My Life Will Have To Do!

I went to Southwest Baptist University and got an B.A. in a double major, Theology and Speech/Drama. For the latter I got elected to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. I did graduate work towards my M.Div at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I did a pastoral internship and became a licensed Southern Baptist minister. However, I was not very happy with that denomination because they were becoming very right wing and anti-intellectual. But it was in seminary that I received an “inner call,” not to be a minister but to be an opera singer. Without any formal training in voice I entered the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in 1974 and won. I was given a two year apprenticeship with the Santa Fe Opera and made my stage debut there, then with the Tulsa Opera, which nourished me during my early years. I sang at the Metropolitan Opera in a Gala Concert in 1975 and was awarded the Gladys Axman-Taylor Memorial Award for being one of the ten National Winners of the Met Auditions. I moved to New York in 1975 and began studying with Jerome Hines and Cesare Bardelli of the Met and coached with Alberta Masiello, the head of the coaching department of the Met. For two years I had a mailbox at the Met because so many people were writing me there. Every day I would come in the side stage door and check my mail.  I made my New York stage debut in 1980 at the Brooklyn Academy with the Chamber Opera Theater of New York, in an opera by Sir William Walton called The Bear, based on the Chekhov farce by the same name, and received a great review from The New York Daily News. I became a member of Jerome Hines’ personal Opera Company and sang with him for 20 years. In 1981 I starred in the New York premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, Mozart and Salieri, and received highly favorable reviews from New York critics as well as 100 critics from all over the world. From that point I sang leading roles in all the major opera companies in America and some in Canada and Europe. Some of the fun times were when I sang La Traviata  in Central Park with the New York Grand Opera. We also performed it at Coney Island and in Brooklyn. Also, in Lincoln Center, I sang a summer concert with the Guggenheim Concert Band.

I won several awards: Besides the Met Auditions, I won the national award for the WGN Auditions in Chicago and the Bruce Yarnell Memorial Award for Baritones in New York.

My European debut was in 1984 as Verdi’s Rigoletto which I played at the Belfast Grand Opera House as part of the Northern Ireland Opera Festival. One performance was broadcast over radio by the BBC. It was still dangerous over there then. We had a judge in the chorus who always had two body guards with him. The theatre itself celebrated Queen Victoria being named Queen of India and was ornately dressed with huge elephants all over the theatre, carved ones of course. The Director was the very famous Nicholas Hytner with whom I got along famously. Hytner went on to make many hit movies and became director of the National Theatre in England.

 

I was fortunate to sing with the great opera singers of that day who were international stars. I always felt my work in opera was to inspire my audience to look upward and ask the big questions in life: “What is Truth, Beauty, and Love.” Art cannot give the answers but it is very good at turning one’s gaze upwards. In short, I was trying to inspire people with my singing and acting. I felt that I could do it better on a stage than from behind a pulpit! But I did not lose my interest in theology. Far from it, I completed and finally received a legal Th.D degree in 2016 just out of my desire to finish something I started long ago.

I was Professor of Voice at the University of British Columbia, Indiana University, Perdue University of Indiana and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I am retired now but still teach a few students. It has been a long road from Carthage, and could have been longer. In 1982 I sang a concert based on war and peace, half in Russian (which I learned) and half in English, all high song literature on the subject, including Mussorgsky song cycle, “The Songs and Dances of Death” (sung in Russian). The sponsor for the concert,  which was to be held at Marymount Manhattan College in Manhattan,  invited the United Nations delegation from the Soviet Union and the delegation from The United States. The American delegates did not attend, but the entire Russian delegation came and filled the first three rows of the theatre. At the end of the concert, they rushed up on stage to thank me. The lead delegate said to me “That was real Russian you sang!” and we talked for a few minutes. He said he would try to get Goskoncert (the Soviet Art Agency, to invite me to perform in Moscow. All sorts of Congressmen recommended me to them including Rep Taylor from Missouri, but in the end it didn’t happen. In the course of my career I sang for US Representatives, Senators, Consuls, and Ambassadors. I almost sang for Jimmy Carter.  I met him in the elevator going down to my rehearsal! Stars of the Met became my good friends and even were my fans. At the Met, James McCracken, Jerome Hines, Ezio Flagello, Carlo Cossutta, Teddy Uppman, Gilda Cruz-Romo, Marilyn Niska were all my fans and I was their colleague. Those were the days!

Galina Vishnevskaya, the Russian soprano, who was exiled from the Soviet Union along with her husband, Rostropovitch, chose me to sing the leading Russian Baritone role in Tchaikovsky’s Opera, Iolanta, which she was to direct  at the Salzburg Festival. From hearing me sing, she thought I was Russian, so my Russian must have been pretty authentic. I sang the role of Boris Godounov many times in Russian. It was a role that fit me well, perhaps because I learned it from my teacher, Jerome Hines, who was one of the great Boris’ of all time. I received many reviews from world critics which placed me at the top of my operatic profession. But I developed personal enemies among the moguls who politically control opera because I would not depart from my goals to use opera to inspire people and uplift them. I would not do crazy things like wear a space suite and pretend to be singing on the moon, or sing totally nude! Such idiocies were creeping into opera even then. But I did the best I could to fulfill my dreams to use opera as an inspirational art. Hundreds of my performances are on youtube and have been seen worldwide now. I wish I could have done more, but the miracle is that I did all that I did fighting against congenital heart disease. I sandwiched my career in between three open heart surgeries.  My life will just have to do! 🙂

