Stepping Out of Character
Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they’re not, well, criticizing? They’re a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to ‘girl’ singers. Go figure.
With that in mindwe thought we’d indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they’re not even getting paid to do it.
Movies were all around me growing up in Brooklyn.
It was not that way with opera.
No one I knew had so much as seen one, and, except for a misbegotten high school field trip to an awkward performance of “Cosi fan Tutte,” neither had I. My attitude toward it paralleled my thoughts about stock car racing: no doubt a worthy interest, but something that was never going to captivate me.
But when I worked at the Washington Post in the 1970s, I fell in, through no fault of my own, with an opera crowd. My taste for it grew, not only for the incandescent beauty of the singing and the music but also for the out-sized, unapologetically larger-than-life nature of the dramatic experience.
I’m far from knowledgeable and I don’t attend as often as I’d like anymore, but my residual passion for what I have seen and experienced is strong and enduring.
One of the things I love about opera is its capacity for generating wonderful stories. So compiling a list of favorite moments means giving equal weight to the tales as well as the music.
‘AIDA’ AT THE BATHS OF CARACALLA, ROME, 1971
It was my first time in Europe and I went to this performance, held at one of the city’s larger ruins, almost on a whim. What left a lasting impression was not the singing, but the spectacle. The Egyptian captain Radames makes a triumphal entrance to the city of Thebes in Act 2, and coming on stage with him were living, breathing horses, camels, even elephants. Seeing it all this way clarified immediately the excessive nature of opera, the way grand gestures could adroitly enhance heroic emotional states.
TEXACO PRESENTS THE METROPOLITAN OPERA
Not living in New York, I found these convivial Saturday afternoon broadcasts my main connection for years to quality live performances. Listening to the clever ripostes on the opera quiz, hearing the cosmopolitan tones of Milton Cross and Edward Downes as they described the inevitable post-performance standing ovations (“and here’s Paul Plishka!”) created a welcoming sense of community I was always grateful to share in.
I don’t know if I would have felt quite so strongly about opera if I hadn’t come under the spell of the elevating voice of this legendary Swedish tenor. Dead for more than a decade when I first heard him, Bjorling and his expressive tone, as radiant as the sun, live on in recordings as well as the memories of other fans. Like director Paul Mazursky, who put his mother’s passion for the singer into “Next Stop, Greenwich Village.” Though opera fans argue about Bjorling’s dramatic abilities (the New York Times obituary called it “not the subtlest the operatic stage has ever known”), hearing him sing “Nessum dorma” from Puccini’s “Turnandot” and his celebrated “Au fond du temple saint” duet with baritone Robert Merrill from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” remain transcendent experiences.
The “B” in the “abc” of perennially crowd-pleasing operas (with “Aida” and “Carmen”), Puccini’s story of Parisian artists and their loves was the first opera I heard frequently, and only partly because there was a lovely recorded version with Jussi Bjorling as the romantic Rodolfo. The other reason was that a friend absolutely adored it, especially delighting in bursting into a few lines of the celebrated aria “Que gelida manina” (“what a cold little hand”) whenever fate and cool Washington evenings put her into contact with any hand that was the slightest bit chilled.
With at least two recent plays (“Lisbon Traviata” and “Master Class”) written around her, this most dramatic of sopranos was undeniably modern opera’s superstar. I was too late to hear Callas in her prime, but for several years I sat next to Paul Hume, the Washington Post’s legendary music critic, and a major Callas fan. Of all the stories he told me about her, one stands out.
Hume was in New York attending a performance of one of Callas’ signature operas, Puccini’s “Tosca.” One of the dramatic high points is the moment when Tosca, furious at the villainy of Baron Scarpia, snarls the word assassino (assassin) at him as only Callas could.
At just that juncture, a thud was heard in the audience: a man sitting near Hume had had a heart attack, crumpled to the floor and died. Unnerved, Hume investigated later and found out that the man was a Callas fan with a weak heart. “His doctor had told him he ran a great risk if he saw her perform again,” Hume reported. “But he decided it was worth it. He died a happy man.”
‘WAR AND PEACE’
Driving out on a summer evening to Wolf Trap, a performance space/park in suburban Virginia, was an enviable way to experience opera. It was especially satisfying when someone as dynamic as Sarah Caldwell (of the Opera Company of Boston) was conducting. The energy she brought to her staging of Prokofiev’s version of the Tolstoy novel was formidable, and I can still remember the hush that fell over the audience near the close when the first flurries of a Russian snowstorm that signaled Napoleon’s defeat began to fall.
One of the pleasures of Wolf Trap was bringing a blanket and a picnic, trading anecdotes with other fans on the lawn. A friend and I were lamenting how much time this leisurely Richard Strauss opera was taking when a man nearby told an anecdote that might not be true but ought to be. Strauss, the story goes, was on the podium during a performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” when he leaned over to his concertmaster and said, “My, this is a long opera.” “But maestro,” the man responded, aghast, “you wrote it.” “Yes,” Strauss said with a sigh, “but I never thought I’d have to conduct it.”
When it comes to opera anecdotes, my favorite concerns tenor Leo Slezak, the father of character actor Walter Slezak. Wagner’s “Lohengrin” was one of the senior Slezak’s celebrated roles, and one aria called for him to enter and exit the stage on a mechanical swan. One night there was a malfunction, and the machine left the stage without him. Slezak, unperturbed, turned to the audience. “What time,” he asked, “is the next swan?”