Monday, September 26, 2005


Alexander Kipnis
Bill Scharf, one of the great people of life, has sent me a recording of Dichterliebe with the Russian bass Alexander Kipnis. He's accompanied by Wolfgang
Rose, in this broadcast from 1943.

Kipnis was a huge name in music, and lived from 1891-1978. He was the father of Igor Kipnis.

Kipnis has been on my radar without my being deeply familiar with his work.
Where have I been??!
What a magnificent, imposing, rolling, black bass voice this is!
His operatic performances must have been towering.
At first hearing his voice completely overwhelmed me, the sheer sound, the size of the voice. It was like hearing those recordings of the young Callas for the first time, or like watching a wreck. You are fascinated. Can't turn your eyes (ears) away. But for all his huge voice and his fat, juicy sound, Kipnis aims his voice right at the words, dead on , dead center. No slipping and sliding. You don't get seasick from listening to Kipnis, and he nails your ears-and ass!-to the wall. He really enjoys a lot of the words: liebe (love) heilige Strome (holy river) brust/Himmelslust (breast/heaven's joy). He can be huge and menacing in Ich grolle nicht

I won't complain
und wenn das Herz auch bricht even if the heart breaks
ewig verlornes lieb love lost forever

And sad and natural in

Und wussten's die Blume die kleiner And if the little flowers knew
wie tief verwundet mein Herz How deeply wounded is my heart
sie wurden mit mir weinen They would weep with me
zu heilen meinen Schmerz To heal my sorrow

And in the second song he takes a tiny pause

Und wenn mdu mich lieb hast,-- kindchen And if you love me--child
that perfectly sets up the final line and offers room for
strong contrast to song 3: where the great cathedral of Cologne is reflected in the waves of the Rhine. And that's just songs 2 and 3, boys and girls!
It's the tiny pauses that make art, and only a real artist can pull them off.
For the rest of us, they're just, well, pauses.

I got a lovely present from a radio listener I don't know...I've been sent a recording of Bellini's opera I CAPULETTI E I MONTECCHI-The Capulets and the Montagues-a performance given in Boston on June 7, 1975. I was in the chorus. Beverly Sills was Giulietta. The late Tatiana Troyanos sang Romeo. She was a highly strung wreck all through rehearsal. Sills was cool and kept saying "Jesus Tatiana! You're the best in the business! Calm down!"
The first two performances were threatened when everyone got sick...Romeo, Juliet, Friar Lawrence and half the chorus. (Most of us were just hung over, in the chorus I mean) By the third night all was well. It's a wonderful souvenir, and very moving for me to hear it again, thirty years later.

I love the finale. Capellio, the father of Giulietta comes upon R & J's bodies and cries out Killed! They are killed! Who has killed them?
And the chorus cries out: Da voi, spietato! Killed by YOU, wretched man!
Jesus, what would Freud or Anne Landers have made of this? Ain't opera grand!?!

Friday, September 23, 2005


Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966) Wunderlich , yes he was
Another rehearsal today. I didn't have any voice. Nope. Nothing. Nada.
Still, Ben and I worked together well.
What continues to strike me is that all of the great composers of the lied do all the work for you. If you can really bear down on the German and draw out the colors of the language, you have it made. If you make affect with your face, or hands or body then you are clowning, not performing and certainly not performing Dichterliebe.


Today we began with song 9:

Das ist ein Floten und Geigen
Tromptern schmettern darein

The flutes and the fiddles
and the trumpets blare

Schmettern darien...they blare or scream or crow away...

Crisp and enthusiastic pronunciation of the German does so much of the work for you.
This is no time to be precious or cute.
I picture myself as a bug infested lumberjack lost in the Maine woods during black fly season...looking for "Her",and finding "She" is always just out of reach and probably a figment of my imagination due to an over abundance of bug spray (which is powerless against black flies, trust me)
I tried to read a very learned treatise on key relationships over the weekend. I got a headache and watched a Peter Sellers movie instead. The author had one stupid remark ...only tenors should sing this, since re arranging the key structure dilutes the piece. "It is surprising that any artist should wish to perform something outside their vocal range." Tell that to Lotte Lehmann or Fischer-Dieskau or Herman Prey or Fritz Wunderlich, Batman. You want to hear Dichterliebe as a peasant who feels the earth and loves unconditionally and poops in the woods? Go for Lehmann!

Nobody can read these poems or listen to this music and do the tight butt cheek hand clasp stance at the piano, with the cool gaze at the audience. This stuff is earthy, sexual and beautiful. And maybe beyond me at this time of life!

