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  • July 2nd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It’s been many years since suffocating summer nights in Montgomery Alabama, sitting on a rickety couch in a small room in Archie and Lou McKay’s house listening to opera over their treasured record player, drinking Jax Beer and learning about the world of opera.

Now it is a suffocating night in mid-Missouri more than 60 years later, and I am on an aisle seat in a restored old theater in Columbia Missouri, listening to live opera, La Boheme, performed by the University of Missouri music department and the Missouri Symphony Orchestra. Not Bjoerling and Roberta Peters but pretty damn good. In fact, outstanding, because live performance always trumps recorded.

I have a treasure trove of recorded opera. Some are highlights from favorite operas, others are complete boxed sets of favorite operas, some are on compact discs others on videotape, most on 33 RPM long playing records. Years ago on a grouse hunting trip in Minnesota I took a lunch break in town and stopped by a knickknack store where I stumbled on a stash of boxed complete operas for about two bucks each. No doubt they still would be there if I hadn’t pounced on them like a house cat on a mouse, Pine River not exactly being a hotbed of operatic fanatics, and I scarfed up the entire collection.

The magic still is there— opera became for me in that stifling hot summer in Montgomery an escape into a magic world of music that never has quite left me, despite sidetracks into folk, bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, early rock ‘n roll, and even an exploratory toe dipping into some of the more advanced wailing of drugged out rockers. But opera over the decades has retained a tenacious grip on my musical sensibilities. I guess I’m just an old romantic at heart, and apprentice member of the peanut gallery whose appreciation is for the romance language composers. I’ve never developed an interest or affection for the German composers. Somehow even the name Brunhilda lacks the lyrical sound of a someone named Violeta, not to mention the music she sings.

Opera has a been around for centuries, since the first musician got the idea of turning spoken theater into music and adding song and dance to staged presentations even to the dramatic world of Shakespeare. No composers since have completely abandoned the idea of musical drama— there even is an opera about Richard M Nixon, which seems like some sort of cosmic musical joke. For me, I’ll stick to Giuseppe Verdi and, as it was on that wonderful night in Columbia, Giacomo Puccini and his tragic tale of the doomed seamstress and her heartbroken poet lover Rodolfo, a couple of Parisian proto-hippies living hand to mouth in the closing days of the 19th century.

When Rodolfo clutched Mimi’s hand and sang (in Italian, but thanks to supertitles, translated into English) “your tiny hand is cold” I got tears in my eyes, not because the soap opera plot is so moving, but because the memories of nights listening to Jussi Bjoerling, Roberta Peters, and so many others now gone legendary opera stars made Jax beer taste like champagne. It overwhelmed me.

Arch McKay is dead, shotgunned in a parking lot in Mobile, Alabama in an apparent Dixie Mafia mob hit, and his grieving widow, Lou, died several years ago. Puccini, likewise, also died many years ago—possibly the first and maybe only opera composer ever to die of lung cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes. But, unlike Archie and Lou, his music will live forever—as long as there is such a thing as music, and as long as there are people like me who cherish the idea and the performance of opera.

I still get all misty when I hear the slave chorus from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, always remembering the possibly apocryphal story of how grieving Italians spontaneously burst into singing it as his funeral procession wound through the streets of Milan Italy.

The legend is that, at the time, northern Italy was occupied by Austria and needless to say the Italians weren’t happy about it. Austrians, being a Germanic and irksome occupying type, suppressed any sort of subversive commentary by the Italians, but the Italians adopted Verdi’s slave chorus from Nabucco as an unofficial national anthem. The opera tells about the enslavement of Hebrews by Babylon, singing of their longing to be free and to return to their homeland — it’s in the Bible and you can read about it there (Nabucco in the Bible is Nebuchadnezzar king of the Babylonians).

Verdi was the most revered Italian of his time, which was long, and when he died at 87, some 41 years after the debut of Nabucco, his funeral cortege wound through the streets of Milan which were lined by an estimated 10,000 people who spontaneously began to sing the chorus from Nabucco. The Austrians, more attuned to the Hitlerian arias of Richard Wagner, no doubt missed the nationalistic symbolism of the Italian tribute to their revered composer.

