Wisdom of MY Words

Random Musings & Book Reviews

01 August
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Turkey Cock

Imagine being a 19-year old opera freak, a voice student between jobs and suddenly finding yourself shepherding a whole carload of famous, if impoverished opera singers overnight from Chicago to New York in the middle of a midwestern winter – in February 1947 yet.

Imagine that these splendid artists have been stranded by an opera season that folded before it opened, and, just to add to the fun, that they have barely a word of English among them, while your own knowledge of foreign language is almost as sketchy as theirs.

Then imagine that this whole bizarre, impromptu  interlude would turn out to be one of the most memorable of your lifetime, vivid even now, more than half a century later.

But first we’d better backtrack a bit …

The previous summer, dazzled by the prospect of mingling with some real live opera singers – past, present, and future – I’d given up an academic scholarship for the richly rococo voice studio of oldtime diva Anna Fitziu and her fascinating entourage of students of hangers-on. (One of her last and finest gifts to the world would be the megastar Shirley Verrett). That same summer I was engaged as the youngest 2nd tenor to grace (or disgrace, as some would have it) the Chicago Opera Company chorus for what would be the city’s last resident season until 1954 – no connection there, really, folks.

By mid-July we were rehearsing for the October opening of a 6-week season to feature such household Gods of ours as Milanov, Björling, Traubel, Warren, and Tibbett, along with overseas newcomers like Ferruccio Tagliavini and Italo Tajo. For me, all this amounted to The Big Time, or as near as you would come to it in Chicago of 1946 – but wait! What was gthat brilliant light shining on the horizon? A brand new opera company. Glory! Hallelujah! A veteran impressario from South America named Ottavio Scotto had suddenly appeared – a feisty little turkey-cock of a gent with flowing silk scarves, a wide-brimmed champagne-colored Borsalino hat, silver-headed cane, and – I swear it – spats and pince-nez glasses. And he was fizzing over with grandiose plans for an ambitious new undertaking with the imposing name of The United States Opera, to open its inaugeral season at the Civic Opera House on January 6th, with an all-star production of Puccini’s Turandot. But that wasn’t all – thanks to generous backing, a constellation of legendary European stars had already been signed, names familiar from recordings and opera magazines, along with an excellent musical staff from conductors (Sergio Failoni, George Sebastian) and coaches to a chorus master from the old opera days. And the company would live up to its name by using Chicago as a base for touring all over opera-hungry America.

Signor Scotto strutted through the studio several times to audition singers for smaller roles, always with a squad of Cosa Nostra types, and though Madame Fitziu was always her usual gracious self, it was obvious that she Didn’t Quite Trust that Little Man. She disclosed that he had at one time been the manager and possibly lover of the tragic, Duse-like prima donna Claudia Muzio. Also, his vibes were negative in the extreme. Once at a rehearsal in Soth America she saw him slap star tenor Miguel Fleta viciously across the face for cracking on high notes due to sexual excess. (Ah, the mysterious mystique of Art!)

Anyway, we choristers were at once plunged into daily rehearsals for the new season. In addition to Turandot, there would be several operas new to many of us: Tannhäuser, Don Pasquale, Cavalleria, and two Massenet works, Thais and Manon, as showcases fora star of the Paris Opéra, Georgi-Boué, and her baritone husband, Roger Bourdin. (She was reputed to be drop-dead gorgeous, perfect casting for Massenet’s romantic heroines.) We never did see this pair – did they know something we perhaps didn’t?

Among the Italians would be established singers like Mafalda Favero, Galliano Masini, Cloe Elmo – while the German wing would be led by Heldentenor Max Lorenz, the famed Konetzni sisters, Hilde and Anny, from Vienna, and the young Swiss bass Heinz Rehfuss. Most compelling of all: a superb Italo-Russian basso from La Scala, Nicolo Rossi-Lemeni, who arrived early enough to become a familiar figure at Fitziu’s studio, a stunning singing-actor, 27 years of age, too intellectual really to be an opera star, simpatico, and physically what nowadays would be called a Hunk. Moreover, he was probably the only singer ever to get a rave review from critic Claudia Cassidy for singing over the telephone, sending her to the highest heaven of invention, where she remained for at least 24 hours.

