A virtuoso scarlet woman

Times Staff Writer

First there’s the red mailbox, a startling splash of color amid the cool greenery at the foot of the road leading up to the Studio City home of opera singer Gloria Lane. Then there’s the red front door -- opened by Lane, whose glamorous red lipstick matches her red shirt and shoes.

On a table in the two-story entryway sits a bowl of faux bell peppers: also red. In the living room, the eye roves to the red squares and triangles on the quilted pillows that Lane makes, to a red afghan, red vases, red carnations, a red Lucite heart.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 27, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Mezzo-soprano’s daughter -- An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about singer Gloria Lane incorrectly said her daughter Magda was named for a character in Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Saint of Bleecker Street.” Magda is named for the lead in Menotti’s opera “The Consul.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 31, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Mezzo-soprano’s daughter -- A July 17 article about singer Gloria Lane incorrectly said that her daughter Magda is named for a character in Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera “The Saint of Bleecker Street.” Magda is named for the lead in Menotti’s opera “The Consul.”

And if you think you’ve seen red, enter the kitchen, where the shiny cabinet doors make the word seem inadequate. This is stop sign, candy apple, fire engine, scarlet letter -- the baked-on exterior of the little Corvette from the Prince song. “I love red,” Lane points out unnecessarily. “I think the Chinese believe it is a very lucky color.”


And what better color to decorate the home of a mezzo-soprano who was, in the words of her musical contemporary Beverly Sills, “one of the best Carmens I ever saw”?

Lane, 80, hasn’t sung the title role in “Carmen” in at least a quarter of a century -- although she did recently allow herself to be persuaded to sing an aria from Bizet’s opera at an anniversary gathering for friends at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills. “I said, ‘This is a restaurant!’ ” she recalls, laughing. “People stopped eating. People came rushing up to congratulate me.”

In Studio City, probably no one at Louise’s Trattoria, where Lane is a regular, would object if their favorite mezzo-soprano burst into song over lunch. The kitchen knows she likes the house salad, but with balsamic vinaigrette instead of house dressing, also skip the garbanzo beans and the green peppers -- although she likes the yellow ones and, not surprisingly, the red. “She’s the best -- we love her not as a customer but one of our own,” says manager Julio Figueroa. “When she doesn’t come it’s like, where is she?”

Because her career was mostly in Europe -- in such venues as England’s Glyndebourne Opera House and Covent Garden, not to say a bullring in Seville, Spain -- Lane’s name is perhaps less well-known than those of some of her contemporaries, including Sills, who once performed with her in “Aida” early in both of their careers. “Gloria had the dubious distinction of being the Amneris to my miscast appearance as Aida,” Sills recalls. “It certainly gave proof to the oft-mentioned theory that Verdi should have called the opera ‘Amneris.’ ”

But Lane, official diva of Louise’s Trattoria, is a veteran of more than 500 “Carmen” performances, many at Milan’s La Scala, where she earned ovations from opera-goers and jealousy from the wives of male co-stars and the occasional female singer (“Fedora Barbieri told people that when I sang Carmen, I didn’t wear any underwear”). A San Francisco critic once described her Carmen as “very animal, very unscrupulous, but fascinating; her feline grace made her the most believable Carmen that our stage has ever seen.” It was at La Scala that the “American Carmen” earned her diva stripes: She was nicknamed La Tempesta Primavera -- “the Spring Storm” -- “because I would get angry, and then I’d cry.”

Performance from the past

EVEN so, unlike many divas in retirement, Lane made almost no recordings to remind her of past glories. So she was especially delighted recently to learn that her voice -- she is known as both a mezzo and a dramatic soprano -- has been meeting the public again in the form of a three-CD edition of Shostakovich’s “Katerina Ismailova,” a 1963 revision of his “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” taken from a live 1976 broadcast in Rome in which she sang the title role.


