September 13, 2014

Rigoletto Todd: the Demon Jester of Mantua Street

Sweeney's daddy? Titta Ruffo as Rigoletto
In my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and other Primates, I wrote some essays about Verdi's middle-period masterwork Rigoletto in advance of Virginia Opera's 2010 production. In one of those, I made the case that the opera was uncannily close in plot points, characters and themes to Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Well, Faithful Readers, it's four years later, and Sweeney and his friends will be making their company debut at the end of the month. I'm sure in the time between these productions I've managed to pick up two or three new readers, so strictly for their benefit I now recap this bit of "compare and contrast". (Also, I'm lazy. Sue me.) See if you think my argument holds water. Or meat pie gravy, as the case may be...

  • Rigoletto was once married to the love of his life, but lost her - a tragedy that haunts him. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "Deh, non parlare al misero", in which he recalls her as an "angel" who showed compassion to such a "lonely, deformed, poor" man as himself.
  • Sweeney Todd was once married to the love of his life, but now believes she is dead. He sings mournfully about her in the solo "There was a barber and his wife", in which he describes her as "virtuous" and himself as "foolish".
  • Rigoletto's sole surviving family member is his daugher Gilda.
  • Sweeney Todd's sole surviving family member is his daughter Joanna.
  • Rigoletto's nemesis is the Duke of Mantua, a serial womanizer whose crude obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Rigoletto hates him for having debauched his daughter.
  • Sweeney Todd's nemesis is Judge Turpin, a serial womanizer whose obsession with women belies his wealth and social standing. Todd hates him for having debauched his wife.
  • The Duke of Mantua sings a musical number in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Questo o quella".
  • Judge Turpin sings a musical number (with Todd) in which, while praising women, he also objectifies them: "Pretty women".
  • Rigoletto's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata".
  • Sweeney Todd's bitterness and rage toward his fellow man erupts in a violent solo, "Epiphany".
  • Rigoletto's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his daughter. He collapses in remorse.
  • Sweeney Todd's thirst for vengeance via murder results in a catastrophe: the unintended killing of his wife. He collapses in remorse.
What does all this prove? Mostly, it demonstrates something we already knew: that throughout human history, the traditions of storytelling include archetypes that appear and reappear from one generation to the next.

Second, with apologies to all the 20th-century operas which debut at opera houses, receive a few performances, and ultiimately fail to enter the so-called "standard repertoire", one can argue that the entertainment known for the past four hundred years as "opera" has most compellingly been represented by Broadway musicals like Sweeney Todd in modern times. Sweeney's mix of complex, sophisticated music and popular appeal recalls operas like Tosca and Carmen more convincingly than some avant-garde operas I could mention.

Oh, and as a bonus "contrast and compare" not mentioned in 2010's blog post, here's another observation: Sweeney Todd also echoes Rossini's Barber of Seville.  

Think about it: 
  • Joanna is the ward of the elderly Judge Turpin, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing sailor Anthony Hope serenades her ("I feel you, Joanna") and vows to steal her away for himself. In Barber,
  • Rosina is the ward of the elderly Doctor Bartolo, who keeps her a prisoner in his house and intends to marry her. The dashing Count Almaviva serenades her ("Ecco ridente") and vows to steal her away for himself.
Gotta love archetypes!

September 7, 2014

Sweeney Todd: the show even “nice people” can love.

I'm thinking of letting my beard grow out....
(photo by Alex 1011)
I’m nice. Are you? I’m sure you are – you look nice. (I’m sure people tell you that all the time.)

Most of my audiences, whether readers of this blog or folks who attend my classes and lectures around Virginia, are made up of refined, educated, well-mannered, civilized and (above all) nice people.

They’re kind to animals. They‘re concerned about foreign affairs and the economy; they vote in national, state and local elections. They recycle. They support local businesses over national chains. They don’t use vulgar language and feel uncomfortable when others do. They watch “Masterpiece Theater” and especially enjoy “Downton Abbey”.

When it comes to movies, they stay away from films with gratuitous graphic sex, violence, car chases and explosions, preferring romantic comedies, substantive dramas and stylish mysteries.