It was Nicola who first told us about our Turandot, a fabulous young Greek-American soprano still back in New York – only 23 years old: shy, nearsighed, plump, and awkward to play the fire-in-ice princess, but possessor of one of the most fantastic voices that he or anybody had ever heard. Her name was something like Maria Kalogerapoulous shortened, or so he believed, to Callas (though advance publicity, bumbling as usual, dubbed her “Marie Calas”.) She had been something of a phenomenon in Greece during the war – singing roles like Tosca, Santuzza and Fidelio, but for the past year or so, back in New York she hadn’t had a chance. Learning Turandot had been a godsend – coached by a singer-pianist, who was along on our epic trip – but with the collapse of the season, she’d be back to square one, poor girl. However – the future held such things for her that no fairytale could envision. (By the way, many of the the Callas biographies have her coming to Chicago and getting stranded there like all the others, but it simply isn’t true. She remained in New York. If she HAD been along – in that concert AND on that train, I’m sure somebody would have noticed. So much for good reporting. Take that, Arianna Stassinopoulous. Sic semper Tabloidiensis!

Another outrider from the Scotto troupe was an Italian comprimaro tenor named Virginio Assandri (or “Sandro”), amiable and high-spirited. From him I acquired the Italian cusswords and scatological terms that still stud my vocabulary. (He later went on to New York to sing in several of Toscanini’s legendary NBC opera productions, starting with Cassio in the benchmark Otello the following autumn.)

December came and went, and with it the usual Chanukah and Christmas festivities, with Turandot all but coming out of our ears – one foot in Ancient Peking, the other in Limbo, because at that point we didn’t know where we stood: still no “Marie Calas”, and, what was worse, no money. Illustrations artists kept on arriving, and, though the opening had already been put forward a couple of weeks, ticket orders were already being filled. Rumors were rife and speculation becoming general because nobody had as yet seen a penny of rehearsal pay. And we were constantly being put off by the vaguest of excuses – the money was there, all right, but (a) being held up by the government, or (b) caught up in the bureaucratic tangle of international finance, or (c) tied up in the escrow, whatever the hell that meant.

When the opening date was again moved forward, our AGMA chorus-delegate, a lady named Evelyn Siegel, who Took No Prisoners, issued a Put-Up-or-We-Shut-Up ultimatum that brought matters to a nasty head.

Signor Scotto, meanwhile, last of the Bigtime Impressarios, had vanished in a puff of smoke like Rumpelstilskin – scarves, pince-nez, and spats, leaving his luckless partner, an agent named Eddie Bagarozy, holding the tab for something like $ 100 000 in debts.

The backers – invisible Millionaires from Outer Space – had suddenly withdrawn their support, taking all of their gold with them like Alberich and his seven dwarfs in Das Rheingold. The bitter, unvarnished truth: there would be no opera season, there would be no United States Opera Company ever. The key word was bankrupt. Kaputt. Fini. Finiti. That’s all she wrote, as they say in This Man’s Army.

            And those magnifiscent singers from overseas, what would happen to them? How would they going to bankroll their journey back to Europe? What, by giving a benefit concert for themselves, that’s how …

And what a concert it turned out to be – one of those rare occasions which one can, in all confidence, call unforgettable. The Civic Opera House was packed, and the audience was as enthusiastic as the Super Bowl’s. True, the programme handed out consisted of only one page mimeographed in that blotchy purple ink that old office machines used to have – no Xerox yet in 1947. The vast stage was empty except for the piano, a seat for the accompanist (Sandro on his very best behavior). The singing and the artistry were, of course, something else again. As one by one these wonderful artists came and went, most of them in pre-war finery that had seen better days, they planted themselves by the piano and delivered with a grandeur of voice and style that had nothing to do with costumes or scenery – an inner pride, a rocklike self-confidence that could only come from generations of tradition and hard work, showing us just what were about to be deprived of. Now, more than five decades later, highlights are still fresh in memory, and these are only as one spectator remembers them. There are bound to be some errors. Nodody’s perfect, as the fellah said.