“I never knew that they had put it out -- it so happened that a friend of mine who is always looking on the Internet came upon it, and so he ordered it. I was amazed, I really was,” Lane says. Aside from some bootleg recordings, the only other CD featuring Lane -- a compilation of works conducted by Leopold Stokowski that includes her 1963 performance in Falla’s “El Amor Brujo” for the BBC -- was released in 1999.

She is unperturbed that she will receive no royalties from the new recording. “I couldn’t care less as long as it’s out, and as long as I can hear it, because I’d never heard it -- it was thrilling for me,” she insists. “It’s something that I’m very proud of, because it was extremely difficult, musically and vocally also.”

One of the most difficult things, Lane says, was that the opera was in Russian. “I did it completely by ear, because I don’t speak Russian. I did it all phonetically. And the best thing that happened was, after the first act, there were lots of Russians who came backstage and spoke to me in Russian -- they were sure I was Russian.”

Still, although she was pleased to hear the new recording, Lane says it has not inspired any dreams of relaunching her professional career, as either a singer or a teacher. Last spring, she lost her husband, Samuel Krachmalnick, a veteran, Tony-nominated Broadway conductor who concluded his career as director of the UCLA Symphony and campus opera productions. He died April 1 at age 79, the day before what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary, and she remains exhausted from caring for him during a long illness.

It was this marriage of musicians that led Lane to being on not only a first-name but nickname basis with the likes of “Lenny” Bernstein, with whom Lane and Krachmalnick once shared Chinese food on Yom Kippur. “I would call it a stormy marriage, with those two egos,” Lane says of her home life. “Our little girl [Magda Krachmalnick, now 49] used to say, ‘Mommy and Daddy, when you have an argument, you go to the piano and all of a sudden everything’s OK.’

“I must say, I can still sing, but I just don’t have the stamina, both because of my age and because I spent six years taking care of my husband,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to teach again on a regular basis -- it takes a lot out of me. I’m a very intense performer and a very intense person, so I’m a very intense teacher.”


But, she adds modestly, a good teacher. Her students have included the children of Jermaine Jackson -- although she never met his brother Michael. “I do love teaching, because having been a singer and studying voice, I understand how fragile the ego of the singer is,” she says. “This is going to sound mean, but some teachers never had a career, they are pedagogues.”

Lane concedes, however, that she can be coaxed to teach on an irregular basis, and she notes that one of her occasional students is trying to persuade her to do a recital. She also isn’t above having some onstage fun: In 1994, she sang at a Red Cross benefit in Glendale, and back in the ‘60s she had a ball as Bloody Mary in a “South Pacific” at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre with Howard Keel.

She also remains more than willing to talk about the long heyday of her operatic career, which spanned the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and saw her singing Carmen in English, Italian, French and German. “At one point, I was singing ‘Carmen’ in Italian in Bologna, and I would take the plane and the next day be at Covent Garden and do it in English.”

Singing Carmen at La Scala was a long way from singing at home during her childhood as Gussie Siet, daughter of a junk dealer in Trenton, N.J. “We were very poor,” she says. “I started singing when I was about 5 and trooping with my sisters around the house, and my father said to my mother, ‘This one’s got a voice.’ ”

As a child, Lane received no formal voice training. “I could just sing,” she says. And in 1948, she surreptitiously sent in an entry to the Philadelphia Inquirer for its annual Voice of Tomorrow Contest -- and won. At the audition for the competition, “I remember the lady I was sitting next to saying to me, ‘Who do you study with?’ I said, ‘No one.’ ” Winning the contest opened the doors for her to study with a noted teacher from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, Elizabeth Westmoreland, and shortly after that to audition for Gian Carlo Menotti, who was writing a new opera called “The Consul.”

During this period, Lane’s son, Robert, was born -- and her first marriage began to unravel. At the Menotti audition, she recalls, “I was quite unhappy, thinking about getting a divorce, and Menotti said I was maybe too ‘phlegmatic’ to play the leading part. So I sort of forgot about it, and I got a scholarship to Tanglewood.”