Or, so the story goes— whether it’s true or not it’s a story worthy of inclusion as a dramatic act in a Verdi opera. Too bad the old man wasn’t alive to compose yet another timeless musical drama. The truth is that Verdi was buried in Milan and a chorus of more than 800, conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, sang the Nabucco chorus for what was reported to be an audience of more than 300,000–possibly that included those thousands reported to have been lining the streets as the funeral procession passed by.

My infatuation with opera actually predates those hot nights in Montgomery cradling a bottle of Jax Beer and listening to Jussi Bjoerling (sometimes we drank Dixie Beer, this being the first capital of the Confederacy). Anyway, when I was incarcerated for six months at Fort Bliss, Texas, as a shavetail lieutenant, I went to see the film version of Don Giovanni with a beer drinking buddy who outranked me— he was a first lieutenant and therefore I felt a certain military obligation to go with him when he suggested seeing an opera movie.

Clyde loved beer as much as I did and once turned away a pair of Mormon missionaries when they knocked on his door early on a Sunday morning when he had a hangover. Clyde was a Jack Mormon so that transgression probably meant that he would suffer eternal damnation, chewed on by a swarm of locusts, but for whatever reason he wanted to see Mozart and so we went to the movie. At that time of life I was more in tune with Howling Wolf than with Wolfgang, but there was something compelling in the timeless story of the damned degenerate cursed and dragged to hell by the ghost statue of an outraged father.

And to go back even further in my love affair with opera, I was desperately in love at the age of seven with both Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, two movie stars who were not only lovely to look at but could sing like the angels with their Metropolitan Opera quality voices. But I forsook Jane and Kathryn later on in life in favor of the bluegrass tenor of Bill Monroe and the country bass of Tex Ritter—until I got that fateful job at the Montgomery Alabama Journal and hooked up with Archie McKay and his lovely blind wife Lou.

The popular perception of opera by most people these days is summed up in a phrase attributed to Texas Red Raiders sports information director Ralph Carpenter who said when Texas A and M rallied for a tie late in a tournament game “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While it’s true that historically many leading opera performers were less then lean, today many if not most of the stars of opera look the parts they are singing— sopranos who not only can soar above the clouds with their voices but also can melt your toenails with their looks. And many of the guys are, in the words of female audience members “hunks.” Even given the beefiness of some legendary opera singers, what would the history of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific have been without the rendition of “some enchanted evening” by chunky opera basso Ezio Pinza? A song title which, by the way, pretty well sums up the effect of a well performed opera.

And if there seems to be incongruence in the sight of two candidates for Jenny Craig singing a love duet, I can counter with the memory of a performance of Rigoletto by the traveling company of the New York City Opera which featured a sexual encounter between the ever horny Duke of Mantua and the equally seductive sister of the evil villain Sparafucile, the beautiful Maddelena. I well recall the two of them rolling around on a bed in near X-rated ecstasy. Made for a memorable evening and the singing was gorgeous.

Recently I watched a video of a lovely coloratura singing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in a low cut gown that threatened to add a couple of dimensions to her performance possibly not intended by Donizetti. Eat your heart out, Janet Jackson.

If any one incident sums up the impact that opera has had on me over the many years, it happened some years back when Leontyne Price gave her final performance for the Metropolitan Opera. It was recorded on PBS and I watched as she, in the role of Aida, sang oh Patria Mia (my dear country). The role is that of an Ethiopian slave to the Egyptians, loved by the Egyptian military commander. Aida is consumed with longing for her homeland, but also torn because of her love for an enemy. But the conflict in her heart on that night of sorrow for Aida went far beyond the intent of Verdi when he wrote the part— he didn’t know it but he was writing it more than a century earlier specifically for Leontyne Price on her farewell night.

Ms. Price will go down in operatic history as among the finest sopranos ever to sing anywhere and not only, with her moving song of longing for her homeland, did she illuminate the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, she illuminated the tragedy of African slaves in our own terrible history— Ms. Price is an African-American. No one else could have sung that role so heartrendingly and with such conviction. There surely must have been in her mind as she sang not just the words or the feeling that Giuseppe Verdi had put into the aria, but also the emotion of centuries of oppression and heartbreak suffered by her race.

The tears running down my face were not only in appreciation for her peerless singing, but also in shame for my race.

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1 Comment

  1. Carrie Jo

    July 4th, 2018 at 10:09 am


    Thumbs up!

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