P.S. Added in 2012: I tried to fit in a Lehmann performance on 'Das ist ein floeten' here-didn't work out. Fritz Wunderlich didn't live to grow old, alas-but the freshness, beauty and youth of his singing strike me as perfect for Dichterliebe

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Robert Schumann
This is the continuing saga of my preparation for a performance of Dichterliebe (Schumann) on November 1. My friend Ben Wiant is the pianist.

Second rehearsal with Ben today. I learned a great deal in that hour.
Now I know why singers are always told never to learn music from a recording.
I've been listening to Dichterliebe for twenty years, but never thought of singing it myself; I'm not a singer. I'm a good musician who loves music and singing but you either got the chops or you ain't...But ego, age and friendship win out, and I am enjoying this collaboration with Ben. But listening to cds, who notices the little notes and the subtle colors that make this music? Read the score!

Performing Dichterliebe  is all about listening to one another. Ben asked me to sing with more vibrato. Who wants to hear a fat and fifty choirboy? Well, that's one of the several technical problems around to handle. Marrying the German diction to real understanding is another. For example

Die Rose, die Lilie
die Taube , die Sonne
die lieb ich einst alle in Liebeswonne**
Ich lieb' sie nicht mehr, ich liebe alleine
die Kleine, die Feine, die Reine die Eine....

The rose, the lily
the dove, the sun
I loved them all with the wonder of love
I love them no more
I love alone
the little one, the fine, the pure, the only one

**Has a more intense meaning than 'wonder of love'..more like the miracle or even the blessing of love, and it suggests eroticism.

How to put this across? The entire song is on one page. There's an old tradition of singing it schnell, in one breath. It can be done if you don't mind passing out and leaving your audience as bewildered as before. Filling out each word with the voice it deserves, even if they are 16th notes, is a great challenge. Interpretation often has to do with unnecessary externals. It is really internal, and quite a personal process. I need to believe in the one I love above all, be she small, and fine, and pure (at my age?) and the only one. Nice Irish boy from Boston that I am, I feel like running to confession! And this is only one (eine!) of the sixteen songs. Just wait til the end, when the poet calls for a large coffin, large enough to be borne by giants who are stronger than the statue of St. Christopher in the Cathedral at Cologne, and in that coffin he buries his love. It's gonna take some sales job, never mind memorizing the German words

Und holt mir auch zwolf Riesen
Die muessen noch staerker sein
Als wie der starke Christoph
Im Dom zu Coeln am Rhein.

And also get twelve giants
They must be stronger than
The powerful Christopher
In the cathedral at Cologne.

Who needs reality TV? Stay tuned.



Mozart turns 250 in 2006. This is a leap on next year's festivities:

"He roused my admiration when I was young, he caused me to despair
when I reached maturity; he is now the comfort of my old age."--Rossini

If you were lucky enough to have wonderful music education in the public schools, and this goes back forty years, then you might remember the portraits of composers that lined the music room walls. There was Beethoven in all his furrowed brow splendor. Mahler looked like he had a headache. Verdi scowled out at us as if about to count the box office take for "Rigoletto" or "Aida". Bach looked plump and prosperous. He had twenty kids. You'd think he'd look exhausted. Mozart was candy box pretty. He was in full white wigged regalia, with a pouty smile on his rouged lips, dressed in a fancy waistcoat with a medal or two pinned to his chest. Here's how he was described by his contemporary, Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who worked with Mozart in the first performances of "The Marriage of Figaro"

"He was a remarkable small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of hair, of which he as rather vain. Though born of beautiful parents, Mozart himself possessed beauty only as a child; in his later years he retained nothing of his early looks but the pleasing expression. His eyes, which were rather large and prominent, had more of a languid than a brilliant or animated character. His head was too large or his body. His nose, which had been handsome, became so prominent a feature in the last years of his life, from the emaciation of his countenance, that a scribbler in the Morgenblatt of Vienna honored him with h epithet "enormous nosed."

You don't need to be pretty to be brilliant, and apparently Mozart was small-even by standards of the era-pock marked, and large nosed. He was also "vain about his hands and wrists as he was playing one of his own keyboard works." His self esteem was high. Mozart spoke reverently of Bach and Gluck, and with real love for Haydn, but Salieri and Piccini he dismissed. "Piccini's choruses are too weak and thin, and his music is monotonous" and complaining in 1781 that "the emperor cares for no one but Salieri."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived for thirty six years minus a few weeks. That wasn't bad for the life expectancy of the time. He was well regarded as a composer but not always singled out. His music was played but often the backing for performances came out of his own meager pockets. The nobility patronized him in all senses of the word. It could be that in the age of Voltaire it was thought prudent to keep such a gifted man at arm's length. Here's how Virgil Thomson interpreted Mozart's life, writing in 1940

"Mozart was not embittered by illness or adversity, he was tempered by them.
Furthermore, he was acquainted with French libertarian ideas, having been fully exposed to these in Paris, where he spent his twenty third year. But he was never at any time a revolter. He was an absorber and a builder. He never tried to throw out the window his Catholic faith or his allegiance to the emperor, in spite of much unpleasantness form church and state. He merely added them to his belief in human rights, and his practice of Masonic fellowship he had learned in Paris and Vienna."

