In the Beginning, There Were Recordings

The first opera albums I ever bought were 1970 reissues of two early Decca/London monophonic long-plays from the 1950s of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Puccini’s Tosca. Although the sound from those early recordings was fairly constricted by modern studio standards, the singing of the principal artists was marvelously free-ringing and totally uninhibited by the rudimentary recording techniques.

Aldo Protti (todaoperaweb.com.ar)

Arriving home, I put on the Prologue to Pagliacci to test the waters of my very first, major record purchase. I was thrilled back then to hear the vibrant, young voice of the provincial Aldo Protti in a beautifully inflected, full-toned reading of this gorgeous baritone showstopper.

My excitement quickly mounted as Protti floated up to, and firmly took, the difficult and unwritten climactic high A-flat, to be followed by a judiciously held final G, as the orchestra rose and swelled to a room-rattling flourish.

 I had previously heard many more famous stars on the radio – from the American voices of Cornell MacNeil, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, and Leonard Warren, to the more-polished Italian pronunciation of Pasquale Amato, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, and Titta Ruffo – attempt these same top notes in truly spectacular fashion.

The unassailable artistry of these magnificent singers has never been in question, and was vastly superior to Protti’s own youthful vigor in many respects. However, nothing could detract from my total enjoyment of his bravura performance, nor from the rightness of my choice of this particular recording from among so many extant versions of the familiar Leoncavallo piece, as the first in a long line of frequent additions to my very own permanent opera collection.

Early Operatic Stirrings

I have been a national member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and a regular subscriber to its publication Opera News, since the late 1960s. Along with many of my fellow opera buffs both here and from across the shores, I was practically weaned on a steady diet of uninterrupted, live Saturday afternoon broadcasts of most of the core repertory works – and then some! Do you recall the dulcet tones of radio announcer Milton Cross and his famous opening greeting: “Texaco presents the Metropolitan Opera”?

Ah, but even before that, I had already been hooked on the genre through the indirect intervention of my Brazilian-born parents and, most emphatically, through that of my father, Annibal – a confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool opera fan from the late 1930s onward.

Dad had grown up at a time when outsized public displays of every conceivable type were all the rage in his native São Paulo. As a young music lover with a strong personality and equally volatile Latin temperament, he gravitated naturally toward emotionally-charged divertissements, among them the Saturday night “dance hall” gatherings, the street Carnival of the pre-Lenten season, and, of course, the opera performances at the Municipal Theater and other local establishments.

These rather eclectic mixes were not as unusual as they might seem to us today, for my father’s generation of Brazilians was quite accustomed to listening to music of all kinds and from every genre. From samba and chorinho, to the pop-crooning talents of artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dick Farney, Orlando Silva, Francisco Alves, and, of course, Carmen Miranda, many of who weaved classical and/or operatic elements into their tunes.

One such 1940s Carnival hit spotlighted the soprano aria, “Caro nome,” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, while another popular dance-piece “borrowed” the Habañera from Georges Bizet’s popular opera Carmen. This was a commonly accepted practice here in North America as well, where swing bands of the era regularly played the romantic “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” based on the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; or the instantly recognizable “Tonight We Love,” from the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1; to the extent these melodies could spark a person’s interest to go in search of the original source material, as it undoubtedly did for my dad.

Once he discovered this wonderful new world of classical-music lore, dad would spend as much time as he could afford going to the theater, eventually becoming a paid member of the claque, that ragtag, semi-clandestine – and vocally demonstrative – assemblage of applauders and detractors engaged by the theater’s management (and sometimes by the lead singer) to laud or lambast a specific artist or group of artists.

At one such performance of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, given during the late 1940s, dad and his lively bunch of cronies were directed to clap wildly during the second act ovation for primo tenore Mario Del Monaco, who was about to launch into his aria, “Cielo e mar,” a romantic air dedicated to the sky, to the sea, and to his lady love.

As the curtain rose on the act, one of the claque members, who was not a very well-seasoned operagoer, was quite startled to see a ship as part of the mise-en-scène. He commented, if rather a bit too loudly: “My God, they put a boat up on the stage!” This brought down the house in a glorious gale of laughter and thoroughly interrupted the action, much to the mortified management’s chagrin. Undeterred by the goings-on, Signor Del Monaco was patient enough to wait out the audience disturbance before starting up anew.