Especially memorable high points – a Rigoletto Quartet that was, in a word , simply to die for – Mafalda Favero’s lovely but delicate soprano, heartbreaking in scenes from La Boheme and La Traviata (the latter with an attractive lyric baritone named Daniele Cecchele) – a humorous basso buffo (Melchiore Luise?) and itinerant quack hawking his wares to a gullible country bumpkin (tenore-di-grazia Nino Scattolini) who looked like a waiter at the Italian Village café a few streets over, but who sang like a Donizetti angel – sparkling Rossini from a beauteous young senorita named Carmen Gracia – superb arias from Masini, still one of the greatest Italian tenors extant. Then there were the tremendous Wagnerians, and you’d have to journey all the way to Bayreuth or Vienna to hear them or their like – Max Lorenz and Hilde Konetzni flooding the house with the lyrical springtime of Die Walküre (So what if it was incest? This was opera!), and her sister Anny, her dramatic soprano matching the royal purple velvet of her gown, taking us through all 18 minutes of Brünhilde’s Immolation, the longest aria in the lexicon, and this to only the plinkety-plonk of a piano. Most impressive of all: two singers on the brink of world fame – the contralto Cloe Elmo, delivering a Il Trovatore aria which critic Irving Kolodin would call an “incitement to arms” when the same lady debuted with it at the Met a year or so later – and Rossi-Lemeni, as unique an actor as he was a singer, with a Boris-Godunov. That oldtimers were comparing to Chaliapin’s. (A few seasons later, when Nicola was performing Boris with the San Francisco Opera, one of my oldest friends, the actress Janice Rule, was suddenly stricken with a bursting appendix, but refused to be taken to hospital until Boris had expired. Luckily, she didn’t follow suit, but greater love hath no opera buff!

For me the concert had an unexpeced encore, a Second Act in this young American’s life that rounded things off perfectly. My own troubles seemed tiny indeed compared to the stranded titans, but still and all, in addition to disappointment of the shipwrecked opera (six or more weeks of unpaid rehearsing), I’d been bellowing Grand Old Opry for something like seven months and felt I deserved a break. And what better tonic that a weekend in New York? So I got myself a ticket ($ 34,50 round trip) on the New York Central’s economical, no perks, no-frills coach train, the Pathfinder, which left the LaSalle Street Station every afternoon and plunked you down at New York’s Grand City Central early the next morning, come rain or come shine, all in one piece, and, apart from feeling rather moldy, ready for anything. But please hang on – here’s an excerpt from a letter which my dad wrote to his father about it – were are a family of incurable letter-writers and letter-savers, as well, for which I have been grateful many times –

 

Nell and I went to see Herby off at 3 p.m. on the 6th. Waiting to take the same train were all of the stranded stars mentioned in the enclosed clipping. He had met several of them backstage or at Fitziu’s and had made good friends with Rossi-Lemeni especially. They sang and had a glorious time all the way to New York. The Turkish Consul was there with baskets of lunch. Herby threw his box of lunch into the pot. The sane people on the train wanted to get some sleep and the conductor threatened to put the whole crowd off at Buffalo …

 

And thereby, as they saying goes, hangs a tale …

There weren’t any seat reserveration (at those prices, you were lucky they had seats) so we got there nice and early so the Beamish Boy could get a decent place on this, his first real adventure. My mom Nell, as was her custom, had provided me with enough provender to sustain a goo-size travel group a full week on the Trans-Siberian Railway – none of it was going to be wasted.

There was something unusual about the crowd milling about, waiting to board the train. Besides the usual clutter of seedy Willy Lomans with their cardboard sample cases, and the families with kids who should have been in school, this was a mob not exactly typical for a Thursday afternoon in February – a laughing, babbling, polyglot crush of wayfarers and wellwishers, many of them flamboyant in flowing scarves and berets, some armed with bottles of wine and long loaves of fresh French bread, one even wielding a king size salami. The air was vibrant with chatter and snatches of song.

