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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

STUDS TERKEL

I was fortunate to do a series of interviews with Chicago based broadcasting legend Studs Terkel (b.1912) in November, 2005. He had just published a terrific book, And They All Sang, a collection of interviews with figures in music going back fifty years. Terkel's interests over a long career ranged from politics and civil rights to jazz and opera. The Chicago Historical Society maintains a web site, www.studsterkel.com

Here are some selections from our talks

ROSA RAISA AND CARUSO

CP: I wanted to ask you about someone I know only from recordings and the history books. Rosa Raisa

ST: Oh! How do you know Raisa! You're the first person your age to know Raisa!
She was fantastic! She sang with Caruso. She came out of Eastern Europe, Bialystok, a little town that was decimated by the Nazis. She studied mostly in Italy. She had a voice that was so rich. Her Norma was fantastic, I would say better than Callas. The one memory that sticks in the mind is that when Puccini, who wrote Tosca and Madame Butterfly, when he was writing Turandot, he had her mind. Puccini died before he finished Turandot. So here's the opening night, and Puccini had died, and the opera hadn't been finished. Toscanini's at the podium and Raisa is singing this role created for her, and as soon as they came to the part where Puccini died, Toscanini put the baton down and turned and faced the audience and said, "At this point the maestro died", and he walked out.
There was another singer named Edith Mason who was very funny, and she and Raisa both described singing with Caruso. Caruso was of generous heart and spirit. He's the one who created the phonograph. There would have been no Victrolas without him.
His records were bought by immigrants who had very little money. They paid two bucks just him sing, two bucks! That fifty bucks today. But they both said he was so nervous, and he's give them a little shot of whiskey, which they wouldn't take but he would.
He said, I'm nervous because the audience wants 108 percent and I can only give 100 percent.
But he would go up and just as you'd think he's finished, he could go no higher out would come two or three more notes. He indicated what the human being could do.

Caruso's recordings are ninety and 100 years old and are readily available.
Has anyone ever heard a bad one? He died at forty eight in 1921.
Rosa Raisa's (1893-1963) biography by Charles Mintzer was published in 2001.
Her recordings are not plentiful and its said give only a hint of the magnificence of her voice.


CHICAGO

CP: What makes Chicago a great city?

ST:
I came here in 1920 as a little boy, an asthmatic little boy, 8 years old. And the minute I smelled those stockyards, I got over my asthma!
Chicago I found a very exciting place. Remember Carl Sandburg the great poet called it hog butcher of the world/center of wheat/son of railroads. That's all gone now. The stockyards have gone to the feed lots in New Mexico and Arizona. The railroads are gone. Nonetheless the skyscrapers by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright want to touch the heavens! Chicago is the city of horny handed people. Hands is an old fashioned word for working. And so they came from Eastern Europe. Chicago's Polish population is bigger than many cities, except for Warsaw. And they came from the Mediterranean, and from south of the Rio Grande, and now Asia, but Chicago' s hands mostly were builders, city workers. It had such quality. There are still the flat bungalows that somebody saved money for by working in the steel mills that are no longer here. What's happened to most cities has happened to Chicago too, losing so many landmarks. On an airplane now you fly over a city and you see golden arches and pizza places. You don't know what city you're in. Years ago I was traveling and I say to the switchboard operator in the motel, "Oh you gotta wake me up ans six o'clock in the morning, because I gotta be in Cleveland at nine. And she says to me, Sir, you ARE in Cleveland!" Chicago suffers from that but it still has that quality. Neighborhood is the key word. Chicago represents that. People came from the deep South. The sharecroppers used to hear that IC train...where's that goin'? It's goin' to Chicago!
There was a blues song, Jimmy Rushing who used to sing with Count Basie would sing: "Goin' to Chicago baby, sorry I can't take you" Well, even today the nature of the city, its impulse...still there!

RADIO GANGSTER

CP:
In one of your books, you write "I knew I had the makings of a good spectator.
What do you mean by that?"

ST:
I never dreamed I'd do stuff like talking to you on the radio and stuff. My dream as a depression child was of a civil service job, 9 to 5. I went to law school in Chicago, and I was dreaming of Clarence Darrow, and I wake up to Anthony Scalia! So that was enough for me! I became a disc jockey. First I was a gangster in radio dramas, and soap operas....Chicago was home of soap operas more than new York and Hollywood. Now they all were the same. Woman in White was about a nurse. The Guiding Light was about a minister. Mid Stream was about a doctor. But all the same scripts. I was always the same guy. They wanted a gangster,and I had a gangster voice. There were always three gangsters. The bright one, the middle one, the dumb one. I was always the dumb one.

CP: Did you get killed?
ST: Oh I always got killed! Well, sometimes you'd go to prison for life and that would be the end of it. I did another show called Mister First Nighter, out of the studios in the Wrigley building here in Chicago. The studio seats about 400 people, a live audience would watch us read scripts. Crazy! Then the told me, you gotta wear a tuxedo. I never owned tuxedo ! So I rented a tuxedo that night, very self conscious, and I walked down to the Wrigley building where I was going to play this gangster, and the guy hollers out, Mister First Nighter, Curtain Goin' Up! But he says you look just like a bookie goin to his sister's wedding! And I said that's exactly what I am, a bookie going to his sister's wedding! And I get killed before the first commercial.

CP: Did you always get killed before the first commercial?

ST: No. This happened a few times. Sometimes it was before the second commercial. I get killed or sent up for life. I made a living, sort of. And they guys in charge liked my style,a nd I became a disc jockey before that term was ever used.

