Above: Frank Guarrera, who starred as Rigoletto in the first opera production I ever saw. He sang nearly 700 performances with The Metropolitan Opera Company, in New York City and on tour, from 1948 - 1976.
~ Author: Oberon
I've been scanning some of my oldest opera-going memorabilia, bringing back memories of my very first experiences of attending opera. Most operatically-inclined readers of this blog will have already read this article about how I discovered opera at the age of 11 while living in a tiny town not far from Lake Ontario.
My parents liked all kinds of music, though not opera so much. They did bring my sister and me to New York City (above) to see MY FAIR LADY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC on Broadway, but despite liking "On The Street Where You Live" and "Climb Every Mountain", both musicals seemed too earthbound. Aside from random bits of opera on LP, our household record collection ranged more towards The Andrews Sisters and Dinah Shore. But I remember playing the RIGOLETTO quartet with Amelita Galli-Curci, Beniamino Gigli, Louise Homer and Giuseppe De Luca - and Lily Pons singing "Caro nome" - over and over. And by chance, RIGOLETTO was the first opera I saw live.
For our annual Summer vacation in 1962, my father decided we should go to Cincinnati, Ohio, where opera performances were given at a theater within the Cincinnati Zoo; combined with this would be a visit to some horse farms in the hills of Kentucky. And so I mailed away for tickets to see RIGOLETTO at The Zoo.
I remember several things about that performance beyond the three-line entry I made in my brand new 'opera diary'.
I remember that Nadja Witkowska (above) replaced Laurel Hurley as Gilda, and that singers familiar to me from the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts - tenor Barry Morell and baritone Frank Guarrera - gave exciting performances as The Duke and his Jester. Mr. Morell's singing was free and easy, with sustained high-notes, and Mr. Guarrera was magnificent throughout, winning a tremendous applause after he finished the great "Cortigiani!" aria face down on the floor. l also loved the basso, Irwin Densen, who I would hear many times in the ensuing years. And I vividly recall the unexpected physical sensation of being attracted to the devilishly handsome character tenor Andrea Velis as Borsa. Wearing white tights and a doublet, Mr. Velis with his dark beard and glinting eyes, seemed supremely exotic and sexy. I saw him dozens of times at The Met over the next several seasons.
How did I know to go the the stage door after the performance? I am not sure. My parents waited for me patiently as I got autographs. Barry Morell looked handsome and was very nice. He would sing in many performances that I attended or heard in the radio throughout my first two decades of opera-worship.
I remember telling Ms. Witkowska I liked her high notes - I never could think of anything original to say to singers - and she was really sweet. She didn't want to sign the evening's program as it still listed Laurel Hurley as Gilda, so instead she tore sheets off a small notepad and signed them for people. Within the next few years I would see her again as the Merry Widow with NYC Opera on tour and in a student performance of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at The Met.
Finally, Mr. Guarrera came out. He had received a rather churlish review in the local newspaper from a woman named Eleanor Bell. Facing a friendly mob of fans, he yelled: "To hell with Eleanor Bell!" and everyone cheered. My opera-going career was off to a great start.
The next opera I saw was done locally: a performance of CARMEN at Syracuse NY that I attended with a group of older schoolmates who were studying French. I had to plead with the powers that be to be allowed to go on the one-hour journey by school bus. The older kids were very nice to me, as I recall...probably because they were friends of my older sister.
What I remember most about that CARMEN was Rosalia Maresca's Micaela. In the above photo, she's with baritone Enzo Sordello who had been fired from the Met for out-holding Maria Callas on the final note of their duet in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR. Sordello had a nice voice; he's a really good Sharpless on the classic Tebaldi/Bergonzi MADAMA BUTTERFLY.
In the Summer of 1963, my father decreed that we would take a trip to Lake George where we would see lots of scenery and take in another opera:
It was a chilly night in the small theater, but this English-language BARBER OF SEVILLE was very entertaining; I especially recall the "Frigid and motionless" ensemble with all the singers playing Living Statues. Ellen Berse stood out for her hilarious Berta.
From Lake George we drove cross-country and back to Cincinnati where I hard my first encounter with a bona fide prima donna: Licia Albanese was singing her 100th Violetta. I knew Albanese from the first opera LP I owned (she sang "In quelle trine morbide") and from her Met broadcast performance as Liu the previous year.
Above: Licia Albanese as Violetta
The curtain went up and there was the great diva: jet black hair, gorgeous white ruffled gown, with diamonds and camellias artfully arranged. She looked striking. By 1963, Albanese had been singing for 30 years and her voice, which to me had never sounded youthful, took some time to warm up to Violetta's music. Even as a relative neophyte, I knew her "Sempre libera" was sketchily sung; the woman next to me hummed along, and was much more accurate.
But as the opera went on, Albanese's voice took on a wider colour-palette and her Italian was of course the real thing. She won a huge applause at the end, taking her bows like the grande dame she really was.
Barry Morell and Frank Guarrera were Albanese's excellent colleagues; they both seemed honoured to be sharing the stage with her. There were many curtain calls, and I again went to meet them after the performance.
In November of 1965, I saw Licia Albanese once again in what was to be her last performance of Madama Butterfly at The Old Met. It was a bittersweet evening, but the fans went wild.
Many years later, when I was working at Tower Records, Madame Albanese came into the opera room. She seemed a bit unsure of herself (she was with a companion), which made me nervous. But I greeted her with a bow and told her I had seen her at the Cincinnati Zoo. "Oh...the zoo!" she brightened, and began making animal noises!
My fifth opera was MADAMA BUTTERFLY performed by the New York City Opera on a tour stop at Syracuse. Julius Rudel conducted, and Maria di Gerlando made a beautiful lirico-spinto Butterfly. Singers I would become very familiar with over the coming years - Beverly Evans (an especially fine singing-actress), Frank Porretta, Ron Bottcher, William Metcalf, and Spiro Malas - filled out the cast for this fine evening.
Just ahead, in November of 1963, would come the assassination of John F Kennedy a few days before my first visit to the Old Met where performances of DON GIOVANNI and FAUST would inaugurate my long years of Met-going.