Mozart was indeed buried in a common grave, and so was everyone else outside the nobility. He adored women, flirtation, and sex. Bodily functions held for him no mystery or disgust. His marriage to Constanze Weber was rocky due to poverty rather than incompatibility. Constanze had been bred for a career on the stage. She must have been an extraordinary singer. Ask any soprano who has sung the 'Et incarnatus EST' form the Mass in C, music written for Constanze. Even flinty Leopold Mozart begrudgingly admired Constantine performance, but had no further use for his daughter in law or her family. Wolfgang was twenty six hen he finally married Constanze, after an affair with each of her older sisters, both of whom left him to marry elsewhere. If the formidable Frau Weber allowed her daughters to be passed around by Mozart, and presumably Constanze had decent prospects, it only be because Mamma believed Mozart had potential as a top wage earner. She was to be disappointed. Mozart lived at the mercy of wealthy patrons who often refused to pay. "Eine kleine Nachtmusik", that most famous example of background music, was intended as just that, music to eat dinner by. Copyright laws to protect the rights of composers did not exist, so that anyone could perform "Don Giovanni
and keep the gate. It was not that Mozart was a poor businessman, but that the business of music to protect the rights of the working class did not exist, either.

"The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children
and too difficult for artists"--Arthur Schnabel

Musicians have studied the notes on Mozart's pages for two centuries, but interpretation can always be argued. Must we know or care what the notes mean? Or, in the case of Mozart's perfection, the perfect symmetry of his work, does this music truly play itself? Mozart's music gives ample pleasure as pure music. Just listen to the "Concerto for Flute and Harp" written for a former girlfriend in Paris, or any of the piano concerti Mozart wrote for himself to play at concerts he had to pay for. The geometry, the sense and order , of Mozart's music is irresistible. We are always drawn to the finish, while savoring the journey, the harmonic twists, and the melodic deliciousness.

The great and harrowing figure in Mozart's life was not a wife or a child-he fathered six, only two of whom survived infancy-but his father, the forbidding Leopold Mozart. He's often presented as the villain in his son's life. Maynard Solomon discusses Mozart as the eternal child, and quotes Leopold writing to his twenty two year old son

"Those happy moments are gone, when as a child and boy, you never went to bed
without standing on a chair and singing g to me...and ended by kissing me again and again on the tip of my nose and telling me that when I grow old you would put me in a glass case and protect me from every breath of air, so that you might always have you with me and honor me."

Leopold was the stage father from hell. The stories of the five year old child being dragged all over Europe in the most primitive traveling conditions, roaming form one court to the next, of being put on show to play and improvise for a bored, wealthy audience are well substantiated. Leopold's goal , an audience with the Empress Maria Theresa, was hardly celebratory. The Empress, herself the mother of sixteen, was kind to the child, but no court appointment for father or son was forthcoming. The empress later remarked that the Mozart family resembled "trained dogs."

Leopold continued, dragging his family over poor roads and terrible weather, stopping at vermin infested taverns with terrible food or no food at all. As late as 1778, mother and son were on the road. Both parents were alarmed by Wolfgang's attachment to the Weber family, and in turn each of their three daughters. Frau Mozart and her son went to try their luck in Paris, and there suddenly Frau Mozart died. When the terrible news reached Leopold back in Salzburg, he had no pity for his devastated son

"You had your engagements. You were away all day, and as she didn't make a fuss, you treated her condition lightly. All this time her illness became more serious, in fact mortal, and only then was a doctor called, by which time it was too late."
(August 3, 1778)

Nonetheless, Mozart always addressed his father as 'mon tres chere pere', and dutifully reported every triumph and every setback. Leopold balked completely at his son's marriage, but instead of recriminations there were three months of icy silence. The breach later healed after a fashion, but Leopold remained in Salzburg while Mozart and Constanze settled in Vienna.
Leopold died in 1787.

"Oui, by the love of my skin
I shit on your nose
So it runs down your chin"

Mozart to his cousin, Maria Thekla Mozart ("Basle")

Of all he correspondence Mozart left us, none are more notorious than the Basle letters. "Basle" (female cousin) was the nickname given to Maria Thekla Mozart (1758-1841) the daughter of Leopold's brother Franz Aloys. Wolfgang wrote this in her autograph book

If you love that which I love
You will have to love yourself.
Your very affectionate cousin
Wolfgang Amade Mozart

But soon her was writing her

"Now I must close, because I am not dressed yet, and we'll be eating soon
so that afterwards we can go and shit again, as it so happens..."

