July 18, 2014
When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the MGM movie The Great Caruso, in which Mario Lanza played the title role, the tenor Enrico Caruso. Despite my age, I became absorbed in both singers. At first I nagged my mother to buy vinyl for me, but eventually I was old enough to do it on my own. All that vinyl is down in the living room right now, along with hundreds of other 33 rpm disks that include doo-wop, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, swing, easy listening, opera, and classics.
At any rate, we recently tried to find The Great Caruso on Amazon and Netflix and came up empty, so we settled for Lanza’s last film, the 1959 romantic comedy For the First Time. This film was popular in its time, it got some good reviews, and it was a financial success. This was strictly entertainment, not to be taken seriously, largely an excuse for Lanza to sing — which was a good thing, because opportunities to hear him were much more limited in those pre-iPod, pre-internet days than they would be today. He sings operatic arias and in operatic ensembles, and he sings Italian folk music and popular songs. It’s all good except, from my point of view, “Pineapple Picker,” a song that had no business being in the same room with Mario Lanza.
Lanza plays Tony Conti, a world-renowned if unreliable tenor. In the flamboyance he exhibits at the beginning of the story, Conti resembles Lanza. After an embarrassing episode in which Conti’s drinking and tardiness cause a Vienna concert to be cancelled with the audience already in the seats, Conti’s agent spirits him off to Capri to lay low until the bad publicity runs its course. There, Conti meets a young German woman, Christa, played by an irresistible actress named Johanna von Koczian, and they are mutually smitten. Johanna, of course, is deaf. (Get it? He’s a famous tenor; she can’t hear him sing.) At the point in the movie at which Tony and Christa meet, I said to my wife, Pat, “In the last scene, she’ll be sitting in an opera house listening to him hit those high notes.” Meeting Christa jolts Conti to the point that he stops drinking and womanizing and becomes responsible about his career. He is practically broke as a result of his shenanigans up to this point, but he takes on a series of performances in various cities of Europe and plans to visit — you guessed it! — the best ear specialist at each stop. No doubt, you can figure out how such a plot turned out in 1959.
Mario Lanza, who was 38, died a few months after this film was released. He looked well and vigorous in the film, his voice — dubbed, of course — was full of the power and earthy passion that had made it famous and he projected the boyish charm that endeared him to the public. This was the sort of movie theme — a romance on the Continent – in which audiences of that era would expect to encounter Zsa Zsa Gabor, and they weren’t disappointed. Zsa Zsa played a countess who had a sporadic affair with Tony, as she did with lots of other prominent men. She was 42 and at the height of her beauty when this film was made and her performance had none of the grating personality she adopted for late-night television shows when her looks would no longer carry her. Kurt Kasznar is comical as Tony’s beleaguered manager and protector, and I particularly liked Hans Söhnker’s sympathetic and believable performance as Christa’s uncle.
Due in large part to his personal habits, Lanza’s career was much shorter than it should have been, but he left behind a wonderful legacy of recorded music. Although he appeared in complete operas only a few times, he played an important cultural role by being one of the first singers to make operatic music popular among a mass audience. Prominent tenors even now often acknowledge their debt to him.
The film closes with Conti, as Rhadames, singing in the ensemble that closes Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.
January 5, 2014
My best friend was up in Nantucket at one of those places where you leave things you have no further use for and other folks take them home. Lou spotted a set of CDs containing dozens of vintage recordings of operatic arias. Being my best friend, he brought them back for me. One of the singers who was well represented on the discs was the American baritone Leonard Warren, whose voice I hadn’t heard in many years.
Just seeing Warren’s name in the play list evoked for me a vivid memory of a Friday night — March 4, 1960 — when I was watching television and heard a bulletin announcing that Warren had died that night on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan while performing the role of Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. Warren, 48, collapsed after singing the aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” which is introduced with the words “Morir: tremenda cosa” — “to die: a momentous thing.”
