Good Dreams-Miracles In Opera And In Life
Table of Contents
How Does Your Artist Grow
Many elements contribute to an artist more than early piano lessons or exposure to concerts. To me, wonderment at the natural world and the presence of beauty was the precursor to my artistic ability. It made me philosophically curious and from that curiosity a voice came to give expression to the awe. My country beginnings did not include very much music. But music comes from the natural world of which we are a part. That which awakened the artist in me was my childhood world of the garden and my maternal grandparents.
I was born April 16, 1948 in Carthage, Missouri, a little town of 11,000 people nestled next to the Missouri Ozarks. For the first eight years of my life my family lived in the country, five miles southwest of town, on a “truck farm.” For you city people who don’t understand this term, a “truck farm” in Missouri is a small acreage where one plants a few small crops and raises a few animals. It sounds like heaven to a kid, doesn’t it? Well, at least it did to this kid. My maternal grandparents lived on the adjacent tract providing me with every kid’s dream, to live right next to grandma and grandpa. Joining the tracts was a large acre garden that fed both families. It did much more that feed us. It nurtured us. Every inch of that childhood ground has stayed with me as faithfully as my grandmother’s voice and touch. Looking back now, I would have to say that my childhood was the garden.
My grandmother was a grand person indeed. Lena Ritchie was known throughout her neighborhood world as a supremely kind, God-fearing Baptist woman, who had a distinctive froggy, foggy voice. Grandmother had a vocal condition known now as “spastic dysphonia,” or colloquially called, “monster voice,” except that nothing could be monstrous about Lena. Everyone in the neighborhood heard her monster voice as the distinctive sound of her kindness. My grandmother gave me a wonderful model of love which often approached the ideal unconditional love we are all here to learn. I knew that no matter what I did, my grandmother would still love me. That love was her real theology.
Grandmother didn’t like to pick her flowers for a bouquet. She explained to her “Joe-Boy” that as far as she was concerned, flowers belonged alive and growing outside. If she picked them, they would die. I began to see that the ground of the garden gave life to all; the flowers, the potatoes, the berries, the corn, and us. We were the caretakers of the earth as the Bible said and we belonged in the garden.
I never met a better human being than my grandfather, George Ritchie. For most of his life grandpa had been a tenant farmer, plowing land near the Spring River, river-bottom area. Rivers and gardens were the models for his life. When grandpa retired from farming he purchased the land and house of my childhood and planted his garden. In the night he worked part time at Hercules Powder Plant, gun powder, that is, not facial! In the day time he worked in his garden. Usually he had two tag- a-long companions: an old mutt dog named Ginger for his color, and me, Joe-Boy.
When we weren’t in the garden we were usually fishin’. Grandpa may have claimed to fish to put dinner on the table, but that was just the ruse. He fished to be near the river. We seldom caught very many fish on our river expeditions. Everyone we caught was “a nice one.” We never caught a “bad” fish. I liked that. For me, much of the excitement came from our journeys through the tall river-grass and grandpa’s stories about copperhead snakes. Grandpa had discovered the “Ozark kung fu” of killing copperheads. He had learned it, like his other skills, out of necessity. After World War II, Hercules Powder Plant refused to allow their night watchmen to carry guns, fearing the risk of explosion was greater than the risk of burglary. So grandpa was allowed to carry only a three foot long “billy club.” Since his nightly patrols took him through heavy cover, he frequently encountered copperheads which he would rhythmically dispatch with a stroke of his club. You could call it “Ozark kung fu.” He had plenty of opportunity to hone his skills on our farm as well. Grandmother was a strict believer in the literal interpretation of Genesis and was sure that every snake ought to be ritually killed for righteousness sake. More than a few times, a cry could be heard in the neighborhood, “George, there’s a snake. Kill it!” It was grandmother’s one weakness. Grandpa could not refuse her. He became a master of snakes.
Once we safely negotiated the tall river grass, we baited our hooks with a variety of arcane, home-made mixtures, cast our lines, sat, became quiet, and grandpa and I flowed with the river. Usually we would catch a few perch, a mud-cat or a carp, and head back home to the garden.
When I was about seven years old, grandmother and grandpa introduced me to the wonders of Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees in nearby Oklahoma. For years they had been going there to the promised land of fishing, bringing back huge catches of crappie, blue-gill, catfish, and white bass, all for table fare. Having survived the great depression, they were determined never to go hungry again. A huge freezer chest of frozen fish from Grand Lake made it seem unlikely. And yet, like the river adventures, the important thing was really to go to the lake and be there. At Grand Lake, no convenience was denied a fisherman. Large in-door, heated fishing docks, with theatre seats for comfort, were situated over key areas for crappie and other pan fish. Cedar trees were suspended from the docks to entice the cover-minded crappies to huddle there in schools, unaware of the fate which awaited them. It was a grand invention for a Grand Lake. Grandmother and grandpa introduced me to these holy haunts with a fervor reserved otherwise only for the garden. I soon learned to jig, as well as fish with live bait. The crappie never had a chance.
We traversed the entire 1200 miles of shore line of Grand Lake in our crusades for crappie. Holy memories are indelibly imprinted in my mind of our favorite docks. Grandpa liked Ice Box Bluff, but it was a little Spartan for grandmother. The theatre seats were not as plush and “comfy” as some other docks. But it was at Ice Box that grandpa fought the leviathan carp! Grandpa and I loved to fish for carp. They grew big and they gave a great fight. They also required imagination to catch because they had only a small, soft, sucker mouth, and were picky eaters. They had no real teeth but they had a sweet tooth, preferring baits made with lots of syrup, honey, coca cola, and Wheeties. I fixed a homemade carp bait that was a lot like banana bread so that if the carp didn’t bite we could eat the bait! Carp fishin’ was fun. Ever concerned about practicality, grandmother had even figured out a way to make them edible. Most people used to say, “Clean a carp on a pine board. Throw the carp away and eat the board!”But grandmother had found that if she cooked them for days in a pressure cooker she could make fish cakes out of them that tasted remarkably like salmon cakes. The grandmother of invention had given us a new reason to stalk the wily carp.
Grandpa took no prisoners. He used a forty-five pound test cotton line that looked sort of like a clothes line. In addition to the small treble hook which was concealed within the dough ball of homemade sweets, he suspended a large grappling hook to snag the carp under the chin in case the small hook missed. It was serious business! We usually caught carp weighing between four and seven pounds. But one day at Ice Box Bluff, grandpa set the hook into a big one. You can tell when the hook is first set how big the fish is. This one didn’t give. “For heavenly days,” grandpa exclaimed. It was the closest he got to swearing. “What have I got here?” The carp fought long and valiantly but eventually could not contend with the clothes line rope, and grandpa pulled in his biggest Carp, weighing 13 pounds. It looked like it weighed 100 pounds and grandpa was just as proud of it as if it had. We ate it, of course. It provided fish cakes for a month!
The Valhalla of fishing docks was Teague’s Dock, surnamed “Old Lady Teague’s” by grandpa because it had been purchased from our friend, Leonard Pane, the area auctioneer, by a woman named “Teague” who possessed a redoubtable appearance, complete with multiple pounds of pancake makeup. With this curious visage she greeted the fishermen that came to her dock. Nobody liked her, including grandpa. But the dock had its own drawing power. It was plush to the hilt. Padded, comfortable theatre seats encircled the extremely large fishing well in the middle of a well heated dock. Snack bars and a bait shop were handy within the dock, and it was situated over one of the best locations in Grand Lake for crappie, catfish, bass, and of course, carp. I once saw a man catch and land a forty pound carp on an eight pound test line! I was awed as if watching the real life filming of one of those National Geographic presentations where monsters of the deep are shown to an audience all agape! But the sneakiest fishin’ took place when the crappies were nesting. The mother crappie sat on the nest guarding her eggs, while the daddy crappie patrolled the perimeter, striking at any object which came into his territory. We soon discovered that if we threw in a jig near the nest that we could catch the daddies like nobody’s business! Needless to say, I felt very guilty about this and have sought to atone for it ever since. The day’s limit by Oklahoma law was 37 crappie per day, per fisherman! Most of the other fish had no limits! We often caught our limit, returning home as proud as if we had found the Holy Grail. Now I wish we had let most of them go. I haven’t kept a fish I caught since then. Like the flowers that belonged alive in the garden, the fish belonged alive in the lake.
It is no small thing that Genesis talks about the “Garden of Eden.” That ancient writer knew perfectly well what an apt image the garden sets up in our minds, ancient, connecting, and wonderful. Grandpa loved to stroll through the garden to “visit” with all the wonderful things growing there. Ginger and I took in all of his love for the earth and the Creator of all life. But Ginger had an easier time of it in one important way. He didn’t have to be distracted by the competitive world-view being peddled on Sundays by the variety of Baptist preachers that sought to “instruct” us in the ways of their strange universe. Many of them did not act like Jesus in the Bible. They seemed to be so mad at everybody and everything. Finally I made a personal discovery that I should believe in the God that Jesus showed me. One of my helpers in this discovery was Rev. Ray Stone, pastor of the First Baptist Church when I was a small boy. Brother Ray stood out from the rest of the preachers of my childhood. He was full of Love and Light. He was a “gardener!” “Just be so in love with Jesus,” he would say, time and time again, in trying to warn of the pitfalls to come in life. You know, I was and still am!
God created a Garden and I knew what a garden was like! He created a river, and I knew what a river was like. God wanted us with Him. God was like Jesus and grandmother Ritchie! I’ll take that God. He can stroll with us through the garden as we visit the plants. He can go to the river with us, and we will flow together!
When I was a little boy, I thought the worst thing I could imagine would be the death of my grandfather. How I loved grandpa. God was good and grandpa lived through my childhood. But when I was 9 our family moved out of the truck farm house and into the big city of Carthage, about five miles away. I gladly rode my bicycle back out into the country to be with grandmother and grandpa. But then one day Hercules Powder Plant blew up. The explosion could be felt as far away as Tulsa, 120 miles away. The explosion was just a quarter of a mile away from my grandparents’ house. Our family got into the car and drove out to Powder Town to check on my grandparents. We got to within a half mile of them before we met a road block. Dad and a few other men set off walking through the woods to try to reach their house while we drove back to Carthage to wait. They had survived the blast without injury but their house was significantly damaged. My childhood paradise had been destroyed.
In most people’s childhood there were moments of love and moments of pain. We live with the fact that there was a snake in the garden, but in time, we see that it was beautiful nevertheless. Though unable to forget them, the bad times can never compete with the wonder and beauty of the garden, with flowers that never got cut, with baby chickens and old dogs named Ginger, with the fresh, clean smell of the air after a thunderstorm, with grapes and berries, pecans and pear trees, with sun-ripened watermelons, and corn picked with our own hands, with homemade bread and canned preserves, with quilting bees and a neighborhood awash in friendliness, with trips to the river—for the river was always around us—and returns to the garden.
The bad times can never compete with the best days of family. The garden is my memory. I will hold to that. I wish I could take my garden and give it to others. But to each has been given his own. Not everyone’s garden looks the same, and in some the snake was more present than in others. But if you will look now, there is something of a garden to remember and hold to. When I leave this world I expect to visit the garden once again. I know grandmother and grandpa are waiting there for me. To them it will seem as if they only just arrived, or as if they never left. The tool shed door will still need fixing and the well water will still satisfy. Old Ginger will still follow grandpa’s every step and an old three legged cat, Smokey, will still climb trees. The mimosa tree will still attract the humming birds and the clothes dry clean on the line. And the River will still flow just nearby. The snake did not win. The garden stays, fixed in my heart with love that was true.
After Hercules Powder Plant blew up, my grandparents moved into Carthage and things were never the same. They lost that sense of freedom and joy that living in the country brought to them.
I grew up and became an opera singer. It didn’t matter to them. They loved me still. The rest of the clan thought of me as the black sheep in the family and would often say, “Warren and Beulah’s boy ran off to the big city to become an opry sanger. We never could understand what got into him.” Nevertheless grandpa and grandmother still loved me.
In his 80’s grandpa often wondered why he was permitted such a long life. He would often say, “All my friends are dead. Everybody I knew is dead. Why me? Why am I still alive?” But alive he was and still able to plow his small garden and drive hiscar.
He had a small infection when he was 90 and the doctor wanted to treat him in the hospital just to be careful. It was not supposed to be anything big. The night before he was to go into hospital, he called my grandmother to him and said, “Now Lena, I want you to know I am going to die now.” Grandmother told him, “George, don’t talk like that. You’re not that sick.” But he protested in what for him was a pretty heated way, “I know what I’m talkin’ about Lena. I’m going to die now!”
I was living in New York when one morning, around 4:00AM or so, I was awakened in the spirit. My body was still asleep, but it was as if my spirit were awake and observing. I saw two angels holding my grandpa, one under each arm. They were taking him around the earth to allow him to say goodbye to certain places and people. He wanted to see me. He was young and happy and full of excitement. He looked down and saw me in my apartment asleep and said, “Why there’s Joe down there.” Then he went on his journey. The next day I knew that the worst thing I could imagine had happened. My grandpa had died. I called home and found out that he had indeed passed away about the time that I saw him in spirit. I never had any further visions of my grandpa after that. It was sort of disappointing in a way, for there was such finality about that last vision. Grandmother was inconsolable at the funeral. When the vows say, “till death do we part,” it really means it. Marriage belongs to this earthly realm. It cannot be extended into spirit. When grandmother died not long afterwards, I did not get a parting vision of her, but in the weeks after her death she came to me in dreams many times. She was young and happy and just wanted to contact me. I asked herabout how grandpa was and she gave me a very interesting answer that did not fit in with my world view at the time. She said, “I am not with grandpa now. We are all spread out here like stars in the sky according to our distance from God.” I had no idea what she was talking about. Could it be that we are all on our journey back to God? Could it be that there was a time before time when we were all a part of God, all one with Him, all whole, One Garden? And could it be that we will all be with Him again? Such wonderment was the precursor to my artistry as a singer. Then there came a time, and I could sing.
“The old dreams were good dreams. They didn’t work out but I’m glad I had them.”
(Robert Kincaid – The Bridges of Madison County)
Riding up the snow covered mountain in North Carolina in March 1981, half-sick, I wondered how I was going to be able to get through Fidelio. A tenor friend had talked me into doing Pizarro- a part that clearly lies too low for me- at a festival in North Carolina on top of a mountain. I had to take the part since there was no other way to pay the rent. Singing sick had happened many times before but I always managed to pull it off. As soon as I got there I explained that I had taken a cold and needed two days rest before beginning rehearsals. I had a routine for beating a cold in a hurry when I was performing. It involved taking a double dose of cold medicine, and sleeping constantly. In two days I emerged for rehearsals. I am sure they would have docked my pay if they could have because the atmosphere was definitely tense until I began to sing. In the sitzprobe (rehearsal) all went very well and no one could tell my voice had gone through a cold. Then we staged the opera. The stage director gave me a ridding crop for a prop. I used it to the hilt to play the Gestapo-like character of Pizarro. The director looked a little stunned and said, “Man when you get a prop, you really use it.” My voice held throughout the performance and my one Pizarro was over. But I wasn’t pleased with it because I couldn’t project my voice well in the lower range. I learned the hard way, ‘never sing out of your fach.’ I never sang Pizarro again.
We were snowed-in on top of a mountain in North Carolina. If we wanted to get to the airport we would have to go down the side of the mountain in four wheel drives, which is what we did. I felt like kissing the ground when I arrived at La Guardia and quickly cabbed my way back to my cozy apartment and my beautiful Blue Persian cat, Jenny. On the long cab ride my mind wandered back to my beginnings in Missouri.
I was born with heart disease, specifically Coarctation Syndrome. Most people who are born with that do not live very long. When I was born the syndrome was not even well understood, and so the kindly old country doctor that served our family didn’t really know what was wrong with Joe-boy except that he could hear a heart murmur and knew that my immune system didn’t work too well. I had a lot of athletic talent but was never permitted to play organized sports because of my heart. I felt sort of like a leper as a kid. There was this mysterious thing wrong with me that kept me from doing what other kids could do.
Finally, in 1967 when I was 19 years old, our doctor advised me to go have the best cardiologists look at me. We packed up the car and drove to Houston Texas where the great Michael Debakey was practicing at Houston Methodist Hospital.
They found the coarc in the aorta (a weakened collapsed part of the aorta) and replaced it with some everlasting Dacron tubing. They left the stenotic aortic heart valve untreated for some strange reason. Perhaps it was just as well given the state of medicine then in comparison to today. Unfortunately, after 19 years, my body had grown small blood vessels in the lower half of my body and my kidneys had learned to request high blood pressure. So the treatment was far from complete. Still, it gave me something of a new lease on life and I was able to go to college and begin to dream dreams.
College was not such a tough choice for a kid who lived his whole life in Carthage, Missouri. My grandfather, Vernon Shore, had been a well-known Baptist preacher during the depression and afterwards. I felt pressured to move into his shoes, not knowing just exactly where my shoes were at the time. I graduated from high school in 1966 and headed to Southwest Baptist University the next year.
Southwest Baptist University was a beautiful place, situated in rural Missouri near rivers and lakes, in a small town. I liked it right away. I had this funny idea that I wanted to take voice lessons as well as study theology. After all, I had always sung in choirs and it had been a great joy in High School. I drew a voice teacher named Nathan McCallister who was a bear with a very little brain, a Baptist church choir leader with a voice that sounded just right for the job. He heard me sing in the first lesson and announced that I had no talent. Instead of assigning me the standard early Italian songs that all singers cut their teeth on, he let it be known that I was not even ready for them. He assigned instead, “Stand-in’ on the corner watchin all the girls go by.” After one semester I decided voice lessons were not for me.
SBU had some fine scholars on staff in the theology department but these were hard times in the Southern Baptist Convention. There was a whiff of controversy in the theological air regarding Biblical interpretation. I wasn’t sure what it was all about but I knew that I wanted to tackle theology head on. I wanted to do my best. I was always one of the top students in class but I was slowly inching towards theological positions that would be called “liberal.” I was becoming a rebel within Southern Baptists ranks.
I still had music in my life. Even though I had given up on voice lessons, I had been accepted into the choir. I was happy but a bit timid because there were a lot of music majors in it with “real” talent. To make matters more intimidating, the director, Dr. Cowan, was a star. He had sung with the famous Robert Shaw Chorale. He let us hear his rich, bass-baritone voice from time to time and we were all convinced that only Ted Harris had a better voice in all of Missouri. Ted Harris was a Professor of Voice who had sung with Jerome Hines of the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Harris commanded respect and more than a little awe. The year that I arrived at SBU, Mr. Harris was preparing a role in Jerome Hines’ sacred opera on the life of Jesus called I Am The Way, which was going to be performed in Los Angeles. I sat outside Mr. Harris’ door listening to the indescribable sounds coming out of his office as he rehearsed. I had never heard anything like those sounds. I just wanted to sit there on the floor and listen, and hope he would continue to sing. Later Jerome Hines himself told me that Ted’s voice was tremendous at Los Angeles, sounding, in Hines’ words, “like a canon.” No small praise coming from Hines!
A lot of good things happened at SBU. One of them was that I was elected to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities for my work in Drama. Another good thing was that I was licensed to preach. Part of the Bachelor’s degree program in Christianity involved a field guidance program. I went a few miles over to The First Baptist Church of Buffalo, Missouri and did a pastoral internship under Brother Glen Pence, the Senior Pastor. Actually, he was the only pastor. Back in those days churches had one pastor and a minister of music. We were trained to be the pastor for the church. An internship gave me the chance to feel what it is like to have responsibility for a whole church. They were simpler times back then, especially in a small town, but a pastor’s job was still largely the same. During the week you visited the sick, planned Sunday’s sermons, did a little pastoral counseling for people in crisis, taught a little Bible at Wednesday night prayer meeting, met with a few committees, and that was about it! That could be a lot, but many times it was not as involved and as demanding as a modern-day senior pastorate. Glen Pense liked modern scholarship and I fit right in with my liberal tendencies. I also did a little supply preaching at other churches and went out on week ends with revival teams from SBU, but things were not right with me inside. I wandered why I had never experienced a “call” to the ministry. My colleagues in theology could point to a specific “call” they had to the ministry. I tried to put it out of my mind. I was a scholar and scholars had things to do in the world. I would go to seminary to the most scholarly seminary Southern Baptists had to offer, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville, Kentucky. There I would find happiness as a great scholar, or so I thought! I graduated from Southwest Baptist University in 1970 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Theology and Drama.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville Kentucky was the jewel in the crown of the Southern Baptist Convention. As I packed everything into my 1961 Buick LeSabre and set out on the interstate, I knew I was going to more than a seminary. I was going to the best the Southern Baptist tradition had to offer. That’s what I thought then.
The campus was Southern beauty itself, situated in rolling, Louisville green. This was the Yankee Stadium for a Baptist theology student. This was the House that A.T. Robertson built. Scholars taught here, great men like Dale Moody, Professor of Systematic Theology. He had studied with Barth, Tillich and Brunner, and actually lived with Brunner. His academic robes were from Oxford. When the faculty donned their caps and gowns, Moody looked like the Pope himself, proudly clad in his bright red Oxford finest. Of course, the Southern Baptists wanted no Pope and they certainly would not have wanted a scholar like Moody, if they had. For these were the McCarthy witch hunt days. Fundamentalists were rising in numbers like a hundred year flood that no one could stop. There were not enough theological sand bags in all the country to hold back these flood waters. The Southern Baptist Convention was teetering on the edge of Civil War, and like any Civil War, it would be very unholy.
The fundamentalists within the denomination were fearful of all that Southern Seminary stood for. They distrusted modern scholarship. They wanted the old time religion where everyone knew his place! And they wanted every modern professor and student OUT of the denomination. As much as anything, the war was about political power.
No scholar at Southern really believed that their fortified walls could be breached. Scholars like Eric Rust openly jousted with the fundamentalists in the classroom. With his English accent he would play with the word itself: “’Fun-dam-mental-ist.’ I can see the fun in it, and I can see the dam in it, but I’ll be damned if I can see anything mental in it.” And yet, this bravado struck many of us as a bit forced, with just a tinge of worry in it. The fundamentalists had made a charge, years earlier, atMidwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City. An Old Testament Professor, Ralph Elliott, had been fired because he taught that the stories of creation in Genesis were not to be taken literally!
Ralph Elliott had gotten his Th.D. at Southern under the venerable scholar Dr. Clyde Francisco. Francisco was a wacky, wonderful professor who sounded sort of like Goofy reading Hebrew because of his deep Southern drawl. He talked about “thuh Bauble,” (‘the Bible’) and punctuated his comments with a “Hyulk, Hyulk.” He was prone to Southern pontifications, as when he would say, “Nawh (Now) I don’t denawh (deny) that a stupid man can be saved.” (Grand pause ) “But I denawh thata stupid man can understand thuh Bauble, Hyulk, Hyulk.” When he would counter the fundamentalists, he would say “Nawh, some people say that thuh Bauble says what it means and means what it says. But that’s not true! Thuh Bauble doesn’t say what it means. It means what it means.” But he was truly a fine scholar and he did not suffer fools.
“Whawh, Ralph Eliott,” He would say, “All he did wuz take mawh notes and publish um! Hyulk, hyulk!” And yet it was Francisco who, in the darkest hours, showed the most compassion for the fundamentalist brethren, refusing to condemn or judge them, standing firm in his faith. Francisco knew love, not fear. None of his jokes were intended to be cruel. They but took the edge off for the nervous young troops about to go to their first battle.
We all wanted to believe that the power of reason would dispel mob rule. But the line would not hold. The gates would be breached. A lot of lives would be lost in that Civil War. None of us came out the same person we went in as. We had such hopes, such dreams. Most of us had a long heritage of family allegiance to the Southern Baptist tradition, but we also had a little grey matter between the ears and we were searchers and shakers. The history of Southern Seminary showed us, or so we thought that there was a place within the denomination for a deep, engaging, scholarly questioning of the nature of God, man and the universe, which did not cancel out our devotion or piety. These great scholars, Moody, Francisco, Honeycutt, Rust, Claypool, and others all showed us that there was a place for us.
Who would have believed it, that Southern would fall, the last bastion, and the hordes would pile in over the broken battlements, set fire to the books, and lay waste to a hundred years? A mind is a terrible thing to waste. How about thousands, of them?
It was not that Southern was really all that ‘liberal.’ By most denominational standards she was still a conservative ship. But in the minds of the fundamentalists you would have thought we had entered a different world. Faith had lost to fear and the hangman was doing great business. Professors mounted the gibbet one by one, refusing to confess to the fundamentalists’ fearful creed. Their necks but snapped while their hearts were full and love showed no taint. Aye,’twas a good day to die. We would all live again. That’s where we had ‘um, you see? The fundamentalists don’t really, truly, believe in the meaning of “resurrection.” We do! They but occupy a bit of ground now, a row of barracks full of fears. Love won. Love will always win in eternity.
I entered Southern as part of the last class. We were a fine bunch, all testing our limits as far as we could and searching for a place to stand.
The one student who always competed with me for top grade was an interesting fellow named Lynn Fann. Some might have called Lynn an odd duck. He played opera in the dorm, morning, noon, and night and drove everyone crazy. He had no real, serious voice but would fancy himself an operatic tenor as he sang along to the records. He essentially introduced me to Grand Opera. The only kind of opera we knew in the Ozarks was the “Grand Ole Opery.” Still, as a university student I had been introduced to some great singers and this experience whetted my appetite for more. I listened to records of most of the great singers of the second golden age of singing there in the seminary dorm, including one great bass from the Metropolitan Opera named Jerome Hines. He stood out not just because of his wonderful bass voice, but because he was also an evangelical Christian who witnessed on skid-row in New York when he wasn’t singing at the Met. These great voices I heard spoke to me. There was something about the sound of their voices that grabbed me and I began to listen to opera in my room while I studied theology.
I grew more and more empty inside in seminary. I wanted desperately to be a minister but I felt very much out of place, like I didn’t really belong there. It was 1972 and while I was at my most desperate I cried out to God for help. I actually heard an inner Voice say to me, “Your sermons can be your characters on stage. The stage can be your pulpit. The audience can be your congregation. Now go put feet to your faith.” I had absolutely no reason to believe this Voice. Baptists do not hear voices. Maybe Pentecostals do but not Baptists! I had taken no voice lessons.
Nobody heard any special singing talent in me of this magnitude. Remember my only teacher in university, Nathan MacAllister, had even refused to teach me because I was so untalented. I had no reason to think that I could ever get on a professional stage and sing Grand Opera. It sounded like a stupid idea! But at some level deep inside of me I must have believed it. I wondered why I had never really felt a “call” to the ministry, but this experience definitely fit the description of a “call” to sing opera. Eventually, after fighting seminary another semester, I left, got an apartment across the street and a job in a pizza restaurant. When I wasn’t working I was listening to opera. One day in 1973 I opened my mouth to see if I could make a sound like one of those guys on the records and out came the essential sound that I have today. A couple of weeks later a friend heard me singing as he came for a visit and said, “Wow, you’ve got quite a voice. You ought to enter the Metropolitan Opera Auditions.” I didn’t know what they were but I said. “Ok.” I sent off and got an entrance form. The first level of the competition was in Tulsa where I was supposed to sing five operatic arias. I knew none of course but I had records. So I picked out what I thought were the five hardest bass arias on the records and learned them by listening! Four were in Italian, and one was in Russian. Both languages I learned phonetically by listening. I can admit all of this now because the whole affair was such a miracle. In 1974 I went to Tulsa without a care in the world, sang without any nervousness and was easily named one of the winners. I seemed to be stepping into something that was very comfortable to me, something like a miracle.
People from Tulsa Opera were there and offered me beginning roles with their company as well as a scholarship to Tulsa University.
One of the judges was from The Santa Fe Opera which was also hearing singers audition for Apprentice Artists. Later I discovered that ten thousand singers across America were auditioning to become one of forty apprentices chosen for that summer season. An apprenticeship with The Santa Fe Opera was one of the most highly sought plums for a young opera singer trying to turn professional. The Artistic Administrator came back stage and said to me, “You haven’t applied to us but would you like to be an apprentice?” I didn’t even know what that was but I said, “Yes,” and my career in opera had begun. “This opera business is a snap,” I thought. Before going to Santa Fe, I made my debut with The Tulsa Opera singing a small but important part in Madama Butterfly alongside stars from The Metropolitan Opera. At Tulsa University I sang scenes from The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni, then packed up my old car and drove to Santa Fe in the summer of 1974 for a high profiled new beginning. When God opens doors, they open wide and people fall all over themselves to help you. But, as I would painfully find out later, when He closes those doors, no amount of pulling will open them.
When I won the Met auditions in Tulsa in 1974, representatives from Tulsa Opera Inc. offered me not only small roles with them but a scholarship to do masters work in voice at Tulsa University. Tulsa became a new home filled with supportive people who would become almost like a family. A voice professor from TU came back stage at the auditions and recruited me right then and there for his studio. I did not know at the time that he was trying to cabbage onto me to aggrandize his flagging studio. I found that out later as representatives from Tulsa Opera said, “Oh dear. You’re going to study with HIM? You need to study with Laven Sowell!” I had one or two lessons with the first teacher but I found them odd. He didn’t seem to have anything to say. I delicately changed teachers to Laven Sowell. Laven was chorus master at Tulsa Opera as well as Professor of Voice. He had his hand in all the vocal pies of Tulsa and everyone who was anyone studied with him. He was a large man with a jolly disposition and a big belly laugh. Everywhere he went he left a little of himself behind. His beautiful home displayed a love-affair with elephants. It was a fitting love affair for a large man with a large impact on life. Elephants of jade, stone, wood, all shapes and sizes, claimed his home as theirs. Students would bring him new elephants from all over the world when they sang in some far off place. Laven’s share of their spoils was a new elephant and pride in their accomplishments. He had heard me sing at the Met auditions so he knew my voice and was only too happy to get me into his studio. Laven said things to me that every teacher thereafter would say. “I don’t want to touch your voice. I just want to help you use it.” My voice came already to go. What Laven Sowell gave me; I have tried to give to all of my students since. He gave me love! He will probably be a little embarrassed to read this, but it is true. He gave me a lot of good musical and vocal knowledge as well, much of which I use to this day. Laven had studied voice with some very interesting characters and he therefore brought a very rich experience to the studio. As a young lyric baritone with a nice sporty instrument, he had toured with the Charles Wagner Opera Company. His voice still served him well and I wished he had used it more when I studied with him. He had sung small roles with Tulsa Opera alongside great singers from the Met before becoming chorus master. His experiences gave him a lot of stories to tell. Stories are important. They humanize an otherwise clinical study of voice. Even though I came into the profession of singing with a technique given by God, I had a lot of wonderfully influential coaches and teachers who passed on their experience of singing.
In assessing the things that Laven Sowell gave to me, I could describe many musical items and vocal tidbits. I don’t mean to say that they weren’t important. They were. But I am looking back now at the truly wonderful things given, and they are not a relaxed jaw or five and nine tone scales. Laven Sowell cared about me and he shared himself with me. I will always carry something of him within me. I have tried to be as good to my students as he was with me.
I want to clarify something at this point. At the time that all this was happening I did NOT have the same perspective that I have today. I was inside a whirlwind! I was still deeply shaken by what seemed to be my failure in theology. Actually there was no failure in anything. I had just been “called” to sing opera. It may sound like it was all easy but it wasn’t. My ability to understand the things of the Spirit had never been developed. I didn’t want to tell anybody about hearing this inner Voice. I didn’t want to think about it! It was easy to run away from the pain of what happened in seminary by just immersing myself in a new profession, and that is what I did. I did not consciously think about viewing my characters as sermons, my audience as my congregation, or my theatre as my church. I just went to work being an opera singer. I know that is hard to understand now that I could have been so stupid, but everything had happened so fast. It was going to take me time to sort things out! The young man that studied in Tulsa with Laven Sowell was confused, and therefore insecure, posturing a little with an arrogance that anyone could have understand as circumstantial if they had chosen to look closely, and he was bursting with an incredible amount of talent and promise. Some people came alongside and chose to help me. Wonderful people in the Tulsa Opera Guild arranged for my introduction to the arts in Tulsa and made sure I could eat regularly! Thank you!
Jeannette Turner, the Director of Tulsa Opera, was a wonderful woman who mothered me and introduced me to “The Maestro.” Maestro Carlo Moresco was the conductor for all Tulsa Opera productions. Along with Tony Stivanello who staged, costumed, and made-up the cast, he was the head of “Instant Opera.” “Instant Opera” made it possible to mount operatic productions in regional companies all over America in just one week! One week for everything: sets, costumes, rehearsals for orchestra and principals. In seven or eight days the curtain could go up! That kept production costs down so that regional companies could afford to have opera in their cities. The geniuses behind “Instant Opera” were old Italian maestri like Carlo Moresco and Toni Stivanello who had a huge set and costume shop on Long Island which could supply all of Instant Opera’s needs. The local company supplied a chorus master, like Laven Sowell, and a local chorus which learned the music well in advance. Jeannette Turner called the artist managements in New York and hired the lead singers who had done their parts so many times they did not need more than a week’s rehearsal. Small parts were done by local singers, like Laven Sowell, who learned their parts well ahead of rehearsal week.
Instant Opera is usually spoken of derisively these days. But I would like to speak in its defense. Instant Opera allowed opera to spread all across North America to cities which otherwise would not have had it. It gave young singers like me a chance to sing alongside great artists and learn by doing. It gave America a taste of the Italian tradition in singing and it gave the audience more than its money’s worth! Today it is in vogue to mock Instant Opera because it did not give the new stage director cult full sway over a cast for six weeks. Let me tell you. I have been a part of that scene and many times the opera we produced in Instant Opera was a better artistic product than what came out of a narcissistic stage director intent on using the stage and everyone on it to showcase his own little, and I mean little, mind! Instant Opera kept opera an essentially vocal/musical art form which it is historically. It kept the vocal/musical art of the individual singer front and center. People do not come to opera to see the beautiful sets, or to see the acting, although both are nice to see. They come for the vocal/musical art of the great performer. The sets and costumes can be beautiful. The acting can be great. The singers can be young and slender. But ifthere are no great voices being used artistically, opera as an art form will die! Only dilettantes do not understand this. Unfortunately, there is a whole forest of them running the opera world.
Maestro Moresco ruled by complete intimidation, the old Italian way of insuring that quality in the art-form would continue! He made his entrance from the back of the auditorium with a trench coat, the collar up around his neck, hands in his pocket, looking like something out of The Godfather. He was Don Corleone! You didn’t cross him! He had been in America many years but had learned only about ten words in English. When he needed to tell the orchestra to “mark” a particular section in the score, he lacked the words, so he would scream at them, “Sign, sign, sign.” How he screamed at the orchestra! When they dissatisfied him, he would shout, “Peegs! You play like-a peegs!” He knew every note of the orchestral score by memory and could solfegg the entire opera. He would cue the orchestra from the “si bemolle.” I was scared to death of him. I thought he might have me taken out and shot if I missed the cue. The old Italian conductors could be counted on to give you a clear beat with the baton and a clear cue. There was no prompter in Instant Opera except The Maestro, and you no-a-wanta-miss-a the cue. The Maestro could turn you to stone with one glare of his eyes from the podium! Opera was serious business to the Italians. The “new” conductors often had unclear beats–cake mixing in a circle was a favorite, or the constant up and down of a confused wrist intended to make us look elsewhere for clarity! Bruno Bartoletti was such a “new” Italian conductor. Famous as the conductor at The Lyric Opera of Chicago, he could not be bothered to conduct in a pattern. He looked sort of like a bird with a broken wing as he curved his wrist towards himself and conducted everything up and down, never making eye-contact with the singer and never demeaning his position by giving even a hint of a cue. All of that music stuff was our business as the singers! None of that pretentiousness characterized “The Maestro.” His beat was clear. He kept perfect eye contact with everyone on stage and he never missed a cue! I don’t know how he did it, but everyone felt the gaze of the Maestro’s eyes. Once in a rehearsal of Madama Butterfly, for my debut in 1974, I was singing the musically tricky part of “The Bonze” and made a mistake in my entrance. The Maestro stopped the music. There was utter silence. I have never been so terrified in all my life. Finally the silence was mercifully broken by the coach, Marienka Michna, who literally leaped between The Maestro and me, begging for another chance. I got it right the second time!
Later in New York, in the early 1980’s, after The Maestro had been ousted in Tulsa by the new director, I coached some of my Verdi roles with him. I loved him dearly! Why, you might ask? What did The Maestro give to me? Let me tell you. The Maestro generously gave himself to me. He gave me the entire history of Italian singing. No words can describe the love of opera which he passed on to me. The Maestro was a heritage and he gave it to me probably without even knowing it. In his time a conductor grew up in the theatre, learning its entire art before he went to the podium. He even learned how to play the anvil on stage in Il Trovatore! He learned the art of singing as well as the art of making an orchestra sing. Moresco was the past, in a very good sense. As I observed him, worked with him, coached with him, he gave me that past. He gave me Tosi and Mancini, Lamperti, Garcia and Marchesi. He gave me Caruso and Ruffo, Stracciari and Granforte, Toscanini and Boito, Tebaldi and Del Monaco, Corelli and Bastianini. He gave me the sun of Italy in the middle of the Midwest! And he gave it all to me in his arm! As that arm moved during my coaching’s, The Maestro spoke. The Maestro gave. Thank you Maestro!
I never turned into a great conductor, although I have taken the baton from time to time and conducted this or that piece fairly well, but I have never forgotten the Maestro’s arm! If, while I am teaching you, dear ones, I begin to move my hand like the conductor I am not, please understand. It is the Maestro I am remembering. I will try to give myself to you as thoroughly as he and others like him gave themselves to me.
