it and lots of other fine sopranos. Lucilla, as the Italians called her, is the greatest by far. Even in the filming of this opera, one can notice that in the inquisition scene, she sits for a part of the questioning. Her back was already giving her problems.

After chatting for a while, John asked her if she would sing for us.  She demurred, saying, 'Let me see'. After a bit, when he asked again, she said if we would help her get set up she would sing. We got her music stand ready and she found the songs and arias she wanted to sing, and for two hours of bliss, I played the piano and she sang! Everything. Sibelius songs, operatic arias- it was wonderful. Her luscious voice embracing these melodies, sitting, singing at a music stand, was an experience I shall never forget.

When we finished with the singing, I said to her, 'Lucille, you must sing in public.' She said, 'How can I? I can't stand that long.' And I said,'Then sing sitting down!

At that point we made plans for her to come back to America and sing 'sitting down'. We did a number of concerts on the East Coast. In each case the stage was arranged with a 'Throne' for her to sit on while she sang. The curtain would be closed at the beginning. As the lights came on and the curtain parted, Lucille was found seated on her Throne in a gorgeous gown and I was already seated at the piano. The concerts were wonderful. One of the great moments in my professional life.

She also gave Master Classes for my students in New Jersey and at Harvard that were amazing.

This wonderful woman died a few years ago. We kept in touch with her lovely sister Annie. When we were in Rome at a later time we took Annie to dinner at a place that was a favorite for all of us, Scolio di Frisio. Annie and Lucille used to live across the street from this restaurant and Lucille would sometimes sing there, displacing the typical Italian tenor who usually sang there. We wanted to treat Annie to a lovely dinner and ordered everything on the menu.

At the end of the meal, which went on for several hours, I summoned the waiter for il conto. He whispered something in Annie's ear and departed. They would not take any money for our evening. The son of the original owner then came by the table and we all wept about Lucille's passing and had our pictures taken together. It was a lovely end to a beautiful friendship.

Annie kept in touch for years after Lucille died and passed away herself just two years ago.

This is the true meaning of serendipity. A chance meeting, a long-lasting musical and emotional relationship with a great person.