If you fit this general description, then you don’t have to tell me, because I already know what you’re thinking:

You’re not so sure you want to come to see Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Virginia Opera.

You’re pretty sure it’s not nice. You’ve heard about the goings-on in this show. “I don’t think I would like it”, you’re thinking. Homicidal barber? Cannibalism? People eating meat pies with……. with human flesh in them? Who would want to see THAT? Oh sure, maybe some big-city hipsters enjoy that sort of thing, those godless pagans from New York and Boston and L.A.

But this is Virginia – it’s the Bible Belt, for Pete’s sake! We’re simple folk hereabouts. We want our operas with uplifting stories and lovely tunes and tender emotions. “Golly”, you’re thinking, “I sure wish they were doing Puccini instead.”

Yep, you’d be hippy-hoppy-happy if we were staging Tosca. You know – that classic opera containing a torture scene, an attempted rape, two murders and a suicide. Why, it’s practically Mary Poppins.

LISTEN TO ME: Sweeney Todd isn’t what you think it is. It’s a masterpiece and you WILL enjoy it, I promise. This music drama, a hybrid of opera, operetta and musical, is bursting with humanity, humor, pathos, toe-tapping tunes, soaring love music, and tragic destiny.

Let’s confront the gorilla in the room: the whole baking-people-into-meat-pies subject that has you scared and grossed out.

This show is not The Silence of the Lambs. I know you’re wondering why it was necessary to add that element. I mean Tosca killed Scarpia but she didn’t EAT him, right? So let’s consider: why and how is this element present?

One aspect of drama is catharsis; the notion that by vicariously experiencing that which we fear, we rise above our fears and feel spiritually uplifted. The Silence of the Lambs exploits one such fear: that we might experience the horrifying death of being eaten. 

Sweeney turns the tables: what if WE were the (unwitting) cannibals? What if WE unknowingly consumed human flesh? That's another cause for morbidity and dread.

Remember being served “mystery meat” in your school cafeteria? It was brownish-gray, oily, covered in fried breadcrumbs and no one could figure out what it was. And no one has seen Mr. Jackson the Algebra teacher for a few days – you don’t suppose…….??

In Sondheim's music drama, the subject is handled with humor, which drains all the shocking revulsion out of it. The finale of Act I, “A Little Priest”, becomes a vehicle for Stephen Sondheim’s greatest achievement in amusing wordplay as the two principal characters speculate on what priests, lawyers and other professionals might taste like. Far from recoiling in revulsion, you'll chuckle and even belly-laugh.

But there’s a higher purpose in introducing the spectacle of citizens devouring their neighbors.

It’s a metaphor, of course; a metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. The class system in London was like those food chains we saw depicted as children:a tiny fish eaten by bigger fish,the bigger fish eaten by a giant fish. In nineteenth-century England, each strata of society used (read: “ate”) the class below them for their survival and comfort. Judge Turpin “consumes” Todd and his wife Lucy to satisfy his wanton desires. This is no cheap horror show; it's literature. It's art.

One final reassurance: the music is of immortal quality. Now passionate, now anguished, now bantering, now lush and melodic, now harrowing, now majestic, it is one of Sondheim’s richest, most rewarding scores.

It’s a masterpiece, one which even you nice folks out there will find enhances your life. Don’t stay away. Sweeney Todd is not what you think.

August 31, 2014

Introducing my new website!

Curtain call following Baltimore premiere
of my work Katie Luther: the Opera
I've been composing and arranging music for around two dozen years now. For most of my life I thought of myself as a pianist, not a composer. But nerve damage to my left hand has sidelined my keyboard career, and the list of my works has been growing rapidly the past few years.

When I look in the mirror these days, I'm amazed to see a composer looking back. Not a "great" composer, mind you; not a "master"; not an "immortal". Nope, not me.

Hoo-BOY, am I mortal!!

But a composer nonetheless. So I'm proud to share with you now the launching of a new website featuring and promoting my compositions. You can find it at You are herewith invited to visit anytime.