"But now I have the honor to query how you are and whether you are weary?
Whether your bowels are solid or thin?
Whether you have scabs on your skin?
Whether you know and think of me?
Whether perhaps you are angry at me?
Whether you'd like to hang yourself from a tree?
Fool that I'll always be,
Whether you'll want to make peace in your heart,
Or by my honor I'll crack a big fart!

(February 28, 1778)

Peter Schaffer embraced Mozart's penchant for scatalogical language in his 1981 play, "Amadeus". In pitting the sublime but poor Mozart against the sophisticated Salieri, he gave the latter some important lines

SALIERI (Addressing a crucifix): From now on we are enemies, You and I.
Because You chose for Your instrument
a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy
and gave me only the ability to recognize
the incarnation.
Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind.
I will block you. I swear it.

But why does Mozart still move us? How could this "smutty, infantile boy" write such sublime music? Music went form his pen to the page without a thought. There are six hundred and twenty six Mozart works catalogued, the first written when the composer was five years old, to the "Requiem" left incomplete at his death thirty years later. Mozart's music has eternal freshness. It all sounds as if it were written yesterday. Over and over, we hear something wonderful, as if for the first time. No one did delight, or simple sadness better. Listen to the Countess's aria, 'Dove sono' from 'The Marriage of Figaro'. It's in C Major, the simplest of keys. The vocal range is less than an octave. A child could sing this.
The music is so simple, so linear, and so expressive that the sadness of this lovely character is evident to those who understand not one word of Italian. Mozart wrote music of the greatest clarity. He understood that two hundred years after his death, even without powdered wigs and ruffled shirts, that people and emotions weren't going to change. There';s great comfort in the continuity he provides us. Mozart's musical geometry is exquisite. There's never too much or too little. The harmonic spicing can be delightful, and ultimately right. That's the secret of Mozart: he always sounds, RIGHT.

"Whether the angels only play Bach praising God, I am not quite sure.
But when they are en famille, the play Mozart."
---Karl Barth

Friday, September 16, 2005


Ben Wiant, my friend and Dichterliebe daddy

My friend Ben and I have decided to collaborate on a performance of Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) for this November 1, a noon concert series at a downtown church. This is a cycle of 16 lieder (art songs) for voice and piano, in German, with poetry by Heinrich Heine. The entire set was composed in 1841 when Schumann, syphilis eating away at his brain, had a feverish year writing some of the most exquisite lieder in memory. The songs do not tell one complete story, but allude to nature, love, loss and are heavy with irony.

Robert Schumann...looks as if my singing pissed him off.
Why am I doing this? Does the world need me to get up there and fall on my ass? (Maybe) Because Ben is a dear friend who after thirty years wanted to begin to play the piano again-and he asked me to join him in this adventure. Because we both love Schumann, the music and the poetry. I love it more when listening to Fritz Wunderlich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in my underwear while scratching myself or eating another piece of cheesecake, but I digress...In short, this is like Mt. Everest, something I'd like to try once before I die.

I'm going to keep a diary of our rehearsals and preparation. Now, I first learned these pieces in college in the mid 1970s. I recently reconnected on line with a former mentor and music teacher who, when told of this project said, Oh God. Do you have to? Ben and I had our first rehearsal the other day. We are both using scores. I find that just spitting out the German words in time is a formidable challenge. Of course, they are just words and are incomprehensible to 90% of the audience and (mostly) to me at this point. I'm from Boston myself, not Dresden. And one must take the timbre of the German language, play with it (so to speak) and match it to Schumann's notes. This above all requires both singer and pianist to listen to each other. Never mind. For now, Ben pounded out notes and I croaked and yelled and gurgled along. We got through the whole thing once without stopping. Did we make music? Did we communicate the wonderful biting sense of the pieces? Is the pope Jewish?

Stay tuned. I'm renting a tux for November 1 and come hell or high water I'll get up there. Ben will shine and I'll smile along for the ride.

Meanwhile, this Dichterliebe Diary will update every few days.

Greetings to all


Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Yesterday I attended a superb performance of Brahms's German Requiem at one of our large downtown churches. This has been the setting for 9/11 memorial concerts since the "Rolling Requiem" of 2002, when Mozart's Requiem was sung worldwide at 8.46 a.m. local time. Yesterday's concert was at 4, the tail end of a sultry day. I had hesitated at the thought of a church choir and pick up orchestra tackling a work I was used to hearing on recordings from Vienna, Prague or Boston. But this was snobbishness on my part. Two church choirs and a small orchestra performed splendidly. They sang in English, in a translation very close to the old and new testament texts. When I was younger, I remember thinking that Brahms didn't get it. I wanted thunder and lighting. I wanted the heavens to roll and open up. I wanted Verdi. Maybe Mahler. I didn't want the huge, comforting and enveloping sound that is Brahms. I'm glad I got older.