And suddenly there was Sandro, pushing his way towards me: “Ciao, ‘Erby! Tu stai qui? Molto bravo! Anche tu a New York? Benissimo!” – “Una gioia improvvisa, Dearie!” put in “the Fitziu”, at my elbow and suddenly gone all Traviata. She had arrived with what seemed like half of the town’s music world – Rosa Raisa her husband Giacomo Rimini, Edith Mason, Claire Dux, and the critic Rene Devries. Her trilling continued: “I had a distinct feeling that something marvelous was going to happen today. You’re just the one to lead all these poor darlings to the promised land!” And she was jostled away by a moustached gentleman in a black homburg and a fur-collared overcoat, who turned out to be the Turkish consul, and he and Fitziu began handing out beribboned lucnh bags to our displaced canaries.

They seemed to be everywhere you looked – Favero and Masini and Elmo with her rich contralto laugh, and the lovely Spanish soprano, Carmen Gracia, lugging the guitar which would help us thru the long night ahead. I could also pick out some of the others – Melchiorre Luise, Cecchele, and the boyish Scattolini, Rossi-Lemeni, who greeted me with a hug, and a lady who proved to be the wife of Bagarozy, the agent who had lost such a bundle on the scuttling of the season. She was also a singer and had been coaching the Greek-American girl, Maria Whatzername, for the role of Turandot.

But where was the Wagnerian contingent …? Ach ja, they could be seen off to one side in a stolid little cluster, looking rather askance at the Roman carnival swirling all around them. As was their custom, they were keeping themselves to themselves, which was fine with me, considering the new-found responsibilities I had just fallen heir to as bellweather to the Italian herd.

Deafening loudspeaker crackling, and the train’s departure was announced – much hissing of steam and whistling as the train backed majestically in from the yards up ahead. The crowd started moving toward the gate, where some of the crew had gathered, looking most important: official caps, dark overcoats, clipboards … But first Sandro had to make his farewell speech to the troops, which ran somewhat as follows: This was ‘Erby, he began, aa fellow singer and a Chicago Paisan, who would take good care of them all until delivery at the hotel in New York. This news was greeted with smiles and clapping, and, I have to say, I stood mighty proud. Boy, what would they say at the Music School I’d opted out of?

A final chorus of “Ciao’s” and “Bye-Bye’s” and “Arrivederci’s” and we pressed forward. My parents, who had been enthralled by the spectacle being played out all around them, kissed me goodbye, handed over the grubstakes especially prepared for the trip, and took their leave. A final departure call and the conductor bawled out in a  ratchetty voice: “ALL A-BO-O-ARD!” – one more impatient whistle and I hustled the last of precious charges up the steps and into the day-coach. The epic journey, pure Fellini, and surely one of the most singular in the history of American rail transport, was about to begin …

Once inside, it took some time to get everyone sorted out and settled in our portion of the coach, lifting luggage – bags, umbrellas, cardboard boxes, real gypsy impediments – up onto the overhead rack, finger wiping off dusty windowsills and grimy windows – to a true worshiper like myself, every one of their actions and reactions, each small gesture had flair and style. One immediate project: an improvised buffet to be arranged on top of two suitcases piled one on top of the other on one of the seats, followed by sloshing of red wine into wax-paper cups (Chin-Chin! Cheers! Salute!) and slicing of bread and salami and cheese, all of it spiced with laughter. It was all so easygoing, so goodnatured that you couldn’t help wonder at these blithe musical spirits. They weren’t any of them despondent or depressed over the shipwreck of the opera. The thumping success of the concert the night before, both artistic and financial, plus the unqualified praise for each of them in the newspaper reviews of Claudia and Colleagues kept spirits soaring. Even if I’d had my pocket dictionary with me, I couldn’t have provided a very good translation, but they got the gist of it and were duly set up.

When you think about it, those weeks in America must have been  a kind of vacation for them all, perhaps the first most of thm had ever known. Remember that in the winter of 1946 – 47, the war had only been over for about a year-and-a-half, and privation, rationing, and black marketeering were still a big part of everyday European life. The threat of rampant communism was growing ominously, though the newly-coined phrase Iron Curtain wasn’t even a year old. The Nuremberg Trials were still fresh in memory and the Marshall Plan wasn’t even a plan yet. Large population centers like Berlin and Vienna were divided and being administered by the occupying victors, while most of the once-lovely historic towns still lay in ruins.