The Metropolitan Opera Auditions were a national search for new operatic talent conducted in stages. The district level was for all singers in the state. Three or four winners were chosen to go to the regional level which comprised several states. One winner from each region in the US and Canada went to New York to the Metropolitan Opera for the National Semi-Finals. Ten winners were selected to appear at the Metropolitan Opera for the National Finals. In the earlier years, one person would be selected from the ten to be given a contract with the Met, but that practice had changed. The Met was no longer interested in hiring people that way. The National Finalists were usually given scholarships and sent on their way out into the operatic world where the prestige of being a National Winner or Finalist would hopefully contribute to career building.
In 1974 I had won the district level in Tulsa and I expected to win at the regionals in St. Louis. I was sure my voice was better than everybody else’s and victory had to be certain. In fact, absolute fame and fortune had to be certain! I knew nothing about taking care of my voice or preparing for a contest. I expected my voice to be there whenever I wanted it and at top form. On the very day of the regional competition, I got up early, had no breakfast, and drove my old car 350 miles to St. Louis. There I expected my miraculous voice to knock everybody down the way it did in Tulsa! By the time I arrived in St. Louis, my body was dehydrated. My voice was dry and crackly and I felt none of the power I had felt in Tulsa. Undaunted, I went out on stage to sing, expecting to bowl people over! I thought I sang well, but nothing happened. Nobody paid me any attention. Some soprano went on to win and go to New York for the next round. I was infuriated! The judge was a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera named Lucine Amara. I was furious with her and shot her daggers with my eye contact. She returned a nice smile. (Five years later we would be friends and colleagues but not this day!) What had happened? I thought this opera business was supposed to be a snap! Licking my first real wound I drove back to Tulsa to prepare for my first season at The Santa Fe Opera.
The Santa Fe Opera was an oasis in the desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico. John Crosby’s father had made millions in the Cuban sugar trade under Battista and he bought an opera company for John. It was a beautiful setting in that magical New Mexico desert. The theatre was open air so the magic of the New Mexico night mixed with the opera. When Madame Butterfly pointed in the distance to “Nagasaki” she pointed to the lights of a real city in the desert shining through the back of an opera stage. Santa Fe had made a name for itself in the opera world by staging unusual works in this beautiful setting, using a combination of established and young singers, and having the best apprentice program in the world. Forty apprentices were chosen from over ten thousand singers who auditioned annually. Our main function in the summer season was to provide the chorus for all the operas, but we also sang small parts, served as understudies for the principals, coached with staff, took voice lessons and learned stage movement. The theatre was situated in the middle of a large ranch which also housed rehearsal stages, halls, a swimming pool, and the Crosby ranch house itself. Apprentices were paid virtually nothing, around $400 per month, out of which one had to pay all living expenses, including housing! I had dreams now of doing something with my voice and with this art-form called opera. But the dreams were not clear yet.
The staff voice teachers for apprentices were a husband and wife team named Andy Field and Audry Langford from The Cantica School of Voice in London. Richard Gaddes, the Artistic Administrator, had been an accompanist for them in their studioand he had brought them over. Santa Fe always kept an English connection. Audry Langford had sung as a coloratura soprano at Covent Garden in the distant past. Now she had a lady bass voice, about three octaves lower than she used to sing. Age had sadly not been kind to her. She looked sort of like one of the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Andy was a soft spoken man who had never had a major career, but he had sung some oratorio in England. Together they taught a type of voice production which was essentially empirical (that is, it did not employ mechanical and acoustic information) and which claimed to desire the “freedom” of the voice. “Freedom of the Voice” is the ubiquitous philosopher’s stone of voice teaching which all methods claim! I drew Andy as teacher and found him a sweet, supportive man. He liked my voice very much and compared it to the great bass- baritones he had known in his youth, Covent Garden stars like baritone Paolo Silveri and bass Boris Christoff. Like Laven Sowell, he said, “I don’t want to change your voice. I just want to help you use it better.” Also like Sowell, the main thing that Andy Field gave me was love and encouragement. Andy professed amazement that I had only just started singing. I sounded, he professed, as though I had been singing leading bass-baritone roles for years in the world’s great opera houses!
With classes in stage movement, languages, make-up, I began my new life in the theatre, thinking very little indeed about God!
In the fall of 1974, when I returned from my first season at The Santa Fe Opera, I found Tulsa changed. Jeannette Turner had retired as Director of Tulsa Opera and the winds of change were in the air. A new director was hired who wanted “ensemble opera” as opposed to Instant Opera. Most regional companies were attracted to a new American national opera-form which wanted young, attractive singers, obediently flexible in rehearsal, good diction, obedient to the stage director’s every whim. America’s “ensemble opera” was both good and bad. It was good in that it wanted bigger budgets for regional opera companies and better quality of acting on stage. But it was bad in many other ways. It began a “new” look at opera as an art-form that did not need great singers. Mediocre singers would do just fine if they were attractive, moved well and had good diction! Ensemble Opera thought it could attract the television and movie audience if it just boosted the visual quality in opera. The moguls of Ensemble Opera thought that if opera were to survive into the 21st century it had to change. The problem was that they were willing to change it away from the essential vocal/musical nature of opera. After all, they thought, most Americans are ignorant of the vocal quality standards implicit within the heritage of historic opera. Give them young, attractive, slender singers (if less talented vocally) on a well-dressed stage and drain off some of that television/movie revenue for “opera,” and if the moguls happen to get rich in the process, well this is America!
As you can imagine, one of the first things Mr. New Director did was to fire The Maestro. Mr. New Director was a soft mannered, slick talking fellow, affable, so sincere. He sold it to the Board. The Maestro was gone. Jeannette Turner telephoned Tulsa Opera from her retirement and inquired, “What’s going on there?” She was summarily informed by an underling: “Jeannette, we are going to do things differently now.” That was the last contact she had with the opera company she had nourished. She died not long later. The diagnosis may have been cancer but I know it was because of a broken heart!
Mr. New Director acted towards me very differently than Jeannette had. To her, I had been the darling young discovery with all of this talent. She and the good ladies of the Opera Guild had found me out in the cabbage patch of life and were only too happy to bring me in, dress me up and show me off as a “find” for Tulsa Opera. Mr. New Director played along with the program for a while as though he had inherited me along with the furniture but it was obvious his heart was in a very different place. Mr. New Director provided a new experience for me in opera, opposition! That should have given me pause had I maintained any spiritual discernment. God had opened doors for me and people had fallen all over themselves to help me. Now, all of a sudden, here was a powerful man who stiff armed me! What did that mean? It meant that God was trying to get my attention. I was not learning. Instead I became even more prideful and offended that ANYONE would dare oppose me. MY voice was obviously superior and that should be fully respected by all!
These were really days of learning, not chastening. My arrogance as a young singer was just a posture I took to protect myself from going insane with all this talent suddenly heaped on me. I was going to have to learn about good and bad administrators in opera, and my karma would bring them to me.
I was preparing to enter the Metropolitan Opera Auditions again in 1975 with a view towards winning the whole thing. I was commanding my voice much better than I had in the previous year and I had learned a lot of literature. When it came timefor the district round again in Tulsa, I found myself with a bad cold. A “little Voice” which I had almost forgotten said “Wait until next year.” Hum…What was that voice? No matter. I wanted to do things my way. I entered anyway, singing over the cold and easily winning the district level again. This time it would be different at Regionals. I took with me to Kansas City a group of supporters from Tulsa for my very own cheering section. For my position on the program, I drew last place, number 13. Last place is a tremendously advantageous position because it gives you the last word. The worst position is first place. Nobody remembers you by the end. I sang Macbeth’s aria, “Pieta, rispetto, amore,” with a long sustained high A flat.” I felt very good and it seemed to be my night. The judge, the Assistant to the Artistic Administrator at the Metropolitan Opera, sent word back stage that he would like for me to sing an aria which was not on the list. I politely refused and sang the aria on the program. I brought the house down in Kansas City and was named the winner. Some of my competitors were singers of some acclaim in the region, like baritone James Ditsch, a student of the noted teacher, Paul Sommers, at The Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. He was highly favored. Ditsch later told me he went over the list of singers with Sommers, asking about each one, and when he came to my name, Sommers told him, “Oh, don’t worry about him. He doesn’t have much of a voice.” I hadsung for Sommers once in 1974 before entering the Met Auditions for the first time. Apparently he had not liked my voice then because it was not bright enough to suit his taste. After the contest I saw Sommers in the hall and spoke to him. He looked sort of sheepish and said, “I have to admit it. You really brought the house down.” His star, James Ditsch did not even place. The next morning, Feb. 23, 1975, the most respected critic in the Midwest, gave me a review in the Kansas City Star comparing me to one of the greatest of past baritones, Lawrence Tibbett.
“One could close the eyes and imagine what it might have been to hear Lawrence Tibbett when he was in his early twenties. A Verdi baritone. No doubt about it.” John Haskins, The Kansas City Star
I didn’t think any more about that little voice that said I should wait until next year. The next round was the National Semi-Finals in New York at the Metropolitan Opera. I had never been to any city larger than Tulsa, but I had tunnel vision and felt ready to head on up to the Big Apple. The only problem was that when time came to fly to New York, I had a pretty bad cold again! No one had ever told me not to fly with a cold and I thought I had to go, so off I went. On the flight to New York I blew my nose many times, thinking nothing of it. When I got off the plane at La Guardia, I was as deaf as a post! Infected mucous had blown back into my ears and the compression of the cabin had sealed it in there. The Met sent me immediately to the best laryngologist in the whole world, Dr. James Wilbur Gould, who treated all the Met stars. He told me that my vocal cords were alright but my hearing would only come back gradually. He could not tell if I would be ready for the Semi-Finals in a week. He put me on Erythromycin and prednisone and wished me good luck. The Met people were very nice. “If you want, you can come back to the Semi-Finals, next year.” There were those words again! I suddenly remembered the internal Voice telling me in Tulsa to wait until next year. So what do you think I did? Did I say, “Yes, I’ll go back to Tulsa now and return next year”? I’m sorry to say I didn’t. I wanted to do things my way. I stayed and tried to coach with the Met coaches without being able to hear. The day before the Semi-Finals, my ears popped open and I could hear again. But I had lost a lot of time and confidence. Who should show up at the Gala Concert but Lynn Fann from seminary days! We had occasionally written since seminary and he had shown up to see this miracle of my voice which he still couldn’t quite accept. I sang well in the Semi- Finals, though not as well as in Kansas City, and received a grant from the Met National Council. I had also made the cut and was one of the Final Ten. Now I had a week to coach my arias with the Met’s best coach, Maestra Alberta Masiello, who would also play for me at the finals. Miss Masiello, as she was called–she hated ‘Maestra’- had been a mezzo soprano with a brief career many years ago at the New York City Opera. I don’t remember exactly what cut her career short but I seem to remember that she suffered from excessive stage fright. Since the 1950’s she had been the best coach at the Met., knowing the Italian repertoire commandingly. Every conductor at the Met respected Miss Masiello tremendously. If I thought Maestro Moresco was intimidating, Miss Masiello gave the word new meanings! She smoked those little cigars incessantly, even while coaching, regardless of the singer’s pleasure or allergies! Her mezzo soprano voice had descended to the depths of a foggy lady bass in which she intoned commands. She never smiled. She never once said anything complimentary, but she would eat you alive for any mistake. Moresco was a pussycat compared to her! I sang my best arias for her and hoped for something nice. Instead she looked down at the piano and intoned somewhere around low C, “You need Italian badly. Go see Maestra Cozzi!” I was stunned. Nobody had ever complained about my Italian before, not Moresco, not anybody at Santa Fe. I felt deflated like I was back to square one.
I went to see Maestra Cozzi who ushered me into her quaint apartment at the Ansonia Hotel. She treated me in a grandmotherly way. I expected her to bring out tea and cookies. She began her Italian lesson speaking to me as if I were about four years old. I left in an hour thinking I had been to the Twilight Zone. Miss Masiello never said anything about my Italian after that. In fact she never said anything except that she did not want me to sing Macbeth’s aria because “the high A flat is not written and otherwise it only goes to a G flat.” It was my decision to make, not hers, and something inside me told me that I had to sing Macbeth’s aria. But I let her talk me out of it. Inside, my funny little feeling was getting worse and worse about all this. Miss Masiello wanted me to sing The Prologue to I Pagliacci and Valentin’s aria from Faust. Once, while singing The Prologue, I held the high G at the end a long time, and Miss Masiello stopped. With a stern look on her face she snapped, “No, if you hold the high G that long I will come down without you! You may hold the A flat!” I let her rough manner eat away my confidence. The Prologue was jinxed!
There were singers at the Met then who saw me as a winner who could get a contract. One of them, tenor Douglas Alstedt, took me aside and said, “I think you really have a shot to get a contract. Go for it.” The Finals were a Gala Concert to a sold-out Metropolitan Opera house. They were to be broadcast live on radio all over the US and Canada! The Gala started at 2:00PM. That means I should have gotten at least eight hours sleep and awakened by 9:00AM. Instead I got up about 11:30AM and did very little vocalizing. I arrived backstage at the Met to find my own dressing room with my name on the door! I went in and tried to warm up but a lot of the voice was not there. It was not working the way it had in Kansas City. Everything about this trip to New York had thrown me. I was not quite ready for it. That little voice made sense when it told me to wait a year. I simply had no experience of how to awaken and enliven the voice for a matinee. I walked into the wings to await my turn and there was Doug Alstedt to wish me luck. I walked out on that enormous stage and felt totally alone. This was not like Kansas City. There when I walked out, power walked out with me. At the Met, on that stage at that time, I was just Joe Shore. I tried to start The Prologue but only about one third of my voice came out. I blustered my way through it. Finally the last climactic page came where I always had excelled. The climax is on a high A flat, the ultimate note for a baritone. Most don’t even have it. But I had it, just not on that day. I went up for the A flat and tried to hit it and it cracked! I got off of it quickly and went on. The final note was a high G, almost as high, and I hit it and held it a good while. Miss Masiello did not come down without me. The audience cheered but I knew I had lost. This was not the voice that had won everything for me. In the wings Doug Alstedt tried to make me feel better. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, “MacNeil goes out there and does that all the time.” The second aria went better but still not up to my standards. As you have guessed by now, The Met offered a contract to another singer, a young lyric soprano. I went back to Tulsa feeling utterly defeated and deflated.
Wouldn’t you think I would have gotten the message by then? Some part of me must have gotten the message because, thereafter, I began to pray before I would go out on stage. I don’t mean a nervous prayer like, “Please don’t let me crack anymore!” Rather, I would have a quiet time in my dressing room and I would pray a prayer that came out of me, like this: “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, flow through me like water through a pipe so that the people may see you through me.”
All that God had done for me had been His response to my prayer for help in seminary. Even though I was going to have to learn many things the hard way, that little prayer I prayed in my dressing room kept me going. I can truly say that after that I never let an audience down. My voice never failed me, and God was able to use my voice to affect people in a deep way.
I went back to Tulsa in May of 1975 to a hero’s welcome. But I didn’t feel like a hero. I felt like an “also sang,” and my voice was not an “also sang.” I had to prepare to go back to Santa Fe for my second and last season as an apprentice in the summer of 1975, hopefully to leapfrog into the status of artist. Being one of the ten National Finalists in the Met Auditions in 1975 definitely helped my image at Santa Fe. I was given good roles to understudy and even a small but good role in the regular season. I got to play the part of the Grandfather Clock in Ravel’s, fantasy opera, L’Enfant et les sortileges. I was inside of an enormous grandfather clock with its weight suspended on my shoulders by straps, dancing around as I sang high F sharps and G’s!
That year I decided to live alone. I found an adobe cabin next to the Pecos Wilderness area and set up housekeeping with my Blue-point Himalayan cat, Ali Baba. The cabin was thirty miles from the opera but the drive was worth it. My Buick LeSabre got rid of those miles in no time. It was hard on Ali Baba though and I thought of getting him a playmate. One of the apprentices had a Chocolate-point Himalayan that he was going to have to give away because of allergies. I got Mocha. She was the beautiful cat of my dreams, but she had not been spayed and was just coming into heat. One night I left to go to the theatre and I accidentally left a window open the tiniest crack. When I got back Mocha was nowhere to be found. I grabbed a flashlight and began a search for her that lasted a good portion of the night. When I got up in the morning I found her. The neighbor’s dog had dragged her body back to his yard. Apparently, that night she had managed to get out the window-how I will never know–and follow her instincts. A pack of dogs had chased her and killed her. When I saw her body, all torn up, I just lost it. I started screaming and crying. I am narrating this because this experience became a “substitution” that I used for years to bring to life Rigoletto’s discovery of the body of his little girl, Gilda. What happens to us in life is what we use on stage to make the stage come to life.
At the end of the season, the apprentices performed an evening of operatic scenes. There I did my first Rigoletto, performing the most difficult scene of the opera. Act 1 scene 2 contains the duet with Rigoletto and Sparafucile, the aria, Pari Siamo, and the long duet with Gilda. It is surely the most difficult scene for Rigoletto. Eugene Kohn, who later became famous, conducted. Friends from Tulsa came to see it. James Sullivan, director of the Arizona Opera, was also there and he hired me for my first major role as an artist. I was to perform “Tonio” in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.
As I drove back to Tulsa, I knew I was also driving back to say, Good-bye. It was time to move on up to the Big Apple, and slowly but surely there began to develop in the back of my mind, a dream of doing opera my way. I dreamed of opera where the singers acted as well as actors on stage or screen and sang with the beauty and power of the great singers of the golden ages of singing. I dreamed of making people’s lives better because they had seen opera.
In the fall of 1975 I made the big move to New York. Tulsa had cradled me and brought me along, but now was the time to head on up to the big time. As in everything else, I was helped by my unseen Friend. Things just seemed to fall into place. Lynn Fann, the same friend who introduced me to opera in seminary, had introduced me to his friends in New York who shared an apartment on the upper West side of Manhattan near Columbia University. By the time I was ready to move to New York, one of them was ready to vacate, leaving a vacancy for me. The terrible job of searching for an apartment in New York was spared me. It was an acceptable area, on the border of safety. I loved being right next to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I spent many days meandering through the beautiful chapels much the way I had meandered through the garden during childhood. It seemed that everything was being arranged for me, including the proximity of this wonderful cathedral.
One of the first things I did in New York was to arrange for an audition with Jerome Hines of the Metropolitan Opera, that operatic basso par excellence who had provided me with the model voice during my seminary years. In theological seminary my fellow student, Lynn Fann, had introduced me to opera. I had never really heard it before. In Carthage we knew about the “Grand Ole” Opery but that was about it. I listened to all of the great singers of the second golden age of singing with Lynn. Something in their sound made me sit up and pay attention, especially the singing of the great bass, Jerome Hines, partly because he was also a Christian who would sing at the Salvation Army on skid-row in New York when he wasn’t singing at the Met. His voice and his life became a model for me. Now in 1975 I was going to get to sing for him. My old teacher from college, Ted Harris, had been instrumental. Ted told me that Hines’ opera company was going to be auditioning for a baritone to take the place of Met baritone, Calvin Marsh, for a production of Hines’ opera on the life of Jesus, I Am The Way, to be staged in April 1976 in Columbus Ohio. Ted arranged for me to talk to the stage director, Derek de Cambra, a spunky, enthusiastic fellow with a British accent who had a love for beautiful singing. I was to go over to New Jersey to audition directly for Hines himself. I was finally going to meet the wonderful singer whose voice excited me so much in seminary. In those days I was not really nervous. I was excited and ready to go. My voice could do anything and I could pound on it for hours, if necessary, and it would still be fine for the next outing. I prepared my benchmark arias that had won the Met auditions for me and took a train, then a bus, to the New Jersey audition site. It was a small room to sing in. Hines was seated only a few feet from me. Still, I went eagerly to the task and sang Macbeth’s last act aria, “Pieta, rispetto, amore,” which had won for me the Midwestern Finals of the Met Auditions, interpolating a long, sustained, high A flat at the end. Hines was visibly impressed and began talking about his recording of Macbeth with Leonard Warren. He was warm and cordial but every bit the opera star that I expected him to be.
He talked several minutes about great baritones he had known and how favorably my voice compared. I could not have asked for a more favorable review from one I idolized so. I got the part and began preparing the role. The baritone I was replacing, Calvin Marsh, was a Met baritone with a huge voice, beautiful color, commanding range, and a veteran. He was a tough act to follow. My voice was much different than his, darker, almost a bass-baritone compared to his, yet more lyricalbecause of youth. My old college teacher, Ted Harris, was to sing the bass part of the villain, Eliakim, one of the chief priests (a fictitious character), who conspires with Judas to capture Jesus. I was going to get to see two dreams come true, to sing with my teacher and my idol.
In the spring of 1976, after performances of “Tonio” in I Pagliacci in Tucson with the Arizona Opera, and a cross-country concert tour for Columbia Artist’s Community Concerts, I headed for Columbus Ohio, my ego beginning to inflate from the heady rushes of early successes. I still heard the inner Voice, but I did not remember “who” or “what” it was, and I certainly was not cultivating a habit of reliance on it for guidance. At times I would do what it said, and at times I wouldn’t. Each time I obeyed, I was amazed at the eerie way in which things fell together for my benefit.
For example, In 1975 I had made the finals of the highly prestigious WGN-Illinois Opera Guild Auditions of the Air in Chicago but had not won. The Voice told me in strong “words” that if I entered again in 1976 I could win them. I entered and easily passed the first two rounds. The auditions director, Dick Jones of WGN Radio, Chicago, really liked my voice and thought my singing had improved over the previous year. Some time later I was notified that I was to sing in the finals at the Chicago Lyric Opera House. There was only a small problem. I was in the middle of a cross-country concert tour with a trio, performing from town to town. I discussed my feelings about the audition with my colleagues, Roger and Debbie Lucas, and they were supportive in anything I chose to do. The Voice was very strong that I had to find a way to go to the finals, and that I would win. The trio’s schedule just worked out that we had a day’s travel, no concert, on the day of the finals. After our performance in Pueblo Colorado I caught a flight to Chicago, got into the hotel about 4:00AM for five hours sleep and showed up at the stage door of the Chicago Lyric Opera House at 11:00AM, ready to sing. I sang my first aria, “Cortigiani vil razza dannata” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and was pleased with the way it went. But for the next round, the judges got to pick an aria from my prepared repertoire. I “knew” that if they picked the prologue to I Pagliacci, I should be one of the two winners chosen. The Voice told me that I would be the second winner. The judges chose the prologue. I sang it with full gusto, including a resounding high A flat, and left the stage feeling good. I could not stay for the end of the auditions. I had to run to the airport immediately to catch a plane to Traverse City Michigan to rejoin my concert trio for a performance that night. When I arrived in Traverse City, I called back to Chicago and found that I had been named the second winner.
Wouldn’t you think that experiences such as these should have been enough to teach me to listen to that inner Voice and always obey it? Apparently they weren’t, because I didn’t. I still thought my rational intellect was the most important part of me to listen to, and I liked the heady rush of the ego as I saw my name up in lights, doing things my way, with my voice. I soon began believing all my publicity and was convinced that I belonged in the Tsar’s court in old St. Petersburg and that by divine right, of course.
By the time I arrived in Columbus Ohio in April 1976 to begin rehearsals for I Am The Way, I was full of it, and I don’t mean the way, the truth, and the life, but a substance with a lot more unpleasant odor to it! I had just gone up to my hotel room and unpacked when the telephone rang. It was one of the other cast members who wanted to come up and say hello. I felt mildly irritated at being disturbed but magnanimously allowed him to come up to the room. He was a very down to earth fellow; full of something I had once known, not too long ago, sincerity and thanksgiving. He was singing the tiny part of “Thomas”, and when I say tiny, I mean tiny. He literally had only a couple of lines to sing in the whole show! His face beamed with joy as he described his pilgrimage from the Deep South, at his own expense, just to sing his two lines. By the time he finished visiting with me I had begun to feel very ashamed of myself for the egotism I had allowed to grow inside me, replacing my gratitude to God for the voice I was given. I was making my own ego world-view of specialness, rather that viewing my voice as a gift to give to others. I prayed. I apologized and asked for renewed innocence. The Voice was right there. It had gone nowhere. Only I had changed. The Voice said, “Just keep on going the way you are going now and I will have you sing for Presidents and Kings.” It was a startling message! By this time, I was supposed to go down to the lobby to meet the Director. I grabbed my score and headed for the elevator. No sooner had I reached the elevator than did the doors open. Inside it stood Jimmy Carter. He extended his hand saying, “I just wanted to shake hands.” We rode down to the lobby together in silence. You have to understand that in April of 1976, Jimmy Carter, running for the Democratic nomination for President, was still a long-shot. Nobody thought he would get the nomination and nobody dreamed he would be elected President of the United States. As we exited the elevator, I watched him go, and said another quiet “thank you” to God for his faithfulness, and for the internal Voice which always spoke for truth, on my behalf. I knew Jimmy Carter was going to be President of the United States. And maybeif, just if, I did what the Voice said, kept on going the way I was going, then I might even get to sing for him!
During rehearsals of I Am The Way, I met many wonderful people who were going to stay with me throughout the years as close personal friends. The rehearsal period itself was rewarding because, in addition to the good staging by Derek De Cambra, Hines himself did some of the dramatic coaching, working with the singers on subtle acting points, “camera angles”, Chris Lachonas, a veteran, called them. This stayed with me my whole career as I tried to use a style of acting that was as suitable for television as it was for the stage. The music of I Am The Way, all composed by Hines himself–an extraordinary feat for a singer, not trained in composition–shows a little of every role he ever sang. The scene called “The Woman at the Well” shows a lot of the playfulness of the Bohemian characters in Puccini’s opera La Boheme, which Jerry sang many, many times. In fact during the bleak years at the Met when Rudolf Bing was trying to force him out, Jerry was cut down to one performance a season of “Colline” in La Boheme. Still, he stuck it out and had a renaissance long after Bing had retired. The scene called “The Last Supper” showed a lot of Wagner influence, especially Parsifal, in which Jerry sang the role of “Gurnemanz.” I did not view this negatively. It seemed inescapable to me that if an opera singer were to compose an opera, it would inevitably show the influence of everything he had sung. The music he composed was beautifully full of sweeping melodies and well constructed scenes. The image of Jesus bothered me as a “liberal” theologian. I thought of it as a literal, Sunday school character, based on an evangelical literal reading of the Bible. What gave it an impact was Jerome Hines himself!There was that enormous, richer than rich, bass voice with incomparable grandeur, being used in the role of Jesus. What more could anyone ask for? In 1976, Hines was 55 years old and his voice was still at the peak of his powers. He sailed through the performance with ease and assurance. I used every second as an opportunity to listen, observe, and learn, how he made an entrance, how he related to the other characters on stage, and most of all, how he sounded! In one scene called, “At Bethany,” my character, “Simon Peter”, sits right beside Jesus as he sings the Lord’s Prayer. Looking up at Jerome Hines, hearing that enormous voice so close to my ear, I gave thanks to God for His incredible ways. And then the performance was over and the company packed up to go back to New York, the singers back to their other careers. I went to the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York to sing with the Symphony and prepare for my first Rigoletto in the fall of 1976 for the Houston Grand Opera.As a young singer, I had no rational reason to believe I could sing this, the greatest of Italian baritone roles, but the Voice said that I could do it and I had agreed when I got a letter from the General Manager asking me to do the part. The letter came “out of the blue,” and I knew, even then, that this was something I was destined to do.
The Hines Company performed I Am The Way only once a year. The following year, 1977, Calvin Marsh returned to the role of Simon Peter, leaving me without a role. Not to be outdone, I suggested to Jerry that I play the role of the heavy, “Eliakim,” the chief priest who conspires with Judas. Jerry had always had difficulty casting it because of the way it was composed. As I was told the story, originally, the role had no aria. But when Jerry approached the great basso, Ezio Flagello, to sing the role, Flagello refused unless an aria were written for the character. Ever the one- upsman, Hines said, “All right. I’ll compose you an aria, but it’s going to be so hard you won’t be able to sing it.” The result was Eliakim’s long aria which is loud and very high for any bass, ending on a long, sustained high F sharp, not territory that basses like to hang around in, even a great bass like Flagello. He never sang the part again, and Jerry went through bass after bass trying to find someone who could sing it. I suggested that I could sing it. Even though I was a baritone rather than a bass, I had enough richness in the voice that I could carry its heavy insinuations. Learning my own one-upsmanship I said, “but you have to transpose the aria up one half step for me.” Hines laughed and agreed, so off I went to Birmingham to sing Eliakim, following in other years to different cities.
In Cleveland in 1978, I was rehearsing the big aria with Hines himself at the piano, accompanying. After I finished, Hines was silent for quite a long while. Finally he said, “I wish we could have recorded that. I’ve never heard anyone sing my music the way you do.” It was the most wonderful tribute I could have been given by this man whose singing meant so much to me, and whom I had come to love so dearly. Some years were difficult. Two years later, November 1980 in Edmonton, Alberta I had a dangerously close dovetail of engagements. I ended a string of performances of “Germont” in Verdi’s La Traviata with the Arizona Opera, the evening before dress rehearsal for I Am The Way. The Director was confident of my ability to do the role without rehearsal by this point, so I flew from the desert of Phoenix right after the last performance of La Traviata to the November cold of Edmonton! I was exhausted and slept until 4:30 in the afternoon with the dress rehearsal at 8:00PM. Still, I felt ready to go, and during one scene I interpolated a high B flat! For the non-singers reading this, a high B flat is the pinnacle note for a tenor, and is virtually never attempted by a baritone. Once, the Met’s star baritone, Sherrill Milnes, had recorded a high B flat, but I don’t recall him ever singing one on stage. Why did I do it? Because I could! It was that much ego, nothing deeper. Hines was in the audience for the rehearsal and he let me know what a good note it was. I was happy, justified in my specialness. But the next night was performance. There would be no day off for rest as was usually the case, and I desperately needed a day off for rest. Edmonton in the winter is colder than anything I had ever experienced! It is so cold that the water particles in the air freeze into ice crystals which can cut your lungs when you breathe! I had known cold in Missouri but nothing like this, and I was coming straight from balmy Phoenix. My body was in shock and tired. That night after rehearsal I sleptvery poorly. I was too tired to sleep and wished that I had brought along the singer’s friend, “restoril”, to induce a good night’s sleep. But I hadn’t. I lay tossing and turning all night, finally drifting of to light sleep early towards dawn, only to be awakened early by the maid who did not want to believe the “do not disturb sign” posted on the door. Furious at her for disturbing my specialness, I screamed at her from the bed to get out and tried to go back to sleep, all to no avail. I was up. After two pots of coffee I began to vocalize a little and did not like what I felt. That afternoon was no better. Still, the show must go on, and my voice had never really failed me before…except on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera when I had muffed a high A flat. Still, I was seasoned now, and I had not cracked on a note in public in the six years since. Staying with my typical performance schedule, I found the nearest steak and potatoes around 4:30 PM and began to tank up for the evening performance. That evening I sang the difficult aria OK but the voice still seemed off, stiff and thick. More importantly, my tenacious clinging to ego specialness had cut off my ability to hear the internal Voice that guided me in everything. The time in the scene came where I had interpolated the high B flat the night before. Should I do it again, in performance? As soon as the question flashed through my mind, I heard the internal Voice say “No.” What the hell? I would do it anyway! I went up for the special high note, hit it…and it cracked! Not to be outdone, I tried to regain it and it cracked again!! The curtain mercifully descended and I made my way, like a scalded dog, as quickly as possible through the labyrinths of back stage corridors, eyes to the floor, to my dressing room. I was mortified, disgraced. I, Joseph Shore, one of the greatest baritones in the world, had cracked on stage! Standing in the hall, barring my refuge into my dressing room was Hines, in costume as Jesus, making his way to the stage, enormous grin on his face, laughter ready to commence at any moment. He began to chuckle, “That just makes you human,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. But remember from now on; when you crack a note, get off of it and let it go. I remember when Set Svanholm, at the Met, cracked on the high B flat at the end of ‘Celeste Aida.’ He cracked and tried to get it back and cracked again, just like you did.” Somehow it did not make me feel better. I brooded. How I brooded. I spent the night in the dressing room trying to avoid all conversation. My specialness had been wounded and I was not eager to address any re-shaping of my image. Years later, Hines said to me, “You know, I was glad to hear you crack on that high B flat because it proved to me you were human. You always sang like someone who wasn’t human.” I took it as a compliment. But for fourteen years he never let me forget that I had cracked on a high B flat. I never let myself forget it either!
I did Eliakim again the next year in Allentown Pennsylvania, and it went extremely well, but then I stopped singing I Am the Way. I told myself that I was tired of singing the villain and performing in such an “evangelical” spectacle. But wasn’t it really because I had cracked on a high note and injured my feelings of specialness? In the intervening years, I missed my friends terribly. I missed Jerry. I missed I Am The Way. During the years of 1982-1990, a lot of water went under the bridge professionally. I performed new roles at new opera houses, but there was some lesson I was not learning. Things were not going the way they were supposed to go. The performances got better and better artistically, but the engagements were getting fewer and fewer. I thought I knew what the world was supposed to be like, but I didn’t!
Then in 1994 I found myself near death. The internal Voice returned with great strength. I had a four-month-long life review as I waited, near death, for the Canadian medical system to put my name at the top of the list for surgery. Back in my hometown of Carthage my father went into the hospital at the end of June for what was supposed to be a minor surgery repair of a hernia. Something told me however that this was the end of the line for Dad. The doctors gave us a progressive litany of worsening prognoses. Finally, they told the family that he was not leaving the hospital. I knew that part of him had faith in a life after death, but I also sensed that part of him was very frightened because he felt that he had failed in some important aspects of his life, one of those being in his relationship with his son. Those failures tore at him very deeply. Involved in my own near-death struggle I could not go to Missouri to be with him. We braced ourselves for the fact that he could die at any time. But I had much unfinished emotional business with Dad which I did not want to leave without closure. I also wanted to help him in his final hours.
I prepared a special time when I would be alone in the house, and began to pray for Dad. I asked God to let him know that I forgave him for all the things between us that he held against himself. I asked God to tell Dad I that it was all right for him to let go and go on if that is what he needed to do, but if he was supposed to fight and stay with us, that was all right too. I wanted him to know that I supported him in his decision, one way or the other. For some reason it was important to me to sing my prayers for him. I do not know how long this final song lasted. It might have lasted an hour or two. I had little sense of time as I was doing it.
My son, Tom, was to have his birthday in just two days, and I really did not want Dad to die on Tom’s birthday. So he didn’t. Tom had a wonderful birthday. Dad died the following day, July 10, 1994. The night he died, I had an archetypal dream aboutseeing someone off on a ship. It was Dad. The next morning I thought that he had passed over. Sure enough, he had. I was somewhat disappointed that I had not had a full parting vision but I knew he understood now that everything was OK between us.I just missed the good-bye. Finally, two days later, in the early hours of the morning of his funeral in Missouri, I awoke in the spirit while my body was fast asleep. You can call it a dream if you want but it was not a dream. I was in a very special kind of railroad station looking for Dad. I was pushing through enormous crowds of people who were waiting to board this train. I was in a great hurry as I knew this train was about to leave. Then I saw him from behind. I knew it was him. I called to him, “Daddy, Daddy.” He turned around with a big smile all over his face. I ran to him and jumped into his arms. I remember the feeling. I looked into his eyes. I remember those eyes. He was young and looked somewhat differently than in life, but there was no mistaking him. All of the cares and worries, doubts and fears, insecurities and self judgments, were gone from his face. Instead, there was this pure love, all throughout him which gave him his new substance. I hugged him and said, “I love you Daddy.” He squeezed me. I remember that squeeze, and he said, “I love you too.” And then he made a little joke just to make sure I knew I wasn’t just dreaming this. He knew I would remember it. He said, “You see, I’m a little thinner now than I used to be.” He was now spirit, not flesh. Then he boarded that train. A few hours later his funeral was conducted in Carthage. Even though I could not be there, we had our farewell.
Around this same time, I got an unexpected phone call one day from my old friend, Derek de Cambra, Jerry Hines’s stage director for I Am The Way. He said that the company was doing I Am The Way in Benton Harbor, Michigan next year, 1995, and would I do the role of Eliakim again. The Voice shouted “yes,” and I immediately agreed. I was so happy to be back in I Am The Way. Jerry had done a wonderful job in keeping his voice all these years. He would be 74 years old in 1995! What a miracle to keep his voice! Few singers had accomplished that. No basses, to my knowledge, had done so. I was happy, truly happy, to be back in I Am The Way. The Holy Spirit was that Voice which always spoke for truth and He must have something there for me to do, something for me to learn, some service for me to render to others, I thought. I could not know more at that point. I began to restudy the role of Eliakim and sing it back into my voice. The last time I had sung it had been the fateful performance in Edmonton! That was out of my mind now like a bad joke. I saw the silliness of the ego’s distorted view of things. I just wanted to go back to old friends! This time I took with me a young voice student who had heard all of my stories of the great singers of the previous era, called the Second Golden Age of Singing. I was passing on my love of singing and my love for Jerome Hines to another generation.