MORE TO FOLLOW...see www.studsterkel.com




Thursday, February 15, 2007

MET GOES TO THE MOVIES: EUGENE ONEGIN and a MEMOIR...ROB BREEN AND BOSTON


The Metropolitan Opera presents an HD presentation of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
on Saturday, February 24th at 1.30 p.m. Go to www.metopera.org and click on the
Met Goes to the Movies Icon to find the theater nearest you.

Here in Columbus, Ohio, its the Regal Square Cinemas at 1800 Georgesville Road.
Dimitri Hvortsovsky sings the title role, with Renee Fleming as Tatiana, Ramon Vargas as Lenski-a role I've always wanted to do-and Valery Gergiev conducts.
There's not a ticket to be had for any of the performances in New York.
You wanna see this? Hie thee to a cinema near you.

I'm looking forward to this above all other such presentations, and the two I've seen have been wonderful. Onegin is a great favorite of mine. As I type these lines, I'm listening to a performance given in Boston's Symphony Hall in October, 1976. My roommate and good buddy Rob and I attended this via rush seats. Seiji Ozawa conducted the Boston Symphony. Rob is a clarinetist and his teacher, longtime BSO favorite Pasqule Cardillo (RIP) told him that Onegin was "Terrific. Long but terrific." I'm sure I found it long thirty years ago. I'm sure I found it terrific. I had never heard it before that night. To hear the Boston Symphony in Tchaikovsky's music, or anyone else's come to that, was/is a privilege. And the cast! Two people I had heard of thank you very much: The great tenor Nicolai Gedda, one of the finest artists I have ever heard sang Lenski. Onegin was sung by Benjamin Luxon, who was a BSO favorite in the 70s and he was fine. Tatiana? For shielding the writer Solzhentisyn, one of the greatest Russian artists, Mstislav Rosptropovich was thrown out of the country, stripped of all his honors and relegated to 'non person' status. Solzhenitsyn was stripped of citizenship, harassed an exiled, Nobel Prize and all. This was big news in 1976, as was the intervention of Senator Kennedy on his behalf. It was rumored Rostropovich would conduct this Onegin performance in Boston. He didn't, but Tatiana was sung by the Russian diva Galina Vishnevskaya...Mrs. Rostropovich. She was tremendous. A very beautiful woman, then in her fifties, the greatest soprano in Russia, for whom Britten wrote his War Requiem, for whom Shostakovitch wrote several great orchestral song cycles, her career came to a full halt because thirty years ago there wasn't much room in the west for a fiftyish Russian soprano who sang Tosca and Madama Butterfly in Russian (our loss) and thirty years ago Russian opera in the vernacular was rare in this country. But not in Boston in October, 1976.
Thrilling too was the Tanglewood Festival chorus! What a night!
I remember Rob and I shared a 'high'. He might not remember, but I do.

The story is based on the poem by Alexandr Pushkin (1799-1837).
As Alistair Cooke once described him, Pushkin "is to Russian literature what all of Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, Melville and Thoreau are to the English speaking world". Onegin is the bored nephew of a wealthy landowner, who, through his friend Lenski is introduced into the Larin family. Lenski is engaged to the older daughter, Olga
("I haven't seen you for an entire day!"). Tatiana, the younger daughter, falls hard and at once for the aloof Eugene Onegin. She writes him a letter, pours it all out and is rebuffed by him for her pains. "You may regard me as a brother, but you should never share your heart, and certainly not with me , a stranger."
He takes her young feelings and tramples on them. Later, at Olga's name day celebrations, Lenski and Onegin quarrel, and Lenski provokes a duel, in which he is killed-Gedda was incomparable in this scene. Years pass. At a ball in St. Petersburg Onegin is welcomed by his elderly cousin, Prince Gremin. When introduced to Gremin's wife, the much younger Princess Gremina, Onegin realizes that this is Tatiana, and now he falls for her. But she dismisses him.
"I am a married woman. When once it was possible for us, you gave me only coldness." And Onegin is sent away.

Boris Goldovsky once told a story of a production of Onegin he staged in Boston,
fifty or so years ago. (This opera has good luck in Boston and I had the good luck to hear it there) Imagine Boris, conductor, producer and radio raconteur with a thick Russian accent
that years of living in Brookline, Massachusetts didn't erase.

"In the lest seen (last scene) Feelis Koortin
(Phyllis Curtin) as Tatiana came onstage on the arm of her husband, Prince Gremin.
She carried a fen (fan) and vore peenk flowers in her het (hat).
Now. Every Russian schoolchild knows that Tatiana at the ball enters waring red flowers in her het (hat)
When Feelis vore a peenk, het there vuz a gesp (gasp).
Mother, in ze frunt row, was greatly shocked at this!"

The opera is filled with spectacular choral scenes and waltzes and polonaises that always bring gasps of recognition from the audience (Rob gasped thirty years ago. "But I've played this!")
Tatiana's Letter Scene, the dances of Acts II and III, Lenski's aria at the duel and the great final confrontation of Onegin and Tatiana make this, not a Verdi opera, which it could have been, but a Russian sensation.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Any library will have Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin
Don't miss Galya-the memoirs of Galina Vishneskaya.
This is nothing like a diva memoir, but a harrowing book about trying to be an artist in
the Soviet Union.

RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS
check out www.arkivmusic.com

Eugene Belov, Galina Vishveskaya, Sergei Lemeshev
Bolshoi Theare/Boris Khaikin

Mirella Freni, Thomas Allen, Neil Shicoff
Staatskapelle Dresden/James Levine