Photo courtesy classicmoviemusical.com

On another, more serious occasion, my father once met and conversed with the talented singer Carlos Ramirez, on one of the Colombian baritone’s South American tours during the late forties.

The once-popular Ramirez, who had made sporadic film appearances in a handful of MGM musicals of the period, including Two Girls and a Sailor and Bathing Beauty (both from 1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Easy to Wed (1946), was asked by my father why he had left the Hollywood dream factory; to which the former matinee idol replied that he was always given very little screen time in his all-too-brief film career because of his overly swarthy looks and “ethnic” Latin appearance — so much for making it in the movies.

My mother, who was not so much the demented opera fanatic that my dad had been, sang contralto in her church’s choir. She would recount to me the oft-told tale of how, on the eve of my birth, she and my father had attended a live performance of Madama Butterfly; how, on the next morning, mom suddenly went into labor; and how, at precisely three minutes before the crack of midnight, her little baby boy appeared, wailing and bleating like a lost billy goat. Dad then offered up the rather prophetic assertion that after the musical events of the previous night, his firstborn son would simply have to grow up enamored of the opera.

Much later in life, I took a trip back to my hometown of São Paulo (coincidentally, right around the time of my birthday). Paying a visit to the Livraria Cultura, one of the country’s largest bookstore chains – the equivalent of our bustling Barnes & Noble – I came across a rather unwieldy tome with the captivating title, Opera in São Paulo 1952-2005.

With my curiosity sufficiently piqued, I went straight to the section detailing the events of July 15, 1954. I could hardly contain my pleasure at what I found there: a complete cast listing for a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, given at the now-defunct Teatro Colombo, destroyed by fire in the mid-1960s, in the downtown neighborhood of Brás, near to where my parents once lived.

In the role of Cio-Cio-San, who is known throughout the work as “Butterfly,” was the Japanese-Brazilian soprano Julia Imai. My eyes misted over as I looked up from the book’s pages. Overcome at the thought, it occurred to me that the “oft-told” story my parents had been recounting at the dinner table for lo, these many years was true after all.

Hitting the Right Notes

After my father had settled down to raise his new family, he continued to listen to opera on the radio, while curled up in his favorite evening chair, or resting quietly after a particularly large meal. He would sometimes place me, or my baby brother, on the bed beside him; and the two of us would snooze away in a languidly drawn-out siesta to the steady poundings of the Anvil Chorus.

One time, while I was sleeping cozily on the pillow, my aunt Rosaria crept into the room and cautiously cradled me in her arms. To keep me from fidgeting about she started to sing opera, to which I responded in kind, giving out what was probably my first piercing high note.

I have no recollection of the execrable sound that might have issued from that tiny, under-developed throat. But whatever noise emerged definitely had a delirious effect on my aunt: she was seen scurrying about the household, announcing to one and all that her little nephew had just sung an “operatic air” at a mere six months of age.

At five years old, my parents took me to live in New York City, as my precocious efforts at caterwauling in São Paulo soon became restricted to the inner-city surroundings of a six-storied tenement in the South Bronx. As a young and musically interested adolescent of Brazilian descent, growing up in the sixties in the Soundview section of the city was tough enough; for a boy who enjoyed listening to classical music in general – and to opera singing in particular – it was doubly difficult.

But enjoy it I did, and from this early exposure I soon developed a lifelong appreciation of – and intense passion for – music, drama, film, and the performing and creative arts; and for that most precious of theatrical art forms, the opera… pretty much as my father had predicted.

Unlike his spendthrift son, however, dad was not a big record collector, so there was not much in the Lopes household to draw from. He did, however, come into possession of two complete opera albums that I must have played over and over again to their unfortunate detriment. The first, of course, was Madama Butterfly. The second was my own personal favorite. It was of an opera that not too many folks have ever heard of: that of the nineteenth-century French composer Leo Delibes’ Lakmé.

Delibes is probably best known for his ballet scores Coppélia and Sylvia. He did write other works for the stage, but Lakmé is no doubt his most well-known piece, especially the wonderfully lyrical “Flower Duet.” The plot of Lakmé is similar to that of Butterfly: a foreigner, in this case a British soldier named Gerald, falls in love with the exotic Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin high priest. From this unlikely union only tragedy can occur, and sure enough that’s exactly what happens: in the end, the lovely Lakmé takes poison and expires in the arms of her English lover.