There are no Latin texts. Brahms chose biblical passages-auf Deutsche of course-that resonated most with him.

My mind has gone back to a recording of Mozart's Requiem that's over forty years old. We all remember where we were on 9/11/01. Some of us remember November 22, 1963. I was in second grade in Massachusetts, and I remember the day very well. Parents were waiting to take the kids home from school that afternoon. Unusual, since most of us walked to school (you could do that safely in 1963, even if you were six years old. We all did.) Now, I grew up on the periphery of Irish Boston, in the waning but glorious days of no show jobs and pictures of the Sacred Heart (bleeding) on bedroom walls. When I got home from school that Friday afternoon I remember my mother in front of the old black and white TV (nobody, but nobody, had color) with rabbit ear antennae aimed at the ceiling. Mother had her rosary beads going full blast and had a highball going, too: "Jesus! Mary! and Joseph!" The phone rang with aunts and uncles and sixth cousins from East Boston checking in. We only saw them at wakes, and well...Everything from "His poor mother and father!" to "Oh, my God, those kids!" to the most repeated phrase (I remember this clearly) "Look at Jackie, God love her. She didn't change her dress, poor soul".

In 1963, Marilyn was a dead actress, JFK loved only his wife, Chappaquiddick was real estate and the sight of John-John saluting sent all of my people to a bottle of Four Roses and the Sorrowful Mysteries. The Kennedys were royalty in Boston.

I went rummaging for the recording of Mozart's Requiem, as performed by the Boston Symphony and the Chorus Pro Musica with the Harvard-Radcliffe Choirs and the Seminarians of St. John's. I found it, on two battered and nearly uplayable LPS (I had to dig out my turntable, too.) This was recorded in Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral on January 19, 1964. The full requiem mass was celebrated by Cardinal Cushing, with Mozart's music performed in context. Erich Leinsdorf conducted.
The Kennedy family attended. This was televised, too, and you can bet we all went to 7 a.m. mass that morning to be home in time. The eyes at home that day were less on Jackie than on Mrs. Kennedy. Let's make this clear: Back then, "Mrs. Kennedy" meant the family matriarch ("Our President's Mother") as Dominic Dunne called her recently, "The queen of Irish society." Not the daughters in law (God!) and not even the former first lady, as proud as everyone was of her. A few years later, there was RFK's televised funeral. Mother and the girls got out the beads again and poured the drinks. "Would you believe they put a camera right on Mrs. Kennedy right during the mass? And she turned and She Gave Them Such a Look they took that camera right offa her."

Group mourning is comforting, and music is the quickest way to get to the souls and minds of people. My recording of the 1964 Boston based Kennedy memorial Mozart requiem is barely playable. Years ago I put it on tape, and now I can't find the tapes. I remember the performance was large, overwhelming, and slow and stately enough to drive Historically Informed Performance Practice Mavens to distraction. It fit the occasion. My community honored us this past weekend with a splendid performance of the German Requiem of Brahms. All volunteer with little rehearsal. The poignancy of this performance given on 9/11/05 as a fundraiser for hurricane Katrina victims was profound. We gave our money, admired the singing and playing of our neighbors and forty one years after the Mozart Requiem in Boston, we still had the music.

Friday, September 09, 2005


"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."--Jonathan Swift

Role models and mentors are a good thing.
For many years, my role model was described thusly by the Chicago Sun Times

"Ignatius J. Reilly, huge, fractious, obese, a latter-day Garganuta, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans lower depths, incredibly true to life dialogue, and the zaniest of series of high and low comic adventures"

After you've sent your check to Katrina Disaster relief, and after you've said a prayer for the thousands of people killed and displaced, and afer you've gone to a shelter to offer hugs, encouragement and maybe a stuffed animal for a child...Do yourself a favor and read "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole.
Tragically, Mr. Toole took his own life in 1969, aged thirty two, before this book was published. It was his mother who hounded publishers for years, finally getting an appointment with Walker Percy who presumably to get rid of her, agreed to read the manuscript. The rest is history. The book won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Ignatius Reilly is a corpulent, flatulent hero who disdains employment, responsibility and women. His one girlfriend, the feminist Myrna Minkhoff, is pursued and dismissed as a "minx." Mrs. Irene Reilly, Igantius's long suffering Mama, pays the bills, finds comfort in neighborly gossip and bars, and finds herself expected to fetch and carry for the imperious Ignatius. Our hapless hero suffers from poor internal plumbing-his "valve" is the bane of his life and I suspect of those around him- and like Wagner embarks only on "great work" to nobody's gain, not even his own. And yet, Ignatius, if not admirable, is lovable. Toole was a master at creating strong characters and understood that to keep the reader's attention characters must be supremely self confident and easy to admire...also to evoke gratitude that "it's only a novel"..So I find Ignatius!
Valve and all.