There you'll find:

  • Lists of my operas, choral & other vocal works, and instrumental works;
  • A schedule of performance dates and locations;
  • Audio samples
  • A gallery of photos
  • Testimonials from musicians
  • Contact information
I'll continue to add material and update the site as new engagements and projects emerge, but in the meantime, we're LIVE, baby!

Now, the 2014-2015 Virginia Opera season will be off and running in about a month, which means my posts about our productions will begin next week. I've got a LOT of cool insights about Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to share. 

Til then, enjoy my website - bookmark it and share the link with music-lovers. And thanks!

August 25, 2014

America and Italy and their fading national pastimes

You may be under the impression that only American opera companies (such as New York City Opera, San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan Opera) suffer economic hardships in our modern world while their European counterparts, thanks to greater government subsidies, roll along like Ol' Man River.
Baseball: has its day come and gone?

You'd be wrong. Check out this article about the closing of Italy's fourth-largest opera house. Go ahead and read it; I'll wait.

(Dum-de-dum dum dum, tra la la)

You're back! Sad for that community, right?

How could this happen in ITALY, of all places?! I mean, it's the birthplace of opera! Every cab driver from Milan to Messina can sing "La donna è mobile", right? It's their national pastime, right? It's ITALY, for Pete's sake!

Well, let's talk about national pastimes. They aren't what they used to be.

Take the United States. Our national pastime has been said to be baseball ever since Honus Wagner was in diapers. But be honest when was the last time that YOU, Faithful Reader, actually watched a nine-inning game on TV from start to finish? How many managers of major-league teams can you name? Who's the best player on the Kansas City Royals or the Milwaukee Brewers?


The truth is that pro football has largely supplanted baseball as the game Americans obsess over. Football and basketball are what young boys want to play. Look over baseball rosters and you'll see that many of the names are Latino and Asian. African-American players are increasingly rare; where are the Hank Aarons, Willie Mays and Bob Gibsons?

Major-league baseball continues to prosper and will never go away completely. For one thing, the experience of physically going to a ballpark to see a game in person is still a relaxing and wonderful way to spend an afternoon or evening. The food is better than ever, baseball fields are beautiful, and the people-watching is great. I, your Humble Blogger went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field just four days ago as I write this, and while the game was so dull (Oh, Cubs....) that my mind wandered a lot, I was still glad I went.

So attendance tends, I think, to outstrip TV ratings. Yet the TV revenue is stupendous and helps keep small-market teams like Kansas City and Milwaukee in business.

But overall the luster of baseball has drained away as our collective passion has been transferred to Peyton Manning, and even the NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

This strikes me as an amazingly equivalent parallel to the decline of opera in Italy.  We Americans invented baseball and exported it to the world even as we played it less and less. Italians invented opera around 1597 and developed it into a viable and internationally-loved art form as the decades passed into centuries.

But Italian composers producing great operas in modern times are as uncommon as African-American players wearing a catcher's mask behind the plate.

Quick: name the ten greatest Italian operas composed following the death of Puccini. No fair using Google.

Yeah, that's a tough one. What happened there? Why has the 21st century produced no Bellini, Verdi or Rossini? You do realize, don't you, that (and this is so ironic) it's the Americans who have made recent generations a "Golden Age of New Opera"? Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, John Adams, Andr√© Previn, William Bolcolm and too many others to list make this a fact and not an opinion. 

Here's what I bet: I bet that cab drivers in Rome are far more likely to sing Lady Gaga's latest than anything from an opera.

And now the government funding is drying up, which is hardly shocking given the continual crisis-point of the Italian economy. When those who control the purse-strings no longer value the art form, we're entering a ZONE OF UNCERTAINTY. 

I guess the lesson here is: "Don't cling". Don't cling to the past, because society and culture are always changing. Nothing is permanent. Language changes, industries change, technology changes, media change all the time, and on and on. Why shouldn't national pastimes follow suit? Baseball and opera: still regarded with affection in their homelands, but no longer "the big thing".