When I arrived in Benton Harbor it was indeed like a reunion with long lost friends. How I loved them. How they helped me to remember the Light. Jerome looked like a sight for sore eyes. Even his slight infirmities of age could not make him look old to me. But he was not singing in rehearsals and I could tell he was worried about his voice. He and I got together for an afternoon of vocalizing the way we had done in earlier years. They were wonderful times for me, learning experiences, as I observed this supremely great singer go through the vocal calisthenics necessary to sing grand opera. But this time Hines’ voice was not working. The whole cast knew it and we were all worried. Jerry had been in trouble before vocally and always made it through the performance. One time in Cleveland we finished a final dress rehearsal about 2:00AM. Jerry wanted to go out to an all night restaurant near the lake. It was mid winter and freezing cold in Cleveland. But what Jerry wants, Jerry gets, so off the whole crew went. I noticed that Jerry was not even wearing a coat, and I said, “Jerry, what’s the matter with you? Put a coat on!” “Ah, let your body breeeeeathe,” He vocalized in Hinse-ian tones. “I don’t need a coat!” We went to the restaurant and had a feast. The next morning Jerry called the conductor to his hotel room in a panic that his voice didn’t feel good for the show the next night. He even looked at his own vocal cords with a homemade device and saw that they were pink and swollen. Ever inventive, Jerry had taken two dental mirrors and welded them together with just the right curvature so that he could look at his own vocal cords! Panic ensued within the Directoral staff, but we all, Jerry included, managed to pull the show out of the fire.
This time in Benton Harbor was different. There was something seriously wrong with Jerry Hines’ voice. We made it to the final dress rehearsal. I had already counseled myself to end the “infamous” scene on a lower pitch than the interpolated high B flat! I would sing a high F instead, which is plenty high and would give me no trouble. I would not entertain any notions of interpolating ego notes. I had learned my lesson! Hines watched the rehearsal from out in front. At the end of my scene He came up to me and said, “Good job, Joe, but I was really a little disappointed that you didn’t take the high B flat!” I couldn’t believe my ears. He wasn’t joking. He was serious! I made a joke of it and said, “Well, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask HIM,” pointing upwards. “It’s HIS voice. I’m just the caretaker of it. I’d have to get the OK from HIM.” Jerry smiled and went back to observe the coming scene. We made it to opening night. Hines limped through the performance, sounding ill, while the rest of the cast did a fine job. I ended my scene on the high F and all went well. We had one day of rest and then a Sunday matinee at 2:00PM. Matinees are difficult for all singers. We are accustomed to preparing our voices for an 8:00PM curtain, not 2:00PM! I hated matinees. In my earlier days of incessant bravado I had plunged into them full voice, thinking nothing of it. In the fall of 1979 I had performed the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth with the Arizona Opera Company. We finished the dress rehearsal about 2:00AM, and like Hines, I wanted to go out and get something to eat. I ate a huge plate of rare prime rib. By the time I arrived back at the house where I was staying, my gluttony was telling the tale. I threw up everything and continued to throw up for an hour. I got to sleep about 5:00AM., got up at 7:30AM, went to the theatre at 8:30AM and performed a “matinee” at 9:30AM of Macbeth for school children. It was one of the best performances I ever gave! But I still hated “matinees.”
This time was different. Hines was in real trouble. On his day off he had gone to a doctor to have ultra sound therapy performed on his larynx, but it was to no avail. He seemed totally laryngitic. There was no understudy. Jerry would have to go on or we would have to cancel the performance, which meant financial disaster. Jerry went on but he barely made it through his first big scene of “The Woman at the Well.” My scene as Eliakim was next and I sailed through the aria better than ever, holding a long sustained high G towards the end, finally ending on an optional low F sharp. The infamous scene was next, but I was not nervous, I had already decided not to interpolate the high B flat. I had sung the high F the previous performance and it had been more than sufficient. As Mary Magdalene sang her long monologue, I sat back in my throne-chair and played with the character, Eliakim. Finally the end of her aria arrived. I had two beats before I was to sing the infamous words which ended the scene, “Is the whole world gone mad!” Usually those two beats fly at you like the wind and you have just enough time to take your breath and sing the notes. But this time, time itself seemed to slow down. Those two beats became an eternity. What was I to do with all this luxury of time? The Voice said, “Take the high B flat.” I could not believe it. There was plenty of time for an argument. “What? I’m not doing that again! No way.” The Voice was very clear, “Take the high B flat.” Something I had learned made it easy for me to agree. I went up for the high B flat. It was not only there, it was there in spades! I held it forever. This time there would be no scalded dog, hiding his head as he crept through the halls to his dressing room. Slowly and happily I walked off stage as my colleagues said things singers say to one another after a good job: “Wow, what a note!” “Holy cow, what did you eat? I want some of it.” On my triumphant way down the hall I passed Jerry’s dressing room. The door was open. He sat disconsolate at his make- up table. I could see that he was worried and afraid of the next scene coming up. It was the “At Bethany” scene and he had to sing the Lord’s Prayer aria which had always given him trouble, even in good voice. I walked into his room. He smiled faintly and said, “So the B flat worked tonight?” Without thinking I said, “I sang that high B flat for you so that you would know that if I can sing a high B flat, without cracking, you can make it through this next scene!”His face dropped and showed his true feelings of insecurity. “But how am I going to make it through it?” He said. “Dear God,” I thought, “what am I supposed to say to this man, my hero and mentor?” The words came tumbling out my mouth without any thought, “Just go out there, breathe deeply and don’t push!” Those words seemed to rally him. “All right,” he said, and headed for the stage. During the scene, the Voice told me to position myself in the wings, unnoticed by the audience, but in such a way that I had clear view of the stage. The Voice said that I was to pray for Jerry to be given strength. I did, and I saw that it was helping him get through the scene. Finally he made it to the big aria, Jesus’ Lord’s Prayer. Hines did what I said. He breathed deeply, taking many more breaths than he needed, and he didn’t push! He made it through. As the curtain descended, a happy Hines almost collapsed into the arms of his colleagues as they congratulated him. “I just did what Joe Shore told me,” he said, “And it got me through.”
For the rest of the opera, since my character does not appear with Jesus, I stood in the wings and prayed for Jerome. He gained in strength. During the difficult “Last Supper” scene, the Director came into the wings with a look of worry on his face, “He’s struggling,” He said. “Don’t worry,” I said with a smile. “He’s going to make it through just fine,” And he did.
I knew why I was supposed to go to Benton Harbor. It was my love for Jerome Hines that was the lesson. That love is the love Jesus would have us learn. It is the same love I received from my grandparents and parents. It is the love that God gives us. Receive it. It is there, waiting for us to grasp it in every learning experience, and every experience is a learning experience. Had I learned my lesson earlier and not gotten off course, I am sure I would have gotten to sing for Jimmy Carter! Nevertheless, I sang for Congressmen, Senators, Governors, the Russian Diplomatic Mission to the UN, and Consuls to several countries.
Months later, the Voice told me to call Jerome and let him know that I not only wanted to perform the role of “Simon Peter” again, but that I was supposed to. I knew Jerry would understand. I made the call. It just so happened that the Hines Company was going to be doing I Am The Way in June 1996 in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, but the role of “Peter” was already taken by one of Jerry’s students from OMTI (Opera Music Theatre International). “Put me on standby,” I said, “You never know. This guy may not be able to do it.” He agreed. A short time later, the Director called me with the news that Mark Delavan could not do the part and it was mine. Twenty years had passed since I sang the role of “Peter,” but I knew it. Jerry was in fine voice. This time, my character sat at the Last Supper table with Jesus. As I looked at Jerry I knew that the love I have for him is the message of Jesus, that we should love one-another even as He loved us; and “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” The circle was complete.
The Big Apple
The only people who should be in New York are young people, full of dreams and vigor, willing to do what it takes to bring a dream to life. Otherwise the city is only good for tourists. When I moved to the Big Apple in the fall of 1975 I was full of dreams and had about as much vigor as I could with heart disease. At any rate, I was still young and I had a lot going for me since I had just been named one of the ten National Finalists (or Winners) of the Met Auditions. I wanted to start out right, so one of the first things I did was to make a pilgrimage to the Met to show humility. I went to see Larry Stayer, then Assistant to the Artistic Administrator at the Met. He was the judge who gave me the Midwestern Regionals. I had already been warned about him from stars at the Met. They said, “He’s an errand boy. He knows nothing, but he thinks he is a big shot.” I knew that with this kind of person one had to stroke his ego a bit. So I went to see him and told him I had just moved to New York and asked him if he knew of any work for me. I said that I would be glad to be an usher at the Met. I thought that was humble. He treated it as a serious question and said their usher staff was complete and there was a long line of applicants. But he would keep his eyes open for me. He thought a small touring company in New England might need someone to cover the tiny role of Fiorello in The Barber of Seville. I thanked him and went on my way. I guess my “humility” was being tested. He wanted me to do a cover for Fiorello with a tiny company? It was not at all what I was used to getting. I forgot about it because I had a lot of things happening then anyway. Miss Masiello had wanted me to study voice with Cesare Bardelli, a former great baritone of the Met, and so I had made an appointment to sing for him. My grant money from the MET would pay for the lessons. He lived at the Ansonia Hotel where Caruso had lived. It was a broken down old hotel on the inside and a city landmark on the outside. In the basement was the infamous Plato’s Retreat bath club where anyone could go have sex all night with all the partners you wanted. This was before sex could kill you.
I found my way to Bardelli’s apartment, rang the bell and was greeted by a very large friendly man. Cesare was about 6’2” at least and well over 200 pounds. He took the stage wherever he went. He swept me and my accompanist into his apartment, offered us drinks (which we declined), chatted a little and then we went to the piano for business. I was already warmed up so I sang Macbeth’s Aria, Pieta, Rispetto, Amore, with a long high A flat at the end. Cesare had been watching with a smile but at the high A flat, he jumped up with joy and said, “You are ready to sing any place. I don’t want to change your voice. I just want to help you use it.”
Where had I heard that before? Then his looks changed, almost like a little kid, and he said, “Your A flat was better than mine,” and he sang the final passage for us. My accompanist and I protested, “No, no Maestro, yours was better.” It seemed the right thing to say. He smiled but said, “No. Your voice has so much color in the high notes, more than mine.” Then he vocalized me up to high C. He was quiet for a minute and then he said, “You can sing Verdi baritone any place right now, but I speak to you frankly Giuseppe. If I have your voice, I would become a tenor because you make more money.”
“I have tried,” I said. “I cannot sustain the tessitura.” He looked like he didn’t believe me. And he was probably right. If I had possessed a normal heart and lungs I might very well have been able to move up to tenor.
Cesare explained that he had taken off a year to restudy the voice and try to become a dramatic tenor. He couldn’t do it and he came back to baritone. I sang another aria for him, the Prologue to I Pagliacci with a high A flat at the end. He smiled real big again and said, “Giuseppe, if I have your high si bemolle, (B flat), right now I would be the greatest tenor in the world.” All of my teachers were pussycats. It had to be that way to make up for the nasty coaches!
Many Verdi baritones want to become tenors. Paolo Silveri had tried but could not quite make the transition. Bardelli’s father had been a semi-pro tenor and that may have influenced his desire.
It was a good first “lesson.” I found out that I liked Cesare and that he respected my singing. He considered me a peer. Hines had done that too as soon as I sang for him. These great singers adopted me as one of them as though I had been lost but now was found. Cesare’s career had been top-flight international since his debut. He sang at La Scala and all over Italy before coming to America and settling in at New York City Opera in the 1950’s. He went to the Met quickly and became one of their best baritones, but he was widely known to have quite a temper and to be something of a ladies man. He was simply bigger than life. One time, after singing in Caracas, he managed to get out of the country five piranhas and kept them in a fishbowl in his apartment for pets. He named each one after his villainous characters. Unfortunately, they ate each other. That was the kind of guy Bardelli was, a man who would have piranhas for pets. Zinka Milanov said he was the greatest Barnaba (La Gioconda) she had ever worked with. He was famous for his Rigoletto, Iago, Scarpia, Rance, Gerard, Barnaba, Tonio, Alfio, all the heavies. Now I was going to study with him. I had two international stars that respected me and were going to help me with my dreams, Jerome Hines and Cesare Bardelli. Dreams have to be shared to bring them into reality and you will have to establish agreement with others in order to become a success. Success is really all about establishing that agreement. Nobody makes it alone. There are always other people who are in agreement with you and are helping you behind the scenes to make it happen. And nobody truly talented fails alone either. It takes other people working behind the scenes to make that happen too.
I left Bardelli’s apartment that day in 1975 on quite a high. In the evening I would go down to Greenwich Village to one of my favorite restaurants, The Asti. One of my friends had introduced me to this opera restaurant shortly after I moved to New York and I loved it. It was owned by Adolfo Mariani who had been a pretty good baritone himself. He studied with Madame Schuman-Heink but discovered he just wasn’t quite good enough to make a career out of singing so he opened a restaurant. There were lots of Italian restaurants, so to make his distinct, he began singing behind the bar, using the bell of the cash register for some accompaniment. Soon the waiters were singing. Then he hired some singers to perform arias and ensembles. After a while The Asti became the place where opera singers would go after a performance. Adolfo covered the walls with the pictures of all the great singers who came and sang there. After many years the quality of the singers hired for the restaurant became less distinguished and the show became more of a comedy or parody on opera, but people still loved to go there and great singers would still come and sing. One of my friends took me there and I loved the place. A Neopolitan baritone, Pasquale Pugliese, was singing La Donna e mobile and I could hear that it was a step down. I wondered what he was going to do at the end. He started to go down and so from the table I sang the high note to end the aria, a high A in his key. People applauded and cheered. Adolfo came to the table and introduced himself. He was such a gentleman and a great raconteur. “You’ve got quite a voice,” he said. “Sing something for us.” I got up and sang the prologue to I Pagliacci and the whole place went nuts. Adolfo and I became friends and The Asti became almost a home away from home.
That night after my lesson with Bardelli I was going down to Asti. When I arrived I was surprised to see Bardelli himself sitting with Adolfo. Adolfo was a friend of all the great singers from Ruffo to Corelli and he was especially close to Bardelli. I sat at their table enjoying their company. Adolfo asked me to sing something as usual. Frankly by that time my voice was tired but I really didn’t realize back then how things affect the voice. I expected to be able to stand up and sing great any time I wanted to. So I got up and sang Valentin’s aria from Faust, Avant de quitter ces lieux. I thought it was OK but I could see that Bardelli didn’t think it was up to standard. He took me aside and said, “I won’t judge you by how you just sang because you sang so well for me this afternoon.” But there was such a look of disappointment in his eyes. I thought I would turn to stone. I never, ever wanted to see that look again. From that time forward, I made sure that when I sang for Cesare Bardelli my voice was rested and ready to go.
Adolfo Mariani and all the crew at the Asti became my good friends. I even became friends of the kitchen staff. They had the world’s fattest and happiest cat in the kitchen. Mariani paid off the inspector so he could stay. His belly dragged the kitchen floor when he walked, picking up grease until his coat was slick. They had a table where they cleaned the veal. The cat would lay just under the table with his mouth open and catch the scraps of fat from the table as they fell. Some life! We all loved the cat. For nine months he would balloon up to historic proportions. Then in the summer, while the restaurant was closed down, he would slim back down. Mariani would go back to Italy every summer to the family home. The cat stayed behind but a neighbor looked after him. These were good people to share my dreams with. When I was in New York I was down there about every night. Jimmy Cosenza, the maitre D, came up to me and said, “Have you ever paid a check here before.” “Sure,” I said, “Well, he said, “you will never pay another check here again, period.” That meant I had been accepted almost as family. When I didn’t have work, Mariani let me work at the bar. I had never been to bar tending school so his son Augie taught me. After a while I became known as “that baritone that sings at the Asti.” In 1983 I sang Amonasro in Aida with Gilda Cruz-Romo in San Diego and she came back to New York and told people that she had just sung Aida with a man with the most beautiful baritone voice she had ever heard, “that baritone that sings down at the Asti.” I did not mind the association at all.
While the Asti was my home away from home, Bardelli’s apartment was the other. Bardelli was married to a gentle, faithful woman named Lina who sometimes complained, “Cesare is a baby,” she would say. “All of-a- my life, I’ve been married to a baby.” There were a lot of stories going around about Bardelli. I am sure most or all of them were untrue. The most often repeated story is this: “He was out on the Met tour in the late 60’s doing some role with conductor Faust Cleva. There was some sort of tension between the two of them. The picture of the two is hysterically funny. Cleva was a small man, way under 6’, Closer to 5’. Bardelli was a giant of a man about 6’3’ and well over 200 pounds. In rehearsal Cleva became infuriated with Bardelli over something. The story goes; he rolled up his sleeves and marched on to the stage to fight Bardelli. Cleva got within arms reach and Cesare reached out and put his hand on Cleva’s head to restrain him while Cleva threw washerwoman punches that hit nothing but the air. What I wouldn’t have given to have seen it. The Met fired Bardelli because of this incident but they got word to him through back channels that they would hire him again if he would just apologize to Cleva. But Bardelli had his Italian prode (pride) and he refused to apologize. Lina said that he would cry himself to sleep because he wanted so much to be able to apologize and get back to the Met. But he just could not do it. His career ended while he was still in his prime.
This story has a feeling of embellishment and I hope to get the true story some day. His daughter remembers Cesare coming home and talking about having to restrain Cleva from hitting him, so the kernel of the story must be true.
In many ways, Bardelli was the last person on earth I should have studied with because I needed guidance in the social graces and political niceties necessary for a career. Bardelli was not the man to give those to me.
One day in 1976 I entered for a lesson and Cesare had a big smile on his face. He had an envelope from the Met in his hand. “Giuseppe,” he said. “I get-uh this letter from the Met today and I think they are going to hire me back. Then I open it and I see it is your check.” Because of my grant from the Met National Council, Cesare was paid directly from them. He just couldn’t believe his career was over. Years later I would understand just exactly what that felt like. I was told that Bardelli—after the Cleva matter—had been blackballed by the Met and was not being hired by anyone. Blackballing should be illegal and I believe that it is. Since the days of Joe McCarthy when thousands of artists were blackballed and locked out of work, our society has corrected that, or so we thought. But in the arts, an artist can still be blackballed. It happens this way. A high-up administrator calls the organization of opera companies called Opera America and says, “This artist should not be hired.” They know what that means. The fraternity of opera administrators all holds together and simply locks the artist out of his own profession. He will not be able to get on stage. If he can’t get on stage, his career is through. What is he going to do? Stand out on the street corner and sing with a cup in his hand? Blackballing is very effective and every bit as cruel as McCarthy. It deprives the artist of an ability to make a living and that should be illegal in the USA and Canada.
Let me give you another example of it. A few years before I came up there was a tenor discovery that everyone was excited about. This was a major find. He was tall and handsome, and had a large, beautiful tenor voice that extended from high C down to a bass low E. He could sing anything. He was first hired by New York City Opera and did well. Then the Met got him and immediately signed him for about a dozen first covers.(Those are understudies.) But they didn’t give him any stage help, no staging instructions, nothing to help a young, green singer develop. Leonard Warren was hired knowing no operas, never having appeared on a stage. The Met developed him. They brought him up slowly, with Kidd gloves and gave him only certain parts at certain times. Without this kind of nurture, the world would never have known Leonard Warren. They did none of this with the new tenor discovery. He was supposed to learn all that music and learn the staging just by watching the rehearsals. He was given no real help. So what do you suppose happened? He had to go on one night as first cover since the principle was sick and he made a mess of it. But instead of the Met taking responsibility for under preparing their new find, they simply blackballed him from all opera houses everywhere. This man who was one moment a new find on the scale of a new Corelli was now denied the ability to earn a living with his craft. He became a gospel singer and gave concerts in churches. Bully for him for not giving up! That is what a blackball is. It is an agreement between all the opera companies in America that a certain singer—or stage director, or conductor—will NOT be hired by anyone. They are OUT. Now any fair person should be able to seethat this is immoral, unethical, and should be illegal, especially since opera singers are a part of a union called AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists, Affiliated with the AFL-CIO; Branch of Associated Actors and Artists of America.
You would think that any union affiliated with the AFL-CIO ought to have enough power to stop this, but apparently they don’t. Certain men have the power to kill the dreams of artists, deprive them of the ability to make a living with their craft, and turn their lives into a living hell. Who are these people? Who gave them such power? You see opera is such a rarified art, outside of the consciousness of the average person, that these haughty men think they can get away with the same kind of McCarthy blackballing which was illegalized.
I felt so bad for Cesare because he still had his voice and he wanted so much to be back on the stage where he belonged. Instead he held his feelings inside and taught his students.
His teaching methods were demonstration and explanation from classic Appoggio, a technique I learned more about later from Richard Miller. Bardelli taught the same essentials from the Lamperti School. Balance the breath and onset so there is no push or pull in the voice. Every so often he would catch me pushing when I was singing heavy repertoire. He would bring it to my attention but with a twinkle in his eye he would explain, “Sometimes we all need a little extra Giuseppe, but you must learn how to do it so it doesn’t hurt your voice.”
The big year of 1976 was coming up and I was preparing Tonio in I Pagliacci with Bardelli for my first engagement as an artist with a regional company. Jim Sullivan, Director of The Arizona Opera had hired me for Tonio in Tucson. Jim was a good man with a good ear, a fine conductor, and a fair man. He liked good singers and he was uncomplicated by politics. Full of good dreams, he was trying to establish a first-rate regional company in Tucson. He recognized my talent and my dreams right away. He also didn’t like all the politics of Opera America and was considered sort of a rogue. That worked to my advantage. All he was concerned about was my singing and acting ability and he had seen enough of me in Santa Fe to rate me high on those things.
I cannot tell you how wonderful it felt to step off the airplane in Tucson January 1976 and be greeted as an artist. It seemed like the wonderful beginning of all my dreams becoming manifest. The Canio for the show was an American tenor who hadmade it big in Germany, William (“Bud”) Cochran. He was an affable fellow and we hit it off well. Tucson’s opera house was a modern construction seating about 3,000 people. It was huge by European standards. But the acoustics were excellent. It had a lot of stone in it which reflected the upper partials in my voice, giving me an easy time carrying over the orchestra. The only problem with the show was the stage director who was not really a professional. He owned a restaurant in Los Angeles and he should have stuck to his business. After a little tension Cochran took polite control and smoothed out the staging. He also gave me some vocal advice which I never forgot. There were a few places where I was undersinging. I was just being so subtle that I wasn’t doing justice to the part and the subtlety would not carry in a 3,000 seat house. Finally I got it right and Bud smiled. “That’s it,” he said. “We’re supposed to be able to do things other people cannot do.” I don’t think I ever undersang again. This is how young singers develop, by working on stage with big parts, and cooperative senior peers. But even as a young singer, you have to produce the goods. My prologue brought the house down every night. One night old friends from Tulsa Opera came to see me and announced their presence with flowers brought backstage to me.
We had a long rehearsal time in Tucson and I got to know many people there in the musical community. I sang for some churches and community events and enjoyed my new status of “star.” I met a young pianist who was a student at the University of Arizona, named Michael Fardink. He played for me a couple of times and I was tremendously impressed. He had incredible technique, almost as good as Miss Masiello, and he had great love and knowledge of opera. I couldn’t help but think what a good coach he would make in New York. But he wanted to be a concert pianist and was going to do masters work in piano at IU. He introduced me to many wonderful people in Tucson with whom I became dear friends. I liked this city very much and thought of moving there one day after my career was over. Anyone pursuing a career has to stay in New York, at least for the first several years.
My first engagement as an artist had been a tremendous success and the reviewers agreed.
“The menacing Tonio of Joseph Shore is sung and acted splendidly,” The Arizona Republic.
It was a little terse, but for my first review on stage in a major role, I was happy. Now it was back to New York to study with Bardelli.
Houston…We Have A Problem
When I came back home from Tucson, I found a letter waiting for me from David Gockley, Director of the Houston Grand Opera. It said tersely enough, “would you like to perform the title role of Rigoletto in the American cast for The Houston Grand Opera in October 1976?” I realized that this had been set up for me by the One who gave me my voice. His engagements always came to me out of nowhere, as this one did. I should have been afraid to do Rigoletto at this time in my career, the biggest and most famous of Verdi’s baritone roles. But I wasn’t. I knew I could sing it and I began learning it with Cesare. Musically and vocally Bardelli was great but I had my own dreams about drama. I wanted to use the Stanislavski Method in preparing the character. I began my research on the character and came up with the foundation for my work.
I was amazed to find out how many people did not know that the characters are based on real flesh and blood people in history. From the actor’s standpoint this makes a good deal of difference since a multi-dimensional characterization needs as much background information as possible,
Victor Hugo was attempting to establish an experimental theatre of the grotesque with LE ROI S’AMUSE, the play on which Rigoletto is based, a theatre which would point out the irony of evil within good characters and good within evil characters.
This ambiguity may seem an easily accepted truism today, but it was a revolution in French drama. In this sense the theatre of the grotesque championed psychological realism.
In Appendix I, I describe all of the preparation I went through before going to Houston. When I went to Houston for Rigoletto in the fall of 1976 I brought all of this preparation with me. I was convinced that this engagement was going to open doors for me into an international career. I brought all this preparation with me for the production and yet it all had to lay there in my mind as a kind of potential energy since I had to obey the desires of the conductor and the stage director. It was their job to shape the music and the characters’ action. I agreed with this, of course. But coming from Instant Opera, I felt like I needed to be totally prepared to perform the role the first day I arrived. My connection to the “old school” in Bardelli and Hines had told me that this is the way an artist came to rehearsal, totally prepared to sing the role instantly but malleable, within reason, in order to work with the stage director. I did not know it at the time, of course, but there was already developing within “ensemble opera” a very different attitude about singers and preparation. Many years later I interviewed a famous stage director and administrator. Requesting anonymity he said this to me:
“It used to be that we were looking for a young singer with a great voice and imagination. We expected him to have his character all worked out when he arrived for rehearsal. Then we would work with him and give him some suggestions, for this or that, but we expected he could perform the role when he came for rehearsal. Today, if a young singer comes to rehearsal with any ideas of his own, that’s the DEATH KNELL for his career.”
If this attitude was already under development in Houston way back there when Epstein and Gockley were sculpting American opera, it would explain the hostility I felt from management.
I met David Gockley who seemed like a cold, matter of fact man. Trailing around with him was an interesting fellow name Matthew Epstein. Matthew Epstein was the most powerful agent at Columbia Artists who had his hand in just about every area of opera. Later I found out that there was more going on here than just one opera. Epstein and Gockley were about the work of establishing a certain kind of opera in America.
Why had I been chosen for Rigoletto? Gockley had seen me perform in 1975 and 76 during the WGN Auditions in Chicago on the stage of the Lyric Opera. I had sung “Cortigiani” then and he must have thought I deserved a try on stage in the American Series, or maybe Epstein wanted to see what I was made of. At any rate I was in Houston.
I liked the other artists I worked with. Karen Hunt was a sweet-voiced Gilda and a sweet person. Richard T Gill was a great bass who was covering Jerome Hines at the Met and a very affable man. Rockwell Blake was the Duke. He wasn’t famous then but he was very good and a cordial colleague.
The stage director was a very affable, intelligent, and artistic soul named Gustavo (“Gus”) Motta. I liked him immediately. It was obvious to me that we shared similar dreams of using the stage to make characters come to life. I felt like I could easily do the staging he wanted and also draw from my own preparation for this role. Gus was something of a rising star in Opera America. He was being seriously examined by the moguls who make or break careers, and the King mogul was there for the wholeproduction, Matthew Epstein. Gus had done great research on Verdi and Rigoletto which made it easy for me to draw from my own research. I enjoyed being compliant with his concepts. I hoped to show the moguls that I could be easy for the stage director to work with and would not be a divo. This was, after all, only my second major role on stage! Now to be sure, I was somewhat rough in social graces for the world of opera. I was just a kid from the Midwest and I had never been taught the social graces one uses in high society. If people wanted to dislike me because my speech was somewhat forward and direct, they certainly could. There were plenty of rough edges to look at. I thought that perhaps this was why management seemed to dislike me.
In the middle of rehearsals the local TV crew came to the theatre to interview Gockley’s top assistant about the new production. She made a statement about the “new” kind of ensemble opera they were developing, and then she said, with quite anedge of hostility in her voice, “The day is gone when a baritone can just come down to the footlights and belt out a great high B flat.” What did that mean? It sounded like an attack on the vocal nature of opera. Was it in any way aimed at me? She couldn’t even get her attack ads accurate. There were no high B flats for baritones in Rigoletto and no Rigoletto had ever even interpolated one. There were a couple of high A flats which Rigolettos interpolated by tradition, and both Kostas Paskalis and I were singing them. Oh well, I suppose if you hate vocalism, a high A flat and a high B flat are close enough!
There was absolutely no tension working with Gus and he liked my work quite a lot. But the management was developing more and more anxiety about Gus’s staging. He was constantly monitored and questioned about this or that concept. Gus had a cinematographic mind. He saw things for the stage as though they were on film. Most of the time they worked fine for the stage. Many of his ideas I used for years afterwards in other productions. For example, Gus staged the prelude to the opera. As the curtain went up, the proscenium was backed by a black traveler curtain, creating between it and the proscenium, with lighting, a symbolic area of the Void. Rigoletto was seen dressed in street clothes, kneeling on the ground in symbolic despair, puzzled over what to do with his life. At intervals timed and underlined in the music, these things happened: Out into the void come two dwarfs carrying a jester’s costume. They are themselves dressed as “Rigolettini” They offer Rigoletto the costume, as though to say, “See, we know how to deal with deformity. Become a clown.” With hatred for the idea Rigoletto dawns the jester’s suit (which is conveniently one piece and can be dawned quickly). In the meantime, the black traveler curtain opens to a scrim, creating a dream-like screen. He turns and sees a vision of his house surrounded by courtiers. Gilda comes down the stairs and is engulfed by them. The dwarfs restrain Rigoletto from running into the vision which gives way to blackness again as the traveler curtain closes, allowing the scene to be changed by turntable to the court of Act 1. Slowly Rigoletto arises. One dwarf now offers him the jester’s stick as final confirmation of his newly accepted status. With trembling, hesitating hand, he takes the stick, turns, and goes through the black traveler curtain as the timpani roll. The curtain parts in darkness and we see the Act 1 court with all the characters frozen like dolls. As the timpani roll, Rigoletto goes to take his place by the Duke’s feet. The following “allegro con brio” brings the characters to life.
This was ingeniously done. Who could argue with it? The rest of the staging was filled with such clever things and all for a purpose of bringing the play to life. Nothing was done to show the mind of “Gustavo Motta.” Many directors today use the stage as an opportunity to showcase themselves. Gus did not. He had the clever idea that Rigoletto had different jester sticks, each with the head made to resemble the different characters of the court; so there was a stick that looked like Ceprano, one like the Duke, one like the Countess Ceprano, etc. The dwarves we saw in the prelude staging stay in Act 1 and carry sort of a caddy bag of different jester sticks for Rigoletto to choose from when he wishes to taunt certain characters. It was a great idea.
The way Gus made the curse of Monterone work was a little more controversial. He had Diane de Poitier in the scene as the Duke’s mistress. She is the daughter of Monterone (Saint-Vallier in the play). Into this scene bursts Saint-Vallier (Monterone). Having just been pardoned from the knife, he found out that his salvation came at the price of little Diane’s purity. The Duke allows the old man to speak because Rigoletto wants to play with him. Monterone pulls a dagger from a concealed place in his cape and lunges for the Duke. Diane, wishing to save the Duke, rushes towards her father to dissuade him. Well, you can guess it from here. She accidentally runs into the knife and buys the farm. Thus, when Monterone delivers the curse he is kneeling over the body of his daughter, cursing Rigoletto with a knife dripping with his own daughter’s blood! It just barely worked. It was almost too much detail for the audience, but it actually did work. Score another one for Gus. The rest of the staging was filled with these kinds of effects, and for the most part they worked.
The administration’s anxiety was centered on Gus’s ending of the opera. Gus had a perfectly justifiable cinematographic vision for the death of Gilda. To him, Gilda’s music suggests a liebestode. To Rigoletto, his universe is ending with the death of Gilda, but to Gilda, who is dying for love, her universe is just beginning. This is a perfectly good interpretation but how are you going to show that in the staging? On screen you could simply show the ghost or spirit of Gilda leave Rigoletto’s arms and fly away. On stage Gus had the idea of doing as close to that as possible. So while Gilda is singing her last “lassu in ciel,” Gus had Gilda get up off the floor, out of the bag, and simply walk into the wings, seemingly unnoticed by Rigoletto, where she sings her last line, “prege…” Now the problem with this is obvious. Unless the mind of the audience is totally engaged in this, the visual aspect becomes humorous. It leaves Rigoletto literally “holding the bag” while singing his last line “Gilda, mia Gilda,” to the bag! That last line, “Ah the curse of Monterone,” thus loses its power and becomes a laughing stock. Gus was gambling that he had gotten the audience so much involved with the plot that they would stay in tune with the spirit of the staging (no pun intended) at the end. Gockley really didn’t have enough artistic judgment to know, and frankly neither did Epstein. These were two guys who wanted to be singers but had no talent so they became power brokers instead! They were incapable of guiding Gus at this point. All they sensed was that the success or failure of the production hinged on how the audience accepted the staging of the ending. Gus needed a wise advisor to tell him that it could not work. You might be able to get 99.99% of the audience on board with you. But if just a few people laughed, everything would be lost. There was no such advisor. Certainly I could not be such a voice. It was not my place. We arrived at opening night and the tension was thick. Gus came back stage and talked to us all. He said to me personally, “You have been with me all along, supporting me in this production. I just want to thank you, and your work has been excellent.” The call came, “Thirty minutes to show.” Gockley was going to let Gus do the ending his way. The show was a huge success….until the ending! When Gilda got up out of the bag and walked into the wings, there were a few giggles and sniggers from the audience. Gus had lost his bet. Most of the audience had stayed with him but a few had not. There were just enough people to spoil the ending. I cannot tell you what spasms this sent through the administration of Houston Grand Opera. One would have thought that some truly horrible human tragedy had occurred. They were convinced that Gus was responsible for heaping scorn and derision on The Houston Grand Opera and besmirching its place in history.
The critics liked most of the show except for the ending. The Houston Post said it was “just like Maytime without the happy ending.” The critic for the Houston Chronicle only saw the first two acts and rushed back to write his review, which was very good indeed for me:
“Joseph Shore as Rigoletto is exceptional for a young singer beginning a career. He plays the role with a greater physical warp and deformity than does Kostas Paskalis of the other cast, and he was much alive, giving more variety and color to his passages in the rather slow first act. He sings with a fine fullness, resonance, and power and was convincingly mature as the grieving father in the second act. Shore’s performance here should do much to send him on his way.” THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Even the Houston Post, which roasted the ending, liked me:
“Joseph Shore gave the demanding name part a solid, plump-voiced, slightly burly reading, singing with forcefulness” THE HOUSTON POST
So one would think that this was a big stepping stone up for my career! Wrong! Gockley and Epstein tarred me with the same brush they used on Gus. Gus never worked in opera again. I do not have enough evidence to say that Gockley and Epstein put out a blackball on Gus, but they had the power and that was the effect. Gus was out of opera. His career in opera was over. Who were these men who could decide the fate of an artist like this? One moment Gustavo Motta was the darling, talented young stage director who was on top of the opera world, and the next moment he was out, gone, a “disappeared” person nobody was to mention? So the ending didn’t work! It wasn’t the end of the world for Houston Grand Opera, but they tried to make it the end of the operatic world for Gus Motta!
I phoned Epstein when I got back to New York just to try to capitalize on what was clearly a critical success for me in Houston. He said, “I’m sorry Joe. I have nothing for you.” End of conversation.
In the years to follow I would try to audition again for David Gockley. I was refused an audition each time. Ten years later I was given permission to audition for him again in New York. By this time, I had a lot of experience and my voice had grown. I sang Nulla Silenzio from Il Tabarro and I was in great voice. As I sang I could see Gockley’s eyes bulge out. He was clearly impressed. But like Epstein, he had “nothing for me,” and I never returned to Houston again.
I had these dreams of an opera where people acted as well as actors on any screen and sang as well as the singers of the Golden Ages of Singing. I had the dream of changing people’s lives because they came to an opera and saw it performed this way. I was willing to commit my life to this dream, as well as all my talents and the knowledge I had acquired in university and graduate school. But these dreams were not shared by the Moguls of opera. They had very different dreams of constructing a very different kind of opera for the 21st century and great singers and great acting had nothing to do with their dreams. Other people besides me were sensing this move and by 1980 one of the best critics finally put it all down on paper in the Sunday edition of the New York Times.
“Where are the new Carusos and Ponselles? Is it simply that extraordinary vocal power is a rarity of nature, and that a Caruso comes to us only once in a century? No, say numerous impresarios, managers, voice teachers, coaches and administrators of organizations that assist budding musical talent. Potentially great voices are reasonably common, they say, but conditions in the music world today are not conducive to their recognition and development. Indeed, in the view of one vocal authority, if a young Caruso suddenly appeared on the first rung of the professional ladder, unformed and unrefined, bursting with raw talent, he would not receive the sort of care or encouragement that would allow him to realize his full vocal or artistic capacities.”
“What the opera profession thinks it wants, in this time of rapid regional expansion, is a certain type of mechanically facile young performer (a quick study and top reader, obediently flexible in rehearsal) whose singing is neat and unthreatening and who can be described with the oft-heard phrase, ‘attractive, moves well, excellent diction.’ But we cannot care about or believe in a note they sing or a word they say, for much the same reasons that in life we often do not believe or trust persons whose preoccupation is with being attractive, moving well, and possessing excellent diction.”
“The profession gobbles up such performers. It selects them out of the music schools, sticks them into apprentice programs, gives them grants, and employs them at successive levels. Everyone then congratulates everyone else that such an overwhelming percentage of artists having careers are graduates of the music schools, veterans of the apprentice programs, and winners of grant competitions. The system must be working.”
