Above: Dame Janet Baker
1966 was pivotal year for me. In the tiny town of 750 people where I grew up, I graduated from - and escaped the misery of - high school, where I had been subtly but endlessly bullied for 4 years for being different. Only the popularity of my older siblings and the status of my parents among the townsfolk kept my tormentors from being more aggressive.
Starting in 1959, after watching Renata Tebaldi on television, I found an escape from the realities of the inappropriate place I'd been born into: I became instead a citizen of the wondrous world of opera. The story of how it all began is here. I started listening to the Met broadcasts in 1961; saw my first live opera performance (RIGOLETTO) at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1962; and went to the Old Met for the first time on November 27th, 1963 (five days after John F Kennedy was assassinated) where I saw DON GIOVANNI and then FAUST on consecutive nights.
Then, in the late Summer of 1966, I was finally allowed to make my first trip to New York City on my own: I took an overnight bus to Manhattan from Syracuse, checked in at the Empire Hotel, freshened up, and joined the line of opera-lovers outside the new opera house to get tickets for the first weeks of the upcoming Met season. I felt I'd finally become an adult (I was mistaken, of course...that was still years away!)
My parents, despite having a child they could simply not begin to understand, were very kind to me and generously supportive of my operatic passion. They planned our summer vacations to include opera performances at Cincinnati, Lake George, and Newport, and arranged for us to go to the Old Met when they would clearly have preferred MY FAIR LADY or THE SOUND OF MUSIC. And one of the nicest things they did for me was to buy me a reel-to-reel tape deck.
I was thus able to tape Met broadcasts off-the-air, starting in 1964. Radio reception was random, but I soldiered on and soon had many treasures to listen to. And I listened to them constantly. In NYC for the ticket line in 1966, I had met other avid opera-lovers and was told of a vast network of international opera-tape exchanging; that's when I began to build my collection. With the help of my first opera-friend David Abramovitz I began to acquire tradable items and my collection became massive. Aside from the usual items 'everyone' had, like Callas's legendary Anna Bolena and her magnificent 1955 La Scala Norma, I was always on the lookout for rarities and off-beat items.
One evening in 1969, while at a performance at New York City Opera, a fellow fan came rushing over to a group of us during the interval with some thrilling news: he had received a call from a friend in London to say that Janet Baker had stepped into the role of Dido in Berlioz' LES TROYENS at Covent Garden that day, in place of Josephine Veasey. Baker only knew the role in English and so while her cast-mates sang in French, she sang in her native tongue. The performance happened to have been a broadcast and it wasn't long before we had tapes of it. The opera itself was brand new to me and it took some getting used to, but the performances of Baker and her Aeneas, the fabulous Jon Vickers, were to die for.
I was still living in the tiny town - still too afraid to venture into the world of my desire (aside from my weekend trips to New York) - when, in January 1970, Janet Baker came to Syracuse NY on a Sol Hurok recital tour. She gave a remarkable programme, including Mozart, French and English songs, Wagner's Wesendonck lieder and the finale of Rossini's CENERENTOLA; Martin Isepp was at the piano. I had acquired a small cassette tape recorder and surreptitiously recorded the recital; the tape by now is too fragile to risk playing. I met her afterward, and she signed my program (I am looking at her signature as I write this). She was reserved but kind, with a lovely smile, and very gracious when I asked to take her picture. I had planned to ask her about her takeover of Dido, but shyness overwhelmed me and I only said 'thank you'.
Not long after, scanning the many catalog listings that came my way from other traders, something jumped out at me: a concert performance of TROYENS in English conducted by Colin Davis...but could this be correct? Janet Baker as Cassandra?? My opera-loving heart skipped a beat. I had to have it, as much for Baker as for two other favorites in the cast: Evelyn Lear (Dido) and Anna Reynolds (Anna).
The tape arrived and I threw it on my deck...the opening chorus of Trojans rejoicing at the seeming end of the ten-year siege...they rushed off to see the giant horse. The music turns somber and doom-ladened...a pause...and Cassandra's first line: "The Greeks have left the plain." I tell you, my heart stood still. This was Baker at her most splendidly communicative and committed. I had to stop, I was so deeply moved. And I still get chills just thinking about it. It was a week before I could start the tape again and discover Baker's phenomenal rendering of Cassandra's great monologue and her duet with Chorebus (Raimund Herincx) in which she scorched my soul with her passionate voicing of the prophetess's alarm and despair. It became my favorite - and most meaningful - operatic document, and has never really been usurped.
I played her Cassandra often, invariably moved to tears. Despite having tons of other great things to listen to, and despite the continuing expansion of my operatic horizons, it remained my touchstone.
Eventually though, the reel-to-reel collection became unwieldy. I had moved to Hartford CT and hauled it all there, but my deck was getting old and unreliable, and was an expensive pain to repair. I began a project to copy certain items from reel to cassette...and of course Dame Janet's opening scene and duet as Cassandra was the first thing to be saved. But after a few weeks of working on copying, my reel-to-reel deck gave up the ghost. I was already formulating a plan to move to New York City and I knew the reel collection would have to be left behind. Facing the practical realities, I gave my entire reel-to-reel collection to a fellow opera-lover. My heart sank as we loaded the big boxes into his car and I watched as a whole era of my life drove off into the night.
CD's had by then taken over the opera-listening world, and then YouTube arrived and everything became freely available: with more and more spectacular opera performances turning up daily on the YouTube site, it's become virtually impossible to stay abreast.
Over the years, I have continued to seek out certain performances I had had on reel-to-reel which have seemingly never made it to CD (a phenomenal Berlin Philharmonic performance of the Verdi REQUIEM with Lorengar, Ludwig, Gedda, and Ghiaurov seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth since I had it on reel; I can only find it mentioned in Christa Ludwig's performance résumé in her published memoirs).
I've searched in vain for any mention of the Baker Cassandra time and again, but then - as so often seems to be the case - I found it when I wasn't looking for it. Lately I've been on a TROYENS kick and was flipping thru the pages of YouTube on the off-chance of finding something unusual from the opera. Buried in one of those 50-video anthologies that I usually avoid, I saw the long-sought words: "Janet Baker as Cassandra in Les Troyens".
Though wishing for the entire performance, or at least for the excerpts to include the Cassandra/Chorebus duet, I am so grateful to have Cassandra's monologue and the brief scene where she watches the great wooden horse being dragged into the doomed city. And now I know that somewhere, the entire performance must exist, and that someday I will find it.
Here is a link to this great performance.
Down to eternal night
I see thee fall,
thy reign is ended!
Ah, wherefore are my words,
By thee un-comprehended?
Unhappy Priam! Unhappy Troy!
Now thy last hour is come!"