Enjoy this evocation of a New Orleans that no longer exists, if it ever did except in John Kennedy Toole's magnificent mind. Now go help the Katrina victims and have a fantastic read!


Richard Mohr was one of those people you knew even if you didn't know you knew him.
Walk over to your CD collection. Notice any complete opera recordings from RCA Red Seal? Do you have Il trovatore with Jussi Bjoerling and Zinka Milanov? Do you have Aida with Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers and Rita Gorr? What about the intimate Madama Butterfly with Anna Moffo and Cesare Valletti? Salome with Montserrat Caballe and Sherrill Milnes? If you have any RCA classical vocal recording made between 1950 and 1976 then you have the work of Richard Mohr.

Richard produced the recordings for RCA from the days of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony to the mid 1970s. He contracted the artists, wrote and changed (and changed) the rehearsal and recording schedules, supervised each take, and edited the final product. It was in his later years, as producer of the intermission features for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, that listeners regularly heard his name. He was a self effacing man but even so the chance to interview his beloved Zinka Milanov and her colleagues was too good to resist. It was Richard who told quiz panelists when to speak up and when to shut up (he had flash cards for that). It was Richard Mohr who sifted through the bags of quiz questions. It was Richard who would glare at us quiz panelists thirty seconds before air time and say, "pithy and to the point!" An yes, it was Richard who could tell whopping stories about his colleagues in music business from days gone by.

He had his favorites form the RCA days. Erich Leinsdorf was not one of them, but that conductor led some of Richard's best work: Madama Butterfly with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker, The barber of Seville with Cesare Valletti, Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters, Tosca with Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjoerling and Leonard warren, and an infamous Lohengrin, made in Boston's symphony Hall in the late 1960s. I say infamous because the cost overruns for this recording broke the bank. But I'm one of many who welcomed the CD release of this performance a few years back. Who wouldn't love the Boston Symphony playing Wagner in Symphony Hall, with the golden voiced Sandor Konya in his most famous role?

Richard worked on many of Toscanini's broadcasts and recordings from the acoustically challenged Studio 8-H in Rockefeller Center. When asked if Toscanini really was so ferocious he said, "Not at all. He was a pussycat." He remembered that Toscanini loved the gadgetry of recordings. He would insist on playback and cry "louder! louder!". But Maestro, said Richard. If we play it any louder we'll break the machinery. "Den-a BREAK da machinery!' roared the pussycat.

But if Toscanini was a pussycat, Richard told me that Stokowski-old Stokie he called him-had "the best ears in the business". He also admired Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony of the late 1950s. Richard produced the wonderful original cast recording of Samuel Barber's Vanessa with Eleanor Steber-she was another favorite-Nicolai Gedda and Rosalind Elias. There was not one area of the classical music business, and it was both art and business, that Richard didn't know.

I met Richard Mohr after his RCA days, but I had worn out more than once copy of that Madama Butterfly with Moffo-and the Rigoletto with Leonard Warren, and Rise Stevens's Carmen. We met at an RCA "do" given to celebrate the Metropolitan Opera's centennial back in 1983. I attended as a lowly record salesman, working my way through grad school. Richard attended as the former boss of the other guests: Milanov, Merrill, Hines, Steber, Albanese and Munsel among them. He didn't ask my name. He just said, "You look like you're under 100 years old, why don't you come on my opera quiz?" I sail okay-what would you have said?-and a year later there I was. Alberta Masiello, assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Father Owen Lee, writer and distinguished professor of classics, and Christopher Purdy who sells records in Rockefeller Center. I was embarrassed but Richard was a mensch.

I've thought of him a lot since his death a few years ago. You may never have met him-and boy, did you miss something, but listen to any great RCA recording, and think of Richard Mohr.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


La Scala is reporting Mme. Olivero's death at the age of 105

UPDATE: Magda Olivero recently celebrated her 102nd birthday. (March 2012)

I wrote the rest of this in 2005:

This is a response to a recent Boston Herald column by Tom Keane, calling for a recap of Boston's once glorious theater district.

Dear Mr. Keane:

I read with pleasure your recent column in the Herald about Boston's Theater district. I was especially pleased with your mention of B.F. Keith's, the magnificent theater Sarah Caldwell renamed The Opera House in the late 1970s.

