"Managers always told the conductors, 'Don't fool around with Baum, he's a boxer.'
"You wouldn't know it from looking at me now, but I had a great body, huge biceps. I did a 'Belle Helene' for Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1929 where I was practically naked. Almost everything was hanging out."
Kurt Baum, one of the leading dramatic tenors of the 1940s and '50s, uncharacteristically began to serenade the interviewer with the lilting music of the Entrance of Paris from Offenbach's opera-bouffe .
Indeed, one would not imagine the frail, bent body to have been a member of Max Schmeling's Sports Club in Cologne, a talented amateur boxer, swimmer and high diver ("like that marvelous Louganis boy"). He says in a soft, almost inaudible voice, "Two years from now I'll be 90."
Although he is occasionally vague on dates and places, he warms to the interview as reminisences pour out. Even if he is blind in one of them, the eyes are a marvelous clear blue and he has the courtly manner of a European artist of the old school.
Born in Cologne to a well-to-do Jewish family, Baum does not want to talk about the early German days. He lost almost everyone to Hitler. The memories are painful.
Sensing the horrors soon to envelop Germany, he moved his base of operations to Prague in 1933, where he was a member of both the National Theatre and the German Opera and soon became a favorite.
Baum's voice was powerful, beautifully equalized throughout its range, almost baritonal at the bottom, and a touch monochromatic. Never much of an actor, he was thought of as "reliable"--in the best sense of the word. In these days, when light-voiced tenors think nothing of taking on Radames and Don Jose, managers would kill or at least kidnap for a voice likes his to serve the heavy repertory.
"I had the high notes from the beginning and I never once transposed a piece of music," he states proudly. Those high notes became the tenor's biggest stock in trade.
Few who heard them will forget the ease and authority with which he tossed off Manrico's high Cs in "Il Trovatore." He stares in blank amazement when told that almost all tenors today take the aria down.
Like the lady reproved for wearing diamonds in the morning who retorted, "You wear 'em if you've got 'em," Baum was never shy about showing off that effortless top. In a prized letter he received from Richard Strauss, he was given permission to interpolate a high D-flat in the Italian Tenor's aria from "Rosenkavalier."
Along with the permission, he received one admonition from the composer: "Do not overdo the high note as you sometimes do."
During the Prague days, Baum met colleagues he would be with throughout his career. On a visit Edward Johnson asked him to keep an eye on a young American mezzo, Rise Stevens, who had arrived in 1936.
"She didn't need anybody to look out for her," the tenor says warmly. "She was quite capable of looking out for herself, and, of course, she had her future husband, Walter Surovy. What a wonderful girl, what a wonderful couple!"
Stevens would be his Carmen and Dalila for many performances to come in America.
"Sometimes she would get mad at me when I did something idiotic, like walking to the footlights and taking a bow after the Flower Song. But she always forgave me," he says with a smile. "She was a lovely colleague."
Another lady in those days who would provide some rough times in the future for the tenor was Zinka Milanov.
"I saved her skin once, you know," he says matter-of-factly. "I walked into a rehearsal and she was having a fight with the conductor because she kept making the same boo-boos. The management wanted to let her go, cancel the contract. I said to them that she had a most beautiful voice, that she would learn, that they should keep her, and they did."
Anecdotes and gossip that would reach legendary proportions in the operatic world centered around Milanov's relationships with her colleagues and most especially with Baum. The tenor is a gentleman, however, and words on the subject have to be pulled out of him.
Was it true that once before he was to sing " Ah, si ben mio " in "Trovatore," the soprano whispered to him, "You'll never make it, Baum"?
"Yes, she said something like that. I don't remember the exact words," he muses.
"Zinka is basically a nice person, but she was always doing something or other. In Newark I remember she wanted my dressing room, and her husband forgot I was a boxer." He refuses to elaborate on that enigmatic statement.
"I can't tell you everything, you know. By the way, do they pay for this interview?"
(No, they don't.)
By 1939 Czechoslovakia was doomed with the Nazi approach and Baum and other Jews were in danger. The opera house Intendant , Dr. Eger, personally bought him a train ticket and told him to get out before it was too late. Baum did just that, fleeing first to Switzerland, then to Paris and Monte Carlo, where he had no trouble finding engagements.
The American agent, Eric Semon, brought him to America, and he made his debut in Chicago as Radames in "Aida." Edward Johnson, whom Baum describes as a "toughie," had the not-too-happily-received idea that Baum should make his debut as the Italian Singer in "Rosenkavalier." At first he wanted to break the contract, but his manager warned him he would be blackballed if he did.
Reluctantly agreeing, Baum did as he was advised.
