In the Autumn of 1969 I decided to move to New York City; I withdrew all my savings from the bank and reserved a room at the Empire Hotel at a monthly rate. The plan, as I sold it to my parents, was that I would find a job and then an apartment. In actuality, all I really wanted to do was go to the opera every night. And that is exactly what I did, forgetting about job-hunting til my cash gave out and I returned home after a few weeks.
Unfortunately for me, that was the year of the Met orchestra's strike. But I was not to be deterred: I went to every single performance of the New York City Opera's Autumn season. Standing room cost next-to-nothing and I already had some favorite singers there - people like Beverly Sills, Maralin Niska, Patricia Brooks, Enrico di Giuseppe, Dominic Cossa and Norman Treigle. Treigle was in fact the focus of that Autumn season since NYCO was mounting a production of Boito's MEFISTOFELE for him. Carol Neblett was singing the dual role of Margherita and Helen of Troy; but for the final performance of the run a debut was announced: a Mexican soprano named Gilda Cruz-Romo.
One never knows what to expect from a debut, and that was especially true back then when there was no Internet buzz, YouTube or Facebook that might have provided an inkling or an outright sample of a new singer's work. In the weeks prior to her debut, I'd actually seen Gilda and her husband Bob Romo several times around Lincoln Center and at the Footlights Cafe; I'd even said hello to her and as a young, unknown singer she seemed genuinely thrilled to be recognized. But what - I kept wondering - does she sound like?
Her performance was something of a revelation: it was a big, warm lyric voice bordering on spinto. Her tone had an unusual freshness and clarity, with a pliant technique and shining upper register, and the kind of vocal candor that one finds in a new singer who just sings without relying on artifice. The audience took to her at once - the fans sensing that here was an Italianate voice that had real potential in the Verdi & Puccini repertoire. After the great aria "L'altra notte", Cruz-Romo was warmly applauded but it was in the Helen of Troy scene that she capped her success: in the great concertato "Amore mistero!" the voice sailed out over the ensemble with a gleaming quality and as the line soared up to its climatic top-B the sound seemed to blossom - and Cruz-Romo swept onwards to triumph.
The next afternoon at Footlights a small gathering of fans met and we played over and over again our house tapes of the performance; we must have listened to that ensemble about twenty times. People at neighboring tables were drawn to the sound of her voice. In those days, New York City Opera was a real Company: if you made a successful debut you were invited back and became part of the family and were cast in as much repertoire in your fach as was available. Obviously Julius Rudel knew a special voice when he heard it, so Gilda - as we were by now all calling her - sang there for the next 2 or 3 years until the Met snatched her away.
And so I saw her in more performances of MEFISTOFELE, as a glowing-voiced Butterfly and a golden-toned Mimi (especially moving) and - in one of her first ventures into the heaviest rep - Amelia in BALLO IN MASCHERA. Of her City Opera performances, my very favorite was her Tosca in 1971:
"...Gilda surpassed my highest expectations as Tosca. Rarely has this role had such a balanced combination of: a beautiful face, fine stage presence, sincere acting, fine diction and GORGEOUS spinto singing. In the first act, many phrases of great beauty. She looked lovely, young and excited. In Act II she sang superbly, her high Cs large and luminous. The dramatic utterances were all convincingly delivered. As she neared the end of her marvelously phrased "Vissi d'arte" tears welled up in her: one sob at the end, straight from the heart, was a perfect effect. She carried off the murder and the acting demands of the closing of Act II with excellent control. Maintaining her high level in Act III, Gilda ended the opera on a stentorian top-B and took a death-defying leap of ten feet! She was given a tumultuous ovation eminently deserved. Backstage she was literally mobbed - as big a crowd as I've seen at NYCO. After edging my way through the throng we hugged and she kissed me so many times. It took a few moments before either of us could speak..."
When things calmed down and we got to discuss the performance, she told me how petrified she was of taking that final jump. The production was designed so that Tosca's suicidal leap was visible to the audience as she fell about a dozen feet before a parapet blocked her landing-mattresses from view. She had not had a stage rehearsal and she said she got to the edge of the platform and realized in a split second how exposed her descent would be; she crossed herself and took the plunge.
It was inevitable that a voice like Gilda's would be both wanted and needed at the Met. In 1970 she entered the Met National Auditions and was a finalist, singing "La mamma morta" from ANDREA CHENIER. On May 8, 1970 she debuted with the Company on tour in Atlanta singing that same opera. In December of the same year she debuted at the Met proper as Butterfly, beginning a career there that stretched into the mid-1980s and encompassed over 160 performances.
I saw her at the Met for the first time as Nedda in PAGLIACCCI opposite the frighteningly intense Canio of James McCracken. Gilda sang so beautifully, especially in the sensuous duet with Silvio (Dominic Cossa): "...great crescendos from tiny pianissimos..." It was after this performance that she and I were photographed together backstage. (OK, no comments about my tie...or my hair! Remember this was the 70s).
Then came a hiatus: I moved to Houston for a while and only kept tabs on her via the broadcasts. But after a while I was lured back to the Northwest and we had a beautiful reunion at a matinee of AIDA where she sang opposite Franco Corelli:
"...Gilda was in complete command of this arduous role every step of the way...there were phrases upon phrases of golden Verdi singing: her deeply-felt prayer at the end of 'Ritorna vincitor' and the miraculously spun high pianissimi in 'O patria mia' and even more incredibly on 'Fuggiam, fuggiam...' as she lured Corelli into her escape plan. She was able to healthily dominate the big ensembles and then turn around a float effortlessly in the tender 'O terra addio...' Really top-class Verdi singing!"
Gilda also sang in a revival of MANON LESCAUT and sounded lovely despite being cast opposite a very mediocre tenor. Her 'In quelle trine morbide' was poignantly phrased, mirroring Manon's longing for the simple, true love of her Chevalier des Grieux. (Photo: Bill Hendrickson).
Then several things happened which kept me from seeing her onstage at the Met; I moved to Hartford with TJ and for a couple years we were basically broke. Trips to New York were infrequent and most of the time ballet trumped opera. Then too, Gilda's international career was in full bloom; it seemed she sang everywhere and sang the most taxing repertoire - I think I once read that she ended up singing Aida five-hundred times! It seemed like whenever I was at the Met, she was somewhere else. Thus it was a special pleasure when she came to Hartford and sang Desdemona in OTELLO, one of her most attractive roles. In 1979 she sang Desdemona on a Met telecast opposite Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes and they merited a Hirschfeld tribute:
In 1987 I saw Gilda onstage for the final time, as Cherubini's Medea at Bridgeport, Connecticut. The declamatory style of many of the character's utterances didn't suit her so well - she was always a melodic singer - but the voice was still powerful and expressive.
I met her again a few years ago when she was honored by the Puccini Foundation. I handed her the photo of the two of us and it took her only a half-second to realize who I was...I have changed MUCH MORE than she has! We keep in touch now; she lives in San Antonio and I was tickled to read recently that she keeps up her deep-sea fishing and is also active in a local Texas group which matches senior citizens with canine companions:
It's been a long time since that day in Footlights soon after her NY debut that I pestered her with a million questions and she was unbelievably kind and patient. Once I wrote to her after she'd sung the title role in ANNA BOLENA in Dallas expressing my dismay that I couldn't have been there; a few days later I was astounded to open the mailbox and find she had sent me a tape of the performance. That's the generosity of spirit that Gilda always shows. So now with love and gratitude I've tried to put my admiration for her into words.