“The system is working but the performances are not. Farther along the line, even the profession picks up a whiff of something rotten as it observes that none of these promising performers can begin to meet the challenges of the great roles of thestandard repertory in large houses…because the goals of our training are not right to start with, and because the education system and lower rungs of the profession are not congenial to the bigger mistakes, the more abrasive temperaments of the truly dramatic artist. As one agent put it to me a while back, ‘If the young Caruso were trying to break into the business now, he’d flunk the apprentice audition.’ And can you really imagine Chaliapin at Indiana or Santa Fe?” (“Where are the great singers of tomorrow?” The New York Times, April 20,1980, Peter Davis)
This is the system that just could not stand Gus Motta’s mistake in the staging of Rigoletto’s ending…“because the…lower rungs of the profession are not congenial to the bigger mistakes, the more abrasive temperaments of the truly dramatic artist.” BIG Mistakes? How about ANY mistakes?
“The more abrasive temperaments of the truly dramatic artist…” I didn’t think of myself as being abrasive but I guess some people could have seen me that way. What a screwed up profession. It is like an animal eating its own young rather than nurturing them!
Even some of the big agents caught in this system do not like it. One of the oldest and most knowledgeable of the New York agents, Nelly Walters, said to me, in a moment of privacy: “We used to be artist representatives who directed and guided the careers of our artists. Now we are grocers who dispense canned goods.”
I went back to New York and Bardelli somewhat confused. This was 1976 and Peter Davis would not clarify things for four more years.
Bardelli was happy for my reviews and we soon began working on repertoire again. I had another audition coming up with the Met National Council. As one of the ten winners in 1975 I had received a grant from them which I was using to pay Cesare for lessons. I could now re-audition for them for an extension on the grant. I decided that I would sing “Cortigiani” since it was in my voice, fresh from Houston. I could also show off the reviews I received there.
I went to the Met for my audition in great voice and confidence. Larry Stayer was there and all the people on the Met National Council. Stayer looked at my resume and saw the Houston Rigoletto reviews. His eyes bugged out and his face got red. “How did you get this?” He asked with a mixture of anger and surprise. “The company wrote to me and asked me to sing,” I answered simply. I had not spoken to Stayer since the one meeting with him where all he could think of for me to sing was a cover for Fiorello in The Barber. I guess it really shocked him to see that I could sing Rigoletto in the 5th largest opera house in America and receive such great reviews. After a couple of minutes of awkward silence he said, “What do you want to sing for us?” I said, “Cortigiani.” There were a few heads that popped up but Stayer finally said, “OK.” I sang up a storm without any problems. “Thank you,” Stayer said. That meant the audition was over. They didn’t even want to hear a second piece. I assumed that was positive. After all, wouldn’t Cortigiani tell them everything they needed to know? About a week later I received a letter from the Met National Council saying, “We do not dispute your competency in singing but we do not believe we can encourage someone of your age to sing this repertoire.” There would be no grant. This was 1977 and I was 29 years old. What were they talking about, “my age?” Twenty-nine is not that young for an opera singer. My mentor, Jerome Hines, like a lot of singers, had debuted at the Met in his early twenties. Besides that, I had just performed the role. I was practically in tears as I showed the letter to Cesare. “Giuseppe, you must write them back and tell them I tell you to sing Verdi. You are a Verdi baritone.”
Do you remember that TV show where the guy goes back in time and changes mistakes? That is what I wish I could do, because my response to that letter cost me my career. Destiny’s doors turn on small hinges. I had enough to overcome already. I didn’t need any more impedance. I wrote a letter to the Met National Council and sent copies to all the members who were at the audition. I wanted it to be a letter of explanation why I was singing Verdi but it read more like an accusation that they were treating me unfairly. It was a terrible letter! I did not find out its impact on me for several years, but I was puzzled at the hard time I was having getting work. I was still getting work but it was tough and my career was not going international the way the critics predicted, in spite of great reviews.
In 1977 I got a hint that something foul was afoot when my agent talked to a regional opera director about hiring me. “Oh no,” he said, “I’ve been given the word about Shore. I was told not to hire him. He’s got a great voice, they say, but he’s just too difficult to work with.” When my agent tried to get him to say who gave him this word, he clammed up and wouldn’t say anything more. So someone was trying to blackball me. They weren’t being entirely successful. I was still getting some work, but it was hard going.
Five years later I was being managed by a small agency in Connecticut. They also managed a young soprano that the Met was interested in. One day while my agent was talking to Larry Stayer about this soprano she said, “You know, we also represent Joseph Shore.” She said his face got red and he replied. “I brought that kid here to New York and do you know how he repaid me?” She said he reached into a drawer and brought out the letter. He said, “I have thought about using him many times but then I thought, ‘why should I help him after the way he treated me?’” He said, “Do you know that letter even made its way to the General Manager, Anthony Bliss. He came into my office and said, ‘Who is this guy Shore who thinks he can write to the Metropolitan Opera this way?’ I admit that I am the one who has been standing in his way, but THIS is the Metropolitan Opera. You don’t bring him in here and have him sing Verdi. You bring him in here and have him sing ‘Bella siccome un angelo,’ and then WE discover him and WE say this man should be singing Verdi.”
My agent already knew about the letter because I told her about it. I also told her that I had written another letter to Stayer a few weeks afterwards apologizing for the tone of my letter and asking for another chance to audition. Chris Clarke, the head of the National Council had in fact given me another audition. I went in with my tail between my legs and told him I wanted an extension on my grant so that I could continue to study. I told him that I would be glad to study lighter repertoire. I sang “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Faust. It could count as lighter repertoire but I sang it with my full voice. I was given a grant extension and continued studying with Bardelli.
Stayer had nothing to say about the apology, the new audition and the grant, except to say, “I could never be responsible for him here. What would happen to me if he went into a rage and caused a scene?” He drew an image of me as an unstable mad man who could not be trusted. What did Peter Davis say?
“… the goals of our training are not right to start with, and because the education system and lower rungs of the profession are not congenial to the bigger mistakes, the more abrasive temperaments of the truly dramatic artist.”
For certain, it was a real mistake to write that letter to the National Council. Chris Clarke was big enough to accept my apology. Stayer was not. I insulted his position of power which he dearly loved and I would have to pay for that with my career. Who were these men who could hold so much power over others and determine their future? Just who were they!
The real truth is that they were holding back singing Verdi as a political plum. Only after long years of serving the system and showing servitude would anyone be rewarded with the right to sing Verdi. I had been an insult to that system although they could not “dispute (my) competency in singing.”
The years have come and gone now. I have had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table and judge singers. I was, ironically, a judge for the Met Auditions, both at a District and State Level. I have also had opportunity to audition singers for a part. It is not odd to find a young singer who presents as full of himself and arrogant. I have not taken that as an insult to me personally nor tried to ruin the kid’s life! I realize that there is an arrogance that comes with youth. It is natural and unavoidable. Some young singers have to posture with a little arrogance in order to overcome the fears and hesitations of youth. Instead of being insulted it actually makes me laugh a little inside. I listen carefully to that kid. If he is really good, I’ll hire him and give him a chance. That’s all any singer really wants, a fair chance, and a critique based on how he actually performed.
Cav and Pag in New Jersey
I had always liked James McCracken’s voice since I heard him as a boy on the Firestone Christmas albums. I grew up in Missouri in a household that was not musical and not culturally oriented, but each Christmas we would get a Firestone Christmas record which I really looked forward to. My senior year in high school Firestone put out one with James McCracken. It floored me. I had never heard sounds like he made. I couldn’t even tell if he were a baritone or a tenor. If someone had told me then that one day I would be singing Tonio on stage opposite McCracken’s Canio I certainly would not have believed it! But that would happen at The New Jersey State Opera in 1985.
After I became a singer and moved to New York in 1975, I became a member of Jerome Hines Opera Company which sang his opera on the life of Christ. Right away, Hines was so impressed with me that he summoned Maestro Alfredo Silipigni from the New Jersey State Opera to his house to hear this new baritone. That was around January in 1976. I sang up a storm that night, singing many arias with Alfredo just five feet in front of me. Hines tried to get him to commit to use me and Silipigni rebelled. He obviously felt put upon and probably resented Jerry feeling he had the power to get people hired at New Jersey State Opera. It was a big failure with Silipigni. I couldn’t figure it out. In those days I was winning everything. I thought that perhaps I needed to be more humble with him. Even after winning all the major competitions, I agreed to humble myself and enter Silipigni’s little New Jersey competition. It was an unimportant, little competition which I did not need to win. I entered the theatre and he asked me what I wanted to sing. I said, “Di Provenza.” The pianist began and suddenly Silipigni stopped and said to me “Sing the second verse first and the first verse second.” Well, I had never done that before and I messed up a word. Silipigni jumped up and said “ah ha.” I continued singing but I did not win. After that Hines would try to get him to use me, but to no avail. I was singing in big places and getting great reviews, but somehow the way I was thrust upon him insulted his ego and he became adamant that he would not hire me.
Ten years passed and I forgot all about Alfredo Silipigni. I had other fish to fry. Then one day in the fall of 1984, I signed with a new agent and this agent just happened to also represent Silipigni. The agent told him, “You’ve got to hear this new Verdi baritone I’ve got. He’s the real deal.” So Silipigni came into a theatre in New York just to hear me. I entered and didn’t say a word about the past. I could tell he didn’t remember me. I sang up a storm and his eyes lighted up and he told the agent, “You’re right. This man is the real thing.” He gave me both Alfio and Tonio in Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci. I was so hopeful about this engagement. I was going to be singing with an International star, just across the river from New York. Surely, if I did my best work, the New York moguls would finally accept me. There was so much riding on this engagement that the stress caused my poor immune system to dip and I got sick just before rehearsals. What else is new? But I used my methods and got over the cold by time for rehearsals. The first day of rehearsal I did a very unwise thing. I introduced myself to Silipigni as the baritone who sang for him in Jerry Hines’ house years ago. His face turned ashen. “Oh, he said, “I didn’t connect that person with you.” From that point on, he had it in for me. Now I didn’t have to jog his memory. I could easily have let sleeping dogs lie. Why did I do that? It was just another way I had of shooting myself in the foot. It was self-sabotage.
One day while riding in the car with Silipigni I got a sense of his ego as he began to talk about his career. He was full of hurt and bitterness that his career had never taken off internationally. He told me about an English audition tour he had done andhow disappointing it had been to get nothing at all from it. I understood his bitterness now towards me as a young “star” that Jerry Hines had brought to him. He was thinking, “Nobody is helping me with my career. Why should I help this kid?” I am convinced that was the dynamic between us.
CAV went pretty well except that Silipigni deliberately tried to cover me with the orchestra in Alfio’s first Aria, “Il cavallo scalpita.” I got the message and sang aggressively the rest of the show easily carrying over the orchestra and a very strident Santuzza. Christian Johansson, the tenor, forgot his part in scene two and I saw a look of panic on Silipigni’s face. I got us back on the right track and saved the opera. Backstage, the one thing he said to me was “Thanks for saving us back there.”
The first day James McCracken came to rehearsal it was a sitzprobe (a seated rehearsal), and he had had a lay-off for a few months. We sat together at the sitzprobe and became friends. He was very affable and easy to like. But when he opened his mouth to sing he didn’t sound like James McCracken. He sounded like a light lyric tenor. He obviously realized he wasn’t doing well and he went outside after his first aria,”Un tal gioco.” The point in the opera was fast coming where Canio sings “ma poi, ricordatemi, a venti tre ore,” a particularly famous passage because the tenor traditionally adds a high B natural. The cue came and there was no McCracken, so I thought I would just sing it. I was holding the high B when McCracken walked back in. I apologized and said, “I’m so sorry Mr. McCracken, I would NEVER have done that if I had known you were here.” I really felt like a schmuck. He smiled and said, “That was good kid. By the way, you know you’re a tenor don’t you?” I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’d like to pick your brain sometime.” He laughed and said, “Well you’d better hurry. There’s not much of it left.” He knew I wanted to talk to him about my career and especially about my “political” problems with some powerful people in the business. He said, “That’s just the way the business is kid. I’ll never sing in San Francisco again just because I didn’t kiss somebody’s ass.” He was trying to tell me that there are some problems in the business that cannot be remedied. You have to accept that and move on. It hit me like a ton of bricks. After that sitzprobe, he professed to feel unwell and went home for a few days. Later I learned he went home to say his Christian Science prayers. At any rate, when he returned to rehearsals he was James McCracken as we all had known him. We had a few stagings when McCracken called all the principles together and said, “I know this stage director. He’s really slow. So if we want to get this done we are going to have to do it ourselves.” And he sort of took charge with the stage director nodding assent.
At the performance, my Prologue went very well, unlike ten years earlier at the Met when I had messed it up. I held the high A flat a long time and brought the house down. I couldn’t help but think of Bardelli and all I had learned from him how to sing Alfio and Tonio. I think Cesare would have liked my work. His Alfio and Tonio, however, were sung and portrayed with a harder edge than mine. That was his style. I was always trying to make the character a little sympathetic. His Alfio was a real tough guy. I couldn’t play him that hard. His Tonio was a real bastardo. I couldn’t play him like that. I wanted the audience to feel something of the pain Tonio carried around inside himself.
McCracken delivered a stellar Canio with great, old-fashioned professionalism. He was definitely one of the greatest Canios of the 20th century. He was truly America’s dramatic tenor.
After the performance, McCracken was behind stage with his Columbia agent, Tony Russo. Jim called me over to meet him and he introduced me, “This is Joe Shore, the best Tonio I ever worked with and he has the best damn high A flat I EVER heard on any baritone.” I stuck out my hand to Russo to shake it and he just turned and walked away. I wondered what I had done to make him treat me so rudely. Powerful people in the business don’t like to be put on the spot. In the months afterwards I tried to contact Silipigni to get other roles. But he would not hear of it. Soon I left the agent we had in common and Silipigni would never speak to me again. Shortly afterwards McCracken died of a stroke while rehearsing at the Met. By all accounts he had never sounded better. After he passed away I got a sweet note from his wife, Sandra Warfield, saying how much Jim liked working with “the young Canio.”
We were a great match on stage and it is a crime that we never did any other work together. But I am so grateful for this one time we had. James McCracken was a wonderful human being and a great singer. He accepted me, appreciated me and tried to help me. I miss him.
“Joseph Shore was the best all-round voice of the evening. He sang Alfio in CAV and Tonio in PAG doing quite well in both. His acting was believable, and his singing powerful, expressive and artistic. Good Show!” THE NEW JERSEY COURIER-NEWS
The Tumblers Click In Arizona
After the Houston Rigoletto debacle in 1976, I was hired by The Goldovsky Opera Theatre in 1977 to do one of their last New England tours of Rigoletto. I finally met the man whose voice millions of people knew from the Texaco Saturday broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. During the intermission features, listeners often heard a high pitched voice with a thick Russian accent explaining the opera. That was Boris Goldovsky. “Mr. G”—as he liked to be called—had been born in Moscow and moved to Philadelphia in 1930 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1942 he moved to Boston to become director of the opera department at the New England Conservatory of Music. There he founded the New England Opera Theatre, which later became known as the Goldovsky Opera Theatre. For thirty-eight years, Mr. G and his company toured 47 states and brought opera to small towns which would not have seen it otherwise. It gave young singers an opportunity to sing their roles many times and work on them in performance after performance. Mr. G only performed opera in English but not for the reason you might think. He was not so concerned that the audience understood every word. But he was very concerned that the singerunderstood every word. In his youth he said that he “had complete contempt for opera,” because of its lack of dramatic integrity. He had grown up in Russia where he had seen the Stanislavski system in opera. When he arrived here he found “wooden melodramatic posturing.” The Goldovsky “system” was a training method to teach young singers how to act realistically on the operatic stage. It fit right in with my dreams for opera.
Goldovsky’s company had a rule that no one could go on tour unless he had attended at least one workshop with Boris, so in the summer of 1977 I went up to Massachusetts to do my one obligatory workshop where I would perform the whole role for Mr. G. and do things his way.
When I arrived I saw singers who had done no preparation on the history of their characters. They were just making stage movements according to Mr. G’s charts. Mr. G had used the music as the main clue for the actors’ movements. This was certainly NOT Stanislavski. In the “method” only the character’s motivations determined movement. I saw young actors being essentially choreographed across the stage. Their blank stares and cries for help all indicated that the ‘system’ was not doing too well. I began my character’s entrance and all eyes were immediately on me. At the close of the act, one of the young people shouted, “Wow! Real television acting.” I almost laughed. That sounded like a joke to me but they meant it seriously. It started a mini-rebellion as all the singers rushed Mr.G. begging some help in understanding the history of the opera and the characters. It was one of his last tours. Perhaps he was just too tired or had not gotten to it yet, but he obliged them and told them all the background of Rigoletto. From that point on a new life came into the cast. Everyone was happier, sang better, and generally acted better.
The background information helped their imaginative abilities and they were better able to draw a character.
I asked Mr. G how he wanted me to view his staging. He said quite to the point, “As far as I am concerned, the blocking is mine and the character is yours.” That was virtually a blank check because I could easily do my character with his staging. I left that workshop having inspired those younger singers and Mr. G really liked my Rigoletto. He was not one for giving complements—that old school—but he let you know when he liked it.
Thank God I was young. During the tour we had to drive all day in a bus, play scrabble with Mr. G, erect the set, costume, make-up and be ready for call. It was as close as I have come to working in a circus.
Mr. G. had one other peculiarity and that was about the orchestra. He believed that the orchestra should follow the singers, not vice versa. Often he would begin to conduct the first few bars of the prelude and just put down his baton and walk away. The orchestra had to follow the concert master and they all had to follow the singers. This also meant that there was no safety net. The singers HAD to know their music backwards and forwards. After a while I got used to it and liked it. It stripped away many things: pretentious conductors out to make a name for themselves and avant garde stage directors wanting to control the stage. It was working for Goldovsky’s theatre. I don’t know if it would work in a giant theatre like the Met. I had grown up with the Mafioso conductor saying “guardami, guardami.” Now that was all gone and I felt great freedom as I was allowed to concentrate on my character and interpretation without worrying about the conductor! You would be surprised how tight the shows were musically. It was not musical chaos as we feared. The orchestra could listen and the singers could listen. It worked.
I learned a lot from Goldovsky about a lot of things. Boris was WAY ahead of his time in a lot of things. In those things he was also very ancient, going back to the genius of the art-form itself. He saw through the facade of the stage director cult even then. He said to me, in his thick Russian accent, “My boy, opera is being staged today by a lot of people who do not really like opera and think that something must be done to it to make it acceptable.” He was as right as rain and as pertinent as a prophet!
We were discussing producing Rigoletto one day and I was waxing eloquent (or so I thought) about how Verdi would have produced it. “Mr. G.” said something that shocked me. He said, “My boy, I think I know a lot more about Rigoletto than Verdi did.” At first I thought that this was the height of arrogance!! How dare he say something like that, but slowly he began to “educate” me. Let me summarize the lesson:
A great opera is a work of art and all genuine art is “alive.” Verdi (like any other composer) gave “birth” to a new creation. His compositions were not simple abstractions from his own mind. Every composer knows that his creations are more than himself. Verdi gave “birth” to a new creation, a work of art. Like any living thing it must grow or die. An opera as a work of art grows by its interaction with the world of art. Every new production, good or bad, every new singer, every new producer, every new director, adds something to the growth of the art-form. Goldovsky was telling me that he had a perspective on Rigoletto that Verdi could not have possessed. He, Goldovsky, saw how the opera had interacted with the world of opera for over ahundred years and therefore he had witnessed its growth as a living art-form. It would be similar to a father knowing his son as an infant but never seeing him grow into adulthood. Those who knew the young adult would have an understanding of him that the father, deprived of such experience, could not have.
Imagine what would have happened if Verdi had restricted Rigoletto so that there was allowed only one production of it, with one group of singers, with one director, one set, one costumery, and with himself in control of it at all times? Artistic death would have occurred, much the same as happens in the natural when a parent over-protects a child, stunts him, refuses to allow him to grow, tries to keep the child from developing an independence. Such children die inside and often develop into monsters.
Goldovsky helped me to understand that a great composer produces art which is greater than himself and that his art is “organic,” rather than just a clutter of ink blots on a page. Those things, the musical notations, are but poor notations to try to convey to us the actual creation which came through the composer and which lives and breathes as artists take it into themselves and interact with it. Yes, he knew a GREAT deal more about Rigoletto than Verdi did. He saw how Rigoletto had grown. Verdi knew it only as an infant.
In the middle of the tour I got a call from my service in New York telling me that The Cathedral of St. John the Divine wanted me to do a sacred recital right from the High Altar. If you haven’t been to New York, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. It is over two foot-ball fields from front door to the back and it is one of America’s great structures. The great Skinner organ has ten thousand pipes and somewhere around 180 ranks. It is one of the major pipe organs in the country. The manuals sat perched above the choir area about fifteen feet in the air. This would be my first New York Recital and I had intentionally chosen this place. As it turned out, I was the last artist given permission to give a vocalrecital from the High Altar. There was little time for rehearsal. I just finished the Goldovsky tour and had a couple of days before the recital. My accompanist, Michael Fardink, knew the material well and knew how to accompany me so I felt no anxiety. One must take chances in order to accomplish anything extraordinary, but the chances must be calculated. Michael and I got into the Cathedral for one rehearsal. He would be fifteen feet up in the air and I would be down on the floor in the area near the High Altar. To make ensemble matters worse, the Cathedral has an enormously long echo, since it is stone and 600 feet long! Michael was going to play the Brahms song cycle “Vier Ernste Gesaenge” on the pipe organ, for which it was clearly not written, and on which he was not the master as he was on the piano. To make matters even worse, the organ was under repair and the pedals spoke in time but the keyboard spoke late, which meant that Michael had to play the keyboard ahead of the beat and the pedals in time! I don’t know how he did it, but he did it beautifully. All in all, the performance went well and the representative from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation liked it very much. I was one of their grant recipients that year and they had come to see if their grant had been justified. My first New York recital had been a bold success. I loved the experience of singing full voice in that huge Cathedral as rolls and rolls of echoes reflected off the stone. Singing itself was always for me, a spiritual experience, and this particular setting made it all the more so. The production of sound is not just the production of sound. Sound affects the environment as well as the singer. We make things different as we sing.
There are times when everything clicks into place, all the cosmic tumblers align just right, and the art flows out of you like water through a pipe. You feel free as an artist to express what you will. You know the audience is going to love it. You know the stage director, the conductor; the administration respects you and loves your work. You arrive at a moment which, could it be extended for 50 years, you would want your whole career to resemble it. This moment seems to be set up and waiting for you. It is certainly not because of any good work you have done. It is a gift from the universe. That happened for me in January 1979 in Arizona. Jim Sullivan had hired me again, this time to sing Verdi’s Rigoletto, a role that was becoming something of a signature role for me, even as a young singer.
In Jan. 1979 we began rehearsals for Rigoletto in Arizona. Gilda would be played by a petite, pretty soprano named Claudette Peterson. Jerry Norman would be the Duke, and my old friend from Houston, Richard T. Gill would be Sparafucile. The director was Dennis Wakeling, a professor from Flagstaff and a congenial man who was a delight to work with. He was not the kind of stage director who wanted to choreograph the opera and display his great mind on stage. He wanted the action to come out of the characters’ motivations. With this type of direction it was easy for me to use my own characterization and make Rigoletto come to life. The Method allowed me to become the character rather than just represent him with external actions. There are some distinct difficulties in using Method in opera. The fact that I am singing rather than speaking makes it difficult to avoid taking the position of the observer. In Method the actor is not to split himself into two beings, one the actor and the other the observer. There is just the actor committed to being the part. In opera, it takes solid vocal technique so that one does not have to think about any of the technique of singing itself. You can’t be thinking about your breathing, or your “placement.” Your voice has to work unconsciously so that you can place all of your concentration on your dramatic intention, the dramatic “beats,” or as Stanislavski really said, “the bits.” As you deliver the line you must not evaluate it. You must stay in the character and continue to choose your dramatic intentions, phrase by phrase. After a while this begins to give you the illusion that you are the character. That then feeds into the Method and makes the portrayal stronger yet.
As a consequence of playing my characters, I get to know them as people and actually think of them as my “friends,” even if they are villains. I can become Rigoletto now in a second because he lives inside me. This is not mental illness. He lives inside me not as a multiple personality but potentially as a character I can play.
One day we were in rehearsal in Tucson and two cowboys walked into the door. They sat and watched rehearsals for quite a while. At a break they came up to me and said, “We’re shooting the remake of Wild Wild West out in Old Tucson and we came in to work on our Russian accents with Mr. Wakely.” Dennis Wakely, our director, had been a Russian interpreter in the army. Before they left, they came up to me and said, “Say, that looks good pal. It looks like you do to your character what we try to do to ours.” And of course that was right. On screen or stage the Method is the same. The stage is often said to be “different” because it uses a higher level of energy and a broader form of acting. It is true that the stage is bigger than the screen, but it is not true that the acting should be less realistic on stage. The Method works on both the stage and the screen. After all, as Stanislavski said, “Chaliapin is my method.”
February 16, 1979, was the opening night and it was a great success. The Arizona Daily Star’s music critic, Kenneth LaFave wrote:
“The Arizona Opera Company’s production, directed by Dennis Wakely, projects that sense of pathos. With a very able cast, stunning set designs, and excellently paced staging and musical direction, this Rigoletto is one of the triumphs of the Company’s history.
“Joseph J Shore’s Rigoletto is etched with enormous skill. The jester is clearly unaware of the fact that all of his jokes are really jokes on himself-until the last joke takes the life of his daughter.
“Shore accomplishes this difficult characterization by taking risks. At the close of Act One, for example, he shouts and becomes breathless for Gilda, who has been abducted by the Duke. It is an effective piece of acting, but his lastnotes are swallowed in this breathlessness.
“Again in the second act, he deliberately distorts the musical phrase which is the jester’s famous theme. The first two notes become detached from the rest of the phrase in a vocal display of the character’s hidden violence andinstability. Shore’s risks pay off. It is a thoroughly believable and very musical performance.” (Feb.16th, 1979, The Arizona Daily Star)
The critic was mostly correct in what he observed but he missed a lot. It is true that I take a lot of chances in my characterization of Rigoletto but they are worked out in rehearsal. Nothing is left to “chance” on the stage. They “appear” risky because they are unexpected to the observer. For example, the critic mentioned that at the end of Act One at the abduction of Gilda, I shouted and became breathless. Rigoletto did those things out of his own motivations. I didn’t tack them on like external embroidery. It is the character who did these things. In another production, Rigoletto actually had an epileptic seizure at the same place in Act One and fell down the stairs. I came upon this idea from watching Hines perform Boris Godounov. At the death of Boris, Hines had Boris fall down the long staircase from his high throne. Hines was always an athletic man and he had some practice in tumbling which he put to good use. But the audience always gasped. It looked so “risky.” I thought that Rigoletto falling down the stairs from an epileptic seizure at the end of Act One would be a good bit, so I rehearsed it and worked it until I felt that I could do it without too much risk of injury. There is always some risk in risky things. I only used it in one production, but it worked!
What I appreciated about the review was the fact that he wrote about the character and the drama rather than just the voice. There is not one word about Mr. Shore’s beautiful baritone voice or even his great high notes. He seemed to realize that my voice was put into the service of the role, and that, of course, was my dream for opera.
Another kind of pleasure was to wake up the next morning and realize that the administration appreciated my work and loved the performance. There was no animosity between the conductor and the stage director, or any political maneuverings by moguls behind the scenes. There was no ill will coming from any corner. This was just a fine opera company that wanted to put on the best opera that they could for Tucson and Phoenix. I found that when the goals were that simple and direct my own work flourished. This was not Houston. There were no Machiavellian characters skinking around back stage with hidden agendas.
That Rigoletto in Arizona in Feb. 1979 was a watershed point in my career, marking a new maturity and confidence in my performances. Arizona had joined with me and shared my dreams and the results proved to the liking of everyone.
In the fall of 1979, Jim Sullivan was going to mount a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth with Orson Wells himself directing. Macbeth is to opera virtually what it is to drama. It is a huge undertaking. For the baritone playing Macbeth it is virtually as difficult as playing the Shakespearean role on the legitimate stage. I had no idea that I would get the call. Sullivan explained that he had thought of the production for another baritone named Adib Fazah. I couldn’t complain. Adib was a veteran baritone and had a lot more experience than I. But I knew that Sullivan saw something rare in me and had already come along side me. It wasn’t long before I got a call from Jim saying that Adib could not do the production and would I play Macbeth. I had three months to prepare for the greatest role of my life with Orson Wells directing.
Curses and Macbeth
In a way, my preparations for Macbeth had actually started back in 1978 at The Lyric Opera of Chicago. As everybody knows the Chicago Lyric is an International House second only to the Met. In fact there has been a longstanding feud among opera goers who say that Chicago is actually better than the Met. I thought so. I thought its productions and singers were usually better. I had sung on the Lyric stage in 1976 when I was competing in the finals of the WGN-Illinois Opera Guild Auditions of the Air. I won them along with tenor Vinson Cole. Vinson Cole had been an apprentice with me in Santa Fe two years so I knew him well. He had a light lyric tenor voice with a slight throatiness to it and a tiny wobble. Still, people liked him a lot in Santa Fe. He got hooked up with a powerful agent and he began to go places. Shortly after we won the WGN Auditions I saw him on the New York subway and sat down next to him to chat. We exchanged pleasantries for a while when he suddenly said, “It was all set up for me to win the WGN you know. I am on my way down to Dallas now where it has been arranged for me to win a big contest. Then next year it is set up for me to win the Met auditions.” He said all of this so matter-of-factly, without any sense of wrong-doing. And he was right. He won in Dallas and the next year he won at the Met. Powerful men in the business can fix whatever they want to either make or break a career.
While I was singing on the Chicago stage, the management of the Lyric saw me and thought they might give me a try in their big new production of La Fanciulla Del West. They asked if I would sing the secondary lead of Sonora. It was a good part for a young singer getting introduced into the best opera house in America. All the other small parts of the miners were being sung by the apprentices. This was a new production by Hal Prince and it was Prince’s first operatic production. The leads were all big names: Carol Neblett was Minni, Carlo Cossutta was Ramirez and Gian- Piero Mastromei was Rance. Florindo Andreolli and Arnold Voketitis finished the cast of big names. I thought it would be a good experience for me to work in a big house, make a big impression with stars and hopefully be promoted up the ladderto sing in other Chicago productions. The only problem was a certain little Voice in my head that had different ideas.
The summer of 1977 I was in upstate New York taking a working vacation at a resort where I sang at night, slept most of the day, and ate like a pig. It was great. I got a message from my answering service that the Metropolitan Opera had called and asked me to come in for another stage audition, this time for a role casting. I had to get up early, take several small commuter flights to finally end up on the Met stage, not in the best of voice. The Met had a new artistic administrator, Richard Rodzinski, who had been watching me. He knew that I had gotten a bum deal with the Met because of Stayer and he was now in a position as Stayer’s boss to make things right. Richard Rodzinski was a good man who really wanted to right the wrongs in the Met. Unfortunately he lasted only a brief while because the stress of the job was too much for him. He left opera for good. But as I stood on stage that summer of 1977 he was the big boss and I heard my little Voice say that this had been set up as a gift for me. I sang Pari Siamo and not at all up to my standards. He liked it anyway and said the Met would like to hire me for the 1978 season for a role in Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd. My internal Voice said, “This is your door in, a second chance we have given you.” What do you suppose I said? “Thank you very much. I would be honored to join the Metropolitan Opera.” You have to understand that in those days, once you got in, you tended to stay in, even if in small parts. My black ball would be forgotten. It would be a new day. But I didn’t say that. I heard the words come out of my own mouth, “Oh I am so sorry. I am already engaged in Chicago for that time period.” Rodzinski’s mouth hit the floor. He couldn’t believe what I was doing. I was throwing away a golden opportunity that most singers never get. Once again, some part of me had not learned the lesson to always do what the Voice tells me to do. I felt sick to my stomach. Everybody knew I belonged at the Met. A lot of smaller companies would not hire me because, as they said, my big voice belonged at the Met, not their little theatre. Why did I shoot myself in the foot? It would be years yet before counseling would help me to understand that I was sabotaging myself.
Shortly thereafter Rodzinski resigned and left opera. A new person took his place who did not have the wonderful traits of honesty and integrity possessed by his predecessor and I never got a call again from the Met. Destiny’s doors turn on small hinges.
I went to Chicago all prepared. I liked the Italian principles right away and they liked me, taking me in as one of their own. Andreolli, Cossutto, and Mastromei, all became great friends and admirers of my voice. In fact they all went to Carol Fox on my behalf and said, “Giuseppe is a great singer. You should use him here for your baritone roles.” Carol Fox was not someone who liked to be told what to do. After that well intentioned meeting I had administration crawling down my neck every moment. Either Fox or Krainik always had something to say: “Don’t let him sing so loud.” “He sings too dark.” “He looks too heavy on stage.” It never let up. But from the chorus I was hearing things like, “great singing.” “You sound better than Mastromei.” The Italian stars continued to parade me around like they had discovered me. Andreolli took me into Carlo Cossutta’s dressing room and vocalized me up to high C (Do). Andreolli began jumping around the room, “Do, Do, he has a high Do.” “Basta,” said Cossutta, “He has to sing tonight.”
One thing I have learned. When you turn down something that God has set up for you, you cannot expect things to turn out well. Try as I might I could not make the Chicago administrators like me. Carol Fox called me “Beethoven” because according to her I looked like Beethoven. She would always check up on how “Beethoven” was doing? But no one was really sensing my talent. It was like a switch had been thrown and no matter how well I sang or acted, they were not going to be able to see it.
To make matters worse, Hal Prince was the worst kind of director for me. He did not share my dreams of opera where the characters were realistically portrayed. He was into choreography. He choreographed each moment of the show at a rate of about one measure every thirty minutes. There was no acting. There was just the execution of his choreography. Being committed to Method it was my responsibility to find realistic motivations for the moves he assigned me. That made rehearsal doubly hard for me. I spoke to him frankly about it. I told him that I would do his choreography but that I had to do a realistic character based on real motivations. Do you know what he said? “Gee, that’s going to drive any director crazy.” Word got back to Fox and Krainik that I had talked to Prince and that began the rumor that I was “difficult to work with,” a rumor that would follow me the rest of my career. Prince had no commitment to acting, but I did, and I was not willing to give it up. His direction was an embarrassment to the company in other ways. He would say to the Press things like, “It is so difficult to stage opera because we’ve got all those notes cluttering up the page.” More than once he would ask the conductor if he could repeat a few measures because he needed more time on stage! He was a dilettante! The Italians were completely thrown by him because they were used to opera being opera. They were not used to being worked 8 hours a day, seven days a week for eight weeks. Carlo Cossutta held out the longest for opera as opera. When Prince would choreograph his movements, Cossutta would say, “No Harold, No. I don’t do it like that.” He was used to the protocols of opera for stars which gave him the right to tell a stage director how HE played the part. After all, he had done the role many times. Prince was totally ignorant of opera protocols and went to Fox and Krainik. He tattled like a school girl, “Cossutta is always saying ‘No’ to me.” They had a little talk with Cossutta and even the big star had to back down to let Prince do things his way. I think if anyone had told Prince that opera could be staged by using the Stanislavsky method he would have just blinked like an Oklahoma bullfrog in a rainstorm. It would have meant nothing to him.
After eights weeks of this the whole cast was exhausted. We reached opening night just having gotten the whole opera staged. Carol Neblett made it through opening night and then collapsed. Prince came back stage to see me after opening night and said, “Very nicely played. I see now what you were doing.” Unfortunately those words never got back to Fox and Krainik. People from the audience came back stage to see me and told me that I sounded better than Mastromei. But the role never really allowed me to use my full voice in a Verdian way. It was, after all, only a secondary lead and it was Puccini, not Verdi. Mastromei became a friend. We talked about my voice and Verdi and he agreed that I was a Verdi baritone. He said, “I envy your voice because it is so pure and free of injury.” He invited me to his home after the end of the shows. We compared sounds together. First I would sing the “al pari di voi” of Pagliacci and he was complimentary. Then he would sing it and the voice splintered into a combination of noise and tone fighting together. He said, “That is why I like your voice. You have no injury like mine.” He knew his career was essentially over. I had lots of stars who wanted to help me but few that really went out of their way for me and did something substantial. In their Italian mind-set they thought that going to Fox on my behalf, telling her I was a world-class singer she should hire, would help my career. They didn’t see that she would show her personal small-ness and be pissed off at both them and me. It was so un- Italian to act that way. They found me a very good actor and fine singer with a distinctive voice which the company should have considered a real discovery.
After opening night, we had a one day break and then 11 more shows to do. What were we going to do for Minnie? Neblett was out with exhaustion. They finally found a soprano at New York City Opera who knew the role and could come in at the last minute. Prince had already left. It would be up to the assistant stage director (the clip-board man) to plug her into the show. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there was no time to teach her the Prince choreography, so she was just shown the general places she was supposed to be at key times in the scene. It would be up to her to “play” the part. There’s a novel idea! The affects of her on the cast were amazing. Since she was freed from the Prince choreography, other characters began to react to her and it set loose a natural spontaneity within the characters that brought life to the scenes. Everybody sensed it like a breath of fresh air. We did several performances with her and all of them got better because we were “acting” rather than just executing choreography. I am sure Prince would have hated it.