"Johnson was furious at Erich Leinsdorf when he stopped the orchestra after my aria because the applause was so long. It meant overtime, but I had a huge success," Baum beams.
Baum does not give the impression that he had the easiest time with Johnson. "He wanted me to change my name, I don't know if there were anti-Semitic overtones in that, but anyway, I refused. The name, Kurt Baum, had been good enough for all of Europe, so it was going to be good enough here."
Shortly after, Baum got his first opportunity at the meat and potatoes of his career, the heavy dramatic Italian repertory, specifically Manrico, perhaps his most famous part. He studied Italian anew. Not for him the kvi and kvella for "qui" and "quella" that was the mark of so many Central Europeans who ventured musically south of the Alps.
If he was born German-Jewish, Baum was 100% Italian in his soul. He relished Manrico, Radames, Cavaradossi, Enzo, Pollione and other staples. He recounts with pride that Giacomo Lauri-Volpi once said the only tenor high notes he respected were Kurt Baum's. He is eager to show you the book on tenors in which he is the only non-Italian.
And he has no regrets he never sang the German parts here that he had done in Europe: Lohengrin and Walther von Stolzing in "Die Meistersinger." One can get a hint of what we missed, however, in listening to his recording with Helen Traubel of the "Lohengrin" Bridal Chamber Scene.
Baum had the sort of career that is practically unknown these days. He was a member of a company, an ensemble. He stayed around for a whole season. He sang a large repertory. While he yielded to no one in his high estimation of his own vocal art, he says his pride was not hurt when he was asked to cover, to stand by for other tenors, as he was increasingly asked to do when Rudolf Bing took over the Met in 1950.
"We all wanted to help the company in those days. We didn't ask for outrageous money, at least most of us didn't. Look where we are today. Can you imagine, they've canceled the tour. The Met going to those cities on tour was the highlight of their seasons, socially and culturally. Consider the ticket prices. It's no wonder the audiences are getting older, the young ones can't afford it."
Baum is kind and loving when he discusses his colleagues, even the tenors. "Mario Del Monaco was a wonderful man. He even gave me advice when I sang 'Trovatore' in Verona after the war. He saved and protected his wife, who was Jewish, you know. I loved Giuseppe di Stefano. And Jussi Bjoerling had the most beautiful tenor voice of our time."
Though he was more than mildly upset when Richard Tucker, who was prone to shoot off his mouth in more ways than one, stated that all tenors should retire when they were 45, he admired the man's artistry. Tucker, by the way, continued to sing until his death at 60.
Of the ladies, his clear favorite is Renata Tebaldi. "What a lovely sweetheart she is." They shared an especially memorable triumph in 1952 when the Florence Maggio Musicale produced Rossini's "Guglielmo Tell." He can't understand why she retired so soon.
"They say it was because her top went. Such a shame, my top is as good as it ever was. I vocalize and sing every day."
He denies he and Maria Callas had a feud during "Aida" performances in Mexico City in 1949. He was not happy that she interpolated a high E-flat in the Triumphal Scene and simply told her she would not be allowed that at the Met. That was all.
"She was a marvelous artist," he says.
Baum continued his performances and his covering quite happily. Then in 1958 Bing called him in to tell him, "I have a nice surprise for you, the Drum Major in a new production of 'Wozzeck' for next season." One can only imagine how it went down for an Italian specialist to be invited into the murky atonal world of German Expressionism. Nevertheless, Bing knew how to persuade.
"It will be a great change of pace for you. Besides (Eleanor) Steber will be in a low-cut blouse, and you will get to touch and handle her."
Baum accepted. Lack of high Cs to the contrary, he enjoyed a distinct critical success.
His farewell to opera was unannounced and quietly done and as part of a larger history. The night of April 16, 1966, marked the final operatic performance in the old Met, a tear-filled gala. In it Baum returned to one of his great parts, Radames, in the Triumphal Scene of "Aida."
"It was time for me to go," he recalls unsentimentally, "and what better occasion than the last performance in a house where I had been so happy." He was nearly 68 years old.
Kurt Baum lives quietly these days in a comfortable apartment on Central Park South. He goes out very rarely to the opera. "No one at the Met ever calls to invite me." He is generally appalled at standards today.
"I prefer Pavarotti to the other one," is about the only comment he will allow himself.
He gives the impression of a terrible loneliness. He lost his wife, Renate, almost a year ago.
"It was a perfect marriage for a singer. She was everything to me. She loved me, she protected me, she fought battles for me."
He is delighted when he finds the interviewer to be a dog lover. "I have my poodle, whom I adore. Perhaps we can talk again. You understand, I can't tell all the truth.
"You're sure they don't pay for this interview?"