August 16, 2014

The time Robin Williams sang opera

Robin Williams, baritone
The entertainment world will be processing the tragic death of Robin Williams for some time to come. It's difficult to accept that such a vivid and vibrant life-force can be suddenly and shockingly extinguished like Shakespeare's "brief candle".

This is an opera blog, so I've been thinking about the film Mrs. Doubtfire since the opening sequence features Williams' character singing a big chunk of the aria "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville. I thought that bit was not really effective, and my reasons might shed light on how seldom films allowed us to see all of the actor's genius.

If you ask me, Robin Williams was at his very best in the animated Aladdin from the Disney studios. In this case, the producers were willing to unleash his comedic talent and let him run wild as the Genie. Without the need to adhere to the realities of more scripted comedies with their realistic cinematography, Williams let loose a torrent of improvisation that was manic, helter-skelter, and truly funny. The Disney animators Job #1 was to match him visually, with rapid-fire images keeping pace with the pure volcanic invention of his mind. It worked. In case you've forgotten how well it worked, take a look at this feature from ABC News. After a minute or so of updates concerning the details of his passing, there is a revealing interview with producers and animators of Aladdin demonstrating how they managed to keep pace with his imagination.

Now consider the animated portion of Doubfire, as seen in this YouTube clip. What a clever idea this must have appeared to whoever thought of it: "Hey, how about this: Robin sings that "Figaro Figaro Figaro" number from that Rossini opera for a Warner Brothers-style cartoon. We see him singing it in a studio - in Italian! - while the animation plays in front of him. How cool, am I right? This'll be great!"

Instead, it was a mildly amusing miscalculation. Consider: singing an aria by Rossini, in Italian, with orchestra, is about as scripted as it gets. It's pretty much the opposite of volcanic, manic, helter-skelter improv. The animation may have been clever (although actually pretty standard stuff), but the point is this:

Robin Williams was following the animation, rather than the animation following him. The result, as far as I was concerned, was a middle-aged man standing in front of microphones, singing Rossini badly. You'll pardon me if I don't find bad opera singing to be hi-larious.

The rest of the film made better use of his gifts, there's no question about that. Still, the "Largo al factotum" moment left me feeling uncomfortable, as though something was off-key. When a comedian is a brilliant improviser, we want him riffing ecstatically, not reciting Shakespearean sonnets or reading Walt Whitman or singing a Schubert song cycle.

To use a painting analogy, we want him splattering paint on a canvas, not carefully doing a paint-by-numbers sunset.

I join the rest of the world in mourning his passing. Over the next few weeks I'll make a point of re-visiting my favorite Robin Williams films: The Birdcage, Good Morning, Viet Nam, and even the fascinating drama Insomnia. 

Oh, and if you want to hear what a really gifted singer he could be with the right material, forget Figaro and listen to this clip of "You ain't never had a friend like me", the Genie's song from Aladdin. And I mean LISTEN - that is, don't even watch the screen and be distracted by the images. Turn up the volume and marvel at a perfectly good Broadway-style baritone, used with an endless array of vocal colors, incredible energy, remarkable stamina and excellent intonation.

Rest in peace.

August 10, 2014

Things about my doctoral years that now make me chuckle

Ironically, for my Doctor of Music studies I returned to my hometown of Evanston Illinois and the School of Music at Northwestern University. It didn't really feel like a "homecoming" since during my boyhood years I seldom went to the part of town where the campus is. It was pure coincidence, born of my wishing to study with a particular piano instructor who had been recommended.

I was in residence at Northwestern from 1977-1979, finally earning the degree in the mid-80's. As I write this post, I've just returned from a few days in Chicago, my first visit in some two dozen years. Being in my old stomping grounds has stirred up a wealth of memries, including some that strike me so odd/amusing that I think you might enjoy them as well. Here are the moments that have stayed etched in my mind as the decades have rolled on.
Famous keyboard composer?

The chairman of my doctoral committee was a young pianist named Robert Weirich, who specialized in playing contemporary music. That is to say, extremely contemporary, preferably written in the last 20 minutes if possible. One day he and I were walking together towards the library; Bob was carrying an armful of shiny new avant-garde piano scores. I noticed that the one on top bore the title "Woof". I don't know who the composer was.