On records, one couldn’t possibly have imagined what was transpiring on the stage: until that point, I had never even seen an opera much less attended a live performance of one. I happened to be one of those countless individuals who learned his operas by listening to them on the air. More to the point, I can recall straining to hear the names of any remotely sounding Brazilian artists or musicians in the cast lists of the many French, Italian and German works that were given by the Metropolitan Opera in its radio heyday.

Looking back on this practice today, I tend to dismiss it as a quaint and perfectly naive childhood pursuit of mine. But at the time there was a distinct longing, on my part, to learn of other Brazilian compatriots who had participated in my favorite pastime; and an even greater desire to be able to identify with their fearsome struggles to reach those blazing high notes, which, to my mind, mirrored my own juvenile – and quite natural – craving for a national role model.

Please, Lock Me Away

Let my poor put-upon parents, my long-suffering brother, and my two older cousins bear witness to the untold hours I spent locked up in my bedroom, recording operatic excerpts from the radio onto a portable tape recorder; playing back and listening to those same excerpts ad nauseam; reading and memorizing the words to all the best known arias; and pretending to be an undiscovered performer or a burgeoning opera impresario.

This preoccupation with the operatic art gave rise to a phenomenally productive period of opera-related activity, wherein I spent the bulk of my teen years putting together imaginary cast lists of great opera recordings; planning the seasons of my own make-believe opera company; drawing the likenesses of famous opera stars from the copiously illustrated Victor Book of the Opera; writing down the plots to my own operatic “masterpieces” based, coincidentally enough, on the works of Donizetti, Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi; and carefully typing, cataloging, and preserving them all in a raggedy, dog-eared folder secretly squirreled away under my writing desk.

Yet, for all the time, energy and devotion I dedicated to this mountain of busywork – and while my early tryst with opera was still genuine and strong – what I most zealously longed to take place never came to pass: and that is, the discovery of a truly unique Brazilian singing sensation who would boldly step up to the stage platform and declare, before an expectant audience: “I’m so-and-so, the famous opera star, and I come from Brazil.”

As bad luck would have it, I had been stricken with the affliction of opera fanaticism at a point long past the retirement of Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão; at a time many years after the influence of maestro Heitor Villa-Lobos; and at a period far removed from the peak popularity of Brazilian opera composer Carlos Gomes.

I would have to content myself with the operatic status quo, such as it was some forty or more years ago; and with the then-current crop of American and foreign-born opera stars, very few of who were from South America let alone of Brazilian origin.

Still, I was determined to become as knowledgeable as I possibly could about this fabulous art form through the reading of books and pamphlets, listening to classical recordings, and attending live opera performances – the very first of which took place in a New York City public school. Yes, you read that right! That was my first opera-going experience. It’s still a bit vague to me, but I do remember the work in question: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, which is a pretty good choice for a first opera, I would think! Later on, while attending college in the mid-seventies, I went to see a presentation of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York State Theater. If I hadn’t already been hooked on the subject, this performance would surely have done the trick!

In researching this essay about my road to the opera, I can finally bring to fruition a long-held dream of mine: to pay tribute to this shamefully under-appreciated aspect of Brazilian cultural life, which has so enlivened the spirit, so enthralled the senses, and so captured the imaginations of so many of my fellow opera buffs, and which unfortunately hobbles along in this, and many other countries, in abject anonymity and neglect.

Photo classicalgothic.forumcommunity.net

To the modern, MTV-reared televiewers, who wouldn’t know O Guarani from guaraná (the Brazilian national soft drink) I would like to return to Pagliacci and quote this incisive passage from the Prologue, “Si può?,” which is sung by the clown Tonio, as he addresses the audience directly; in the fervent hope that, like Leoncavallo’s masterpiece, my work may too serve to enlighten the spirit and inform the senses, as well as entertain the interested readership, in providing some much-needed insight into this overpoweringly mad obsession called opera:

The author is reviving on our stage today

The ancient masks of comedy and drama

He wishes to restore these age-old customs,

And [for this reason] has sent me to you once more…

[On the stage] you will see people in love,

You will feel the sad fruits of their hate,

You will witness the spasms of their pain,

You will hear the sounds of their wrath,

And the cynicism in their laughter.

So think, then, dear audience members,

Not of our poor theater-costumes but of our souls,

For we are all creatures of flesh and blood,

And, like you, we breathe the self-same air

Of this sad, lonely world.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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