What a contrast with our own bustling, prosperous, wasteful and wisecracking cities. Even viewed through the grimy windows of a cheap day-coach, Small Town U.S.A. with all the lights and cars and overflowing shops must have had the storybook unreality of a Hollywood movie. Compared to what these happy and gifted people had endured – who, with their music and their merriment, were even now annoying the hell out of the Willy Lomans and the day-coach conductors – compared to all that, the collapse of a mere opera season was small beer indeed, and the fineglings of a tin-horn impressario were reduced to their proper puniness.

During the first leg of the trip I was like a Red Cross orderly heading out relief-packets to the survivors of a disaster, supplementing the Turkish contributions with my own hoard of fried chicken, meatloaf-and-peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, topped off with a variety of traditional American delicacies like Hostess Twinkies and cupcakes, Fig Newtons, and Tootsie-Rolls.

“Grazie, caro, molto gentile –“ I can still see the great lyric soprano Mafalda Favero, whose recordings of Boito and Massenet and the Cherry Duet from L’amico Fritz with Tito Schipa were among my most cherished 78’s, polishing off the last of my mom’s tollhouse cookies and rolling the crumbs between forefinger and thumb: “Delizioso, veramente, Signor ‘Erby!”

I’d be so pleased to discover that my Puccini-and-Pizzeria Italian wasn’t so hopeless after all. My only regret was that I had no German. How I’d have loved checking out the Wagnerians, wherever they were roosting for the night, to ask if they’d ever heard of this or that singer, and to pick their brains about prewar Bayreuth and Salzburg and Vienna. But, alas, at that point all that my Deutsch consisted of was “Bei mir bist du schön” (Early Andrews Sisters damage), a verse or two of Schubert, and bits from Lohengrin, one of the two German operas I’d ever been in, and there are limits to what you can do with phrases like “Heil dir, Elsa von Brabant!” and the praise for a knight’s shining armor: “Wie glänzt sein Waffenschmuck!”, while couplets like “Heil, deiner Fahrt, deinem Kommen!” wouldn’t do at all.

We must have been halfway across Indiana and well into the vino rosso when somebody toom out the guitar and struck up the Brindisi, the Drinking Song from La Traviata, and soon everybody joined in. For the first time the other, “normal” passengers actually sat up and took notice. (“Sane” was my Dad’s word for them, and who needs it?) The voices were so powerful and the singing so stirring and so true that at first the audience was simply incredulous – the newspaper reviews helped clarify matters – and before long they’d be genuinely interested. Of course, as the hours flew by on wings of song and as Sandman-time approached, the fascination began to wear a wee bit thin.

Each time the conductor came through, he resembled more and more the old Scots comic James Finlayson. Remember Fin? Laurel and Hardy’s furious nemesis with the Scots-burr and the baleful double-takes? Well, he had a Doppelgänger working for the New York Central in the 1940’s and that particular week his luck ran out. I don’t suppose he’d ever had to deal with a coachload of opera stars before. How do you ever prepare for such a challenge? Just then, our storied songsters enjoyed a high approval-rating, so all the poor sod could do was shake his head and to plead with me to “get ‘m to put a lid on it.” But imagine anyone putting a lid on a singer like Cloe Elmo? Follia! The sturdy little contralto was only just warming up, and soon, with only a guitar and not even a piano, let alone a full 110 piece orchestra, she’d be trading glavanic Sicillian taunts with the intensely dramatic Masini in the big showdown duet from Cavalleria Rusticana. (They’d been scheduled to do it in Chicago along about that time.) This might confrontation ends with Santuzza laying a death-curse on her former lover, and with him brushing her off with loud sardonic laughter, and if that didn’t break every window in the car it wasn’t for want of decibels. That should give some of the Hoosier Hot-Shots something to talk about at their next Kiwanis meeting.