"You know, Bob," I said speculatively, "here's what you could do. I think you should master this piece and become famous for it. Make it your signature piano work. Then at your concerts, the crowds would ask for it as an encore. You know how at Horowitz concerts everyone would shout "STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER" hoping he'd play his transcription of it? At your concerts hundreds of adults would go "WOOF! WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!!!"  I've lost touch with him, but can't help but suspect he didn't follow through on this...

As a newlywed, I not only had to practice and study, I had to bring home the rent money. So I toiled at a Burger King across the street from the music building. One day a celebrity came in to eat, none other than the comic actor Paul Lynde, famous for being the center square on the "Hollywood Squares" game show plus a recurring role on the sitcom "Bewitched" and a role in the film version of "Bye Bye Birdie". He was all smiles and quips as he sauntered up to the counter to order his fish sandwich. (He was in town as an NU alum to be Grand Marshall of the homecoming parade.)

I happened to notice a tall, lanky African-American man leaning against the wall near the entrance with an expression like a thundercloud. He was not a happy man. "Whassamatter, man," I wondered, "did we forget to hold the onions?" The next day there were headlines in the Tribune and Sun-Times. The unhappy man was a distinguished faculty member and Paul Lynde, undoubtedly not 100% sober, had loudly hurled a racial slur at him, an incident I'd missed. Whoops....

I took a class in 18th-century performance practices with a renowned harpsichordist named Dorothy Lane. If you don't know, this is a class in which the accumulated global knowledge of how Baroque music should sound is revealed; proper execution of ornaments and the like. For reasons never clear to me, all we did - all we were held responsible for - was to memorize the line of succession to the English throne through the centures. Word. NOTE: at no point in my life have I been capable of reciting this information, even if a gun were at my head. When it came to Baroque style, Ms. Lane said, "Trust your ears. If it sounds right to you, it probably is."  ....................gee thanks.

My piano instructor was an urbane, fussy, slightly eccentric man named Donald Isaak. I loved working with Mr. Isaak, but he had some definite quirks. He was perpetually concerned to the point of obsession with one's health. Any time our paths crossed around the Music Department, he would stop and approach me as one might approach a grieving mourner. With concern in his eyes and his brow creased, he would ask me in hushed tones. "How ARE you???? Are you okay? Do you feel all right?" I was a pretty healthy specimen in those days, so I never knew why the hell he was asking. "Uh........... yeah, I'm fine, thanks", I would mumble in reply, thinking "WHAT? Am I BLEEDING FROM THE EARS??? Is my skin GREEN??? WHAT, for God's sake???"

Mr. Isaak could be so odd. He had four doctoral students in his studio: myself, Mary Stubbs, Jamie Hagedorn and James Martin. We would all meet weekly to play for one another in his studio. At one such group performance class Isaak was planning a dinner at his home for us, and he went around the room polling us as to our beverage choices. "Jame: do you like red wine, white wine or beer? Uh-huh, good, good. James, how about you?", and so on. When we'd all voiced our preferences, I began to play the material I was working on: a very strenuous and virtuosic set of the Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninoff. These took probably 25 minutes to perform. As I played the final, elephantine, crashing sonorities of Op. 39, No. 9 in D major, I was perspiring heavily, breathing hard, red in the face. And TWO SECONDS after I'd finished; no really, literally TWO SECONDS LATER, I hear Mr. Isaak's calm, conversational voice saying "And your wife, Glenn? Does she like red, white, or beer? Or maybe a soda for her?" It was as though there had been no musical interruption at all....

Bach: HE'S dead, not so much his music...
I also had the opportunity to play in several master classes with the great American pianist John Browning, a part-time faculty member who came three times a year to work with piano students but only in master class formats. My first term at Northwestern Mr. Isaak said he wanted me to play in the upcoming Browning class. Since I'd not had time to work up new repertoire, we agreed I'd just play one of my audition pieces, the Partita in C Minor by Bach. I had a couple of brush-up lessons on it with Isaak prior to the master class with the Famous Virtuoso.

