“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, at Midwestern 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 that a 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 if there 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 studio and 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 time for 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 had sung 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 lyrical because 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 maybe if, 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 who 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 slept very 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 about seeing 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.