My agent contacted Fox and Krainik after the run of shows to try to get them to use me regularly in bigger roles. He was met with a cold response. “He needs more experience.” In later years, after I had gained “more experience,” they were contacted again but we received the same cold response. I never sang at the Lyric again. That inner Voice that always speaks for truth and tries to guide knew that the Lyric would be a dead end for me. It was trying to steer me in the right direction where things were intended for me. By going my own way, I went into pain. You might say that I encountered “curses” rather than blessings. But I learned important things at my painful time at the Lyric. I learned how to sing in adverse conditions on a world stage. I learned it was foolish to ever “under-sing” on a big stage. I learned that a lot of people were not going to share my dreams of opera as both realistic drama and great singing. And I learned that I was going to have real enemies in opera to overcome. That lesson stung the worst. I had unconsciously accepted Midwestern values in life. It just seemed natural to me to think that there was some universal principle which insured that real talent would always be rewarded. It was a lovely idea, but unfortunately it was not true. I was going to have to work very hard to make my dreams come true. With that attitude I began preparation to tackle the greatest dramatic role in opera, Macbeth. Two little things stood in my way of preparation, my debut with the San Francisco Opera and the Toledo and Dayton Operas.
March 29th, 1979, I was to make my debut with the San Francisco Opera in the role of Giorgio Germont in a new production of La Traviata, directed by Barbara Karp, and conducted by Richard Bradshaw. I had learned the role with Bardelli and thiswas also my debut in the role. I loved this particular character and since my retirement from the stage I think I miss him more than any of my other characters. A character lives inside you as a rearrangement of your own experiences and feelings whichhave been molded into a virtual human being. You get to know your characters. Mind you, if you play a lot of villains you may not wish to know them, but you do, or you have not done your job as an actor.
I had very different feelings about Germont than Bardelli or anybody else I had seen in the role. To me it was obvious that Giorgio Germont is a middle-aged man—never mind the personal history for a moment—who makes a real connection with Violetta. By the end of their scene in Act 2 they have processed through many different feelings for one another; anger, fear, disrespect. But as they do they get to know each other. By the time Germont sings “No generous girl you shall not die” (“no generosa vivere”) Germont has more than tender feelings for Violetta, and he sees in her eyes that she reciprocates. When she asks him to “embrace me as your daughter” there is awkwardness to it. Of course because of their circumstances they must hold their feelings in, but feelings of warmth and tenderness are there. The next two times Germont sees Violetta his love for her is like the 800 pound gorilla in the room nobody wants to talk about. At the end of the party where Germont disowns his son for insulting Violetta and at her death bed where he is torn by grief, the meaning is found in this subtext that Germont really loves Violetta, and were it not for the fact that she loved his son, he would have been with her in a May and September loverelationship. I had no idea if Barbara Karp would allow me to play the character this way, but I didn’t ask. I found her very easy to work with. She essentially gave me “blocking” and I did my own character. Adler was watching the rehearsal one day and as he watched me he told Karp…
“There is something about him that reminds me of deformity. Give him a cane.”
Out came the prop man with a cane for Germont. I didn’t mind using it as an elegant device for a gentleman, but I didn’t use it to make Germont look old. When Karp told me this story, I asked her what Adler was talking about, and she replied, “I have no idea.” From that point on I used an elegant cane for Germont as an affectation. I even collected various different kinds of canes. Looking back now, on that rehearsal time, I realize that I came across as being very full of myself. Some people probably didn’t like that, but there was no question about my work. One of the cast members came up to me and said, “Joe, I am only going to say this once. There is one star in this show and his name is Joseph Shore.” The production had problems, however. It was poorly cast. The young Violetta was a favorite of Adler, a young beautiful soprano named Emily Rawlins. The only problem was that she could not sing Act 1. The Alfredo was a young Antonio Barasorda whose voice was much too light and thin for the role in a big house. We reached opening night and Act 1 fell flat. But after Germont’s scene with Violetta in Act 2 the audience literally erupted with shouts and applause. The reviewers all caught that. The Sacramento paper said:
“Shore, who has a good sized baritone of good quality and considerable stage presence, scored something of a triumph as Germont with the opening night audience.” THE SACRAMENTO BEE
Opening night had gone very well for me. I was able to do the character as I saw him and sing in a way that upheld my standards. The following performances were even better for me as I relaxed into the role. The other critics liked what they saw.
“…the elegant toned Joseph Shore, a stuffy yet human Germont pere.” THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
“As the elder Germont, Joseph Shore revealed a rich pleasant voice, Admirably suited to the role and a stage presence that was a decided plus.” THE UNION
At the opening night party Adler said only two words to me all evening, “Very good.” That was it. One might think that this kind of success would have provided my career with quite a boost, but it didn’t. Three years later one of the agents at Columbia Artists who had always liked me asked, “Joe what happened out there in San Francisco?” I didn’t know what he meant. I told him how the shows had gone and how the reviews were positive for me. He shook his head and said, “I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why some people with great talent don’t seem to catch on and others with little talent do.” I thought to myself, “You are one of the most powerful agents in the business and you are telling me that YOU don’t understand? Whose running this madhouse.” But I said nothing.
After San Francisco I went immediately to Toledo and Dayton where I was to sing both Ping and the Mandarin in Turandot with Lucine Amara. It was Amara’s first Turandot–she had always sung Liu before–and Ruben Dominguez was to sing Calaf. Ping was a role that I had little interest in musically or dramatically but I needed the work and was also trying to rebuild an image of myself as compliant and willing to work as an “ensemble” player. Anton Coppola was the conductor so I knew the orchestra would be solid. Both companies were still basically instant opera Mafioso companies then. Lester Freedman was the General Director and stage director for the shows. Lucine sang magnificently then proving she was as good a Turandot as she had been a Liu. Pam Myers sang Liu and did a beautiful job with the character. Lucine said to me in rehearsal, “That girl has a lovely pianissimo but she can’t sing loud.” Ruben Dominguez on the other hand sang the loudest Calaf I have ever heard, and his duet with Lucine almost tore the roof off of the old theatre. I have never heard such sounds since. I tried to play Ping as a real person and show the personality changes that he goes through in the opera. I also sang the high note options in the ensemble. During one rehearsal, Coppola looked up, his eyebrows raised. My two tenor colleagues Pang and Pong, had grins all over their faces, and said, “He is singing all the high A’s.” “I know,” said Coppola. I think he is going to become a soprano.” I liked him a lot. He was a rough old guy but he really knew opera. I told him I was studying with Bardelli and that made him open up with a variety of Bardelli stories.
I was singing the part of the Mandarin as well. That meant I had to make-up and costume for the Mandarin who sings the opening, then go back to my dressing room, undress, redo the makeup for Ping, re-costume, and then go to the wings ready for my entrance as Ping. The only problem was that this was really low- budget instant opera. There were no dressers, no make-up people. I had to do it all myself. There was not even an intercom system to call me to the stage. One night I had a little trouble with the process and knew that I was running late. My dressing room was in the basement and it was a long way to the stage. I heard enough of the music to know I was going to have to run, so I set out running as fast as I could and arrived in the wings breathless, just in time to see that Pang and Pong had already entered. There was Lester Freedman also standing in the wings with his mouth slightly agape. I didn’t even slow down my gate but ran right on to the stage and joined Pang and Pong already inprogress. It must have looked funny to the audience. The reviewers didn’t seem to catch it, or if they did they were kind.
“Joseph Shore has a ringing kind of baritone that was just right. And he sustained very well as Ping.” THE TOLEDO BLADE
“Joseph Shore, a singer with a genuinely attractive baritone, gave an excellent account of the roles of both the Mandarin and Ping.” DAYTON DAILY NEWS
Turandot was over and I could go back to New York to prepare my Macbeth. The great one himself, Orson Welles, was supposed to direct our Macbeth. I believe it was to be his debut directing opera. The first thing I did was to find a copy of his film of Macbeth so I could study his interpretation. What intrigued me most about his film was the sexuality of it. Macbeth and Lady are attached together not just by ambition but by sexual magnetism. That comes alive in Welles’ movie. I liked it and began working it into my character.
I came to the most difficult part of acting Shakespeare, a decision on how to do the speeches. The speeches of Macbeth, especially in the final act, are among the greatest speeches ever written by Shakespeare. If one goes overboard on delivering the speech eloquently, some of the realism and flow of the drama may be lost. It was a difficult decision because Verdi and Piave had not followed Shakespeare here. Now the only time Verdi ever departed from Shakespeare was when he felt he was not equal to it. The speeches that begin Act 4 are cut short by Piave. The final “Out, out brief candle” speech is entirely excised. I could almost not forgive Piave/Verdi for that. If the composer is not up to the most famous speech of the play, perhaps he is not up to the play! But Verdi was a fox. He took all the fire and brimstone of the first speeches that open the act and he placed them into a relatively minor speech, “Pieta, rispetto, amore.” That is why I interpret this aria differently from my other Verdi colleagues. I believe that Verdi packed all of the emotions of the first speeches of Act 4 into this one, and in this one we must see the heroism that characterizes Macbeth’s decision to fight. Macbeth is the true tragic hero. The weakness that gripped him briefly in Act 1 is gone. Act 4 shows him to be the great warrior we first glimpsed in Act 3 with the witches as he confronts the specters arising from the cauldron. That is why I put his long sustained high A flat in the aria, “Pieta, rispetto, amore,” because it shows Macbeth’s great courage. But if you sing this aria in a weak and pitiable fashion as a first reading of the words might suggest, then the A flat does not belong.
I wanted to play Macbeth in a way that would be just as convincing on the London legitimate stage. I worked through my standard method practices by reading and researching the play, writing my autobiography as Macbeth, creating key events in his life that give him his essential personality, then taking substitutions from my own life and using them to bring his emotions alive.
In singing the role, as opposed to speaking it, there are benefits and deficits. The benefit is that the music helps give you imaginative context for your goal of becoming spontaneous on stage with your substitutions. I am a firm believer that once the character feels like he is living through you, that you must pay attention and do what he wants on stage, even if you never rehearsed it. Chaliapin was able to instantaneously choose substitutions and spontaneously introduce them into the character. The deficit is that the music is very seductive and quite capable of luring your consciousness to it in such a way that you lose the dramatic beat and begins just to sing. That is what we see most in opera. One must consciously stay ahead of the musical beat so the dramatic beat can be the instant of choice for the coming phrase. And phrase by phrase, intention chosen honestly equals an honest performance. The intelligence with which one chooses his beats determines the success of his characterization.
The first sign of problem came when we got word that Orson Welles had gone off on a drunk and nobody knew where he was. But Jim Sullivan did a very brave thing. In order to keep the legitimate theatre emphasis, he hired a Shakespeare professor from California. She had never directed an opera before but she knew Macbeth. Virginia Floyd was her name and she gave herself to the project 200%. She staged by motivations of the character, which was right up my alley and she was thorough. Interestingly enough, a protest movement broke out with two of the cast, saying that this was all too much and, after all, “it’s just an opera.” Thankfully Lady Macbeth and I did not feel that way and rehearsals continued, until physical exhaustion set in. It was August 1979 in Tucson and we were rehearsing in a warehouse with no windows and no air conditioning. It was easily 120 degrees F in that warehouse. My vocal folds swelled up like balloons from the dehydration and stress and I had to start a course of prednisone to be able to continue with rehearsals. Finally we got into the theatre with air conditioning, and were well prepared for the final dress rehearsals. This production was one that Shakespeare and Verdi would both have been proud of. I was yet to experience the curse of Macbeth, however, a curse which I now thoroughly respect. You can call it superstition if you want, but anyone in the theatre will tell you that the play Macbeth has a curse over it. Strange things happen during it and many times bad things happen to the actors playing it. A tradition developed that we do not utter the name “Macbeth” when we enter the theatre. We say “The Scotsman” or “The Scottish Play.” If anyone utters the name, he has to go outside the theatre, turn around three times and reenter. None of us respected these superstitions when we were rehearsing. I respect them now. We had just finished a dress rehearsal when I got a telegram from New York. Since I was away most of that year I had sublet my apartment to a young man who was supposed to take care of things and care for my purebred Blue-Cream Persian cat, Mimichka of Annolis (“Mimi”). The telegram said that the young man had had a psychotic break and destroyed the apartment. Worse yet, he had thrown Mimi out of my sixth floor apartment window, after which he retrieved her body and threw it into the Hudson River. Now I am supposed to perform after hearing this! I made some calls to friends who went to my apartment and secured it. Then I tried to put all the emotional stuff on hold until after the performances.
Helping Virginia Floyd as clip-board assistant was a young girl from the University of Arizona. She was especially helpful to me and seemed full of empathy. I am just going to call her “Cathy.” She helped me to get through this time and we developed something of a relationship. It should have ended when the show ended because we were not good together for a longer term relationship.
Rehearsal schedule for this production was harsh. We finished the final dress rehearsal about midnight and were expected to give a performance for school children the next day at 9:30AM! Who in their right mind would bring elementary school children to Macbeth at 9:30AM to see an opera about murder featuring naked witches! What performer in his right mind would agree to do that? I wanted so badly to show the opera world that I was “easy to work with,” NOT “hard to work with” as the rumors had said, that I would have agreed to sing the opera standing on my head. You would think that right after that final dress rehearsal I would have rushed to bed. No, instead, I wanted to go out and eat. So a few of us went out to this night spot and showed our gluttony. I ate a huge plate of rare prime rib. By the time I got back to the house where I was staying it was about 2:00AM. In about an hour I was awakened with stomach pain from eating all that rare prime rib so late when my body was so tired. I began to throw up everything I had eaten. I got back to sleep around 5:00AM, got up at 7:30AM and went to the theatre, donned the giubba and the costume, and began to sing “The Scottish Play” at 9:30AM to a house full of 3,000 screaming elementary kids. For some reason that I cannot explain, it was one of the best performances I ever gave. I had no vocal or dramatic problems and the show went extremely well. I have no rational explanation for how that could happen, but it did. We had a day off then before opening night and we all needed it badly. Opening nights are unique and wonderful events. They are filled with adrenalin since they are the culmination of everything you have been working for since rehearsals began. They always carry that adrenalin into them and often the best show in a long run will be opening night. The hardest show is the second one. The adrenalin from opening night is gone. Everybody is more relaxed. The challenge is to get up for second night. The following shows in a run then give the company opportunity to grow and even do better than opening night. We would open in Tucson and perform three more shows, then move to Phoenix and open there for three more shows. Two opening nights is very good and it also meant that probably the best shows would be given in Phoenix, which is exactly what happened.
I was able to perform Macbeth the way I wanted to both vocally and dramatically. I had just performed Rigoletto in Tucson nine months earlier, but in those nine months I had grown by leaps and bounds. The critics saw my vision for opera in these performances of Macbeth and responded the way I had hoped.
“In the character of Macbeth Joseph Shore gives us a man who suffers genuinely as he is swept along by tides of greed and jealousy which he cannot fully understand. Shore is that rare Macbeth who almost forces us to pity him….Better yet is Shore’s virile, powerful baritone. It seems to be an instrument under total control of its owner. He is able to modulate it with vivid emotion—grief, fury, fears, anything—without distorting the sense of the musical line. And it seems tireless. At the end of three hours of heavy use, it seemed as fresh and as powerful as it started out.” TUCSON CITIZEN
“Baritone Joseph Shore is the main appeal of the Arizona Opera Company’s Macbeth…Shore sings a powerful title role, one that integrates Verdi’s fluent vocal lines with the weak and pitiable character of Shakespeare’s original tragedy…When Macbeth withdraws from his murdered King’s chamber and holds the bloody knife aloft, it is a chilling thing indeed to hear Macbeth almost shudder the words, ‘Now it is finished.’ Shore milks it for all he can, faltering ever so slightly on the final notes—Shore has a dusky voice, one instrument from top to bottom, and with a gentle edge like a properly aged Scotch.” THE ARIZONA STAR
The best performances however were in Phoenix and that is where the critic wrote the best review.
“If tomorrow night’s performance is anything like Thursday’s opener, then Joseph Shore and Donna McRae are two very big reasons to go to Symphony Hall Sat. and 8:00PM to see Arizona Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.
“At Thursday’s opening, Ms. McRae as Lady Macbeth and Joseph Shore as Macbeth proved to be very exciting. Both of the singers brought to their roles a passion and vigor that made for a stimulating, vibrating evening of opera and theatre…
“Joseph Shore’s Macbeth was effectively interpreted, particularly in the mad sequences when he brought to his portrayal a tension that revealed him to be both a frightening tyrant and a frightened, haunted ruler, unable to stop shaking after committing the crime of murder for fear he too will be slaughtered. Shore is as much an actor as he is a singer. He is more animated on stage than any of the other singers and exhibits a sense of importance whenever he makes an entrance, in whatever mood. He makes an excellent Macbeth in stature and voice, and demonstrates a careful, considered understanding of the role. He has a rich, robust voice that fills the hall with an open, masculine sound that at one point in Act IV had more gusto to it than the combined voices of a dozen castle guards.” THE PHOENIX GAZETTE
It is not common for any singer to receive reviews like these and to receive them for perhaps the most difficult role in Shakespeare and Verdi is all the more unusual. I expected this success to provide the career momentum to push me to the top. I thought it would be impossible for the opera world to ignore me after such a Macbeth. I expected to go back to New York and deal with a destroyed apartment but a new career. Half of that came true. I went back to deal with a destroyed apartment. The curse of Macbeth was that I received no career momentum from these performances at all. It was as though they had never happened. But I still had my dreams for opera and I still pursued them. Shortly after I returned to New York from Macbeth I was introduced to Thaddeus Motyka and The New Renaissance Society. My accompanist, Michael Fardink, had made the introduction believing that I would enjoy working with this group. He was right.
A New Renaissance
In late 1979, when I came back to New York from my Arizona Macbeth, my coach, Michael Fardink, introduced me to Thaddeus Motyka who was part of an experiment in New York called The New Renaissance Society. A group of actors and singers had banded together to form a society that said, “We can do art better than what is happening in New York today.” These were not naïve youngsters just off the train from Youngstown. They were working actors who had been to the best dramatic schools in the City, and they wanted more. There were wings to the society, a dramatic wing, and an opera wing and Motyka headed up the opera wing. I met Tad in his luxurious Manhattan apartment. He was a bubbly, vivacious, enthusiastic young man who had great dreams of moving opera towards a higher commitment to legitimate acting. I liked him right away. He had a winning perky smile and a way with words. An EST graduate, he would punctuate his sentences with “Thank you Werner” when he came upon a realization. (For those of you who don’t remember EST, Werner Erhard was its founder.) You couldn’t help but like him. When I met Tad the opera wing was in the middle of one of its first projects, to perform Menotti’s Old Maid and the Thiefover a New York radio. They needed someone to sing the baritone role of Bob and I volunteered. I did not know the role but I learned it quickly and set to work with the cast that included Tad’s wife Sally and Dianne Armistead, a musical comedy specialist. This was a radio broadcast so the dramatic work was limited to inflection but it went well and gave some fuel to the thought of a more extensive foray into opera. It also convinced The New Renaissance Society that it should put all of its effortsinto the opera wing, newly named, The Chamber Opera Theatre of New York. A few months later Motyka told me his plan to stage a double bill of Sir William Walton’s opera, The Bear, based on the Chekhov farce, along with Ibert’s Angelique. It was to be done at the historic Brooklyn Academy of Music. He asked me to do the title role of the Bear, along with Diane Armistead and Bob Briggs. There would be three performances, March 21-23 1980. I was only too happy to do the role. It meant that March 21st , 1980, would be my New York stage debut. That summer of 1980 I was to sing Germont again, this time staged in Central Park with Vincent La Selva and The New York Grand Opera. So within four months I would have two New York stage appearances as opportunities to show my work in Manhattan. Sir William Walton’s music was difficult rhythmically but not vocally and I learned it quickly. Ainslee Cox was the conductor and I found him a delight to work with. A sweet and cordial gentleman, there was never any ego tension in the musical rehearsal. When we began staging I did not quite know what to expect in Motyka’s methods. Usually stage directors discuss characterizations, and then begin to work on staging by giving blocking. Motyka was very much into the Stanislavski method, especially as it had been interpreted by Herbert Berghoff and Uta Hagen. I appreciated this lavish agreement with my own commitment to acting but I had never worked with Motyka before and didn’t really know what to expect. As it turned out, we worked for three weeks just with the script, no music, and instead of blocking we did constant improvisation. Motyka obviously wanted to make us work harder emotionally and intellectually before settling in on any sort of blocking. It was definitely the most difficult work I had ever done in rehearsal. Please remember this was a comedy and comedy is no easier to play than tragedy. In many ways it is harder. You have to thoroughly believe in these absurd characters in order for the opera to work. Both Diane Armistead and I were close to exhaustion after three weeks working this way. But then we finally began to settle on some choices for movement and a kind of blocking finally emerged. I remember The Bear as one of the most difficult as well as most satisfying roles I ever performed. By the time we came to performance we fully believed in these absurd characters. None of our conscious attention was diverted to the mechanics of singing or the musical structure. That was all learned so well that it happened reflexively. Our conscious attention was on each choice, each dramatic “beat,” and there was no observer. We achieved the kind of opera we had hoped for and the response of theaudience and the critics was everything we could have hoped for.
“The saga of the boorish suitor (Joseph Shore as Sir William Walton’s THE BEAR) was done with all the vocal, dramatic, and orchestral resources one could wish for. Chamber Opera may not sell or sound as exciting as Grand Opera, but when it is done with the musical and dramatic finesse of the The Chamber Opera Theatre of New York, it is worth any number of MET average night performances.” Bartin Wimble, The New York Daily News
There you had it. “When opera is done this way it is worth ANY NUMBER of MET average night performances.” That is what we wanted to hear. I didn’t care that I didn’t get paragraphs about me as I had gotten in Macbeth. I cared only that I was a part of this significantly new way of performing opera. It was not really new, of course. Stanislavski had been given control of the young artist program at the Bolshoi and he used his method to train those singers and stage opera. Goldovsky had started out with a method to try to make opera dramatically believable. Others had tried to produce opera as we had done but their work always stayed on the fringe of the profession. It never really influenced the mainstream of opera. In spite of Stanislavski, the main Bolshoi productions continued to lack dramatic credibility and Goldovsky’s method eventually turned into simple choreography.
To be a part of a company effecting real change in opera towards dramatic legitimacy was indeed close to my own dream. My dream was to be able to perform opera with totally believable characterization while employing historically great singing with a view towards enriching the lives of the audience. My dream was to inspire people with my art, to enable them to contemplate for themselves the great issues of life. In opera they come down to a simple, profound question: “What is truth, beauty and love?” I have no desire to try to spoon feed the answer to them. I want to make them contemplate for themselves the great questions of life. I want to inspire them, and somehow make them better than they were when they walked into the theatre. I heard Jon Vickers, who was the incarnation of these goals, say that it would be worth the performance “if only one or two in the audience were inspired.” That resonated with me. After all, I had gone into opera as a disheartened ministerial student, hearing an inner voice saying, “The stage can be your pulpit, the audience can be your congregation, the characters can be your sermons.” Of course I wanted to inspire people by my work. I wasn’t interested in just entertaining them. They can get better entertainment at the movies, hear better orchestra at the Symphony, see better dance at the Ballet. But at the opera I had them. I had them engrossed in a believable character delivered by great singing, which was itself a form of extreme sports for the voice. No way would they be getting out of my theatre without being given the chance to grab on to a light-shaft of inspiration!
After The Bear and a Central Park Germont I headed back to Omaha for another Traviata, this one again in English, with Willie Waters conducting, Pamela Myers would be Violetta and Neil Rosenshein Alfredo. I was singing all over the place with artists from New York City Opera–In Omaha, Myers and Rosenshein–but I could not get City Opera to give me the time of day. I had first auditioned for Julius Rudel in 1976 by singing the Prologue to Pagliacci and Deh vieni alla finestra from Don Giovanni (as contrast). I sang the Prologue extremely well. Rudel wrote one word on his audition sheet, “fuzzy.” Go figure. Maybe he needed his ears cleaned out. Next I sang for Sills and I sang Dagl’immortali vertici from Attila. I sang it very well but as I was singing I noticed that Sills was fidgeting a lot. For my high notes, she literally gasped and shook her head. Now what did that mean? I sang great high notes that were ringing inside the house and she acted as if they were terrible. It unnerved me so I asked my coach how I had sung, and he said, “Great. You sound like you.” My fellow singers were applauding when I came off stage. “Well then, what is wrong with her?” I asked. My coach said, “Everybody knows that she doesn’t know voices. She’s ruining the house.” I went back another year and sang the prologue again for her and just sang the devil out of it, long high A flat and everything. I got the same treatment. Again I asked my coach, “How did I do?” And he said, “You sang the livingdaylights out of it. It was fabulous.” Little by little the character of the Sills-run City Opera started to get out to the public. My coach, Michael Fardink, who was also a coach at City Opera, had dinner one evening in 1978 with a high City Opera executive who had one too many martinis. He began to tell Michael all of the singers the administration was going to try to fire. Name after name, they included the last of the good singers at City Opera. He sounded so proud of himself, Michael said, and then the administrator continued with a sneer in his voice, “After all, we don’t exist here to showcase talent.” That was the attitude. Good singers were their enemies. Exceptional talent was viewed by that administration as contrary to their goals. I wonder what their goals were. The fellow never said and audiences certainly couldn’t tell from the poor opera being foisted on to the public. Now that opera company is gone and we can say, “Good riddance.”
Traviata in Omaha in 1980 went beautifully. Pam Myers had a hauntingly beautiful pianissimo and she used it generously. Neil Rosenshein’s tenor was a little monochromatic in the top, but his youthful energy and commitment made for a good Alfredo. By this time Germont was well in my repertoire and I considered it almost a vacation to sing him. English, however, is a terrible language for Di Provenza which greatly suffered from the translation.
The critics seemed to catch my dream for opera:
“Joseph Shore, in the role of Alfredo’s father, Georges Germont, also made a strong impression. Both dramatically and vocally he is a stirring figure. His portrayal of the person who was the catalyst in the tragedy was powerful. Most impressive of all was his singing. A strongly modulated voice and a penchant for ensemble singing made his appearance memorable.” OMAHA WORLD HERALD
There was however, a surprise visitor in the audience. “Mr. New Director” from Tulsa had come to see me perform. “Mr. New Director” was not really a friend to me. He was a very suave, soft spoken enemy. He could easily have done well in the CIA. I had just sung and acted a great performance when he came back stage to surprise me. I thanked him for coming and he asked, “Joe, tell me truthfully, was there a rasp in your voice tonight?” It caught me by such surprise that I didn’t know what to say for a minute. I recall saying something like, “Well I certainly hope not. I guess the recording and the critics will tell.” I sent him a recording just so he could hear that the voice was smooth. One of my supporter’s at Tulsa Opera asked him, “How was Joe?” He said, “Germont has to be Germont, and last night Germont was Joe.” I found that an interesting comment. He was saying that he didn’t like method acting. Obviously the critics did. In method I become Germont by allowing him to become me. I take from my life, experiences, memories, sensory recall, and I use them to create Germont. So there is something of me in all my characters. Why would anyone pose as a friend and come back after an obvious triumph and ask me if my voice were raspy? This would just be an act of passive aggression, and not too passive at that. There are some strange cookies in opera. I had offended Mr. New Director very early in Tulsa. He told me then in 1975 that I acted as though “I didn’t need anybody’s help” in making a career. He was really saying he was hurt that I didn’t seem to want to learn from him, which was not really true. I was just young and green at the time and did not know how to act around powerful people, so sometimes I made social mistakes. He had such a weak ego that he never forgot what he thought was my arrogance.
Let’s talk about arrogance a little bit. When you are extremely gifted and the gift comes all at once, it is a shock to the personality. Many young, talented singers posture with a little arrogance as a shield. Any veteran producer ought to know that and be able to see it and ignore it. We all grow from green to ripe. You may not want to pick the green ones, but don’t curse them for being green. Before long they will ripen and be wonderful.
Mr. New Director left Tulsa and got a posh appointment as Executive Director of the Washington Opera. He certainly had succeeded in climbing the ladder. In his position he got to hear all the young singers in the business. Singers talk among themselves you know and we talked about Mr. “P” (we’ll call him). It seems like Mr. P heard many great young singers who he didn’t like. I knew truly great singers who auditioned for him multiple times and got absolutely nowhere with him. It left me gobsmacked. One of those talented people was a great soprano with whom I had sung in Dallas. Since she was married to one of my friends, I saw her frequently. One day, I asked her, “Did you ever audition for Mr. P”? She responded, “Lots of times.”“How do you figure that guy out?” I asked. “He’s got NO EARS,” she said. “NO EARS.” It seems that there was something wrong with Mr. P. Because of his own psychological problems, he simply could not distinguish great talent. Young talented singers seemed to hook something in his weak ego.
From Omaha I headed back to my favorite company, The Arizona Opera for a string of yet more Traviatas, thankfully in Italian. In November 1980 Jeryl Metz (wife of conductor Richard Woitach) would sing Violetta, and William Harness would sing Alfredo. Ted Puffer from the Nevada Opera was going to conduct. There was great camaraderie among the cast as we all really enjoyed working together. I just considered it a pleasure to have the opportunity to “be” with my friend Giorgio Germont again. There were many beautiful moments.
“Particularly effective in drawing his character down to the finest details, vocally and otherwise, was Shore as Germont. His declamation of ‘Pura siccome un angelo,’ Germont’s plea to Violetta, was a highlight of the production as was his performance of ‘Di Provenza il Mar.’” THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
“The other principle role of Germont, Alfredo’s father, was skillfully sung by baritone Joseph Shore whose vocal equipment is mature and as smooth as molten rock.” TUCSON CITIZEN
”The only excellent performance came from baritone Joseph Shore as the elder Germont. His rich, warm voice projected well and his ‘Di Provenza il Mar was enjoyable.” THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC
The conductor, Ted Puffer, asked me to perform Amonasro for him next year in 1981, which I was only too happy to do. As always the tumblers just seemed to click for me in Arizona. I would be returning in just a few months to sing Telramund in Wagner’s Lohengrin, the biggest project Arizona had attempted and quite a stretch for me to come up to heldenbariton. The heldentenor William Neill would sing Lohengrin. Jeanne Cooke from Germany would sing Elsa. Richard T Gill from the Met would sing King Henry and a relatively unknown dramatic mezzo named Anne Esch would sing Ortrud. Local singers would handle the rest. The tenor, Jerry Siena, recently turned to producing would direct. Jim Sullivan would conduct.
I determined from the beginning I would sing the part my way, which meant definitely Italianate. I remember when James Morris went to Germany to study Wotan with Hans Hotter. Hotter told him to stop trying to sing like “a German.” He madehim go away and learn “Ella giammai m’amo,” and then come back and sing Wotan like he had sung Philip! I learned from that.
As I was preparing Telramund, everyone, and I mean everyone, was telling me that I was going to ruin my voice, that the stages of the world’s opera houses were littered with the bones of baritones who had tried to sing this part. William Dooley, who recorded the role with Hines, Amara, and Konya, gave me horror stories of his larynx feeling like it was in a vice-grip, being squeezed to death when he sang this part. I was never worried about it because I sang it with exactly the same technique I used for Rigoletto or Macbeth or anything else. The King Henry of that cast was Richard T. Gill, Hines’ understudy at the MET for Boris in 1975. He sang some orchestra rehearsals in that staging and produced a big sound. I heard him as Pogner and he produced a big sound. This man who had no trouble singing many roles at the MET was terrified of singing King Henry in Tucson. I had earlier done Sparafucile with him and knew his voice, but for King Henry he tried to change his technique. He started pulling his voice up and carrying the chest higher. He became so terrified that before the final dress rehearsal he called the conductor to him and threatened not to sing “Mein Herr und Gott” unless the orchestra was brought down lower in volume. He just barely got through the role and did not sound like himself. I, on the other hand, sailed through Telramund without any trouble because I used the same technique as I did for everything. The orchestra is louder for Telramund than for any other baritone role and yet I had no trouble getting over the orchestra in a 3,000 seat house. The Elsa from Germany complimented me on the role for its “correctness.” There were Germans there who had seen the opera at Bayreuth and thought my Telramund was far superior. Far from hurting my voice, I felt like it was one of my best roles and I wish I had gotten to sing it more. To be sure it “felt” somewhat different than Rigoletto in some places because of coloration demands but the same Appoggio was used, the same registration, the same aggiustamento, the same arrotondamento. The “copertura,” although somewhat darker, was still Italianate, rather than the German School “Deckung.” It had to be sung louder in most places, but I did that without shouting or losing the beauty of the voice.
At one point in rehearsal, Jim Sullivan, the conductor said to me, “You have it all. Take Milnes for example. He has this great big voice but it doesn’t have much color. To me, your voice has both.” I thanked him. It was nice to hear that coming from an honest man like Jim.
The character of Telramund was full of details for me to work with. I worked as hard on Telramund as I did on Macbeth dramatically. Here was a nobleman full of both pride and good intentions, but he marries the wrong woman. He marries a sorceress who, unknown to him, is intent on bringing back the old gods. Ortrud weaves her plots and knows exactly how to control Telramund. One of the greatest scenes in all of opera is Act 2 scene 1 as Telramund, stunned by his defeat by Lohengrin, confronts Ortrud angrily and almost breaks free of her spell, but is ensnared again. It is also some of the most difficult singing in all of opera. To play this man, I had to play him as a nobleman, full of power and pride and then show how he disintegrates by believing and acting on Ortrud’s lies until finally it costs him his life.
I had used broad swords in Macbeth but these were longer and we had to rehearse sword fights quite a bit to keep from really injuring someone. We also had a special touch added by the usage of a trained hawk on stage. He was on his trainer’s arm and hooded, but we positioned him up next to Telramund and Ortrud. At various times as Ortrud wished to “divine” something, she would send out the enchanted hawk. It was quite magical. Once again, I felt that this was opera as I envisioned it, and the public and critics agreed. The Arizona Opera Company, thanks to Jim Sullivan, had allowed me to develop my art on their stage, and to the mutual advantage of both of us. I never got a bad review in Arizona nor disappointed myself in my own performances. Thank you Jim, wherever you are for joining with me in good dreams.
“The two dark, malignant characters, Anne Esch as Ortud and Joseph Shore as Frederick, both were good. Shore, in his Act II lament about how robbers won’t even look up at him, was a pool of astonishingly black, angry despair.” TUCSON CITIZEN
“One of the strongest points of the production is the consistent level of excellence displayed by the cast. In addition to Neill, Cook, and Esch—all new comers to Arizona Opera, there was old-timer Shore of Macbeth, Traviata, and Rigoletto, in fine form as Telramund.” THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
I returned to New York to work again with Tad Motyka and COTNY (Chamber Opera Theatre of New York). The success of The Bear/Angelique double bill prompted Motyka to consider doing a major work for 1981. Amadeus was a big hit on Broadway at the time with Ian McKellen himself as Salieri. Motyka came upon a brainstorm to produce the New York premiere of the opera upon which Amadeus is based, Mozart and Salieri, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. We would add Salieri’s fluff opera, Prima la musica, Poi le parole, to make a double bill. Mozart and Salieri was within our scope, being only two short acts, for a total of about 45 minutes. It was taken word for word from the Pushkin text of his play by the same name. We had moved up a long way from Chekhov and Sir William Walton to Pushkin and Rimsky- Korsakov. The Russian opera was very dark but very investigative, a probing into the human soul to find the psychic anatomy of mediocrity and genius. I am tempted to call it a miniature Boris, but it is what it is, a miniature masterpiece, not a copy of anything else.
Motyka and Harlow Robinson worked to translate the Russian into modern English which would be faithful to the meaning of Pushkin but colored more colloquially. It was a daunting task but they came up with a workable script.
Motyka asked me to sing Salieri, normally a bass part. My tenor friend, Ron Gentry, was to play Mozart. We invented a couple of other mute characters, an amanuensis for Salieri and a waitress in the Tavern scene.
The work on Salieri was the most detailed characterization I have ever attempted. In my own work for the part, I had written out a more detailed personal biography than ever before, and in rehearsal Motyka was probing deeper into our emotions to help us with substitutions. This time, as opposed to the way we worked for The Bear, there was little need for improvisation. We worked for six weeks on a 45 minute opera that most opera companies would have blocked and rehearsed in a week. We were definitely trying to make this show the result of all our work with the method and present a way of doing opera with a higher respect for acting. We wanted to move people.
Tad worked with us meticulously on each line, each monologue, each scene to make the characters real. In most opera companies when singers are rehearsing they “mark,” that is to say, they don’t fully sing and they don’t fully emote. They just sort of walk through it and save it all for performance. We didn’t do any of that sort of thing. When we came to rehearse we came to work with our emotions, our sensory recall, to discover what we could do with these characters. I remember the first rehearsal when Salieri broke down and wept after hearing the Mozart Requiem inside his own mind. It wasn’t calculated. It just happened as a result of being real in the moment. The air in the rehearsal space was charged with electricity. Gentry became uncomfortable and broke character saying to Motyka, “He’s so into it.” Motyka quickly hushed him and the moment continued. People were not accustomed to being moved by real emotions on stage. It means that during rehearsal we had reached a placed where there was real suspension of disbelief, a place we don’t often truly get to in opera. We demand it of the audience but we don’t get there ourselves so why should we expect it to happen. I guarantee you that it won’t happen without this kind of internal work that is the hallmark of the method. Many opera singers don’t want to have to work so hard. As in the case of our Arizona Macbeth, many of them would complain about all this realistic stuff by saying, “Hey, it’s only an opera.”
