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.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 3rd, four years later

Today has a very special meaning for me, for it was on this date in 2006 that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died after a long struggle with cancer. Lorraine and I had worked together for twenty years. She came to study with me at the behest of a mutual friend and never left. She became a part of my life which I still miss very much.

Lorraine loved to talk on the telephone. She would call me from Japan or Australia or wherever, and talk for a hour, catching me up on what she was doing, often asking for an 'over the phone' voice lesson, and just keeping in touch. She never seemed that far away.

I have all sorts of memories of the roles she sang that we worked on together. Beatrice in Beatrice and Benedict at the Boston Lyric Opera. Lorraine floating across the stage in a diaphanous gown. Carmen at the same venue, when I complained to her about her costume- a leather jacket that made her look bulky; hardly the seductive woman she was portraying. Gatsby, where in rehearsals both her husband and I complained about the dress she wore in the first scene. That one they changed! At the Met, no less.

Her amazing Xerxes, which we worked on the month of September when she was staying up the hill from Rood Hill Farm at a friend's summer home and which we saw in Los Angeles, Boston and New York at City Opera. Steve Wadsworth had done the stage direction and it was flawless.

Her Gatsby at the Met, her d├ębut with that company. I attended numerous rehearsals and would take notes for her. At the end of the rehearsal I would go backstage and we would discuss what I had written. Backstage when I met Dawn Upshaw or Jerry Hadley, she would introduce me as her 'teacher'. Not many divas admit that they still study. Unfortunately!

Later when she did Didon in Les Troyens I also attended rehearsals and took notes. When she sang Phaedre of Britten with the NY Philharmonic, we worked together all that week in Mazur's studio in Avery Fisher Hall. She was having back problems by then and had to lie on the floor before going down to the stage for rehearsals. At one point the Assistant Manager of the Philharmonic opened the door to find her stretched out on the floor with me looming over her. We assured him that she was only doing back exercises.

We went down in the elevator with Collin Davis, who was meeting her for the first time. Again she said, 'This is my teacher'. After the piano rehearsal, prior to the full orchestra rehearsal, Sir Collin said to her 'Did you say that this man is your teacher?' She answered in the affirmative. He turned to me, sitting in the front row, and gave the sign of approval with his thumb and index finger. That gesture meant the world to me.

During the rehearsal with the orchestra, after working through the Mozart aria she was also singing, he turned to me, now in row M, and asked about the balance. At first I thought that he must be talking to one of the many assistants who were seated in the audience, but finally decided that he meant me. I said 'When she repeats the A section, she sings it pianissimo and the orchestra is a little heavy. They did it again and he said 'Was that better?' I said 'A little', and they did it again. Here is a conductor who wants the orchestra to balance under the singer, instead of blasting over her.

The last time I worked with Lorraine was in February, 2006, in Boston at the home of one of her dear friends. It was an amazing house with multiple levels. We worked on her role as the Waldtaube in Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette. This was the first time she had sung the role. We spent several days together working on this and other music.

One evening our hostess put on a recording of Eileen Farrell singing the Immolation Scene of Wagner. Lorraine had never heard Farrell before. Then I asked our hostess if she had Farrell's I've got a right to sing the Blues recording. She had it and we listened. I told Lorraine that night that she was one of the few classical singers who could make that transition without sounding silly.

She didn't live long enough to make that come true.

On the morning of July 3, 2006, I emailed Lorraine; something I almost never did.  She just didn't do email.

A got an email back from Peter saying that she had died that morning.

A light had gone out of the world and out of my life. We worked as equals; not as teacher and student. I learned from her and, I think, she learned from me.

July 3rd is a date I will always remember and the wonderful woman who was a part of my life for twenty years.

'Angels ever bright and fair, take, O take me to thy care'

I know that they did.