I was a college kid working for Sarah's Opera Co. of Boston in those days. Singing in the chorus, walking her ancient and arthritic dachshund, Cranberry (who refused to die), doing what needed to be done. The paychecks bounced their way down the Charles river. Never mind. Youth is great and I was in an ambiance I loved. My parents paid the bills. ("At least he's not on drugs")

The Keith sale was concluded on a Tuesday. Sarah waddled in with the mortgage. The problem was that Puccini's TOSCA, starring the divine Italian soprano Magda Olivero, was to open the following Friday. We were changing theaters four days before opening night. Actually, Sarah often changed tenors a day or two before, but switching theaters, re- hanging sets, re- seating the orchestra, finding light bulbs! was going to be a challenge. We spent three days in the dark and dirt with flashlights writing numbers on the seats with magic marker. I was sent out to Woolworth's on Washington Street to get more markers and was turned away. That was another bill Sarah, God bless her, hadn't paid.

The Keith had a bowling alley, a gym, a swimming pool and toilets that flushed! Most of the building had not been cleaned in the movie house Bruce Lee days. Your feet stuck to the floor backstage and you learned not to ask.

Then there was Magda Olivero. A great diva in the old tradition, beloved of composers and audiences throughout Europe, she arrived in Boston and went to work. Tosca is a glamorous young woman, the prima donna of Napoleon's Rome. Madam Olivero, seventy if she was a day, remained above the squalor around her. It was my job on opening night to escort her to the wings. We stood together, she solemnly crossing herself awaiting her entrance. Two rats ran over our feet. I shuddered, all 200 pounds of me.. She kissed me. "Is a-ok! Topolini! Jut-a like Milano!" Her cue came in the orchestra and she sang out from the wings, "Mario! Mario! Mario!". The music, the theater, the lights all chased the years away. She was greeted by a great roar of applause and cries of brava! as the audience caught sight of her.
Even the rats scurried off.

I was stained with magic marker ink, and developed a rash. Who cares? I've heard Tosca in some of the greatest theaters in the world. But that was a great night in Boston, and a great time.
I bless the Keith forever. Thank you for bringing it back.

(May 3, 2002)


The meanest Buckeye linebacker is no match for a prima donna. Columbus's Southern Theatre had a packed house  on a January night in 1914, waiting for diva Mary Garden, Debussy's first Melisande and the toast of Paris and Chicago, to appear in recital. But Mary was eight hours away, leaping at the chance to sing a favorite role, Massenet's "Jongleur de Notre Dame" in the Windy City. A wire was dispatched to the hapless crowd in the Southern. Mary was a no-show. The audience wasn't amused, nor was the Columbus Citizen: "Mary, Mary quite contrary/How does your garden grow?/An opera date/will surely bring/more kale in the spring, y'know." Just for good measure, Mary cancelled her make up date, scheduled for four days later, to sing Manon in Chicago.

If Columbus had no resident opera company until 1981, Central Ohioans traveled to hear the
Royal Hughes in 1926
Metropolitan Opera on tour in Cincinnati, braving a flood for an opening night "Faust" at the Music Hall in 1884. Special trains were run from Columbus, and the New York Times reported, "There were some strangers present, who came into the city early in the day on trains that ran through long stretches of water, and who heartily wished they had not ventured from home." Cleveland was a favorite Met tour stop, from "The Barber of Seville" in 1899 to "La traviata", with Granville born Barbara Daniels as Violetta, eighty- seven years later. Not that Columbus lacked for operatic glamour. Adelina Patti appeared at the Auditorium Theatre on Town and Front Streets in 1893, but not before receiving her $5,000 fee in gold coin. Our large German population demanded Wagner, inviting Angelo Neumann's touring company to present its potted Ring cycle in 1899. Memorial Hall opened on Broad Street in 1907 to make a home for touring orchestras and artists from Rachmaninoff to Jan Peerce.

Mary Garden (1874-1967) blew off Columbus
Mary Garden finally arrived, with the touring Chicago Opera to triumph in Alfano's "Resurrection" in 1928. She returned the following year for Thais and Fiora in Montemezzi's "The Love of Three Kings." Garden was not the only star to come through Columbus. Rosa Raisa, Puccini's first Turandot, appeared as Aida with Alexander Kipnis. Charles Hackett was a big name in radio. Maria Olczewska, Richard Strauss's favorite contralto in Vienna, sang Carmen in Columbus. The Columbus Auditorium later became a Lazarus annex. "If you want to stand on the very spot where Mary Garden thrilled 5,500 opera lovers in 1929, you can", writes Phil Sheridan in his 1978 Those Beautiful Downtown Theatres. "Climb either of the two short stairways to the range and refrigerator display, walk to the center, face east, and you're there."

