September 4, 2013
My wife, Pat, who is reading Adriana Trigiani’s novel The Shoemaker’s Wife, has mentioned two characters in the story who are familiar to me: Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. We like to say, even though it can’t be demonstrated, that Caruso was the nonpareil of tenors, and Farrar, his contemporary, was a popular soprano and film actress. She was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company for 17 years, singing 29 roles in some 500 performances, frequently appearing with Caruso. She had a particular following among young women, and they were known at the time as “Gerryflappers.” I was young when I became a fan of hers, too, but that was nearly 30 years after she had retired as a singer. A kid of eclectic tastes, when I came home from the record store on most Friday nights, I could be carrying doo-wop, country-and-western, American standards, or opera. I bought many discs with cuts by Caruso, Farrar, or the two of them together.
A biographical detail about Farrar that particularly appeals to me is the fact that her father, Sidney, was a major league baseball player from 1883 to 1890. A first baseman, he played most of his career for the Philadelphia National League franchise. In his last season, he bolted to the maverick Players League, still playing in Philadelphia. He appeared in 943 games and, in the dead-ball era, had 905 hits and a .253 batting average.
When Sid Farrar was through playing baseball, he opened a men’s clothing shop in Melrose, Massachusetts, in partnership with Frank G. Selee, a Hall of Fame major league manager. Farrar and his wife, Etta, were singers in their own right. Farrar was a baritone, and it was said of him that if he was speaking in what, for him, was a conversational tone of voice on one side of a street, he could be clearly heard from the other side.
When Geraldine went to Europe to study voice, her parents went with her and remained on the Other Side until Geraldine had made a name for herself in Berlin, Munich, Salsburg, Paris, and Stockholm and returned to the United States in 1906.
In later life, when he had been widowed, Sid Farrar was a familiar figure at Geraldine’s concerts, and she said that he was often surrounded by other old ballplayers who may have looked a little out of place in the classical concert hall. It dawned on her, she said, that those old guys weren’t there to see her; they were there to see her dad.
One of my favorite Caruso-Farrar recordings is their 1912 rendition of “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Boheme. Click HERE to hear it.
July 23, 2010
National Public Radio is running a series on “50 Great Voices,” and I was pleased to hear the other day that one of my favorite voices has been included — that of the Irish tenor John McCormack. You can follow the unfolding of “the list” by clicking HERE. I would have expected Enrico Caruso to be on the list – and he is – but Caruso has endured as an icon ala Babe Ruth. The name Caruso is known far outside of the circle of opera buffs; his name is a synonym for “singer.” McCormack, on the other hand, is known these days mostly by the musty crowd that lives with one foot in the distant musical past. People like me, for instance.
I developed an interest in McCormack when I was in my early teens. This came as a blow to my mother, because she was already getting auditory indigestion from the olio that poured out of my hi-fi: one minute Bill Haley & His Comets, the next minute Bach’s Mass in B minor, the next minute Florian Zabach’s violin, and the next minute Hank Williams. Mom preferred Zabach.
I stumbled across McCormack after I bought four LPs by the Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco. Listening to those discs launched me into a lifelong fascination with tenors, and I accumulated recordings by dozens of them, ancient and modern. It was inevitable that McCormack would be included, because he was a prolific performer, including many recordings. Connecting with McCormack also opened my ears to Irish music, because, besides his operatic career, he was a mainstay on the concert stage and his repertoire included the songs of his native Ireland. I found these irresistible because the melodies and lyrics are laced with both humor and melancholy. I acquired recordings by other Irish tenors, too, but no one seemed to approach McCormack.
When I became better informed about music, I learned that my instincts hadn’t failed me for a change. McCormack is highly regarded as a singer — unparalleled, in the opinions of some authorities — because of the extraordinary control he had over his breath and his voice. That is well displayed in his recording of his signature song, “I Hear You Calling Me.”
Very early in his career, McCormack sang under the name Giovanni Foli, deriving it from the name of his lifelong sweetheart and longtime spouse, Lily Foley. He was wildly popular at the height of his career and he earned, and spent, enormous amounts of money. He was also the soul of charity and was particularly generous with his time and his own funds in supporting the American effort in both world wars. He became an American citizen in 1917, a decision that wasn’t well received back home, and he took his citizenship seriously. He also supported many other causes, including the Catholic Church, and the Church bestowed many honors on him, including the hereditary title of count.
According to an often-repeated story, at a chance meeting between Caruso and McCormack, McCormack asked, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world?” To which Caruso replied, “And when did you become a baritone?”
Some of McCormack’s songs are available at the NPR site and at the web site of the John McCormack Society, which is at THIS LINK.
We have attended several of the Metropolitan Opera’s live theater broadcasts — most recently “Aida” last Saturday. If you haven’t tried it, you should. Not an opera fan? That could be just the point. Seeing these operas on the big screen with cinematic camera shots is a different experience from the crow’s nest at the Met. For anyone who has been thinking of taking a first look at opera through this program, I strongly recommend “Carmen” on January 16. Buy early and show up at the theater an hour before the broadcast. These broadcasts all sell out.