I heard a Jazz pianist say once, “Most jazz singers I know take their singing very seriously but they don’t take themselves very seriously. But most opera singers I’ve worked with take themselves very seriously and don’t take the music all that seriously.” What an indictment. We took the music and the characters very seriously indeed as if our life’s work were being aired before the New York intelligentsia.
In case you don’t know the story of Mozart and Salieri and how COTNY developed it, here is a synopsis:
Step by step through the opera:
It is close to dawn in the royal apartment of Antonio Salieri in the Viennese Hapsburg Court. He has been up all night with his scribe writing his autobiography, in the process of which he is noting all the melodies that he believes Mozart has stolen from him. Mozart’s genius, along with his frivolous manner, has deeply disturbed Salieri who now sees himself as mediocre compared to Mozart, an assessment of his life which he cannot bear. He has even contemplated suicide. On the one hand he worships Mozart’s genius, but cannot bear the thought that “God” has given such genius to a frivolous prankster like Mozart rather than to himself. He believes his hard work should have earned him “God’s” favor instead of Mozart. On the other hand, he finds Mozart’s very existence something which he cannot tolerate and begins to rationalize that Mozart must be “removed” from the world for the sake of art itself.
About daybreak, Salieri’s rantings and ravings are interrupted by Mozart himself who has come to Salieri for a dual purpose. He has been writing a Requiem and wants to get Salieri’s opinion on it. He treats Salieri as a senior colleague to be respected while knowing all the while that Salieri’s music is really not very good.
Salieri accepts the appearance of respect that Mozart gives to him, while envying Mozart’s genius.
Mozart has found a street musician begging for food on the street and has brought him along to Salieri’s apartment for a joke. He brings the old man in and asks him to play for Salieri. Salieri is not amused and erupts in anger over the disgraceful show. Mozart would leave but Salieri notices Mozart has brought some music. He is driven to hear it just as he craves to have Mozart’s genius. Mozart, instead of playing his new Requiem, improvises on the spot, while the avaricious Salieri tries to take notes on the composition he is hearing. Deeply unhinged by Mozart’s ability to “compose” so brilliantly, he is even more upset to find that the “composition” has been an improvisation. He invites Mozart to dine with him that evening at the Golden Lion,” a common pub that Salieri would never frequent. He decides that Mozart must be murdered for sake of art itself but contemplates dying with him in a form of suicide. He will take the poison with Mozart.
The second scene takes place in the Golden Lion. Salieri and Mozart are eating Mozart’s favorite dish, “livers sautéed with onions,” a common food that Salieri pretends to enjoy. Mozart tells him about writing his Requiem. Salieri is unhinged by this news and decides to poison Mozart right there. He pours poison into two cordial glasses, intending to die with Mozart, but the prankster Mozart downs both glasses before Salieri can take his. Despairing of his inability to even kill himself, Salieri sinks into depression. Mozart finally shows him the printed music for the first movement of his Requiem. Salieri examines it alone to ascertain Mozart’s secrets but is finally overcome with the beauty of the music and the self-awareness of his own nature from which he can no longer hide. Mozart returns to find Salieri weeping, but excuses himself soon due to “illness.” Salieri is left alone with his conscience. He tried to justify himself by the old tale that even a genius like Michelangelo was rumored to have murdered the young man who modeled for the Sistine Crucifixion in order to find the true posture of death. The absurdity of the rumor does not stop Salieri from taking refuge in it. But as he looks again at a page of Mozart’s Requiem he is overcome again with hisown nature. The scene ends.
As the rehearsals continued COTNY’s publicity department was doing a great job of bringing the production to the New York audience. We had articles in the area newspapers including the New York Times. Motyka and Robinson were interviewed for their translation. There was a buzz beginning to develop about the production.
New York Times ARTS AND LEISURE
Sunday. August 16, 1981
Rimsky-Korsakov’s — ‘Mozart and Salieri’
(Ron Gentry, left, is Mozart and Joseph Shore is Salieri in the Rimsky -Korsakov opera to be performed by the Chamber Opera of New York at Marymount Manhattan Theater beginning Thursday.)
If you think that I looked more like Charlie’s Aunt in the above picture, I would not dispute it. The shot was hurried and an appropriate wig could not be found on the spur of the moment. We fleshed up my face as much as possible to draw a big physical distinction between the epicurean Salieri suffering from gout and the physically innocent Mozart. The costume added a good twenty pounds to me so the final physical contrast between the two characters was significant.
The publicity department did their job to spread the word that there was a new opera company in Manhattan doing opera better. Remember? “When it is done with the musical and dramatic finesse of The Chamber Opera Theatre of New York, it is worth any number of MET average night performances” But insufficient attention was given to the underlying message we were sending to other regional opera companies, and our two bigger brothers in Manhattan, the Met and City Opera. We were saying, “We do opera better than you do.” After all, that’s what the critics had already said. Did we really believe we were going to win friends and influence people by that? If we were right, everyone would hate us for it. If we were wrong, everyone would say, “See, you’re no different than the rest of us.” We were essentially calling ourselves “Mozart” and the rest of the opera world “Salieri.” We must have thought there was some universal principle on our side that said, “Excellence will always prevail.” It was a lovely idea, and it was not true.
For our final dress rehearsal we performed before an invited audience which included the cast members of Amadeus playing on Broadway at the time. They loved the show and that meant a lot to us, as you can imagine.
Opening night and the entire run of shows was filled with critics from all over the New York area as well as artistic directors of other opera companies both regional and New York. This was, after all, the New York premiere of this little masterpiece. This is what they had to say:
“Chamber Opera Theatre’s performance and production were thoroughly admirable, including the staging by Thaddeus Motyka. Both operas (sung clearly in good English translations) were cast with splendid singing actors, including Ron Gentry as a Mozart not far removed from Tim Curry and Joseph Shore as a Salieri on an Ian McKellen level. Indeed when Shore broke down while reading the opening of Mozart’s Requiem after giving his rival poison, it was a moving moment of truth comparable to anything in AMADEUS.” Bill Zakariasen, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
“Baritone Joseph Shore was superb as Salieri, his voice full and flexible, his acting on a level rarely seen on the operatic stage.” Peter Goodman, NEWSDAY
“MOZART AND SALIERI is almost a monologue for Salieri and it was handled beautifully here, both musically and dramatically, by Joseph Shore, the 1981 winner of the Bruce Yarnell Memorial Award for Baritones.” Glenne Currie, UNITED PRESS international
“Joseph Shore…gave a fully engrossing, richly characterful portrayal, breaking into very convincing desolation at the climactic moment when Mozart’s Requiem wells up from the orchestra.” Jack Heimenz, MUSICAL AMERICA
“The one-act, two role opera is Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting of Pushkin’s dramatic poem in which Salieri, not Mozart, is the leading figure, a role both commandingly and sensitively dominated at the opening performance last night by baritone Joseph Shore.” Dave Spangler, THE BERGEN RECORD
“The dominant role is that of Salieri, with Joseph Shore giving a really awesome portrayal of the court musician who can never fathom or hope to gain one spark of Mozart’s genius.” Jennie Schulman, BACKSTAGE
“Joseph Shore excels in his role of Salieri. He is as fine an actor as he is a singer, and both talents combine in an altogether convincing and moving performance…one would want to attend the production as much for the theatrical value of their performance as for any other reason.” Louis Morra, WKCR RADIO
“Joseph Shore’s Salieri provided the evening’s finest singing and one hopes to hear much more of him in the future.” Byron Belt, NEWHOUSE NEWSPAPERS
“The only voice I can single out for distinction is the sonorous baritone of Joseph Shore.” Noah Tree, AFTER DARK
“…an uncluttered, serious and moving account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s one act MOZART AND SALIERI… Baritone Joseph Shore sang and acted a powerfully tragic Salieri.” Leighton Kerner, THE village VOICE
We revived the production the following year, 1982. We had all grown a lot in that year and our work was even better than the first year. I had added much more inner work to the character and I also sang it better. Here are the reviews:
“The singers in Mozart and Salieri were Ron Gentry, as the young genius, and Joseph Shore, as his jealous rival. They fulfilled their assignments so expertly that one flinched inwardly at the implication that Salieri murdered Mozart…..” AllenHughes, THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Mozart and Salieri was so highly acclaimed when Chamber Opera performed it last season, that they decided to bring it back with the original principals, Joseph Shore as Salieri and Ron Gentry as Mozart. Both were perfectly cast to the extent where you feel no one will ever be equal to their flawless characterizations. Shore, in particular, possesses a dramatic baritone voice of limitless range. In contrast, Gentry displays a clear, crisp tenor which suits ideally. Both gentlemen conveyed convincing historical portraits of the rival Maestri/Composers.” Jennie Schulman, BACKSTAGE
“…. a very satisfying work …. Good acting blended well with good singing; the characters came alive. It was a wonderful production.” FESTA, The First Guide to the Performing Arts in the U.S.A.
“…. Chamber Opera Theater of New York … focuses on rarely done works. All of its productions are meticulously rehearsed and minutely detailed. They have to be: in this intimate setting, everything appears close up … the strong baritone voice of Joseph Shore (Salieri) and the silvery tenor of Ron Gentry (Mozart) complemented each other nicely ,.. The success of such groups is heartening….” Annalyn Swan, NEWSWEEK
“Chamber Opera Theater of New York revived its hit production of Nicolai Rimsky- Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri at the Marymount Manhattan Theater Wednesday night … Mozart and Salieri’s expert production and performance (once again starring Ron Gentry and Joseph Shore in the leads) were fully up to last season’s high musical and dramatic standards.” Bill Zakariasen, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sometimes a hit performance will also bring out jealousy from other singers, and sub-stories develop that are sad indeed. My success in 1981 was so big that it even caught the attention of my hero and mentor, Jerome Hines. Jerry was looking for ways to extend his career then, so he and Jim Sardos, his agent, hatched a covert plan. They knew that Chamber Opera Theatre of New York was going to be reviving the production in 1982, with the same cast (including me). Now by this time I was an important member in Jerome Hines Opera Troupe which sang his sacred opera on the life of Christ, called I Am The Way. Jerry was my hero as well as my mentor. After my big success as Salieri, Jim Sardos, Hines’ agent and Jerome Hines himself, paid a little secret visit to our company’s director. They proposed that if Chamber Opera Theater of New York would fire Shore, Jerome Hines himself would sing the role of Salieri in the revival. The director did not take the bait and he held this information from me because he knew how it would hurt me. I had gotten so good that even the great Jerome Hines was threatened by me. I was competition to him. Thank God I wasn’t told. There Hines was at the Met, where everyone, including Hines said I should be singing. There I was at the little Chamber Opera Theatre of New York and Jerry thought nothing of trying to stab me in the back and take my role away from me.
After the run of shows, in Aug. 1982 I gave my second song recital in New York. This was scheduled as a “Liederabend” at the Maymount Manhattan Theatre, the home of the Chamber Opera Theatre of New York. I developed a concert on war and peace and used Russian and American song literature. It was, after all, still the cold war. We had a lot of publicity in the New York Press. I had invited the United States delegation to the UN to attend, and also the Soviet delegation to the UN. The Americans did not reply. But the Soviets came en masse. It seemed they had brought the whole delegation. I was experimenting with concerts which could deeply affect consciousness by the songs, by the way they were sung, by their intention, and by the will of the singer. After the concert, the Soviet delegation flooded backstage to congratulate me. The leading diplomat rushed to congratulate me. “That was REAL Russian,” He said. Their happiness with the concert caused several letters to be written back and forth in attempt to get me to Russia. But it was the cold war, and it never happened.
In 1985 we took Mozart and Salieri to Dallas. We had all grown a great deal by then but the opera company had not done the kind of publicity development for the show as COTNY had done and the public did not seem to catch on to it asenthusiastically.
“Under the direction of Thaddeus Motyka, Joseph Shore presents Salieri as a sort of Everyman turned bad, capable of arousing sympathy and self-recognition from the audience. He also sings the part beautifully, which doesn’t hurt. Tenor Ron Gentry as Mozart made a convincing dramatic presence, though he does not own a voice of any particular distinction. In the supporting, non-speaking roles, Leslie Rice-King made a poignant character out of the throw-away role of a blind violinist whom Mozart picks up on the street for the purpose of ridicule.” Wayne Lee Gay, Special to the Star-Telegram Dallas
My performances of Salieri before a New York audience were a clear presentation of my talents and dreams for opera. The opera world could not say that I was an unknown entity or that there were doubts about my singing or my acting. To me, the finest appraisals of my work in opera were given by these critics, comparing my acting to Sir Ian McKellen, one of the greats of our time. When Newsday said, “Baritone Joseph Shore was superb as Salieri, his voice full and flexible, his acting on a levelrarely seen on the operatic stage,” what else really needed to be said to convince the opera world that I was a serious artist?
Some companies who had refused to hire me before tried to make excuses. Some said, “Well I guess he can act, but he needs all that time in rehearsal. We don’t have all that much time in our productions.” One said, “He looks enormous on stage.We have to have singers who are slender.” After a while they stopped trying to find excuses. They didn’t enjoy being unmasked before the world as Salieris.
My performances of Mozart and Salieri should have inaugurated a new movement in my career, but they didn’t. Like the performances of Macbeth, they did little to move my career into the international arena where it belonged. But at least no animals were killed this time around. I had a new Blue Cream Persian cat named Jenny (“Gentilesca Gioia Mia”) who became the feline love of my life, and I had a lot more opera to perform.
In 1981 I won the Bruce Yarnell Memorial Award for Baritones and Basses. It was a competition that had contestants in it who were leading baritones at New York City and The Metropolitan Opera. This was more of a mid-career award than it was a beginner’s competition. The judges were some very powerful people in the opera world: an agent from Columbia Artists, a star baritone from the Met, Joan Yarnell (Bruce’s widow) and several other people high up in opera. The audition space was CAMI hall, a nice small live hall which made everyone sound good. I have honestly forgotten what I sang, but I believe it was Urna Fatale. I had a good feeling about this competition and I won it. One of the judges was baritone Theodore (“Teddy”) Uppman from the Met. He called me and asked me to meet him to discuss my career. A very sweet, honest man, he said, “You have the voice that I always wanted to have. I just wanted to tell you, don’t quit. Don’t give up.” He obviously had heard of the Met’s Larry Stayer trying to blackball me and he was afraid the pressure would make me quit. Here was a great artist who knew what I was going through and who knew how good I was and he just wanted to help. I will never forget his sweet kindness. I really cannot say that winning the competition gave me any career momentum. It gave me a thousand dollars and well wishes. I paid the rent with the prize money!
Another judge at that competition was a powerful agent at Columbia Artists. He had always professed to like my voice and after I won he called me up and asked me to come into his office. He said, “I was hoping you would win, you know. I was surprised you didn’t call me and try to get me to represent you.” I apologized for not calling and was about to ask him if he would represent me when he said something so bizarre it stopped me in my tracks. He said, “We don’t care how good you are. If you make us or our singers look bad, we are not going to let you succeed.” Well that pretty well shut down the conversation and I thanked him again for his earlier well wishes and left. A short time later he was fired from Columbia Artists.
I had never connected with a top agent. I don’t know if it was bad luck, bad karma or the impact of Larry Stayer’s blackball. I auditioned three times for a big agency, referred by one of their big clients, and they said frankly, “We admire your talent, but we don’t have the time to develop you.”
Jerry Hines set up an audition for me with his agent, Jim Sardos, who said almost the same exact words, “I just don’t have the time or operation to be able to develop you.” To me it sounded like a brush off phrased nicely. Hines apologized to me a few years before he died. He said “I know I should have done more to help you. In my career, if I hadn’t had the contacts of my teacher, Gennaro Curci, I am sure that I would not have gotten the breaks I got so early.” If he had really wanted to, he could have made Jim Sardos represent me. Jim was his best friend and Jerry was Jim’s cash cow. Jerry just didn’t care enough. At that time he was preoccupied with keeping his own career going. Later in 1988 when Jerry started Opera Music Theatre International to help young singers who were falling through the cracks, he called me and asked if I wanted to be one of OMTI’s artists. But it was too late by then in my life. I had already started teaching and had a wife and child. He was just too late.
I went through a variety of low level agents who could get auditions but didn’t have the power to make deals. I can easily say that all the jobs I got, I really won at the audition for the part. But careers are made by big agents with the power and desire to make deals for their singers.
There was a very powerful agent who liked to come down to the Asti restaurant and listen to me sing. He was always so kind and complimentary. He worked as an agent for the Herbert Barrett Agency and one night he asked me to come over to his table. He said, I think I can get Herbert to represent you. I’ll handle your bookings. Would you come and sing an audition for the entire agency?” I said “Yes,” enthusiastically of course. Barrett was one of the most powerful agents in the business. He also represented a very famous baritone named Sherrill Milnes. I didn’t think about that at the time because my agent friend, who I will simply call “Dick,” was so positive. I wasn’t thinking of anything negative. I arrived at the Barrett agency a little before 11:00AM and found that they had a stage and a full audience of people. All of the agents and workers from the agency were there, as well as guests. The time was awful for a big voice. 11:00 AM is not a proper time for a Verdi singer to be auditioning, but I was in good voice, in good spirits, and somewhat guileless about this audition. I sang Macbeth’s aria, Pieta, rispetto, amore, and seldom have I sung it better. I used the Warren approach at the end, singing the high A flat forever. It was an audition that I can truly say, had no fault in it. I can usually find something I could do better in an audition but not this one. I expected Dick to introduce me to Herbert and go into his office and sign a contract. Instead I got word from Dick that the office wanted to talk about it, and he would call me the next day. As soon as I left the room, they began to discuss me. Some people tried to pick my singing apart and find some fault. They were obviously being put up to this because they had phony objections. One said, “He doesn’t sing softly very much, does he?” Dick countered that I had sung softly in the recitative where it was called for, but the aria doesn’t really call for it. Then Dick shut down that complaint by saying, “You can teach a big voice how to sing softer, but you can’t take a soft voice and turn it into a real Verdi baritone.” It was obvious that someone in the agency had been told to try to pick fault. Herbert said he would think about it and the meeting was over. I got a call from Dick the next day, apologizing sincerely. “I really thought I could get you in, and you sang fantastic.” “What was the trouble then,” I asked. Dick said, “Did you see that big fat woman sitting in the first row when you were singing.” I said “Yes.” He said, “That was Mrs. Sherrill Milnes and she has a lot of control around here regarding whom Herbert represents, since her husband is our biggest client. She looked pretty threatened when you were singing and I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head when you held that high A flat. There was no way she was going to let Hebert represent you.” I felt like I had just been shot. My hopes were so high that finally I was going to get good representation. I thanked Dick for his good work.
Shortly thereafter I got an audition with Tito Capobianco who ran the San Diego Opera. I sang for him in CAMI Hall again, the Hall that makes everyone sound good. I sang a very high tessitura aria, “Dagl’immortali Vertici” with cabaletta from Attila. This is a very high tessitura piece and my voice wanted to sing it very tenor- like that day, so the room was filled with bright upper partials bouncing around everywhere. Capobianco was impressed and cast me for Valentin for the Spring of 1981. I enjoyed rehearsals. Bass-baritone Robert Hale was the Mefisto and Joey Evans was the Faust. However we were performing in Palm Springs in a high school gymnasium which was very bad acoustically. Capobiano wanted to hear all those high upper partials bouncing around. Well they were being nicely absorbed by the bad acoustic of the hall. Also the role of Valentin does not sit well in my voice, I found out. Yes, there are some good high notes in it and they gave me no trouble, but it also sits in the lower middle of the voice quite a bit where I had to go to a darker production. Capobianco didn’t like it. He liked everything bright. I could have changed my technique and falsely colored the whole role bright and pleased him, but I chose to sing the role the way I felt was right and suffer the consequences. Still, Capobianco saw something in me because in a couple of months he called me and asked if I could come and stand by to replace Milnes as Gerard in Andrea Chenier. I thanked him profusely but I was already in rehearsals for Rigoletto in Dayton. Talk about your bad timing. Still a year later he called and said that Juan Pons had cancelled his Amonasro and would I come to San Diego to do it. I gratefully accepted.
When I started rehearsal in San Diego I could tell the production was in trouble. The original soprano had cancelled and we now had Mechthild Gessendorf from Germany. She was a frumpy German soprano who would have sounded more appropriate as the Countess in a German B House. Capobianco was not directing. He gave the job to his assistant Robert Tannenbaum. I believe that if I could have worked with Tito things would have turned out better. Tannenbaum was a dilettante. In staging Amonasro and Aida in Act 3 he made me throw her to the ground the very moment she was supposed to sing a high C. Gessendorf complied with the staging but she was marking. None of us had ever heard her sing a note. The staging was everything I hated about opera. This was quintessentially bad opera where no character really believed in himself. I had brought my method along and was fitting it in the best that I could, but I could not help but think of the contrast between our careful, meticulous, ground-breaking Mozart and Salieri and “this” production. The tenor, Adrianne Von Limpt was a Dutchman tenor with a loud, stout and stodgy voice. He could be depended on to hit the notes, but not much more. Marianna Paunova was supposed to be Amneris, and she cancelled at the last minute. Another German was brought in to take her place.
This production was like a drill practice for a marching band. Tannenbaum had the whole cast marching around, up and down risers, for highly dubious reasons. It was his eureka discovery that Egypt really needed nothing from Ethiopia, except fertilizer, so during the triumphal entry scene there were no wagons of treasures to display, just pots full of dung. This is not the result of a creative mind. Capobianco should have stepped in.
Finally the administration was so panicked that Gessendorf was not singing they demanded to hear her sing the entire role. She refused just two days before opening night and was fired. Now who would be Aida? Finally Gilda Cruz-Romo agreed to come in at the last second. She and I quickly had a little meeting about staging. She showed me what she wanted and it was fine with me. Tannenbaum stayed away, thank God. Gilda added old-fashioned professionalism, a solid Verdi voice and the company backed off and let her work. We hit it off immediately. Gilda has a huge voice. If I could sing Amonasro with her I could sing it with anyone. We reached dress rehearsal, and during Amonasro’s scene Capobianco came on stage to talk to me. “Bite, he said. “Bite the voice, the true Verdi style.” It was his thought that I sang the part too darkly, or that he wasn’t hearing all those high upper partials bounce around like they had in my audition in New York. He obviously did not know how different roles affect the voice. Amonasro was a lower part. Basses like Simon Estes can do it, it sits so low. Once again, I could have falsely brightened my voice and done a Tito Gobbi imitation but I felt like I had to sing the role the way that I saw and felt it.
We made opening night and Cruz-Romo made it a success. The tenor was a big disappointment, singing without inspiration or intelligence. Gilda Cruz-Romo went back to New York and said she had just done Aida with the most beautiful baritone she had ever heard, “that young man who sings down at the Asti.” That was me. How did the reviewers see it? None less than Martin Bernheimer reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times.
“Juan Pans, the originally scheduled ‘Amonasro,’ bowed out long before rehearsals began. No problem. A young and remarkably talented baritone named Joseph Shore proved ready, willing, and able to sing into the breach…Shore brought vocal and dramatic thrust to Amonasro.” Martin Bernheimer THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Bernheimer did not hand out reviews like this very often and the next day members of the company congratulated me. However, the company took a real beating over this sloppy production. It did something to my relationship with Capobiano that I showed him my approach worked with the part. If he wanted to hear me sing Attila he should have hired me for Attila. Unfortunately I never worked with him again. It was a huge disappointment. We obviously disagreed over what a Verdi baritone should sound like. He was obsessed with “bite, bite, bite, like the true Verdi voice.” Well that would describe Tito Gobbi and a few others, but it wouldn’t describe Robert Merrill, Leonard Warren, Lawrence Tibbett, and it would not describe me unless I was singing a high tessitura where the uppers partials were naturally stronger. I wanted a balanced tone with chiaroscuro, not a twangy bite. Recordings made from the huge house where I sang Amonasro show that my voice carried very well and matched Gilda Cruz-Romo. Artificially adding more “bite” would have taken out “tone” that I needed in that part, a role really more suited for a bass- baritone. Had we worked together in rehearsal we might have been able to come closer, but that was not to happen. I pleased one of the greatest critics in America, Martin Bernheimer. I pleased a great Verdi soprano, Gilda Cruz-Romo. I pleased the audience every night. But I could not please Tito Capobianco. That was a real pity. It didn’t have to be that way.
One of the many important people who came to our Mozart and Salieri was the agent, Nelly Walter from Columbia Artists. Tad brought her back stage after the show and she gave me some wonderful compliments. She said, “Your acting was so good that I would have enjoyed the show just as much if you had been speaking the part, but you sang it so beautifully too.” A few days later I called her at her office and asked if she would consider representing me. She was not enthusiastic but said that she would give it a try. One of the first things she did was to get me another New York City Opera audition with Sills. This was 1981 and again I sang the prologue to Pagliacci. This time there was no fault to be found in it. Miss Walter was sitting right next to Sills so perhaps that restrained her from fidgeting or making grotesque gestures during my high notes. Remember this is after Mozart and Salieri and all those reviews that said my acting and singing were the top of the line in opera today. Sills could easily have attended one of the shows, but she sent an underling instead who professed to enjoy it very much. Little good it did at the audition. Sills told Nelly Walter, “OK I am more favorably impressed with him now than I was before, but I still won’t hire him.” Miss Walter must have felt that there was no negotiation possible because that was the last time I auditioned for New York City Opera. After a brief while Miss Walter got tired of trying and told me she couldn’t represent me.
In 1982 I went to Europe to test the waters with an eight week audition tour. Many of my colleagues had found a happy hunting ground in the German house system but I had never wanted to go that route. I was an American and I felt my voice was good enough to make a career in my home country. However, I met a very nice agent from London named Neil Dalrymple who seemed to think he could represent me well in Europe, so I went over to test out the waters. Dalrymple had managed to get me hired to sing Rigoletto at the Belfast Grand Opera for the Northern Ireland Opera Festival in 1984 without even an audition. That is the way agents are supposed to work. With that in the bag I went to Germany, Belgium and Italy for some auditions.
I flew into Frankfurt knowing virtually no conversational German. On the off hand possibility that someone on the street might come up to me and speak the libretto of Lohengrin I would be ready indeed to respond. Until then, everything was going to be a struggle. I had an appointment at a large agent, ZDF which is the State agency. I decided to offer my normal Italian aria, “Urna Fatale” from La Forza Del Destino. It was going great guns and so I decided to interpolate a high B natural in it. The agent almost fell out of his chair. They agreed to represent me anyway and began to send me out to different opera companies to audition on stage. I sang in big houses like Frankfort, Wiesbaden, Krefeld and the small Heidelberg house to mixed success.
The intendent in Frankfurt was Michael Ghielen, noted for turning Frankfurt into a house famous for unconventional productions. They had a famous Aida production set in WWII where Aida is an Ally, Amneris is Gestapo, and during the ballet, people dressed up as ante-bellum slaves in black-face run around throwing fried chicken at each other. The more absurd the better for Frankfurt.
I sang Urna Fatale for him at an 11:00AM audition on the big stage. A force boomed out after I finished, “Herr Shore. We like you very much but we would like to hear you in the probe buhne because the dancers need the stage now.”
We all packed into one elevator, sort of nervous at the close company of auditioner and power broker. Ghielen opened the conversation by saying “Zat piece you sang… what is it from, “Nabucco?” “No, La Forza del Destino.” I said. “Ah ya,” said Ghielen. “I gets them all mixed up.”
As the elevator reached the floor, William Cochran, the American heldentenor, grabbed me and pulled me aside, “Don’t ever sing that stuff over here. They don’t know it and if they don’t know it they don’t know if it is good or bad.” I sang several more arias for Ghielen but there was no contract offering from the house. I think I would have been very unhappy there with their unconventional staging of opera.
The next audition was in Krefeld. It was a B house situated in the Platte Deutsch region of the country. I sang Telramund’s Act 1 Charge and they were very impressed and wanted to talk contract. I looked at the city and asked myself if I really wanted to spend my life this way, sort of a prisoner in a World War 2 movie. The people were depressed and the town was all grey and drab. I just couldn’t see myself living out my life in Krefeld, so I turned down the contract.
The next house was beautiful Heidelberg. It was a small opera house and we all knew there was a slim chance to get anything from them. There were about 100 singers in this group of auditioners, coming in from all parts of Germany, many of them Americans. Now Heidelberg is a very small class C opera house. I knew people with bigger apartments than the Heidelberg opera house. The acoustics in the theatre were very alive. I sang a trial note on stage and it seemed as if the walls shook in resonance. I heard some of the finest singers in America all get turned down because Heidelberg was a small closed house and the administration wanted a German. After hearing a panoply of great singers, they called back the poorest singer in the lot who sang almost totally in his nose. He and nobody else were chosen. We all understood the game then. If there are 60 great Americans and 1 terrible German singer, you hire the German. Germany was in the middle of xenophobia once again. Germany had needed American singers to fill their opera houses after World War II, but now they wanted rid of us.
I had come very hopeful for this Heidelberg audition, feeling in good voice and good spirits. All the American singers touring around Germany for auditions had come off the train and gone to the opera house. There was just one back room available to change into our auditioning clothes and both men and women had to use it. That’s no trouble. If you are in the theatre you get used to taking your clothes off in front of others. It was simple. The girls took one side and we took the other. As I was undressing, my eye caught a girl who was just taking off her blouse and brasserie. Instantly I knew this girl—but we had never met in this life—I knew every inch of her body. I knew that I loved her with all my heart, from when and where that could be, I did not know. But I knew I loved her and some part of me awakened that had been asleep a long time. She caught my eye and I just knew she recognized me too. I went out on that stage and sang up a storm. I sounded like three baritones. The walls of the opera house were vibrating like they had been attacked by some resonance machine. They said a polite “thank you” and that was it. I waited to hear “my girl” whose name I did not even know. She sang very well, a light lyric soprano with just a hint of sadness in her voice. When the auditions were over we all decided to go to eat. I almost felt like staying away from her because this was just so weird. But I couldn’t.
We walked and I could tell she recognized me too, but what was there to say. “I know you. I loved you with all my heart and I still do. It was a long time ago but it was also yesterday and now it is today….I just found you again. I can’t leave you. Not again.” But I couldn’t bring myself to say it, so she began the conversation, opening up her life to me. She was already married to an American service man in Germany and was trying to get her own career started as an opera singer. Finally the time came when the train interrupted our time warp and all us singers would scatter to the wind. I thanked her for being able to see her again and put my arms around her. “Is that all you are going to do?” She seemed incredulous. I knew then that she remembered me. I grabbed her and told her I loved her and have always loved her. “I remember how your body feels. I remember loving you.” And then we kissed, passionately on the lips, and held each other as close as lovers should for what seemed like an hour, Then she got on that train and I never saw her again, though she has never left my mind or my heart for a moment.
I had thought seriously about reincarnation before, but never had I experienced such strong déjà vu as this. When you have an experience this strong it seems self- validating. I knew this person and loved her with all my heart. Where could that have come from if not from a previous life? It was a sweet mystery.
I did memorable auditions in Wiesbaden, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Geneva singing at the top of my game. Most of these houses had acoustics that were far better than the upholstered barns we had in America and my voice sounded enormous in them. But no offers came. I flew down to Florence to audition for the Teatro Communale there. Adolfo Mariani (from the Asti restaurant) had a son, Lorenzo, who worked there as assistant stage director. He had arranged an 11:00AM stage audition for me. I had very strong déjà vu feelings in Florence. I seemed to know this city but I had an inexplicable dislike for it. The art was amazing, the city beautiful, and the women were gorgeous. There was no logical reason for me to dislike the city, but I had a deep-seated, inexplicable dislike of the city and a definite sense of having been there long ago.
I had a hard time finding a hotel with a double bed. I simply could not sleep well on those tiny single beds they offer. Finally I found one hotel that would rent me the bridal sweet which had a double bed! In order to sing at 11:00AM I needed sleep! The new Teatro Communale was exceptionally live acoustically, and I made the mistake of backing off the voice a little as I sang Urna Fatale. The musical director came to the stage and gave me a coaching right there. He wanted full voice, and a much more connected legato than I had given. It was only then that I recognized that I had slipped a little bit due to singing in Germany for six weeks. In Germany few singers understand true legato and appoggio. It is a different world and it had affected my singing. After the coaching, the music director liked my singing and offered compliments, but there was no contractual offer. Lorenzo commented that I sounded like it was 11:00AM. It was too early to sing Urna Fatale, but that is the hour they do auditions in Florence. From there I flew to Rome to sing for Giancarlo Menotti who was casting for his opera, The Last Savage. When I arrived in Rome I again had a strong déjà vu experience of having been there long ago. I seemed to know the city like I did Florence, but the feelings were totally different. I felt relaxed and at home in Rome. I felt like I would love to just stay there forever. I sang Urna Fatale in the original high key for Menotti and his crew and I sang up to my own standards. Menotti later told Lorenzo Mariani, “Shore sings very elegantly with beautiful line, but his voice is too beautiful for The Last Savage.” That was the first time I had ever lost an audition because my voice was “too beautiful.” Finally after about eight weeks of auditions I headed back to America.
I went back to New York eager to see my cat Jenny and finalize my preparation for my first Falstaff in the summer of 1983. Normally younger baritones sing Ford and older baritones—sometimes over the hill—sing Falstaff. I thought Falstaff was by far the better role. I would perform it at the Aspen Festival with Richard Pearlman directing. I respected Pearlman. I knew him to be a seasoned pro and someone who knew the Method. Brent Ellis would sing Ford. The other roles would be sung by young professionals and apprentices at Aspen. I had already plunged into research concerning the Shakespearean character of Falstaff. There were and still are so many different opinions from scholars on the character of Falstaff. Was he a coward all along? Was he a courageous Knight? He did fight with the English against Joan of Arc. I could find no clear answer so I had to make choices about how to play him. It seemed more interesting to play him as a man who in his youth had been a serious knight, perhaps even courageous. But he deals with his old age and the loss of his true knightly virtues by living moment to moment unrestrained by convention. It is his denial of mortality, his mid-life crisis extended rather than resolved. This gives us the opportunity to have empathy for him and to even see him as a kind of comic-tragic hero.
Verdi wrote the role of Falstaff fairly low in tessitura. Often basses or bass- baritones sang the part. Ezio Flagello did it at the Met and I had seen Thomas Stewart do it in Santa Fe. It sat just a little low for me. To make things more interesting, Aspen is over 8,000 feet elevation. That means an average person is going to have more difficulty doing exercise. But I was not an average person. I had congenital heart disease which meant that it was going to be extremely difficult for me to sing up to my standards. Not only is the air thinner but the humidity is very dry. This affects the vocal folds of the larynx, causing them to dry out and thin out. The singing voice is affected by this vocal fold change resulting in a reduction of the lower chest voice. Falstaff was a low part for me at any altitude. It would be very low for me at 8,000 feet.
I arrived in Aspen thinking little about all of this. I was just ready to go. The first day of musical rehearsal I shocked Richard Pearlman and the rest of the cast by being off book and ready to perform. The younger artists and apprentices were still used to more lenient student standards. They were still learning their roles the first day of rehearsal. I was taught that you arrived at the company fully ready to perform the role on day one. As we continued in rehearsal it became obvious that Richard Pearlman was going to be a delight to work with. He knew the Method and could talk to me about “beats.” It was so nice to be working comfortably my way.
I could tell within a few days that my voice was drying out and rising in pitch as a result. Instead of panicking I called my New York laryngologist, Dr. Eugene Grabscheid. There were three laryngologists in New York that worked with opera singers: the truly great Dr. Wilber James Gould, Dr. Leo Reckford, and Dr. Grabscheid. Most singers went to Grabscheid because he took great care of us and would get us through emergencies. Singers called him from all over the world when they had problems and he would come up with some cure. Dr. Grabscheid had escaped from Vienna before the Nazis came, bringing with him a variety of arcane machinery to help singers. His cramped little office on the Upper East Side was filled with these heat machines and inhalers that were always hooked up to singers. He had a thick Viennese accent that sounded so distinct we all competed with each other to imitate his voice. I developed one of the better Grabscheid imitations among his groupies. He was an incredible character. He disregarded modern hygiene in his office, often bringing one of his German Shepherds into the office to keep him company. He would pat the dog with one hand and examine your throat with the other. No one minded. He was Dr. Grabscheid. His shabby little office would be filled with stars from the Met or Broadway, all fully convinced that only Dr.Grabscheid could help them, and they were right! He prescribed outrageous levels of drugs to heal ailing singers who had to get on with the show, but you know what? The show did go on and the singers did get well. His medical practice had the devotion of a cult! The day that Dr. Grabscheid died was one of the saddest days of my life. But on this day in 1983 he was alive and well and practicing medicine. I called him from Aspen and told him the situation. He immediately told me to take organidin to help re-humidify my vocal folds. He had such panache that he called in a prescription for me at the Aspen pharmacy. I know he was not licensed to practice medicine in Colorado, but he was Dr. Grabscheid and he expected the pharmacy to do what he told them, and they did. I went down and picked up the organidin and began taking it. In a few days I was singing more like myself.
Brent Ellis was the Ford. He knew me as an apprentice but had never seen my work as an artist. He had pushed his lyric baritone mercilessly to try to sing heavier roles. The results were not always the best. He seemed to think that decibels were everything and quality was nothing. His once attractive lyric voice had been pushed into a wobble and a snarl. The Ford and Falstaff passages in Act 2 had a little too much competition in them to serve the music and the characters.