Full scale opera productions came through Columbus between 1935 and 1950 via the touring San Carlo Opera. Organized by a Brooklyn born impresario called Fortune Gallo ('lucky rooster') the San Carlo's "Aida" could play on any stage, the public seldom bothered by the chorus of six and whatever elderly camel could be rented from the local zoo. Dorothy Kirsten, James Melton, Richard Tucker and contralto Coe Glade all played Columbus with the San Carlo, usually at the Hartman Theatre. Beverly Sills began her career at seventeen with the touring Charles Wagner Company, visiting Columbus in 1949 and 1950. Mees Hall hosed a 1954 tour of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" starring Phyllis Curtin. Miss Curtin, America's loveliest soprano, remembers Columbus fondly. "I felt myself really growing and changing as an artist during those performances at Mees Hall." Maria Callas sang one of the last concerts of her career in the Ohio Theatre in 1974, repairing to the Kon-Tiki for a late dinner. Broadcaster Mary Rousculp (Hoffman) had caught La Callas Port Columbus earlier that morning for a pithy, impromptu interview, one of the the diva's last.

The Ohio State university presented staged opera going back to the days of Royal Hughes ,whose
voice students included Ruby Elzy, the original Serena in "Porgy and Bess".  Irma Cooper, long a beloved local artist and teacher, sang a sinister Herodias in "Salome" at Mershon Auditorium, with Grace Bumbry in the title role. Evan Whallon's love for singers led to a series of operas with the Columbus Symphony, including "Die Fledermaus", "La boheme", and "Don Giovanni".  James King and Pablo Elvira co starred in Verdi's "Otello", and Christian Badea led one of the most complex of all opera scores, Richard Strauss's "Elektra" with Johanna Meier and Barbara Conrad.

Michael Harrison put Opera Columbus firmly on the cultural map, following a "Tosca" in 1981. The thrills were not all on stage. "Jack Hanna brought all sorts of animals for our Aida" remembers Harrison, today General Director of the Baltimore Opera. He brought two llamas into my office, and they relieved themselves in the elevator! That was the production where the tenor threatened to have me killed for firing him. The Columbus Police protected me admirably." Harrison points to the world premiere of Pasatieri's "The Three Sisters" with pride, and "I loved coming back to sing the Simpleton in "Boris Godunov" with the great Jerome Hines. That was a role to which everyone thought I was ideally suited!"

Irma M. Cooper
"Opera Columbus went under for four days in January, 1991, but Irma Cooper, Phil Jastram and Rocky Morris raised the money to keep it going," remembers former General Director John Gage, now with Dallas Opera. "Phil was not going to let it go under." Bill Russell brought bel canto elegance back to the Palace Theater with "Anna Bolena" and "Lucia di Lammermoor", along with another world premiere, Leslie Burrs's "Vanqui".

Today, Opera Columbus moves into a new era with performances at Ohio State's Mershon Auditorium. Opera IN Columbus is different than Opera/Columbus, but our hometown company continues to set a high standard.

see also prima donna. On a cold 


Well, I had a feeling when I got up this morning that it would be a bad day.
The workman repairing my garage roof fell THROUGH said roof on Friday, and now, in a snow storm I have a 275 lbs. worker in the hospital with a busted ankle and no garage roof. The other fellas hired to begin siding my house arrived at 7 a.m. today, in three degree weather, to begin removing the windows. All of them. My autistic daughter, a bright, funny love-has this week and next off from school and told me that having workmen in the house has "ruined my life".
(I am constantly ruining her life which I guess is my job).
My wife is on the warpath and even at 7 a.m. the local market was sold out of Crispy Cremes. And then, I read that Renata Tebaldi had died.

This is another of my "I loved them when I was a kid in Boston" stories.
Feel free to skip it, but...
I only heard Tebaldi once in person, at a recital in symphony Hall around 1974. I remember the red hair, the green dress and the fact that she was and is the most beautiful woman I had ever seen on stage.
I passed up tickets to hear her in La boheme and Adriana Lecouvreur-with Corelli, yet!-because I was young and stupid.
But I treasure the memory of that presence and that voice, , as heard on broadcasts and studio recordings. We all know the 1956 Met broadcast of Tosca. How about Manon Lescaut from 1959? La Gioconda from 1967? Even in a role like that, I always hear a lot of love in her voice. To the comments I've read that she wasn't much of an actress, I'd suggest that she was the link between operatic personality and singing actor. There is plenty of drama in her performances. We are lucky, in the generation born during her career, too late to have heard her at her best, that she captured so vividly the music and drama of her great roles on disc.

To Renata Tebaldi I can only say thank you, and Godspeed.

(December 20, 2004)