I was 17 when Leonard Warren died, and I was already an opera fan, so learning of his passing in that abrupt fashion made a strong impression on me. I was disappointed, but the dramatic aspects of Warren’s death — with his boots on, as it were — weren’t lost on me. I have a recurring daydream of one day slumping over my keyboard, though I have had to amend it over time from a bulky steel Royal to an IBM Selectric to a variety of front-end terminals and PCs. When those who still remember my name hear how I cashed out, they’ll purse their lips, nod, and mutter, “Of course. How else would he go?”
If I ever do join Warren in that exclusive society, he won’t be the only entertainer I find among those with club-room privileges. Harry Parke, for example, could hardly have picked a more auspicious context for his final bow. Parke, who is largely forgotten, was a former newspaper man who more or less wandered into comedy by way of Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Parke developed a character he called Parkyakarkus and did a schtick in which he spoke in a garbled form of Greek. He eventually had his own radio show, and he appeared in nearly a dozen movies from 1936 to 1945. He also made a lot of money in real estate.
On November 24, 1958, Parke was appearing at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He had just finished what reportedly was a very successful riff on the honorees when he slumped over onto Milton Berle. Berle asked if there were a doctor in the house and the line — understandably in that context — got a big laugh until folks realized that Parke was really ill. Five physicians who were among the Friars worked hard to save Parke, but he died after about two hours at the age of 54. His sons include the comics Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and the versatile writer Charles Einstein.
Many years ago, I met a man who eventually would fall into this rarefied category: the comedian Dick Shawn. I met Shawn while he was appearing in a play in a regional theater, but his career for more than 35 years was principally as a stand-up comic. He did appear in some movies, including the iconic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and the Springtime for Hitler segment in The Producers, and he was a familiar figure on television as a comedian and as an actor.
On April 17, 1987, Shawn performed at the University of California at San Diego. During a routine in which he was talking about he and the audience surviving a nuclear war, he collapsed on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack. The audience thought his fall was part of the act and didn’t leave even when they were told to after someone had gone onto the stage to examine Shawn. He was 63.
If you click HERE, you can see and hear Leonard Warren, in a television performance, singing the prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.
September 4, 2013
My wife, Pat, who is reading Adriana Trigiani’s novel The Shoemaker’s Wife, has mentioned two characters in the story who are familiar to me: Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. We like to say, even though it can’t be demonstrated, that Caruso was the nonpareil of tenors, and Farrar, his contemporary, was a popular soprano and film actress. She was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company for 17 years, singing 29 roles in some 500 performances, frequently appearing with Caruso. She had a particular following among young women, and they were known at the time as “Gerryflappers.” I was young when I became a fan of hers, too, but that was nearly 30 years after she had retired as a singer. A kid of eclectic tastes, when I came home from the record store on most Friday nights, I could be carrying doo-wop, country-and-western, American standards, or opera. I bought many discs with cuts by Caruso, Farrar, or the two of them together.
A biographical detail about Farrar that particularly appeals to me is the fact that her father, Sidney, was a major league baseball player from 1883 to 1890. A first baseman, he played most of his career for the Philadelphia National League franchise. In his last season, he bolted to the maverick Players League, still playing in Philadelphia. He appeared in 943 games and, in the dead-ball era, had 905 hits and a .253 batting average.
When Sid Farrar was through playing baseball, he opened a men’s clothing shop in Melrose, Massachusetts, in partnership with Frank G. Selee, a Hall of Fame major league manager. Farrar and his wife, Etta, were singers in their own right. Farrar was a baritone, and it was said of him that if he was speaking in what, for him, was a conversational tone of voice on one side of a street, he could be clearly heard from the other side.
When Geraldine went to Europe to study voice, her parents went with her and remained on the Other Side until Geraldine had made a name for herself in Berlin, Munich, Salsburg, Paris, and Stockholm and returned to the United States in 1906.
In later life, when he had been widowed, Sid Farrar was a familiar figure at Geraldine’s concerts, and she said that he was often surrounded by other old ballplayers who may have looked a little out of place in the classical concert hall. It dawned on her, she said, that those old guys weren’t there to see her; they were there to see her dad.