There, at the music institute where the Boston Symphony makes its summer home in the Berkshires, Lane did her first scene from “Carmen” in 1949, directed by opera impresario Boris Goldovsky. She also ran into Menotti backstage after a performance. “Gian Carlo said to me, ‘Gloria, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m learning how to be not phlegmatic.’ And he said, ‘Well, there is a part in ‘The Consul’ that was going to be a speaking part, but you do it and I’ll write music for it.’ ”

“The Consul” premiered on March 1, 1950, at the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia, went on to New York and London and netted Lane three of the theater’s coveted honors: the Clarence Derwent award for best supporting performance in a musical role and two Donaldson awards, for best supporting and best debut performance by an actress in a musical role.

“While we were at the Barrymore Theatre in New York, Olivier came to see the show and wanted us to come to London,” Lane says. “So we did it in London, and everyone in the theater was crazy about it. Peter Finch was there almost every night, and [Michael] Redgrave came. It was just wild for me, this little girl from Trenton who had no idea what was happening. There I was, sitting in Laurence Olivier’s dressing room while he’s putting on his makeup and talking to me. It was fantastic, some kind of dream.”

Lane’s most infamous performance as Carmen took place in 1953 during a production by New York City Opera in Chicago. In the middle of the final duet, tenor David Poleri, who was singing the role of Don Jose, became angry with the conductor and stormed offstage.

“He walked off the stage, and out of the theater, in his Don Jose costume,” Lane says. “And there I was, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what do I do now?’ I looked at the conductor, and he was busy looking at the score, and I decided, ‘Well, I’ve got some high notes to sing, so damned if I’m going to get off the stage.’ So I sang his part and mine, and killed myself with an imaginary knife. I got press from all over the world. As a matter of fact, I was on the Edward R. Murrow show, showing how I stabbed myself. I have a feeling that when I die, they’ll tell that story.”

Lane was to reconnect with Poleri in 1954 when Menotti cast them in his new opera, “The Saint of Bleecker Street,” which premiered at the Broadway Theatre in New York. In this opera, Poleri managed to stay onstage long enough to stab Lane with an ersatz knife. “He used to hit me so hard, I still have a sore back,” she laments.


But the pain was worth it: At that point divorced from husband No. 1, Lane met the production’s associate conductor, Krachmalnick, who also coached her in her role. They were married on the day “Saint” closed in New York -- April 2, 1955 -- at City Hall. The production then moved on to Milan. “When we went to La Scala, it was like our honeymoon,” she says. “We were met at the plane by Menotti and Leonard Bernstein, who knew my husband well.” Daughter Magda is named after a leading character in the opera.

Seductive, not camp

But there is only one Carmen in the family. “ ‘Carmen’ is one of the most perfect operas ever written. Consequently I feel lucky to have been stuck with that,” Lane says. She is adamant that the seductive title role should never be played for camp. “Before I did ‘Carmen,’ I did a lot of research on Gypsies -- it’s a matriarchal society. I took it very seriously,” she says. “I have never played her like a vamp. I played her like a person who was aware of her sexuality but was never overtly sexual.”

Well, almost never. “The only time I ever did anything that might be construed that way was when I was doing a ‘Carmen’ with Poleri -- the one who walked out on me -- and I was trying to sing one of my arias where I have my hands tied behind my back,” she says. “And he was playing with the rifle that he held, and I noticed this -- so I figured, ‘I have to get the attention of the audience.’ And so, with my hands behind my back, I leaned over and picked up my skirt with my teeth and pulled it up. That’s become famous. I’m the first one who did that. I just did it because I was angry.”

Lane appears surprised but pleased to learn that the two singers who performed Carmen in Los Angeles Opera’s 2004 production, Catherine Malfitano and Milena Kitic, both hoisted their skirts in this manner onstage. “It’s a good bit,” she says.