Joe 02-13-16

A Letter to the Father

Many of you know the story of how I went to seminary and intended to be a professor; how I felt deeply I was in the wrong place but didn’t know where the right place was. One of my dorm mates was an opera buff who had every opera record under the sun and listened to them morning, noon, and night. I listened with him for the year and a half I was there. Something about those great voices grabbed me down deep somewhere in my psyche and I bought some and began listening to opera while I was studying. Then one evening, a strange thing (for me then) happened. I clearly heard an inner voice say to me “your characters could be your sermons; the stage could be your pulpit; the theatre could be your church; the audience could be your congregation.” Now go put feet to your faith.” This shocked me! Baptists do not hear voices! Maybe Pentecostals do but not us Baptists. You have to understand that I had never had any serious voice lessons. I sang in choirs and sounded no better than anyone else. But just before I heard the voice, I remember praying almost through tears, “Father please tell me what to do. I don’t feel like I belong here.” Maybe that is why I believed it. I took a little step by faith. This was a new kind of ministry. I left seminary and got a job. When I wasn’t working I was listening to opera. This went on about six months until finally one day I opened my mouth to see if I could make a sound like those guys on the records, and out came the operatic voice I have had since! A friend came by and said “Hey, you’ve got quite a voice. You ought to enter the Met Auditions.” I didn’t know what they were but I said sure. I filled out the application, got some music for some hard bass arias and set to learning them by listening to records. I went down to sing the first level of the Met Auditions in Tulsa and had no expectations. I just sang and was named one of the winners. I was even given an apprenticeship with the Santa Fe Opera and the Tulsa Opera sponsored me and gave me grants. I thought to myself, “Gee, this opera business is a snap.” I had absolutely no social preparation to help me deal with this new profession. And I found out that not everybody would like me. I would have real enemies to fight. But I did my best, sang big roles in big houses. I made some mistakes and after singing in this world 11 years I made a personal mistake that took me off the stage. I kept thinking I would find a way to get back on, but I never did. I became a university teacher instead. But all through this era my heart was aching that I had failed in this new ministry that I had been divinely given. Friends were well meaning when they said, “It’s all in the past. Just move on!” But they didn’t understand the miracle I had been given and how deeply it had hurt me to feel I had not fulfilled what I had been given. I was still a minister at heart even when I was an opera singer.

Today, I wrote a letter to God and made a little boat with my recordings in it and my reviews, and I set it on the ocean when the tide was going out. I am going to share with you that letter.

Dearest Father,
I know that you know my thoughts and that you are here now as I type these words, but it is good for me to write to you this way. I love you with all my heart Father even though I scarcely know how to love, even scarcely know what it is. But you know me and knew me since before all time when I was and still am a part of you. I am a thought in your mind. It feels like I have been away from you a long time, but I know that is not true. I have just been dreaming a dream which to me seems long, but it really was over a long time ago. I am not making very much sense am I? I feel your heart in mine, dear Father. I have almost come for the time to leave this body and set sail again within the world of spirit. It is all a part of the dream which you can’t know because you know that I am safely inside your Mind. Thoughts leave not their thinker. But the Holy Spirit came with me into my dream. He witnessed my birth into this imaginary world. He saw how I so often thought of you. He saw as I viewed my part in my dream as a hero who would help people to remember you. He saw our Song awaken in my heart and formalize itself into a singer in this dream world. My career as an opera singer was the most important thing in my life because you gave me the gift to sing. Your Holy Spirit told me in Seminary that “my characters could be my sermons; the stage could be my pulpit; the theatre could be my church; the audience could be my congregation.” Then your Holy Spirit said to me, “Now go put feet to your faith.” I believed it Father. I knew it was True and that it came from you. I went into this strange, cruel, but wonderful world of opera and I sang with all my heart. I was surprised when some people didn’t like me, because my voice was from you. Along the way I sang as best as I could and I thought of you every time before I went on stage. I made some personal mistakes which I know you have forgiven me for. But I had a hard time forgiving myself for them. They took me out of the world of opera and took away my stage where I had my church. I felt like such a failure. I so wanted to use my voice to help others awaken. I thought my tears would never end for the loss of my career as a singer. You could not know my dream, of course, though you knew I was dreaming. But the Holy Spirit saw and felt everything that happened to me. He saw my tears and my broken heart. He saw the way I had to work in a cruel, cruel world of opera where the men who ran it were asleep in their own dreams of indifference, hatred and usury.
But Father, after the dream of opera changed, I learned more and remembered more. A new dream of awakening into love’s Presence came to me. On the shores of Burnaby Lake with beautiful ducks and geese, birds and fish, water and flowers, I remembered us more. That dream of awakening is still playing out in me. Father, I loved singing, but I give it back to you now as my gift to you. Here in this little boat that I have set adrift to the ocean, there is a computer stick, with all my songs, and all my reviews. They are my gift of thanks back to you for the song we share. Now I will finish the work I began at Burnaby Lake. I will fully remember you and see the face of Christ in all my brothers, even the dark ones who dream nightmares, and who will laugh at the silly old man who writes to God. But that is OK. I do not care. We can speak now all the time if you want Father. I have nothing on my mind but you…and my brothers because I keep seeing the face of Christ in them!

Your Loving Son,
Joseph

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