One of my favorite Caruso-Farrar recordings is their 1912 rendition of “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Boheme. Click HERE to hear it.
July 23, 2010
National Public Radio is running a series on “50 Great Voices,” and I was pleased to hear the other day that one of my favorite voices has been included — that of the Irish tenor John McCormack. You can follow the unfolding of “the list” by clicking HERE. I would have expected Enrico Caruso to be on the list – and he is – but Caruso has endured as an icon ala Babe Ruth. The name Caruso is known far outside of the circle of opera buffs; his name is a synonym for “singer.” McCormack, on the other hand, is known these days mostly by the musty crowd that lives with one foot in the distant musical past. People like me, for instance.
I developed an interest in McCormack when I was in my early teens. This came as a blow to my mother, because she was already getting auditory indigestion from the olio that poured out of my hi-fi: one minute Bill Haley & His Comets, the next minute Bach’s Mass in B minor, the next minute Florian Zabach’s violin, and the next minute Hank Williams. Mom preferred Zabach.
I stumbled across McCormack after I bought four LPs by the Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco. Listening to those discs launched me into a lifelong fascination with tenors, and I accumulated recordings by dozens of them, ancient and modern. It was inevitable that McCormack would be included, because he was a prolific performer, including many recordings. Connecting with McCormack also opened my ears to Irish music, because, besides his operatic career, he was a mainstay on the concert stage and his repertoire included the songs of his native Ireland. I found these irresistible because the melodies and lyrics are laced with both humor and melancholy. I acquired recordings by other Irish tenors, too, but no one seemed to approach McCormack.
When I became better informed about music, I learned that my instincts hadn’t failed me for a change. McCormack is highly regarded as a singer — unparalleled, in the opinions of some authorities — because of the extraordinary control he had over his breath and his voice. That is well displayed in his recording of his signature song, “I Hear You Calling Me.”
Very early in his career, McCormack sang under the name Giovanni Foli, deriving it from the name of his lifelong sweetheart and longtime spouse, Lily Foley. He was wildly popular at the height of his career and he earned, and spent, enormous amounts of money. He was also the soul of charity and was particularly generous with his time and his own funds in supporting the American effort in both world wars. He became an American citizen in 1917, a decision that wasn’t well received back home, and he took his citizenship seriously. He also supported many other causes, including the Catholic Church, and the Church bestowed many honors on him, including the hereditary title of count.
According to an often-repeated story, at a chance meeting between Caruso and McCormack, McCormack asked, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world?” To which Caruso replied, “And when did you become a baritone?”
Some of McCormack’s songs are available at the NPR site and at the web site of the John McCormack Society, which is at THIS LINK.
We have attended several of the Metropolitan Opera’s live theater broadcasts — most recently “Aida” last Saturday. If you haven’t tried it, you should. Not an opera fan? That could be just the point. Seeing these operas on the big screen with cinematic camera shots is a different experience from the crow’s nest at the Met. For anyone who has been thinking of taking a first look at opera through this program, I strongly recommend “Carmen” on January 16. Buy early and show up at the theater an hour before the broadcast. These broadcasts all sell out.
The next opera we’re going to see is “Turandot” on November 7, and we’re very interested in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” on February 6, both because we’ve never seen it and because Placido Domingo will appear in a baritone role. He sang it for the first time last week in Europe.
This business of a singer switching ranges is rare but not unheard of. Enrico Caruso, is should be no surprise to learn, could sing well in all three male voices and made a recording, which is still available, of “Vecchia Zimarra,” a basso aria from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” That aria is often overlooked — after all, the tenor doesn’t sing it — but it is touching, especially in the context of the story. Colline is about to sell his old coat to buy medicine for the dying Mimi.