Now, the opening "Sinfonia" of the partita features a lengthy and expressive section with lovely flowing lines. I originally studied this work with the pianist Jorge Bolet, who had played it for Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Bolet had given me Serkin's highly detailed phrasings for this section, markings which lent it a graceful, dancelike affect. When I played it for Mr. Isaak, he didn't like it. "Oh, you're playing that New York style of Bach", he opined, "I think we should do something different. Try playing it completely legato, with no dynamics or phrasing whatsoever. It should sound like you're sleep-walking." "What the HELL?" I thought, but said nothing. I played it as he asked, which made me sound like I was on Valium or possibly total anesthesia. "Like that?" I asked uncertainly. "YES!" he crowed, "I LOVE it!!" Well, I didn't, but I was going into financial debt to learn from him, so at the Browning class I played the Valium-Bach on those two pages, reverting to my accustomed styled for the rest of the partitia.

When I'd finished, Mr. Browning slowly climbed up onto the stage. He had a puzzled expression and paced around for a few moments before speaking, as if collecting his thoughts. Finally, he approached me and said something like this: "Look, you're very talented, and technically it's excellent, and I like a lot of it, but ....I didn't get the Sinfonia at all. It sounded......... dead. Look," he went on, "I'm going to put you on the spot. I want you to play the Sinfonia again, and just play it differently. I don't care what you do or how it sounds, just come up with a completely new interpretation right now. Make it up as you go along, okay? And.... GO!"  Well, kiddies, I'm not sure what he was expecting, but Your Humble Blogger launched into a delightful and authoritative interpretation courtesy of the immortal pianist Rudolf Serkin. Browning was ASTONISHED, I tell  you, at my "improvisatory genius". Heh heh heh.....

7. When practicing the piano turns very very very awkward.
The old Music Building at NU was a converted women's dormitory and the practice rooms were suites; that is to say, there was one entrance for a pair of rooms. To get to the room at the back you had to traipse through the front room, meaning that whoever was practicing in that room had to put up with a constant parade of students going in and out to see if the back room was available. There was one piano grad student named Jane something. I often found myself in the adjoining room of whichever suite she was practicing in.

Jane had a bad habit: as she played, she would moan with the music in a constant sound that rose and fell along with the dynamics and shapes of the music. "ooooooOOOOOOOOooooooooOOOOOOOOO" and so on. It sounded distinctly erotic, not to say openly sexual. It was like listening to a woman experiencing perpetual orgasm, I'm not kidding. I don't know if Jane was aware of her vocalizing and it's not exactly the kind of thing you up and ask a stranger about, if you know what I mean. A gentleman doesn't. To say it was a.w.k.w.a.r.d is a great understatement. I mean, how was I supposed to work on Prokofiev with THAT going on??! Prokofiev requires mental clarity and focus; that went out the window when ol' Jane started her groans of passion. I only hope she eventually acquired a partner who could provide an appropriate.....................   outlet...................

August 2, 2014

On the passing of Carlo Bergonzi

The recent passing of the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi has been a painful loss for many lovers of singing around the world. In this post, I want to convey what he meant to me and why I admired him so. In reading about him in the various obituaries and interviews that have surfaced since his death, I now have reason to admire him more than ever. It appears he was a man of amazing integrity, dedication and, as you'll read below, even heroism.
Carlo Bergonzi
photo by Pramzam45

A few years ago I wrote on this site about the experience that introduced me to opera. To sum up: as a young pianist, I was bored by the opera unit in my 7th-grade music class at Nichols Junior High School and *cough cough* flunked the test on Madama Butterfly.  (That's right, folks; my public school general music class included Italian opera in the curriculum. Hey - it was the '60's) My mother took exception to my attitude and dragged me in for a conference with the teacher. It was decided that if Mom purchased a recording of the opera and I did some independent study I'd be given credit for the exam.

So once I actually, you know, like, listened to the music, my better musical instincts were ignited and I dived head-first into perhaps the great infatuation of my life. And it was largely due to Bergonzi.

