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Opera Cruise by Steamboat Down the Mississippi

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It was irrational, unsettling, unreal. In its bizarre yet unavoidably hypnotic way, it also was wonderful.

There we were, floating lazily down a watery time tunnel in grandma’s parlor, to the incongruous music of Verdi, Puccini and Mozart.

The we , in this case, comprised two bona fide stars of the Metropolitan Opera, two younger singers building distinguished careers on the West Coast, a seasoned operatic administrator, a brilliant pianist, a couple of specialist journalists, more than a hundred intrepid defenders of the lyric muse, an operatic super-groupie or two, and the tireless, ultradedicated, slightly bemused staff of the Delta Queen.

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The cast was, to say the least, unusual. It had been assembled by a dauntless, supremely impractical dreamer and inspired bon vivant from Portland named Hugh Phillips. He happens to adore almost anything that sings. He also happens to adore the Delta Queen, the most authentic steamboat still gracing the muddy Mississippi.

He began to put his plan together several years ago. For eight blissful days, while the bona fide and dignified national monument paddled at full speed--7 m.p.h.--from St. Louis to New Orleans, the passengers would attend concerts, watch opera videos, endure musical lectures and symposia, play operatic trivia games, impose the lyrical muse on a masked ball and exchange a lot of gossipy shop talk.

Plenty of High Cs

The old steamer might not provide much to contemplate in the way of high seas, but high Cs would be plentiful. Roberta Peters, the internationally beloved and eternally charming coloratura soprano, would attend to diva duties. John Alexander--a stalwart hero from Meridian, Miss., with imposing credentials at the Met, Covent Garden and Vienna--would serve as congenial tenor in residence.

The fellow travelers would have to plan their schedules carefully. Any conspicuous cultural consumption on board had to take place when the agenda did not happen to include such important extracurricular diversions as bingo or a napkin-folding demonstration or a cocktail party. Or even a stop in Natchez for a gala Jenny Lind commemorative concert held in a hospitable antebellum mansion.

Musical pursuits had to be scheduled around tours of Civil War monuments and visits to the hot spots of certain sleepy little towns of the Old South. Most important, the unlikely artistic exercises had to take place between meals.

There’s a rub. There isn’t much time on the Delta Queen between meals. One of the most vexing of nautical problems involves figuring out how to finish the lavish captain’s dinner in time for the cozy moonlight buffet.

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Some Nervous Grumbling

At the beginning of the odyssey one heard a little nervous grumbling here and there. Newspaper addicts worried about getting their daily print fix. Unrepentant television zealots searched in vain for some sign of a box containing a picture tube (one set actually could be found, it turned out, in the crew’s quarters, but the paying customers were to be spared the intrusive technological anachronism at all costs).

A few silly, misguided souls, confusing the modest paddle-wheeler with a luxury liner, wondered about the location of the theater, the gymnasium, the pool, the disco and the really commodious staterooms.

Soon, however, such mundane considerations became blissfully irrelevant. The Queen boasts a couple of gracious lounges, a friendly bar and a lovely dining room that can double--with a little fast improvisation--as nightclub and concert hall. It is enough.

The decor, replete with brass fittings and teakwood rails and Tiffany-glass windows, harks back to an ornate era when comfort was more important than glamour. It is reassuring.

The boat also boasts three airy decks that afford panoramic views of the passing greenery, of distant homesteads, of approaching barges and towering bridges. Eleven laps around a deck equal one mile, or so a couple of lonely health-and-exercise fanatics assured us between repasts.

Their Own Priorities

The outside world, it was rumored, was agitated with political upheaval, vicissitudinous electioneering, an uneasy stock market and a shaky baseball season. We couldn’t be bothered with any of that. We had our own priorities.

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Important matters loomed on our shared, constantly changing horizon. We had to search for the shades of Gaylord Ravenal and Scarlett O’Hara and Huey Long and Br’er Rabbit. We had to explore the subtle differences between Cajun and Creole cuisine. We had to venture out to do some high-powered, short-term sightseeing.

We had to make small talk with new acquaintances and big talk with important guests. Most important, perhaps, we had to deal with the emotional and aesthetic intricacies of “Carmen” and “Rigoletto” and “Don Giovanni.”

As the lovely tub pulled slowly and reasonably surely away from its Missouri dock, Dan Forman, the calliope virtuoso on call, pounded out a deafening but eminently reasonable facsimile of the grand march from “Aida.” Later, at dinner, he would serenade us at a more conventional keyboard with the insinuating waltzes from “Der Rosenkavalier.” The Cotton Blossom was never like this.

The Delta Queen wasn’t always like this either. Constructed 62 years ago in Stockton, it began service on the Sacramento River connecting Sacramento and San Francisco. During World War II the Navy took over and made the Queen a ferry for the transfer of troops to and from combat vessels in San Francisco Bay.

After being laboriously towed oceanward through the Panama Canal and on to Pittsburgh, she was refitted for a second career on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in 1948.

Host to History Buffs

Since then she has played host to history buffs and ordinary vacationers, to actors and singers, to statesmen and royalty. Gold plaques on various stateroom doors attest to the one-time occupancy of such itinerant celebrities as Helen Hayes, Van Johnson and Jan Peerce.

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Princess Margaret’s name appears as Margarite --don’t ask why. The little room that everyone looks for, however, is No. 340 on the top aft corner. During a jaunt from St. Paul to St. Louis in 1979 it was the much-publicized home of Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Carter.

Everyone leaves a cruise, any cruise, with the pleasure of newly acquired friends offsetting the pain of newly acquired pounds. Certain experiences linger in the mind just as others linger in the waist. In this case the disparate images are music-oriented:

--Capt. Lawrence Keaton, ever amiable and ever resourceful, intercepting a bouquet of red roses from a smaller boat en route to Vicksburg so that Roberta Peters can be given a post-performance tribute worthy of a river-bound diva.

--Peters accepting the flowers with proper prima donna grace, and then having them placed on the piano in the dining room as a reciprocal gift to the passengers at large.

--Bud Black, the resident MC, capping a late-night show with his bravura rendition of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”--each word perfectly, rhythmically, articulated backward .

--Alyce Rogers, the high-spirited mezzo-soprano, punctuating a particularly voluptuous performance of Carmen’s “Seguidille” with the well-aimed toss of a flower at the feet of a professional admirer sitting in for Don Jose (as her husband looks on approvingly).

--Michael Delos, the sensitive young basso, beaming with pride as he sings “La ci darem la mano” and thus achieves what he says is a lifelong ambition: to portray a Don Giovanni who can seduce Roberta Peters as Zerlina (as her husband looks on approvingly).

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--Ruby Mercer, the outwardly prim editor of Opera Canada, imitating with uncanny point every demented songbird from Pons to Callas to Peters as Lucia di Lammermoor at the Mardi Gras ball.

--Hugh Phillips, the mustachioed impresario-for-a-week, winning the masquerade contest with his impromptu impersonation of a none-too-consumptive Traviata.

--Tony Byrne, mayor of Natchez, presenting Peters with honorary citizenship and, without skipping a beat, reminding the soprano that he is up for reelection.

--Peters and a so-called serious critic, this so-called serious critic, abandoning the historic sights of Memphis in favor of a thorough tour of the super-hyper-kitschy all-American-quasi-splendors of Graceland.

The last vignette probably told it all. There we were: Roberta and Martin and Elvis, together at last, in a gilt-edged, multimirrored, much-padded living room adorned with a push-button waterfall.

Meetings like this do not happen every day. They could only happen, in fact, amid the happy delirium of an opera cruise on the Mississippi.

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