There were several challenges to this Falstaff besides the altitude. We were staging the opera in the big tent, but we were not costuming it. Furthermore, the big orchestra, instead of being in the pit, would be right in front of us. The lack of costumes made characterization most important. We would have to inhabit the characters internally without the benefit of costumes to help us with transformation, and we would have to sing much louder than we would if the orchestra were in the pit where it belongs. Orchestra pits were made for a reason. Wagner was even kind enough to put a big lid on his orchestra pit at Bayreuth. Whatever the additional difficulties there are, Falstaff presents its own difficulties due to the intricacies of the music itself. Verdi’s last opera is also his most sophisticated musically and calls on the singer to be attentive and accurate. We succeeded in bringing this opera to life even without costumes and scenery just by characterization and singing. This experience helped me in later years when I would sing the title role of Boris Godounov in just the same manner. After one performance of Boris a lady came back stage and said “See, you didn’t really need the costume or the scenery did you?” It is characterization that enables the audience to suspend disbelief, not costumes and sets. There was no review of our Falstaff but I think the audience gave it a good review. Over the years as I have let people hear the tape of the performance it has always received very favorable reviews. This adventure showed, like most of my performances, that I was not difficult to work with, that I could work with a mainstream director, and that I was professional in my demeanor. So where was the beef? Like the old commercial about thehamburger, “Where’s the beef?” I knew some singers who really were difficult to work with. Cornell MacNeil had sponsored into the business a Verdi baritone who I will just call Raydor. Raydor had a good Verdi baritone voice but he was indeed difficult to work with. Reports have it that he picked up the stage director and threatened to throw him into the orchestra pit if he didn’t get off his back! Now normally that would be the end of someone’s career. But this singer was sponsored by MacNeil and he was being given special treatment. THAT is what being difficult to work with means. I was never crazy like that. I was just passionate about my dream of moving people with real characters who sang with historically great singing. I knew that I could do that if I could get anyone to care about it and give me a chance. I left Aspen on good terms with everyone and I never forgot the experiences of overcoming so many difficulties in order to make Falstaff come alive.
I had another favorite Verdi character to bring to life now, Rigoletto. Neil Dalrymple had gotten me my European debut as Rigoletto for the Northern Ireland Opera Festival to be performed at the historic Belfast Grand Opera House. I would fly to London in early 1984 for two weeks of rehearsals and then to Belfast for the final rehearsals. David Parry from English National Opera North would conduct, and THE Nicholas Hytner would be the producer (as the director is called in Europe). No one realized that he would go on to be such a famous director and make such films as The Crucible, The Madness of King George, The Object of My Affection and Center Stage. And who could imagine he would become Director of the National Theatre. I amhappy for him because he was a wonderful director.
There were a lot of “firsts” for me in this show. It was my first time in London and I was quite taken with it, especially with the pubs and the Guinness! The Gilda was the Australian soprano Ghillian Sullivan. The tenor was my old friend from the Dayton Opera, Rico Serbo, and the Sparafucile was an English bass with a lot of promise named Nicholas Greenbury. It was a culture shock for me to deal with the English people in the company. I am American Midwestern to the back teeth and myexpression tends to be forthright. It took me a while to learn how to talk to the more reserved British. Dalrymple had also managed to get me a tour of England with Opera North doing both Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana and Tonio in Pagliacci. Hytner and Parry would also be in that tour. It certainly seemed like my career was being pushed towards England and Europe, which was just fine by me.
I have not talked much about my private life. I did not want to write a kiss and tell book and describe every fling I ever had during a production, but one of the most important events of my life happened in London. There is no way that I can complete this book without telling it. At this time in my life I was engaged to be married to that young lady from Arizona Opera, “Cathy.” Cathy was not right for me. I knew it but I felt like I could not get out of it. There was something in my personality that just would not speak up for myself and say, “This is not right.”
I went to sleep one night in my London hotel room, and I was awakened in the middle of the night by a voice that said, “Joe, Joe.” I awoke to find myself hovering in mid-air about two feet over my physical body. As I turned I saw a man all made out of light enter my room. There were three other beings of light, sort of oval shaped, in the back of the room. There were no discernible features because the light around them was so bright. There was definitely an order about this because they were subservient to the man made of light who had just walked in. There were things about him that I knew the instant that I saw him. I knew he knew everything about me and that he loved me more than anyone has ever loved me. He spoke in a hurry as though this interface could not last long. He said, “I am the one who has been helping you and I have a lot more planned for you.” I have admitted that I had this internal voice that always spoke for truth and which guided me. Now here this man of light was identifying himself as the source of this voice. Then he said, “Find an honorable way to avoid making a honest mistake,” and with that he vanished. The three orb shaped beings of light remained in the room and I got the distinct sense that they were remaining to allow me to ask questions. I knew that the man of Light was Jesus and I knew he was talking about my plans to marry Cathy. So I asked the beings of light, “What do you think of Cathy for my wife?” In the kindest way they said, “We all agreed that she would make you a very poor wife.” I noticed that they seemed bound by certain rules. They could not simply say, “Don’t do this.” They were bound by their respect for free will. I had to choose but they were giving me all the help that they were allowed to give. When I heard their last statement, it scared me so that I jumped back into the body and went back to sleep. When I awakened I knew that this was not a normal dream. Dreams are usually hazy and symbolic. Most of the time, we forget them soon after waking. This experience was not a dream. It was crystal clear and it had happened right there in my hotel room. It was a spiritual visitation. How I wish I could tell you that I did what they advised. They were telling me that my whole mission on earth would be changed if I married this woman. Marriage brings two people together and it changes the paths of both people. If I married her I would be knocked off the path that I was on, and these beings were the ones planning things for me and helping me with the usage of my voice. Now, in retrospect, it is a no brainer. But then, I was afraid to listen to them. I had never had any such strange experience before. I had read about people having out of body experiences, but I had never had one. Later I would read books about people who had died clinically and had out of the body experiences during which they encountered beings of light. But at this time in 1984 I had read no such books. The experience really freaked me out. I just didn’t have that much courage to choose the path they showed me. Cathy called and said her mother had just set the wedding for the fall. I said, much too timidly, that I had this tour with Opera North all through England around that time. Cathy said, “Oh I can’t change it now. My mother will kill me.” Instead of holding my own and saying “Sorry, I have to go on this tour,” I just wilted and said “OK.” I had just slit my throat for my career. Once again I had made a self-destructive choice. I tried to put thisvision out of my mind as I rehearsed Rigoletto. I just could not deal with it while performing Rigoletto. I would think about it afterwards.
As soon as I got on the shore of Northern Ireland I felt like I was home. My maternal grandparents were Ritchies who had migrated from Scotland to Northern Ireland before coming to America. A lot of the Ritchies had stayed right there in Northern Ireland and were running small stores and shops not far from where they landed. Maybe this sense of personal history contributed to my feeling so much at home. Ireland is one country that really lived up to its promo. If I had a way of making a living I would have stayed. I had so many wonderful experiences there. The whole company took a day off and went up to the coast to see Giants Causeway. In a quintessentially English experience we were dressed in suits and ties as we climbed the cliffs that overlook Giants Causeway. In the far distance you could see Scotland. Ireland won my heart.
Rehearsals were a great pleasure. Nicholas Hytner was a terrific director who knew how to utilize my experience in the role and just let me do my work. He gave me respect which was very appreciated indeed.
The costumes were traditional but the set was a little odd. The theme was iron works. The designer wanted to show that all of the characters were “caged” in some way. For the last act there were two levels. An upper level was created by an iron scaffolding about twenty feet up in the air which Rigoletto and Gilda walked on. The body of Gilda was hoisted up from the lower level to this higher scaffold by Sparafucile. We were so high up in the air that I was almost at eye level with the closest boxes in the audience.
The Belfast Opera House was a beautiful old house which was built to commemorate Queen Victoria and her reign over India, so the house was built with elephants decorating the interior in every imaginable way. It also had good acoustics which is always helpful in singing Verdi. It has since been renovated due to bomb damage. In 1984 Belfast was fairly peaceful but we were made aware of the fragile nature of the peace. We had a judge in the chorus who traveled with a body guard. The IRA had been killing judges so there would be no one left to sentence them. There were bomb threats during our stay there but for some reason I did not take them seriously.
Rehearsals were a very civilized process. When we took a break the whole company would walk across the street to a pub which had been declared a national monument. It had beautiful stained glass windows and the best Guinness I have ever tasted. We would all get sloshed on Guinness and then go back to rehearsal. I have never rehearsed opera in a more civilized way.
Because of Nicholas Hytner’s great skill as a director I was able to bring out of myself a deeper characterization of Rigoletto than ever before. It helped that every one of the principals were good colleagues. Ghillian Sullivan was a delight as Gilda, and Nicholas Greenbury showed great basso promise as Sparafucile. As sometimes happened to me, I started to get a little sick in the middle of rehearsal and had to take a couple of days off. People did not know about my heart disease and I did not want to advertise it. As always, I came back in and finished rehearsals. Opening night and the following shows were wonderfully received and the last night, the BBC came and recorded us for broadcast. That recording has now gone all over the world to opera collectors and enthusiasts. In Belfast everything went right and it could have been the beginning of a bigger career for me, but I had to tell Neil Dalrymple that I would not be accepting the tour with Opera North.
“Baritone Joseph Shore’s magnificent voice makes him an imposing Rigoletto. He was superb in getting across the awful dilemma of the clown who jests while his heart is breaking. His duet with his daughter was the most touching moment of the evening.” THE IRISH TIMES
“The Rigoletto, Joseph Shore, is a fine dramatic baritone with ringing high A flats, and he was obviously well inside this role.” THE BELFAST TELEGRAPH
Through a glass darkly
People are always asking me why a voice like mine didn’t become a household name. They want to know why I didn’t become a mainstay at La Scala, the Met, Covent Garden, Vienna, or The Bolshoi. I am not hiding from the question. There was no way I could tell my story without also narrating the stories of bad things done to me. But I do not consider my career a failure, nor do I hold any of those administrators, singers, or agents responsible for the shape my career took. Let me explain this quite clearly. I am responsible for the shape my career took. No one was powerful enough to keep my career from fame and the limelight but me. My career was a miracle that turned into a tragedy. It was a spiritual failure for me and I have had to live with that.
Many people draw the wrong conclusions. They say, “Well you just must not have been good enough. You must have had delusional ideas about your level of singing. Surely, if you were good enough, you would have made it.” That is probably the most common thing I hear. Such people have no understanding of the actual inner mechanics of the opera world and no idea how someone makes it from a kid who can sing to a star. It doesn’t usually happen like a Mario Lanza movie.
Usually, a talented person of university age will audition for the School of Music of his choice in the performance division. I know this inside world having been a university professor for many years. Only the best will pass the auditions, the ones we think we can work with and move towards professional singing. Many fairly good singers end their career right here before it starts. In the first four years we hope to be able to make just a little improvement on them each of the eight semesters. They do a jury at the end of each semester for us to check their progress. When they graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree most of them are not ready to do anything professionally. We take them through their Masters degree and their Doctorate of Musical Arts. Many do not make it through the degree programs and their hopes end there. We hope that the DMA will put them at the level of apprenticeship, the professional entrance level. But many get their DMA and are really not ready for entrance level professional work. Those go on to teach. The more talented DMAs begin auditioning for professional opera companies to try to get hired as an apprentice artist. The levels for singers are: (1) student (2) Apprentice Artist (3) Young Artist, and (4) Artist.Thousands of singers audition for a few apprenticeships in opera companies in the United States and Canada. The biggest plum is still The Santa Fe Opera. As many as 10,000 or more professional singers will audition to become one of 45 apprentices. That’s the level where I entered, when Richard Gaddes picked me up from the Met Auditions at the Tulsa District level in 1974, offering me an apprenticeship I knew nothing about. This is also the level where a lot of very good singers fail. By fail, I mean that they do not advance any higher and their dreams of career end. Think how hard the process is so far already. Many of these that fail and never go any further have doctor’s degrees. That is just a little irony in the system. One may have a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree and still be unable to be a professional singer.
Apprenticeship lasts for two years, if you are invited back. Many are not. Maybe they didn’t make that good of an impression in their first year or perhaps their singing has not shown any progress in a year. Maybe the opera company just didn’t like working with them. For whatever reason, they didn’t get invited back for their second year of apprenticeship. It will be very hard for that group to go on and become artists.
You will learn most of your trade at a good apprentice program: fencing, stage movement, acting, stage make-up, voice lessons, and you will get to perform in order to learn. In Santa Fe I sang in the chorus, understudied leading roles, sang small roles on stage, and sang in apprentice scenes at the end of the season.
In the second season of your apprenticeship many people in the opera business will come and see you perform in the main season and in the apprentice scenes. If you catch on, somebody will hire you for your first role as an artist. Jim Sullivan from The Arizona Opera saw me and engaged me for his regular season as Tonio in Pagliacci. You are now a professional opera singer. If no one picks you up in your second year of apprenticeship, your career may end just there, and the high point of your life will have been an apprentice artist at Santa Fe. That happens to a lot of this select group.
Jerry Hines told me that he researched AGMA, the union for opera singers, and found out that at that time in the early 1990’s there were 35,000 professional opera singers in the USA alone, and over 95 % of them earned less then $25,000 a yearsinging opera. Less than five per cent earned $25,000 a year or more, and less then one per cent made the huge salaries associated with stars of opera. In 1994 Hines reported that only 104 singers had made more than $25,000 singing opera, only 104 out of more than 35,000.
So you are a professional opera singer now, one of 35,000 competing for a few roles a year in relatively few companies in the USA. You try to get an agent first or you will not be able to get auditions. The auditions for agents are usually for smalleragencies with little power, but they may be able to get you auditions. A few singers in this post-apprentice group may find a small agent that will represent them. Every audition you go to, there will be 50 singers with more experience than you. What do you have which will make the administrators look at you and hire you! A lot of young singers are weeded out at this point. They get discouraged and go back home to teach voice.
Let’s suppose that you have something distinctive in your singing and you are hired. Let’s even further suppose that you won some big competitions and noted critics compared you to Lawrence Tibbett, one of the greatest of Verdi Baritones. Now you have a monkey on your back, something no young singer needs. Now you will consciously or unconsciously think that you have to sing well enough so that people continue to think of you that way. This monkey-on-the-back business puts unneeded pressure on you and it happens in every art and in every sport. A new comer gets a few reviews that say he is the next great Verdi baritone and all of a sudden he is not just a new singer. He is a new singer with a monkey on his back. He sings the role that he won in the audition, but he is under pressure now. How will he perform? Another group of singers cannot take the pressure and quits here.
Now if you were successful you will feel great and you will sing other auditions, show your reviews and have a chance at another role. Unfortunately the odds are still against you getting it and you may go for months without winning another audition. Even more people quit at this point. For all of these people you could simply say, “They just weren’t good enough.” Opera is filled with disappointment, broken hearts and broken dreams. That’s one scenario.
Let’s look at another one. Let’s say that after your apprenticeship you got a good engagement with an opera company, excelled in that, and got another engagement and got fantastic reviews for that. You then got hired again and again, and again, for ten years, and in every case it could be said that you came through with great performances, because the reviews were great, and the audiences loved you. You listened to the tapes of your performances and you thought you were on the right track. Maybe by this time you had a few senior colleagues who would tell you the truth so you let them hear you tapes and they also thought you were on track.
Let’s say that you got to sing with some of the greatest singers of the 20th century, many of whom became your friends and supporters, and they told you not to quit because you were world-class.
Let’s say you won major competitions, The Met Auditions, The WGN Auditions, The Bruce Yarnell Memorial Award, and other major awards. Let’s say you got even a lead in a New York premiere opera that was going to be highly reviewed all over the nation. Let’s say the national critics gave you the greatest reviews you could imagine, reviews like few artists ever get in their lifetime, and they came from the best sources; The New York Times, Newsday, Newsweek, New York Daily News, TheVillage Voice and fifty others. Let’s say you sang the great Verdi roles all over regional opera and received equally great reviews.
Now, whatever you might say about this singer and the career he has forged, you cannot say that he was simply not good enough! I am, of course, describing my own career. Those who say I was not good enough are uninformed or untruthful.
The audition process on which careers depend is, unfortunately, inherently subjective. There is no such thing as an objective listener. The observer changes the experiment. The observers, in this case the artistic administrators hearing the auditions, create their experience of listening and seeing out of their own consciousness, including their own past prejudices, preferences and conflicts. Remember that a lot of these people became artistic administrators because they had no talent. They really wanted to be singers.
I never thought I sang perfect. I was a ball of fire with a big monkey on my back– all those expectations that I would be the next Warren. I went for the best I could produce but I didn’t think of myself as perfect. Apparently some people did, however. Hines told me that to him I “always sang like someone who wasn’t human.” What did he mean by that? He simply meant that I sang so much better than other baritones. My technique seemed perfect to him. I never made the kind of vocal mistakes that he expected everyone to make at least occasionally. Many times I sang a great audition only to find that the audition hearer had created for him/her self an unpleasant experience out of it. It startled me to find that there was no “objective” listener, that they all took my singing and recreated it into some experience their own minds wanted to hear. It seemed like a good honest, simple person would hear me fairly objectively, but the more complicated the person was the more s/he recreated my singing according to his/her own problems, prejudices and preferences.
My coach, Michael Fardink, also worked in many other voice studios in New York. Back in 1978, he was sitting in on some auditions for Chautauqua when Leonard Tresh was the director. Michael was sitting with Whitfield Lloyd, a stage director for the company, and herself a voice teacher. She pointed out to Michael which singers Leonard would be interested in. Many who sang very well did not interest him. Then Whitfield said to Michael, “Watch this next soprano. She has a good voice but consistent problems in the passaggio. That is the flaw that will allow Leonard to hire her.” And he did. He had his own scenario worked out, apparently. He was uncomfortable with perfect singing. He needed a flaw to make him feel comfortable, perhaps to make him feel that he could help this singer. Who knows? I auditioned for them and they wouldn’t give me the time of day, and I sang a “perfect” audition. It absolutely infuriated me that they would pass me over. I soon found that there was a certain kind of person who could hear my singing and get it, and other types who couldn’t. I also found relief in an attitude that said, “You cannot control the audition. You can only control how well you perform. All the rest, they control and you can’t be responsible for them.”
I am often asked if I think I was one of the great baritones of my generation. I have to say that I had a very promising career which was cut short, so it is not possible for me to rate myself. I don’t know what I would have sounded like my twentieth year singing Verdi. I tend to think I would have grown in the roles I played and faired well over the years because I sang best when I was singing frequently. I liked to sing three or four times a week and then I was in top shape.
But we will never know now and there is no way to answer that question. All I can say is that great singers like Hines, McCracken, Bardelli, Yeend and many others considered me a good colleague and a world class baritone.
I have told the stories about the many injustices that were done to me in my career. There is no doubt that powerful people tried to black ball me in the business and made it very hard for me. There is no doubt some companies cooperated in that. There was plenty of wrong done to me. Nevertheless, I do not blame them for my career being cut short. You will have to get used to injustice if you sing opera professionally. It is a cruel, amoral world full of political intrigue and open dishonesty. But injustices cannot stop you if you have your mind working for you right and do not quit. For one example, if I had taken the English National Opera tour with Nick Hytner, my career would have had a chance to grow in size. My mind was not working for me when I turned that down.
Although I had come a long way for a kid from Carthage, Missouri, my mind was working against me rather than for me. We create our reality by the thoughts we hold. Eventually thoughts become things. The problem is that this works at the subconscious level too. Most people create their world unconsciously, sort of like the default settings on a computer, and then being unaware of the process that has created their lives, they feel like victims. A Course in Miracles puts it very starkly when it says:
“I am responsible for what I see. I choose the feelings I experience, and I decide upon the goal I would achieve. And everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and receive as I have asked.”
Most people have a hard time believing this, of course. We don’t want to feel responsible for our lives. We are too insecure to take responsibility. If the universe of our experience is like the holodeck in Star Trek, then we are in charge of it. We control the settings. The trouble is that we are unaware we are doing it, almost as if we were in a trance. This ordinary waking state of consciousness in which we have been conditioned by our past is very much like a trance that we need to awaken from in order to be truly creative.
Remember that I grew up as a sickly kid with this mysterious heart disease. My concerned mother instilled in me from the beginning that there were things I just could not do. “Don’t expect too much out of yourself,” she would say. “Don’t try to do that, you will fail.” She did not understand then as the simple country woman that she was, that she was giving me messages that would affect my ability later to make empowering choices. My parents were so concerned about my health, that they gave me messages like, “You can’t do what normal people do. You’ll fail.” But there were other messages being sent unconsciously that were far more damaging. My family was clannish and dysfunctional. The rules within the clan were, “Don’t be different.” And my parents gave me these rules. They slipped them into my subconscious, rules like, “You can’t get along without us. We need you to need us. We need you to fail to show us you love us.” My grandmother looked me right in the face and said, “You can’t be different.” A childhood full of messages like these is equivalent to inserting viruses into your computer. I had no emotional support from family and no functional family to lean on. I did not believe in myself fully and made many self-destructive choices in order to make those childhood messages come true. For example, a person in his “right mind” would have known not to write that letter to Larry Stayer at the Met. I made many self-destructive choices like that. The biggest of those self-destructive choices was to marry Cathy, a woman who I knew was wrong for me in every way and yet I was attracted to her due to my dysfunctional childhood. Cathy embodied the violence of my father and the emotional fragility of my mother. I married my parents. Cathy wanted me to get out of opera and get a regular job. It shocked me to the core when she said it. I told her that I had every intention of staying in career and I wanted her to be able to come with me when she could. She looked incredulous and said, “I don’t want to be your cheerleader.” OK, well that pretty much said it. With all the attacks I was going through I thought I needed a wife to keep me from being lonely. I needed a wife that would encourage me, one who wanted my career even more than I wanted it. I wanted the support from a family. Instead I married a woman who extended the dysfunctional family of my childhood.
It was now apparent that the spiritual “advice” I had been given urging me not to marry Cathy was correct. I had believed in the illusion that I was discouraged and beaten down by all the pressure of fighting uphill against a blackball. But now I believed I had changed my personal fate by marrying this woman. I did what she wanted. I left opera and got a job. At this point some people would say, “What could ever make you agree to do that?” The truth is that I had some childhood viral messages saying, “Always be a good boy. Never cause a fight. Always do what other people want you to do.” I was a door mouse who didn’t speak up for my own needs, and so I did what she asked. I got out of opera, not understanding that once I left, it would be almost impossible to get back in. I could not think of ending the marriage at that time. We had a daughter, Katie, in 1985 who I absolutely adored. I felt like I needed to stay in the marriage for her.
There were a limited number of positions I could apply for given my esoteric education. At first I worked as a handy man for Federated Department Stores. There is some cosmic humor in that since I have never been a handy man, but I learned. I still nurtured a hope in the back of my mind that I would be able to get back on course and continue with my dreams. Then in 1986 a role came to me “out of the blue” that gave me some hope of going back into opera. In 1985 when I sang Mozart and Salieri in Dallas a fellow named Mario Ramos worked for the Lyric Opera of Dallas. The next year he got control of the Fort Worth Opera and had decided to stage La Gioconda in January of 1987. It would be a big event because Opera America would be holding their convention in Fort Worth at that time and most of the administrators would come to see the opera. Mario had liked my work as Salieri so he asked me to sing Barnaba. It was a new role for me but I instantly accepted. I had great hopes that this production would get me new engagements and bring me back into opera. After working all day at Federated Department Stores I would go down to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, rent a little practice room and learn Barnaba at night.
That year I did an audition for a Sullivan Grant to help with learning the part. I sang for a variety of big shots who knew me well. They said, “The consensus of opinion is that you were doing pretty well up until 1984. What happened?” I could not really say that I had gotten married. That’s what happened. They spoke very seriously and told me that my career was now at a danger point where people would just drop me and forget me. It was a humiliating experience. I got the grant and learned the role. The end of December I quit my job at Federated Department stores and flew to Fort Worth to begin rehearsals. As soon as we began rehearsals it became obvious that this production was going to be stillborn. Gioconda is a very difficult opera to perform because it requires really great singers, especially from the soprano and tenor. Because it is such a huge work it also requires a director who knows how to work big. Unfortunately for all of us, Mario Ramos had failed to cast the opera well. The soprano was Elaine Bunse who was a new comer to opera. She had a huge soprano voice but she did not have the training or the experience to know how to use it in service of a character. Nobody could believe her Gioconda, including her. She contentedherself with poses and gestures taken from an old Victor book of the opera. In a few months she retired from opera. The tenor was far too light weight for the part. He sounded tight, tiny, and tentative. Needless to say there was no character. The bass and mezzo were both very fine professionals from Germany. Malcolm Smith and his wife Margaret Yauger did excellent work as Alvise and Laura, but they could not save the show from itself. Ramos had given the directing job to a director with very little talent, unaccustomed to the tasks of huge productions and without a clue for working with actors on characterizations. I sang Barnaba well and acted as well as I could under the circumstances but the shows were abysmal flops. It was the worst production I had ever been involved with, and there in the audience were all the members of Opera America. Needless to say, I got no new start from appearing in this amateurish nightmare.
One day in early 1988, I got a phone call from James Benner, one of my coaches who, along with his soprano wife, Frances Yeend, had gone to West Virginia University to teach. He said that there was an opening at The University of North Carolina to teach voice and I should immediately call Dr. Bill McIver in Greensboro. I did so and received an invitation to teach at UNC-G for a year’s appointment for the 1988-89 school year. Hallelujah! We were leaving Brooklyn for Greensboro North Carolina. I thought that the move away from the slums of Brooklyn would also be good for my young daughter. I did not really contemplate at that moment that I was going into a new profession of teaching. I thought instead that this might be a road that would eventually take me back to the stage where I wanted to be.
Greensboro was a paradise for us coming out of our exodus from the slums of Brooklyn. People actually lived in houses instead of slum apartments and people had yards! Nobody had a yard in the slums of Brooklyn. We rented a nice little brick housewith a vacant lot next to us, full of all sorts of wild flowers. It was great. My daughter Katie was almost three then and she was given her first swing set and yard. Our cats enjoyed being outdoor cats, staking out their territory. We also had lots of other nice beasties. Instead of Brooklyn rats we had a very nice old possum that would trundle down the sidewalk every night at 10:00 PM and eat the cat’s food outside our back door. You could set your watch by him. We also had raccoons every night, sometimes a mommy and the sweetest little babies the size of kittens. One night we had thirteen full grown raccoons come to the house and beg for cat food. We fed them. We were enjoying paradise.
Having come into the School with the clout of Frances Yeend and James Benner, the faculty was prepared for a performer instead of an academician. These were very nice people on the faculty and I felt very much at home. I sang as much as possible. I gave faculty recitals every semester, sang Boris in concert with the Symphony, sang the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death with the Raleigh Symphony, judged the Met Auditions in South Carolina and Georgia, cast my own Act 3 of Ballo in Maschera with top students (in which I sang Renato) and performed it in concert within one of my faculty concerts. All of that singing was recorded and now is in the music library of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
When I faced my students I was considerably less secure. I had never been trained as a teacher of voice, nor had I patiently developed my own voice through long rigorous study. I had a few empirical images from my own teachers, but that was it. My first semester showed how new I was. The young, minimally talented students, just learning Caro mio Ben really benefited very little from my Bardelli sayings. I was way over their head. I was determined not to fail as a voice teacher so I went to the music library and literally read all of the books on vocal pedagogy. Luckily for me, my first semester we had many master teachers come in for classes. I learned from all of them. As I read books on voice science and physiology
I began to develop a way of teaching which I thought would communicate and show results. I gave the student just enough information about his physiology that would help and experimented with exercises designed to work on the involuntary muscle systems that we use in singing. I seemed to have something of a knack for it. The result was that my second semester students shot way up in Juries and my colleagues gave it kind notice.
I saw now a different side to the world of singing. I had literally started out at the top, bypassing all of this level of education. All of the singers I had known had been great professional opera singers. What did I have to say to these kids? It happened slowly, but as I tried to teach them as my teachers had taught me, I found myself loving them. And then I realized that singing is far more than a contest to the top of the world. Singing is a human experience which everyone has a right to do. Most of my students did not have much talent if you looked at them the way I had been looking at singers in New York. They would graduate and then go out and teach public school music. A few would go on to graduate school and teach in College. I had none that could possibly reach entrance level professional. Was that a waste of time? No. I changed in Greensboro. Love for my students changed me and I continued my reading and my research to try to develop my personal way of teaching voice.
My colleagues noticed that all of my students were now making quite rapid progress. Bill McIver said one day, “Joe we don’t want you to improve them too fast. We have been trying to work on some of these kids quite a while already.” It was said as a joke but there was more in it than that. The faculty, which at that time included only one career professional, tenor Rick Estes, had been very nice in accepting me into their academic world, but there was some tension growing between me and the poorest singer on the voice faculty. I just made him feel very uncomfortable. And now my singers were mysteriously showing exceptional improvement. It must have been very hard on his ego. I saw that but I felt compassion for him. Something had happened to me. I would never have felt compassion on any of my competitors in New York.
My good work at UNC-G had landed me another year contract for the 1989-90 school year. It was a happy time. My daughter was enjoying the slower, almost rural life, in a real house, and had caught her first fish in the stream just down the street. But shortly before the end of the semester I became very ill with a virulent strain of viral pneumonia and had to be hospitalized in serious condition. Extreme coughing had given me total laryngitis and I could only whisper. Even that wasn’t recommended. I had engagements only a few months away in 1990, my first Renato in Ballo in Maschera with the Youngstown Symphony and Carmina Burana with the Savannah Symphony. In a week I was out of hospital but this kind of pneumonia took a long recuperation for someone with congenital heart disease. My voice was gone for weeks. My colleagues were more than kind. In the effort to regain my voice I studied with several laryngologists in the area and learned more about the organ I was supposed to know in teaching. Gradually my voice came back, but not without a lot of help from a lot of people. In January 1990 I had been in hospital in serious condition. In April I was back on the stage doing my first Renato with the Youngstown Symphony with David Effron conducting. What allowed me to recover was my intense belief that any professional performance could re-launch my career, which I wanted back more than anything. I still had that bedrock belief that if I just sang well enough the magic would happen for me. The truth was that Ballo in Maschera was just a “job.” I did it well and didn’t make anybody mad at me, but it had no power of momentum. All that I overcame in order to perform was appreciated only by me. There were others who appreciated me, however, and they were my students.
My second year at UNC-G, 1989-90, the Dean had given me permission to teach voice to theatre majors from the adjacent school of drama. This was a huge concession. Usually “real” voice lessons were given only to students from The School of Music. Theatre students had to make out as best they could with some second class type of instruction offered by the school of drama. I had several students who were singing musical theatre material and even “pop” music. These students were grateful to get the most basic of instruction about breathing, vowel formation and adjustment, and just to experience that a teacher cared for their experience in singing. I learned how to teach non-classical students and they learned how to sing. It was a good trade. When I finally had to leave UNC-G, the most tearful and heart-felt farewells came from those theatre students. Teaching singing was helping me to learn to love people. I learned that when real teaching/learning takes place, the teacher and the student are not separate. They are connected in mind. From that connection it is possible to experience love’s presence in which we live and move and have our very being whether we are aware or ignorant of it. The presence of love is there but we have built blockages to its experience. This “creative play” of teacher and student that I had built enabled the process of singing to take down those blockages to the awareness of love’s presence. From within that connection, all teachers can be teachers of God. What else is there to teach? All students can be students of God. What else is there to learn? In teaching, I mentally reach out and touch the student with the love that is there in that moment of connection, and as I do the student teaches me. The love that I learned to give to my audience I now eagerly gave to my students. Without philosophizing over it I had moved from a person with my own dreams to a teacher wanting to join with his students in order to make their dreams come true. It did not matter if their dreams seemed small in comparison to mine. They had their own dreams and I wanted to help make them come true. As through a glass darkly I was beginning to see that life could be more for me than an opera contest. Other people too had dreams and they searched for someone to join with them in making them come true.
My time at UNCG could not be extended further so I had been applying to many universities. I felt a special pull towards the offer that came from The School of Music at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver. They offered a good position, Assistant Professor, a tenure track and a salary that seemed great compared to what we were used to in Greensboro. I was paid $26,000 a year in Greensboro. Vancouver was offering $45,000 and a verbal promise that I would have at least five years before my tenure was considered. We did not know anything about Canada. It always surprises Canadians to find out that Americans never really think much about Canada. We just assumed it was like America only colder. We were not prepared for the culture shock, the difference in the people socially, the accepted forms of communication, and the things that were not said. We found Canada and America two nations divided by a common language, and a whole host of other things. Guileless in our experience, we were surprised to find a huge undertow of anti-American sentiment that often bordered on downright hatred.
At the School I was puzzled by the less than warm treatment I was receiving from faculty. Coming from Greensboro where most professors had been as warm as family, the cold Canadian treatment puzzled me. I soon found out why. UBC had a very insecure faculty in the School of Music and they wore their insecurities on their sleeve. Part of their insecurity came from the fact that Western Canada is physically so far removed from the artistic scene in Canada which is located in Toronto. They did not attract the level of students that Toronto or Montreal did. There was one other factor. Even though they hired me, I was an Auslander. I was an American.
I made an appraisal of the vocal division and I found it far inferior to UNCG from where I had just come. I hoped I would be able to bring up the level of the division. Unfortunately my Aries tendency is always to try to do things too quickly and some people were offended. But there was something more than that in the air. Finally one day I was on the elevator with the chairman of the vocal division. He saw my confusion and said to me frankly, “Joe, you don’t seem to understand. If any of the rest of us had talent we wouldn’t be here.” I pondered that for meaning, hidden and otherwise. I tried to have a conversation with the publicity director of the School to get info from her about agents in the city that I might contact to promote my own singing. She replied rather coldly, “I don’t think there is anybody in this city that speaks your language.” I found it odd that people spoke in codes and riddles rather than just speaking their minds. It was a big cultural difference and it puzzled me. We soon saw that this was indeed another country. I think the first time that sunk in was when I went to the gas station. Then gas was 69.9 cents a liter, about $2.80 a gallon in 1990 when we came. Now in 2012 it is $1.60 per liter. Americans think they have it bad. We had never seen gas so high, or food so high priced. The high prices of everything in Canada staggered us. We found that the salary I had been offered was much lower than they should have offered. There was no way we could live on my salary for a family of three. They had gotten me far too cheaply for the position. I had been had.
Another time I was on the elevator with the chairman of my division and he said to me, “You know Joe; we didn’t hire you because you were a good teacher. That came as a surprise to us. We hired you because with your resume we thought you would be out there getting our name in programs.”
This information really shocked me in both the content and the manner of its conveyance. I had come intending to work on my skills as a teacher and vocal pedagogue. They wanted me to perform and be away from the classroom in order for me to be a living commercial for their school. Canadian Opera in Toronto had offered me a role in a new Traviata. Richard Bradshaw, now at Canadian Opera, conducted my Germont in San Francisco back in 1979. However, in 1991, they were only offering me the tiny role of the “Baron” and yet they wanted me there eleven weeks! No production needs singers for eleven weeks, especially for minor roles. Our semester was only 12 weeks, so I turned it down. The Director of my School got wind of it and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was to accept offers like those. My question to him was “What about the students?” He rolled his eyes and said, “That’s not important. We have to have you out there performing.” So I would have seen my students one week, given them their assignments and then left them on their own for the whole semester. All of this was for the public relations of the university. I could not agree with that.
I got the point that UBC wanted me to perform in opera companies and get their name in programs, so I tried to contact all of the opera companies in Canada with a press release about my new position at UBC and my desire to audition for their companies. No one responded to my letters. I had an American friend, a former opera tenor, teaching at McGill and I called and spoke with him about my difficulty getting hired even by small companies. Instead of being sympathetic he was very coarse. “Why should companies hire you here in Canada?” I was caught by surprise. “No, really Joe, why should they hire you?” I could have given him my resume but I understood the deeper meaning. He was saying that I had been out of opera a long time now and I didn’t have a current track record to attract people. I might still sing great, but people were looking for young singers, not old singers trying to make a come back. In Canada, my dual status of an American “auslander” and a singer who had been out of the business a few years, pretty well locked me out of getting a new start in opera in Canada.
I did an audition for The Vancouver Opera, and sang Macbeth’s Aria, “Pieta Rispetto, Amore,” which had won for me the Met Auditions. I was in very good voice and sang up to my standards, holding a long high A flat at the end. The young conductor listened and said, “Wow, there’s an A flat for you.” Then I got a call from the company and they had offered me the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in Boheme. These are tiny, tiny parts written for comprimario buffos with no voices left. The message to me was clear. “We don’t care who you were in the States but it means nothing to us up here. The only things you will be offered will be tiny parts suitable for singers over the hill.” Just to make sure, I told other people in opera about being offered “Benoit” and they were equally shocked. I wrote the conductor—since he was out of country—and thanked him for the offering and told him that I had never done comprimario roles before, but I understood that I was a new entity to him and I would be happy to sing Benoit for him to let him see that I could be a good colleague if he would subsequently consider me for roles that were in my repertoire. If that had been his intention all along, I should have received a positive reply from him. If he had been giving me the negative signal that I thought, then I would receive no reply or a negative reply. I did not hear a word from him. They were offering me a small comprimario part to tell me the shop was closed to me. They were treating me as though I were over the hill.
Canadian society could be very small and cruel. Again, I had underestimated the weakness of the Canadian ego and Canadians’ inability to cast opera based solely on finding the best possible singers. Politics reigned supreme in Canadian Opera, making American Opera look almost pure.