Mom bought the London recording with Tebaldi as Cio-Cio-san, Enzo Sordello as Sharpless, Fiorenza Cossotto as Suzuki and Bergonzi as Pinkerton, Tulio Serafin conducting. The rest of the cast was fine, although I was disturbed by Tebaldi's matronly appearance in the photos of her in the libretto; she didn't confom to my image of a teen-aged Japanese girl.

But Bergonzi was a revelation.

I drank in his voice; I inhaled it; I mainlined it; I soaked it in like a sponge. He sounded so full of youthful vitality and passion and spontaneity and the sheer impetuous  joy of producing honeyed golden vocal lines that my head was spinning with his performance. Especially touching was his achingly beautiful reading of Pinkerton's cowardly expression of remorse, "Addio fiorito asil" in the final scene. Even at age 12 I was aware of the way Bergonzi kept his high notes within a musical line; no punching, lunging, bleating or yelling. His B flats were on the breath, though I didn't yet know that term.

As I began to acquire more operatic recordings, I noted that Mario del Monaco (London Record's other tenor of choice) was an unmusical thug in comparison, with an unremittingly loud delivery. Di Stefano? Too wide-open at the top to my boyish ears. Corelli? Exciting, but often sounding as though singing a melody was heavy, effortful lifting. I enjoyed Tucker's Radames in Toscanini's Aida, but otherwise found his mannerisms annoying. And Peerce's top sounded dry and forced to me.

Nope, Bergonzi was the King of my operatic galaxy, with only Bjoerling offering comparable pleasure. When I reached my college years and began singing in the chorus of the Indiana University Opera Theater productions (though I majored in piano), I was disturbed to learn that many of the opera folk said Bergonzi's voice was too small to be considered a great tenor; that he was often inaudible in a large house. (I never did get to hear him live and in person to judge for myself.)

But now I see that, in retrospect, Bergonzi is praised for not having pushed his instrument to create artificial heft and size, as noted in this New York Times obituary. The conventional wisdom is that Bergonzi is the finest interpreter of Verdi to take the stage in the modern era. His recordings of the Verdi canon are considered models of style and musicality.

But here's what I've only now learned.

First, Carlo Bergonzi was a war hero. Opera lovers: were you aware that as a young adult he spent three years in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities? Dio mio! When he finally returned to Italy, it is said he weighed only 80 pounds. I never knew about all this! I hope there are sources I can access telling the full story of this episode.

And there is another aspect of his character worth sharing: the way in which he exemplified a dedicated artist's life.

I studied piano with the great Romantic pianist Jorge Bolet from 1970-1976 at Indiana University's School of Music. Once, at a studio dinner party, Mr. Bolet began speaking about his personal life, a rare event for him. With resigned wistfulness, he talked about the demands of a touring virtuoso's life, and how he realized early on he would never have a normal family life. Playing over 120 concerts a year is no existence in which to have a wife and children; at least, this was his decision.

Now, in an interview published by the Bel Canto Society, I read Bergonzi speaking of a life defined by 35 years of sacrifice:

"We sacrificed everything. My wife and I have travelled around the world perhaps three times. The satisfactions have been few. We have gotten to know New York a little in recent  years, but in the other cities we have known only two things: hotel and theater. And my wife has prepared the luggage many, many times.

This is the dirty little secret of the performing arts: those with the greatest gifts usually come to understand that the price paid for being thus kissed by Nature is a life of relentless drudgery and isolation. The reward is not that of applause or wealth; it's the fulfillment of giving one's best to something that matters and creating a body of work that contributes to world culture and will outlive the performer.

Riposa in pace, signore. Ben fatto.

Post-script: Faithful Readers, are you interested in supporting the creation of new music? Here's a worthy opportunity. My daughter Kathleen Winters, a doctoral flute student at the University of Illinois School of Music in Urbana, is using to raise funding for a project involving the commissioning and performance of new music in a way that integrates art with the community. Full details are at this link: You are invited to read about it and, if you like the mission and objectives, contribute any amount.