What’s even more interesting than that recording is that Caruso once sang that aria during a performance in Philadelphia. The basso, Andres de Segurola, had complained earlier of a sore throat, and Caruso — who was singing Rodolfo — anticipated trouble. Sure enough, de Segurola signalled that he couldn’t sing “Vecchia Zimmara,” so Caruso sang it while the basso mouthed the words. The audience, for the most part, was unaware of what was occurring. That’s de Segurola at the left in a caricature drawn by Caruso.
There’s more about Enrico Caruso at this link:
The Times of London reports on Domingo’s debut as a baritone:
August 25, 2009
Back in June, Michael Kinsley wrote in the Washington Post that the United States needs a new national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable, according to Kinsley, and some of its lyrics are offensive. This is hardly an original idea, and it is likely to go as far this time as it has in the past.
But meanwhile, Michael Kinsley, meet Umberto Bossi. Bossi is a senator in Italy, and he is campaigning to get Italy to dump its national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”). Bossi thinks the current anthem is a musical mediocrity, and he doesn’t like a line that refers to the nation as “You whom God created as a slave of Rome.” Correspondent Anna Momigliano, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, agrees with Bossi, arguing that the lyric “we are ready to die if Italy calls” is a heavy burden for millions of school children who probably sing the anthem more often than most Italians.
Bossi doesn’t seem to care what replaces the present anthem, but he has suggested that an operatic piece would at least improve the quality of the music. He has suggested one chorus in particular, “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.” This song is widely known in Italy; in fact, it was adapted into a popular song. That’s not Bossi’s rationale, though. He says no one would understand the words anyway, but that the music is nice. Bossi, apparently, is a practical man.
“Va, pensiero” is sung in the opera by a chorus of Hebrew slaves during the Babylonian Captivity. The lyrics refer in part to Psalm 137 (“On the willows there, we hung up our harps ….”). How this applies to modern Italy, I am not aware. Bossi, by the way, is the same chap who has proposed that northern Italy secede from the rest of the republic.
You can read Anna Momigliano’s column at this link: http://features.csmonitor.com/globalnews/2009/08/24/senator-wants-to-change-italys-national-anthem-%e2%80%93-to-opera/
You can read Michael Kinsley’s column at this link:
April 15, 2009
At the age of 66, I saw my first 3-D movie – “Monsters vs. Aliens” – and it was a hoot. The occasion was that our granddaughters are spending a couple of days with us, and on a rainy day a movie seemed like a good way to get out of the house. Um, to go sit in the dark at the Regal Cinema, but that’s still not sitting at home. That may be the first time I took the girls to a movie, though Pat may have taken them before. I don’t have a lot of experience with that; my grandparents weren’t movie goers. Well, it didn’t seem that way, but one Saturday when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my grandfather was very animated about a movie he had seen the night before – the film version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” This film featured Sophia Loren as the Ethiopian princess, which was ironic considering the historic relationship between Italy and Ethiopia. My grandfather was on the phone all day calling his friends, urging them to go to Paterson to see this film. I wasn’t used to Grandpa going to movies or listening to opera, so this attracted my attention. I overheard him tell Tony Pombo, the vegetable peddler, that he was going to see “Aida” again, so I asked him if I could go along. I wound up taking two of my friends, and we were all impressed by something that before that night was completely foreign to our experience. (No, I don’t mean Loren.) That movie launched me into a lifelong love affair with opera. That was the only time my grandfather and I did anything like that together. Our relationship was a little remote for that. But I always give him credit for the fact that I have seen and listened to so much of Verdi and Puccini and Rossini and Bizet over the last 50 years.
Grandma, incidentally, didn’t see “Aida,” because she swore off movies after she saw “Gone With the Wind.” This was the stuff of family legend: She was scandalized by the language with which Clark Gable addressed Viven Leigh in the famous finale. Apparently Grandma didn’t see why she should pay good money to listen to such talk when she was perfectly capable of staying home and swearing like a drunken sailor anytime she pleased. She also had a parakeet that she taught to utter profanities with an Italian accent, so she could hear the blue talk without contributing anything on her own, and without buying a ticket. People were so much more self-sufficient in her generation.