But I was not over the hill. In 1991, at The Vancouver Playhouse, I sang The Death of Boris in Russian with the UBC Symphony. In 1992, I sang Carmina Burana at the Orpheum with the Symphony, and also in Victoria that year with their Choral Society. In 1991 I performed Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at UBC with students. I performed a modern piece for the CBC in 1991 that got very good reviews. I gave a faculty recital in the fall of 1990 which was very well received. In fact, that very tape was played for Galina Vishneyskaya and Rostropovitch. Galina was going to direct a summer season of opera at The Mozarteum and the first production was to be Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. One of my students, David Ragus, had already gone to Europe and was forging out a career for himself. Galina was casting him in a small part but she needed the baritone lead, Robert. David let her hear the recording of my UBC recital in 1990 and she was very taken with it. She asked David if I were Russian because the Russian was so good. She wrote me a letter and asked me to do the role of Robert for their first season in 1993. This was a tremendous honor for me on many levels. First of all, Vishnevskaya and Rostrovitch were two of the greatest artists and humanitarians of all time. Second, she immediately recognized me as an artist, even thinking I was Russian. And third, she couldn’t wait to hire me. Great Artists always accepted me. The truth of the matter was that I was far from over the hill, but I was an American baritone who had come to Canada bringing his American resume with him. They were not about to hire me. They acted as though I had come to town and peed in their back yard. I got their message. The truth is that I fit well singing in a higher league, like with Vishnevskaya.
I was working hard on my teaching and developing a modern, state-of-the-art vocal pedagogy class. I had conversations with the leading voice scientists in setting up this class and utilized the latest information. I was the first teacher at UBC to offer this class with state of the art voice science, and the students ate it up.
In the voice studio I was learning better techniques to communicate and my students began to progress quickly. I viewed myself as a teacher first at this point and a performer second. I loved my students and I was there for them 24/7.
In 1991 two things happened to change my life. First the good thing: our son Thomas Caleb was born July 9, 1991. I worshipped this wonderful little boy and still do.
The bad thing that happened was that one of our voice teachers left and a search committee was formed to search for new candidates. I had been on search committees before and knew the protocols. Normally the chairman of the vocal division will head the committee and three or four other professors from the vocal division will be chosen for the committee. In this case, the Director of the School himself (a music theorist) would head the committee and he had appointed 10 other faculty members outside of the vocal division to sit on this committee. The three professors who ran the School were all on the committee. Bringing up the tail, there were the chairman of the vocal division and myself. A search committee with 11 members is already too big, but to have it populated and controlled by faculty from outside the division is highly unorthodox. My colleague in voice tried to protest, but it got nowhere. The Director of the School gave the reasoning: “After all it’s just singing and we can all judge singing.” This was an unfortunate ignorant attitude and I wonder if he really held it or if he was just trying to be insulting to the two of us from the vocal division.
Normally there is a protocol about how the committee checks out the applicants.
We usually read their curriculum vitae and check their references. Then we listen to the tapes of their singing which they have sent. But this time, we were given orders by the Director simply to listen to tapes and bring back to the committee the singers we liked. In a few sessions we had narrowed down the list to two people, who I will simply call Lauren and Nicole. Nicole had a lot of experience teaching. She had an incredible soprano voice that could sing Salome and raise the rafters, and she had a lot of performance history. Lauren had a decent voice but nothing to compare with Nicole and her history of performance was small. She also had absolutely no experience in teaching and she was clearly not the sharpest nail in the box. She had one thing going for her. She had just won a lieder contest in New York and was getting a little PR for that. But that did not insure she was going to have a career in opera, and as it turned out, she didn’t.
We watched them both perform a concert for us. Nicole sounded inhumanly huge in our little stone concert hall. I think the amount of sound threatened the egos of the faculty. But they liked her teaching. Lauren came out and did the lieder performance that was still warm in her voice from New York. She did a lot of cutesy-pie, perky little things in it but her voice was clearly not in Nicole’s class. For that reason it didn’t threaten any tender egos. The main problem was that Lauren clearly lacked intelligence. Her teaching session was so ridiculous and amateurish that the students were audibly laughing. Guffawing would be a closer description. She literally knew nothing about teaching.
The choice was obvious to my colleagues with their PR emphasis. Of course, they wanted to hire Lauren. She had just won this competition in New York. The School could really play that up. I was the one nay sayer of course. “What do we do about the fact that she can’t teach?” I asked. One of the three professors who ran the school said, “Well maybe you and the other voice teachers can teach her how to teach when she is here.”
I replied, “Even if she can be taught how to teach—and we don’t know that—how can you justify throwing students at her as Guinea Pigs while she is learning? They are not going to get an education.”
I will never forget his reply, “Joe, most of these kids are never going to do anything anyway, and so it doesn’t really matter. The kids move on but we the faculty have to stay here. If the students rebel at her teaching, it will be up to us to put them down.”
I thought of all the parents who had saved their whole lives to be able to send their children to university, and look what they were getting for their sacrifice, “Joe, most of these kids are never going to do anything anyway, and so it doesn’t really matter.” Why teach them at all then? Why not just give them a worthless degree and send them home.
Lauren was hired and no one tried to teach her how to teach. That had never really been serious. She fumbled around so incompetently and felt so out of place that she didn’t come back to school one day. She never gave the school notice. She just stayed in Michigan and chilled out, never more to come back to UBC.
After I left it was a revolving door for years trying to find someone who could work with this kind of a faculty. It became obvious that I was dealing with highly dishonest people who were committing a form of fraud in education. These were not competent, honest, caring colleagues as I had in Greensboro at The University of North Carolina. These people were scallywags.
Remember that verbal promise they gave me that I would have five years before being considered for tenure? They broke their word. After two years my contract was not renewed and I was out.
This was the last straw for me. I had been holding on to my dreams since I married Cathy, believing that one day I would make it back to the stage. Now I had to confront the fact that my professional life was approaching a close and I would never accomplish my dreams. At first I was shocked. I had never ever really considered the possibility of failure. After all, God had given me this voice, how could I fail? The conundrum rolled over and over in the mind. The next state I experienced was infuriating anger that this had happened to me. I was angry at Cathy for manipulating me. I was angry at God. I was just plain angry.
The first repercussion of my stress was that my heart began to fail. That old aortic valve that Dr. DeBakey had left in there way back in 1969 had finally failed due to all the stress. The doctors agreed that I need heart surgery and a replacement aortic valve. But nothing moves quickly in Canada. I waited for months on the waiting list. I grew weaker and weaker and as I moved closer to death I began to have spiritual experiences. I would leave my body and go to far off places traveling in an astral state out of the body. I was permitted to see my life in detail and look at the good I had done and the mistakes I had made. I continued to teach and it was during this time that I really saw the beauty in teaching others. Finally in the fall of 1994 I had my second heart surgery to replace that congenitally defective aortic valve. I recovered very quickly and in three months was back on stage performing. In 1995 I re-joined Jerome Hines again to perform I Am The Way in Benton Harbor Michigan. Hines had not heard me in a long time. Did he think I was over the hill? Far from agreeing with the opera company in Vancouver, he told his assistant Derek De Cambra, “Why Joe sings better now than he used to and he has more voice.” I knew why I was supposed to go to Benton Harbor. It was my love for Jerome Hines that was the lesson. That love is the love Jesus would have us learn. It is the same love I received from my grandparents and parents. It is the love that God gives us. Receive it. It isthere, waiting for us to grasp it in every learning experience, and every experience is a learning experience.
I returned to Vancouver after performing I Am The Way and it became obvious that I could not stay in the marriage with Cathy any longer. We had two children that I worshipped, Katie and Thomas, but there was no marriage left to save. After a threeyear exhausting custody battle in court, I lost and my children moved with Cathy to Florida. At first I literally thought I would die. It was only my students and the act of teaching that kept me alive.
In 1996 I sang for the last time with Jerome Hines, this time in the role of Simon Peter. Twenty years had passed since I sang the role of “Peter,” but I knew it. Jerry was in fine voice. This time, my character sat at the Last Supper table with Jesus.As I looked at Jerry I knew that the love I have for him is the message of Jesus, that we should love one-another even as He loved us; and “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
Jerry Hines died a few years later, Feb. 4, 2003, at 3:00PM in New York at the age of 81. He had nursed his beloved Lucia through Lou Gehrig’s disease until her death in 2000. He wanted to join her every day thereafter.
In 2006 my heart failed again. The artificial valve that had been installed in 1994 had cracked and blood was regurgitating back into my lungs. Once again I was on a waiting list and once again I had many spiritual experiences. A new tissue valve was put into my heart in September 2006 and I escaped death.
Still I work with singers. My mind and heart go back through the years to the great singers that have graced this planet with their voices. When they were in their prime, singing in the grand opera houses of the day, they seemed immortal. What an occasion it was when time swept them away from us and brought new names, new voices. The river of life brought them and swept them away. I have lost special friends over these past few years, friends with voices which were immortal, though their time on earth was short. How I miss them though I know they live on.
“My dreams were good dreams. They didn’t work out but I’m glad that I had them.” Now my dreams are to help other people make their dreams come true. My feelings of such profound disappointment, waste and guilt for not becoming the next Leonard Warren are still there. I don’t think they will ever leave. But I choose now to look at an equally true perspective. I choose to be inundated with a since of gratitude that I was given such rare opportunities. I am just so grateful for having been given the grace to go on the stage and begin to let people see my dreams. With the help of a gifted psychotherapist I was able to look at my whole life and see it as good. I saw that I had not done anything wrong, that my “mistakes” were allowed. They were but learning errors, not sins that condemned me. My dreams were good dreams, to inspire others to look at their lives with more insight than they had in ordinary waking consciousness.
How I love singers. They play the most beautiful of all instruments on the strings of a human nervous system. They paint sound on the canvas of the human heart. If you are not a singer you cannot know what it feels like to create a painting of soundknowing that it will never be retained except in human memory. What painter would willingly give time and attention to create a masterpiece on canvas only to erase it as soon as it were finished? But singers must do just that. No song, no aria, no scene, is ever the same twice. Even though we have the recording devices, a recording is to the real song out of the singer’s mouth, as a picture of a rose is to the experience of roses lovingly picked by one’s beloved and brought with arms of adoration and blessing! A CD is a picture of a Rembrandt in a book, not the life-transforming experience of seeing Rembrandt for the first time. Does anybody know the difference anymore in our cardboard society? Singers do! How I love singers. My experience of singing has totally captured my life. Singers come to me now and ask for my help in freeing their voices from the confinements of their bodies. I love the honor of the task.
The ongoing saga of human life is, as it were, a long song that continues to be sung. Listen. You can hear the song. Take a quiet moment and open the family history album. Look at the lives that have come to this Earth, and have gone. Don’t think of them as just cardboard characters from the “past.” They strove too with ambition like you. They too faced trials and hardships. They overcame great obstacles just to continue to live. They raised children that they loved and doted on their grandchildren. They lived their lives in common dignity and then passed from this Earth. Their experience here sounded just a note, but a powerful note of the song. Their coming and passing might be sad were it not for the note they added to the song. For you see we have almost forgotten the song that is being sung. God is a Singer. When He created all things, He sang them into existence in Spirit. Every life that has ever lived, every tree that has ever grown, every flower that has ever blossomed has come from that Song and still carries a little hint of melody deep within it. You come from that Song. Every singer but reminds us of the one song of life that comes from God’s heart.
I love singers. They tell me of a time coming when all of God’s singers will get Home. I know that hasn’t happened yet in time, but somehow I feel it already, just a little. Eternity is like that. It breaks in on time and gives us a foretaste of things to come. I feel it when my singers come together as a group to sing. I feel it when their lives touch mine and we are woven together in threads of melody given to all God’s singers. What a time that will be, “When all of God’s singers get Home.” The Singer of Eternity will join with his singers. What a song we will sing! The gospel song writer, Gloria Gaither, put it this way: “One of these days He’ll gather all of His children home and one by one the singers of all the ages will lift their voices and fill in the parts life taught to them. At last we will hear love’s sweetest song as it was first conceived in the heart of the Great Song Writer Himself. And it will be perfect. What music there will be when the song of all the ages is sung around the Father’s Throne, when all of God’s singers get home.”
Until then, time marches on. Lives are born here with the song of the creator in their very genes. Lives come and lives go. When you hear the song, how can you not sing? Come singers! Come! Sing! Sing and awaken creation to the Song that made all things.
Preparation for my first Rigoletto
In Victor Hugo’s play, LE ROI S’AMUSE, which is the play on which Rigoletto is based, Francois I is the virtual double of the historical king. He surrounded himself in elegance, yet was fond of dressing up in beggars clothes in order to journey into the slums of Paris to obtain a poor girl for the night. Evidently, he was considered extremely attractive and had no difficulty in finding willing partners.
Francis was crowned king at twenty-one. He was-about five feet eleven inches tall and was reputed to have had the longest nose in all of France! Titian has left us a portrait of Francis which hangs in the Louvre. He displays a mocking air which may have been attractive. Supposedly, when he was accused of licentiousness, he took off his diamond ring and scratched on a palace window, “Each woman is different.” If true, it is the historical correlate of “questa o quella” in the opera. He was evidently a fairly good soldier for he was knighted on the field of Marignano in the first year of his reign. He was definitely a libertine. Five years after his knighting he was taken prisoner at the battle of Pavia by the emperor, Charles V. He escaped by offering his two small sons as hostages in exchange for his own liberty! He was not too strong or integrity but he had the wisdom to employ around him famous men. He debated, consorted, and argued with such famous figures as Savanarola, Cesare Borgia, Macchiavelli, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Many famous poets were to be found in his court or capital, including Rabelais, Ronsard, Villon, and Clement Marot. Marot was evidently in his court frequently for he is Italianized in Piave’s libretto as “Marullo.” Thus there is good reason for Marullo to stand out among all the other courtiers. He alone is a man of some decency, perhaps corrupted by the company he keeps, but, nevertheless, a good man. He alone saves the jester from being killed. To him alone Rigoletto pleads for mercy in finding his daughter. In Piave’s libretto he says, “tu ch’hai 1’alma gentil come il core.” There is a lot of character in Marullo, a man of great learning and talent, corrupted and ashamed, yet feeling unable to change his life. I was fortunate to get to play Marullo as a beginning singer with the Tulsa Opera, with Louis Quilico as Rigoletto, Ezio Flagello as Sparafucile, Kenneth Regal as the Duke, and Pat Wise as Gilda. After that performance I moved up to the title role and never sang Marullo again, but playing him gave me insight I used later while playing Rigoletto.
Francis discovered Triboulet on one of his excursions into the Parisian slums. He was a street clown and so intrigued Francis that he took him back to the court. He was a little deformed but most of his deformation came from the pen of Hugo. Wit and loquaciousness were, however, true. “Io la lingua” is historical. He was said to have had the second largest nose in all of Paris. A portrait of him shows him to have been slightly obese with large head and shoulders. Besides these modest characteristics there was little to suggest the Triboulet of Hugo. In LE ROI, Hugo took historical people and adapted them for the theatre of the grotesque. Triboulet becomes tremendously ugly and deformed. Being a hunchback, he was considered underthe control of evil forces. Thus in the court affairs of LE ROI he is evil. He is extremely powerful because he is always right in the King’s ear, and not only hears great secrets, but can exert tremendous influence with the right word at the right time. Theposition of court jester was very much like being the chief of staff to the King. Parents who had the misfortune to have a deformed child would intentionally attempt to groom the child into further deformities, hoping to increase the chances of that child being chosen court jester. It was a prize of a position!
Triboulet is a misanthrope, full of twisted hatred for existence itself. But he has a good side. He is also secretly a loving father. His daughter, Blanche (Gilda in the opera), is the creation of Hugo for purposes of the theatre of the grotesque. Blanche was sent to the country to live her first fifteen years. Able to bear the separation no longer, Triboulet calls her home to live with him in Paris. Triboulet’s fatherly love is the irony that accentuates his grotesquerie. The other main character based on a historical figure is Monsieur Saint-Vallier (Monterone in the Piave libretto). Saint-Vallier was part of a famous conspiracy against the throne and was executed for his part in it. But Hugo was more creative in LE ROI. Saint-Vailier was under the knife when a pardon arrived from the king, purchased by his daughter, Diane, with her own body. His daughter, Diane de Poitiers, was a very interesting figure in French history. Historically she did not have an affair with Francis, though she did later with Francis’ son, Henri.
When this whole story was Italianized by Piave, Triboulet became Triboletto and the opera became LA MALEDIZIONE. According to Hugo, the subject of LE ROI was the curse of Saint-Vallier. Fittingly, Piave retained that emphasis in the first title. The rest is well known history. Because of political objections to the play Triboletto became Rigoletto. Francois I became the Duke of Mantua in the state of Lombardy. This was a good substitution. Ruled from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries by the Gonzagas, the historical correlate to the Duke may well have been Francesco Gonzaga, whose libertine excesses were close enough to Francis’ to make the switch minimally important.
Verdi’s interest in Hugo’s play came from a healthy respect for the playwright—he had already written ERNANI from Hugo’s play—and from his life-long interest in Shakespeare. Verdi was trying to write KING LEAR. It was to be an incomplete life- long desire. He was at least ready to attempt it when he read Hugo’s play, LE ROI S’AMUSE. His letters indicate that he saw in Triboulet a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare. He dropped his work on LEAR and began on LA MALEDIZIONE. The dark, somber, tragic “tinta” of RIGOLETTO is due in part to the fact that Verdi had been thinking about LEAR, and, I think more importantly, to the probability that he was using Hugo’s play as a testing ground for LEAR. His letters indicate that he felt so awed by LEAR that he wondered if he could ever compose the opera. Though it is partly conjecture, I believe that Verdi poured into LA MALEDIZIONE everything he had been thinking of for LEAR. Triboletto became a combination of Lear and Lear’sfool.
The unique “tinta” of RIGOLETTO also comes from Verdi’s desire to collaborate with Hugo in the theatre of the grotesque. By that I do not mean that there was any formal planning. Verdi was his own man. However, his letters show that what he wished for his opera was what Hugo wanted for his theatre. In this sense their minds were collaborating. Verdi wrote;
“I believe that it would be very beautiful to depict this character, externally deformed and ridiculous, as inwardly full of passion and love. I chose this subject precisely for these qualities, and if they are removed I cannot write the music.”
This is, of course, a statement of the essence of the theatre of the grotesque, the irony of opposites existing together.
Hugo was trying to set a world before his audience. He was intrigued with the late middle ages and renaissance periods and desired to lift his audience into another era, spiced with his own theatrical devices. That other world is found in LE ROI and Verdi’s RIGOLETTO. It is a mysterious place and not at all friendly. It devours its inhabitants. All of the characters in this world are acted upon by forces outside of themselves, the forces of this cruel universe.
The curse that has been working in Rigoletto is seen as also the curse which exists throughout this world of destruction. This is, as I see it, the climactic nature of the final “la maledizione.” Only the Duke gets along in this world as he goes humming through the dark, untouched by the events of iniquity unfolding in this mysterious night. This last “la maledizione” is not just the curse of Saint-Vallier brought to mind. It is a cry of the recognition of the nature of things, and this “nature of things” is the world that Hugo and Verdi wish to set before us. It will take its own effect, give its own message. Their intent is but to set us in it. The audience drawn into this world may feel a sickening deep down, mixed with the excitement of exotic mystery. But the elements of the story, being truly Shakespearean, bring alive characters and teach universal lessons. My experience has been that the audience is uncommonly moved by the experience of being set into this world.
We are very fortunate that sufficient information can be found in Hugo’s works and in Verdi’s score to give us a fairly complete understanding of the hunchback, Rigoletto. Shortly after Hugo wrote the play, “Hernani.” he wrote the novel, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Herein is a wealth of information of Hugo’s intentions for a hunchback character. While there are, of course, differences in Quasimodo and Triboulet, much of the information is very helpful.
The first attribute that both Quasimodo and Triboulet shared would, of course, have been physical deformity. Quasimodo had a crooked spine with one leg much shorter than the other, a large head depressed between the shoulders, and a large hump onthe back over one shoulder. Deformity was considered the work of the Devil and a hunchback his property, as this excerpt from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME shows:
“It is Quasimodo the hunchback of Notre Dame! Quasimodo the one-eyed! Quasimodo the bandi-legged!…Let pregnant women beware, cried the scholars. The women actually hid their faces. Oh, the ugly ape, cried one…Tis the Devil himself!…I am sure he attends the witches sabbaths.”
One attribute of Quasimodo seems to be a fascination of Hugo for the grotesque. For Quasimodo possessed tremendous strength. Usually Rigoletto is played as a weak old man. He may have been old for the sixteenth century but there is nothing to say that he was weak. I find it interesting to play him similar to Quasimodo, a man of inexplicable strength. After all, it takes all the courtiers to fight him off during “Cortigiani.” It adds an extra dimension to play him this way.
In Verdi’s score, Rigoletto faints at the abduction of Gilda and at her death.
Both times are connected with the curse and both times have musical notations for the fainting spells. I find that interesting because later, in OTELLO, Verdi would make it plain that when Otello faints, “il fazzoletto, il fazzoletto, ah, ah, ah…” convulsions are intended. Indeed almost everyone has interpreted Otello as being an epileptic, seizures being brought on by extreme stress.
I prefer to consider these spells of Rigoletto as epileptic seizures. The relationship between physical deformity and supposed evil was so strong in sixteenth century minds that an epileptic Rigoletto cannot help but make the character stronger and more exotic. It also underlines the link between Rigoletto’s physical afflictions and the evil world of which he is a symbolic effect.
Many people see Act 1 as an orgy, but I think this is a bad reading. Orgies were not Francis’ style. Whatever the occasion, it must retain elegance. It is possible to introduce the Duchess in this scene to show how she is neglected in the court. However, the emphasis must be on the Duke and Rigoletto. Only in this act do we get a glimpse of the kind of powerful monster Rigoletto really is in court. He is not just the jovial, fun-loving clown that we frequently see. For this reason, I like the idea of his being in the scene long before his musical entrance, “in testa che avete signor di Ceprano.”
The character must be deformed in his misanthropy as well as his body, the very antithesis of his surroundings. The Duke likes Rigoletto like a pet bulldog. Whatever he does is “cute.” Into this scene bursts Saint-Vallier (Monterone). It is possible to have his daughter, Diane, in the scene all along as court mistress. It is possible to bring her into focus when Saint-Vallier arrives and begins his sermon. Having just been pardoned from the knife, he has found out that his salvation came at the price of little Diane’s purity. I doubt very much that he burst into the court (as he frequently is staged) with a sword at his side. No one came into Francis’ court armed to the teeth. The Duke allows the old man to speak because Rigoletto wants to play with him.
How do we make the curse work in modern times? The idea that Rigoletto doesn’t take the curse seriously at first is one method, since then the audience doesn’t have to take it seriously either! But with all due respect to Frank Corsaro, I think this is tampering. A curse was very understandable in the sixteenth century, and a “father’s curse” was even more understandable by an Italian audience. The difficulty of making the curse understood by today’s audience has led some directors to gimmickry. Let’s face it. The first scene is a problem in showing us what the “curse” meant to Rigoletto. Corsaro’s idea is that Rigoletto does not take the curse seriously at first, but as he begins to drink and let his mind imagine, the curse gradually begins to become an obsession. The idea has certain merits but Rigoletto does exclaim in scene one when cursed by Monterone, “Che sento? Orrore!” Corsaro’s idea means that Rigoletto is pretending when he says that line. That is certainly against an honest reading of the play and libretto.
The second scene of Act 1 —incorrectly called Act 2 by the “four Act people”—is the grotesque irony in the life of Rigoletto. The monster becomes a loving father, though a paranoid one because of the curse which is following him, and an incredibly overprotective one because she is all that he has in the world. It may be true that the Duke (or the King) had a “right” to ask for the daughter of anyone in the court. Partly for this reason, Rigoletto keeps her secret. To Gilda (Blanche), the whole affair is nuts! She was raised in the country by a nun without knowing she even had a father, and then, out of the blue, she is sent to Mantua (or Paris) at her father’s request. When she gets there, she finds that he is an ugly hunchback whose profession is a secret. She is not allowed to go out-side except to go to church! She is a prisoner who escapes in her fantasies.
Let’s say a little about the nature of Sparafucile and Maddalena. I think we find their nature in the mysterious essence of the last act. Sparafucile comes to Rigoletto out of nowhere and returns to the same place. He knows things he has no way of knowing, and Rigoletto’s word for him is “demonio.” Even though in Hugo’s play they are real people, I think there is indication that Verdi wished to make them bigger than life characters. If you will, they are supernatural agents of this strange, mysterious world which is set before us. Their work is the work of this world, destruction.
What we must see in Rigoletto when he is with Sparafucile in Act 1, scene 2, is his complete naiveté at their similarity. We must see that even Rigoletto has set limits in his mind. He does not easily contemplate murder. “Pari siamo” comes as a revelation to him, an element of self-discovery. As soon, however, as he realizes his nature he refuses to take responsibility for it, blaming it on the fates, mankind, creation, the courtiers, anything will do, as long as it keeps him from examining the cruelty he has inflicted upon himself through years of bitterness. In his house he escapes into a world of fantasized normalcy. Who was Gilda’s mother who bore her then died? Was Rigoletto really married to her? Or was she a fantasy of normalcy? Did Rigoletto really adopt Gilda from the orphanage? These are ideas that the actor gets to choose from in making up his own biography. One thing is for sure, Gilda has become for him the central part of a fantasy in which he is as normal as everyone else. Probably the reason that he sent for her is that he simply could not stand the pain of his life of internal and external deformity any longer. He needed a release. Thus, his little house with his captive daughter is his escape valve for the pain of existence. Thus, he protects Gilda with the desperation of protecting his own life. This, of course, is the flaw in his love. It is not free, and it is through this flaw that the curse will make entrance. When Gilda is abducted, he really believes his life is over right then and there. He is determined, however, to go out with a fight. So he dawns the jester’s suit for the last time (he thinks), after recovering from the seizure which left him helpless at the discovery of Gilda’s abduction, and goes to the court to search for his daughter’s body. In his paranoid desperation he thinks they must have raped her, killed her, and hidden her body somewhere in the court. His macabre imagination, driven by his paranoid desperation, flashes images in his mind of the horrible way he may come upon her body. He knows the courtiers will be stonewalling it when he arrives so he decides to play along to observe their reactions in case they give something away. However, a man in such tentative mental “health” is not a very good actor. The pathos of this scene is driven to the highest degree by the sight of this heart-sick man making his last stand, attempting to act as though nothing were unusual. His jester’s “la ra’s” are full of hate and incredible rage, constrained as best he can (which is not much). To have Rigoletto come into court with jovial “la ra’s” is ridiculous for a man making his last stand. To have him virtually weeping is also out-of character for a man making his last-stand, a man who, through years of bitterness has learned to compress tears into internal anger. Yet how often does one see the old fellow begin Act 2 with tearful “la ra’s?” All during the intermission the baritone has been sniffing onions!
Rigoletto is now more an animal than a man. His movements are tense, quick for a man his age, like a cornered cat. He is no longer in charge of the court the way he was in Act 1, scene 1. (In her Master’s classes at Julliard, Callas also indicated that Rigoletto must be like a trapped animal, fierce and wild.) “Cortigiani” erupts like a volcano from restrained rage. What about that Quasimodo characteristic of great strength? It can make a great addition to this scene as it takes all the courtiers to fight off an enraged Rigoletto.
What has Gilda been doing these past ten minutes with the Duke? (The time is continuous and realistic in this scene.) Everyone seems to agree that she is being raped, but I am not so sure. Rape was not the style of Francis, and after all, he really does care about Gilda in his own way. However, if love-making rather than rape, ten minutes is an awfully rude bedroom manner!
Two years later, Boris Goldovsky pointed out to me that in the Hugo play there is a whole bedroom scene in which the King declares his love, Blanche hers, and everything happens in proper time. Piave cut out that scene and left us with a big problem. Just what did they do in there? Its true that Gilda says later, “Ah 1’onta padre mio,” but it really is just as much the shame of seeing Rigoletto groveling around on the ground in a jester’s suit, plus the shame that she has been the cause of his humiliation, as much as anything she might have done behind closed door with a ten minute Duke! Goldovsky is probably right. It may be best not to speculate too much over what took place behind those closed doors, thanks to Piave’s sin of omission. One thing is for sure, when Gilda came out of that door she had decided to stay with the Duke as court mistress (Diane’s old position). Gilda became Diane’s successor. The “piangi fanciulla” duet is not really so much Papa Rigoletto comforting his violated little girl as it is an expression of Rigoletto’s need to see that Gilda is sorry! A destroyed man is crying, “Why have you done this to me?”
Rigoletto now knows that there is nothing he can do to stop the Duke taking his Gilda, and he vows to end his life right, with revenge! Gilda stays in the court as the Duke’s mistress as the curtain closes on Act 2. She has been there a month in the interval between acts. It has taken Rigoletto that long to set up the details of the murder and his and Gilda’s escape.
The last act is really quite surreal. It is a mysterious night in which all the forces of this destructive world are going to be unleashed and Sparafucile and Maddalena are its ministers. By this time Rigoletto has become like an animal patiently awaiting its prey. His pathological mind wants only one thing, the body of the Duke limp in his hands.
I think it is frequently overlooked how much Rigoletto is really rubbing Gilda’s nose in her sin as he makes her watch the Duke and Maddalena (during the famous quartet). There is a great deal of cruelty in it. But for a whole month Rigoletto has had to carry out his duties as court jester while his own Gilda paraded through the court as the Duke’s mistress. His feelings are understandable. The curse has taken quite a toll already. Soon it would win all.
Some older scores indicate at the end of the opera that Rigoletto dies. This may well have been the intention of Hugo who simply preferred to leave death an inevitability rather than a stated event. Quasimodo lost the woman he loved, and diedholding the body of his beloved in the crypt. Rigoletto has been dead inside since the abduction of Gilda. Final death is inevitable without Gilda. The scream, “Ah, la maledizione»” marks the victory of this malevolent world, and it also discloses its nature. It is a world cursed. In a final epileptic seizure, Rigoletto is no more. Like Quasimodo, his corpse clings to the one he loved.
The music of RIGOLETTO is some of the most beautiful that Verdi ever wrote. He is reputed to have said, “I could write another OTELLO. I could never write another RIGOLETTO.” There is great genius in the combination of melody and true human emotions. For the baritone it is also extremely difficult music. No wonder then that so many singers are so occupied with the vocal demands that they never get around to anything more than the basics of the drama. It is more than a melodrama. I am convinced that Verdi was writing on a higher plane than simple story-telling. The surreal nature of Act 3, the complexity of the characters, the link with Hugo’s theatre of the grotesque, the relationship to KING LEAR, all point to it.
I do not know how to explain the dramatic process in terms of external actions. There are actors who work from “the outside, in” by deciding each gesture and. position in advance. But this approach has always seemed shallow to me. It ends in cardboard characters or caricatures and it seems a stranger to sincerity and openness. Stanislavski gave me the best tools to use as an actor. Some people do not know that “the method” was born out of opera. Stanislavski went all throughout Russia observing the finest actors of his day, writing down what they all had in common. His favorite actor was the great operatic bass, Feodor Chaliapin. In fact, Stanislavski said, “My method is Chaliapin.” Later Stanislavski was given control over the young artist training program at the Bolshoi Opera where he used his “method” to train the young opera singers. Yet many people today in opera are totally unaware that method acting can be used in opera.
I am concerned to bring the character to life and I find that I can best do that if I work from “inside, out.” For Rigoletto, I felt I needed to know as much as possible what a man would really feel like to have been a hunchback jester in the sixteenth century. It seemed to me that I could get a handle on this character if I could understand the feelings of a battered child. In the sixteenth century, parents would groom their children into further deformities, if they happened to be born already deformed to some degree in order to increase their chances of being chosen court jester. The psychological development of such a child would be fairly analogous today to a very badly battered child. I consulted physicians and psychologists on treatment of battered children and visited rehabilitation centers that treated severely battered children of various ages. The most severely battered were extremely paranoid, hostile, some even predatory, and possessed of a sense of not belonging. I felt like I was seeing the insides of “Pari siamo.” If one is around battered children long enough to feel their pain and fear, that experience itself can open the door to the dark world in which Rigoletto lives. In the method we use substitutions from our own experiences to bring to life the experiences of the character. I used a particular event in my life to serve as a substitution for Rigoletto’s loss of Gilda at the end of the opera when she dies. A substitution only has to give us the essence of the experience. We may never have experienced the exact same event. For years I have loved pure bred Persian and Himalayan cats. When I was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera I lived in an adobe cabin in the Pecos Wilderness area about thirty miles from the theatre. It was worth the drive everyday to live there. I had a blue-point Himalayan kitten living with me named Ali Baba. He was alone a lot and I was concerned about him. I thought of getting him a playmate. One of the other apprentices said that he had a chocolate point Himalayan in New York that he was going to have to give away because his lover was allergic to cats. He said he would be glad to give her to me. I was ecstatic. I had always wanted a chocolate point. So Mocha was brought to Santa Fe on the plane and I met her at the airport. She was an exquisitely beautiful cat and I was absolutely in love with her. Ali Baba liked her too and so all seemed to have worked out well. Unfortunately, I was not told that Mocha had not been spayed yet and she was coming into heat. One night while I was away at the theatre she managed to squeeze out of a tiny opening in the window in search of a Tom. When I came home I started calling for her and came to the conclusion that she must have squeezed through that tiny crack in the window. I got my flashlight and began roaming through the Pecos Wilderness area calling for Mocha. I was out there all night! Finally, close to dawn, I returned to my cabin. When I awoke in a few hours, I went outside to see the mangled body of my beautiful Himalayan in the front yard. Wild dogs had killed her and the neighbor’s dog had dragged her body back to the yard. I went absolutely hysterical. After that experience was “processed” I was able to use that to bring to life Rigoletto’s experience of opening the bag and finding his dead daughter inside.
Opera singers of a previous generation seldom went to such trouble in their acting. A famous Canadian baritone, who sang Rigoletto hundreds of times, bragged to me that “once” he even really cried! “ONCE?” In hundreds of performances? They viewed their job as mainly singers and only secondarily as actors. Their acting was most often limited to external actions, posing and strutting about.
Regardless of one’s school of acting. I personally feel that I have to find one attitude mandatory. That is a commitment to sincerity, and truth, being unashamed of human emotions. If this is present there is a foundation on which a true character can be built. It seems almost silly to have to say such a thing except as one remembers that there are opera singers who do hundreds of performances and yet only use real tears once!
I find it helpful to develop and utilize a specialized vocabulary for dealing with the internal method. I have used Uta Hagen’s vocabulary, as explained in her book, RESPECT FOR ACTING, since I first came in contact with it. It is essentially a detailed anatomy of the actor’s consciousness. Using the actor’s life and experiences as the means for building the character, it is a technique for “finding oneself” in the character rather than “loosing” oneself. Thus, I become the character as the character becomes me.
Those who see acting as essentially “representational” will not understand this. To them, acting has nothing to do with the actor’s own life. It is a craft accomplished by skillful body movements with tried and true gestures. Such a technique can never do more than “represent” a character; for the audience is always aware that there is an “actor” on stage rather than a person living in his own world.
In addition to historical and psychological work on the character I knew I needed some physical work. It just happened that I was going to be at the Chautauqua Festival in New York all that summer of 1976 so it gave me a chance to ride a bicycle all summer. I also coached Rigoletto with James Benner, the resident coach at the summer School of Music. He and his wife, Frances Yeend, the Met star soprano, were teaching then at the summer school. They were wonderful people and they quickly became supporters of mine. They recognized my talent and immediately came along side as friends who wished to help. They have remained my dearest friends to this day.
I sang with the Symphony while I was there that summer, Boris’ Godounov’s monologue, “Dostig yah vyshei vlasti.” I coached the Russian with the resident Russian teacher at Chautauqua and found that I really enjoyed singing in the language.The Russian must have been pretty good because Russian diplomats asked my teacher if I were Russian. When I got back to New York in September I talked to Jerry Hines about a baritone doing the role of Boris. He said, “Sure you could do it. Somewhere I have a tape of Lawrence Tibbett singing the monologue.” Hines was singing Boris that year at the Met and blowing everybody away. I now had his permission to dream of performing that role one day. Great! Chester Ludgin was a Verdi baritone with vocal weight similar to mine and he had performed the role at New York City Opera and elsewhere in regional operas. That gave me a precedent to use if I wanted to sing Boris.
To my children – Katie and Tom, who I love very much.
My sincere thanks to all those who contributed so much to my career and understanding.
All of my students – for what they have taught to me.
All of my friends – who helped save my life after September 2006.
Cesare Bardelli – who showed me how to sing Verdi.
James Benner and Frances Yeend – who have supported me all my career.
Derek De Cambra – who is a faithful friend.
Dr. Don Cowan for his encouragement and beautiful modeling of the baritone voice.
Michael Fardink, my coach and accompanist.
Dr. Eugene Grabscheid who kept my voice well.
Mr. Ted Harris for his encouragement and modeling the bass baritone voice.
Jerome Hines who became my mentor in opera.
Mrs. Beulah McConnell for her great support throughout my early years.
John Mitchell for being the most supportive and loving high school music teacher.
Dr. Dale Moody for believing in me and inspiring me.
Thaddeus Motyka for giving me a chance.
Mr. Laven Sowell for his teaching and encouragement.
Jim Sullivan who recognized my talent and gave me a fair chance.
G.H. Surrette for the loving quality of his teaching.
The Tulsa Opera, Jeanette Turner and the ladies of the Tulsa Opera Guild for their early support.
Milt and Margo Wallace for believing in me throughout the years.
Clarence Whisler for inspiration as the best high school teacher I ever had.
Copyright © 2012 Joseph Shore
All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from Joseph Shore.
Edition: July 2012
Publisher: Camerata Publications