The dearly handsome Masini had been a special idol of mine ever since ten years before when my parents took me to a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, starring Lily Pons, we we all adored. She tweeted and chirped divinely, but the one I remember to this day was her tenor-lover Edgardo, played by Galliano Masini right up to the hilt and perhaps a quarter-of-an-inch beyond, the same Masini who was even sitting across the isle from me, nibbling chicken from Nell Moulton’s suburban kitchen and bantering between bites.

Back then in autumn 1937, he was winding up one of the most sensational engagements our opera had ever witnessed, “one long crescendo of excitement,” as the trib critic described it. To this day I can see him in his last aria, espiring from a self-inflicted dagger wound, propped up on one elbow and singing his great Livorno heart out. Then, at the final curtain calls, waving his hands up over his head to screams and cheers, like the true champion that he was. Later, during my high-school goofing-off period, I used to haunt the main Public Library reading room to pore over the old Tribune reviews of his performances, many of them hysterical in tone: WILD OVATION STOPS OPERA AS MASINI SINGS, headlined the Trib about one of his Tosca appearances when he had to encore his last act aria, something almost unheard of before or since. The same critic nominated him for “the mantle of  Caruso.”

The next year he’d had to share the limelight with none other than Beniamino Gigli, who was singing opera for the first and only time in Chicago, and not even a grand “Can Belto” like Masini could top that. But he went on to a successful Met debut in the same season that was Favero’s only time in New York. After her second Mimi there, both she and Masini, so the story goes, were ordered back home to Italy, and in those days nobody defied Il Duce. Then came the war and that was the last the were heard from for years, except for an occasional recording like the complete Forza del Destino, which Masini made in Rome and which is still state-of-the-art. If Masini had his faults, they came with the territory and Caruso and Gigli shared them, too – emotional overdrive heartrending sobs even in the middle of a word, and the endemic terminal grunt at the end of a high note. Sure they were (and are) in questionable taste, but audiences lap them up regardless.

So when both Favero and Masini were announced for the U.S. Opera in Chicago, it all but blew my mind. And as Masini walked on out onto that stage that had witnessed such triumphs a decade before, to be greeted by polite, but hardly wild applause, I wondered if I was the only one there who recalled that “one long crescendo of excitement.”

It was a nice enough success that he scored with a couple of arias, a consummate Boheme Act I scene with Favero, and the Rigoletto Quartet with himself as the Duke and Elmo as a once-in-a-lifetime Maddelena, joined by Carmen and Cacchele. It was as grand a finale as possible, given the circumstances: still and all, it was deeply anti-climactic , and must have perplexed him, like Othello, in the extreme. If only my Italian had been up to the task of telling just how much his voice and his art had meant to me all of these years. But no – there he was, just across from me, relaxed and receptive as he would be for the next few hours – and what did I do? Italiano or no Italiano, I blew it, let the moment slip away from me forever. I have regretted it ever since.

My bittersweet musings were broken off by more urgent matters. The ladies of the ensemble, temporarily exhausted by so much high-powered yodelling, and sated with juice, cola, and red wine, sent up such a heartrending lament for “acqua fresca” that I set off at once in my appointed role of Ganymedes, cup-bearer – no, make that PAPER-cup-bearer to the Gods – on a search for fresh water. My quest too me through each and every stuffy, smelly coach on that train, past the scowling Finlayson and his goons, past knitting womenand senior couples doing crossword puzzles and trying to ignore the minor sex-plays of necking teenagers, past people still nasching and others already snoozing. It also took me through squealing knots of small nosepickers, one of whom, a fat little girl with glasses, plunked herself right down in my path and greeted me with an enormous pink Double-Yum Bubble-Gum balloon, which emerged slowly but surely from her mouth and was almost as splendiferous as I could have blown myself if I’d not had better things to do.

Moving on, I knew at once which car was serving as Valhalla-on-wheels for the German-speakers, for they were conversing in low yet resonant Deutsch. Funny how the less you know a language the more you try to cover your embarrassment with idiotic grins, and I must have been grinning like a zonked-out samurai. My efforts were met with regal nods and a courtly bow from the Heldentenor, Max Lorenz, highly esteemed on both sides of the Atlantic, just then between pre- and post-war Met engagements. He and his companions seemed so grateful for any contact with another humanoid that I was instantly swept up in a handshaking mara

 
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