The next opera we’re going to see is “Turandot” on November 7, and we’re very interested in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” on February 6, both because we’ve never seen it and because Placido Domingo will appear in a baritone role. He sang it for the first time last week in Europe.
This business of a singer switching ranges is rare but not unheard of. Enrico Caruso, is should be no surprise to learn, could sing well in all three male voices and made a recording, which is still available, of “Vecchia Zimarra,” a basso aria from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” That aria is often overlooked — after all, the tenor doesn’t sing it — but it is touching, especially in the context of the story. Colline is about to sell his old coat to buy medicine for the dying Mimi.
What’s even more interesting than that recording is that Caruso once sang that aria during a performance in Philadelphia. The basso, Andres de Segurola, had complained earlier of a sore throat, and Caruso — who was singing Rodolfo — anticipated trouble. Sure enough, de Segurola signalled that he couldn’t sing “Vecchia Zimmara,” so Caruso sang it while the basso mouthed the words. The audience, for the most part, was unaware of what was occurring. That’s de Segurola at the left in a caricature drawn by Caruso.
There’s more about Enrico Caruso at this link:
The Times of London reports on Domingo’s debut as a baritone:
August 25, 2009
Back in June, Michael Kinsley wrote in the Washington Post that the United States needs a new national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable, according to Kinsley, and some of its lyrics are offensive. This is hardly an original idea, and it is likely to go as far this time as it has in the past.
But meanwhile, Michael Kinsley, meet Umberto Bossi. Bossi is a senator in Italy, and he is campaigning to get Italy to dump its national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”). Bossi thinks the current anthem is a musical mediocrity, and he doesn’t like a line that refers to the nation as “You whom God created as a slave of Rome.” Correspondent Anna Momigliano, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, agrees with Bossi, arguing that the lyric “we are ready to die if Italy calls” is a heavy burden for millions of school children who probably sing the anthem more often than most Italians.
Bossi doesn’t seem to care what replaces the present anthem, but he has suggested that an operatic piece would at least improve the quality of the music. He has suggested one chorus in particular, “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.” This song is widely known in Italy; in fact, it was adapted into a popular song. That’s not Bossi’s rationale, though. He says no one would understand the words anyway, but that the music is nice. Bossi, apparently, is a practical man.
“Va, pensiero” is sung in the opera by a chorus of Hebrew slaves during the Babylonian Captivity. The lyrics refer in part to Psalm 137 (“On the willows there, we hung up our harps ….”). How this applies to modern Italy, I am not aware. Bossi, by the way, is the same chap who has proposed that northern Italy secede from the rest of the republic.
You can read Anna Momigliano’s column at this link: http://features.csmonitor.com/globalnews/2009/08/24/senator-wants-to-change-italys-national-anthem-%e2%80%93-to-opera/
You can read Michael Kinsley’s column at this link:
April 15, 2009
At the age of 66, I saw my first 3-D movie – “Monsters vs. Aliens” – and it was a hoot. The occasion was that our granddaughters are spending a couple of days with us, and on a rainy day a movie seemed like a good way to get out of the house. Um, to go sit in the dark at the Regal Cinema, but that’s still not sitting at home. That may be the first time I took the girls to a movie, though Pat may have taken them before. I don’t have a lot of experience with that; my grandparents weren’t movie goers. Well, it didn’t seem that way, but one Saturday when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my grandfather was very animated about a movie he had seen the night before – the film version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” This film featured Sophia Loren as the Ethiopian princess, which was ironic considering the historic relationship between Italy and Ethiopia. My grandfather was on the phone all day calling his friends, urging them to go to Paterson to see this film. I wasn’t used to Grandpa going to movies or listening to opera, so this attracted my attention. I overheard him tell Tony Pombo, the vegetable peddler, that he was going to see “Aida” again, so I asked him if I could go along. I wound up taking two of my friends, and we were all impressed by something that before that night was completely foreign to our experience. (No, I don’t mean Loren.) That movie launched me into a lifelong love affair with opera. That was the only time my grandfather and I did anything like that together. Our relationship was a little remote for that. But I always give him credit for the fact that I have seen and listened to so much of Verdi and Puccini and Rossini and Bizet over the last 50 years.
Grandma, incidentally, didn’t see “Aida,” because she swore off movies after she saw “Gone With the Wind.” This was the stuff of family legend: She was scandalized by the language with which Clark Gable addressed Viven Leigh in the famous finale. Apparently Grandma didn’t see why she should pay good money to listen to such talk when she was perfectly capable of staying home and swearing like a drunken sailor anytime she pleased. She also had a parakeet that she taught to utter profanities with an Italian accent, so she could hear the blue talk without contributing anything on her own, and without buying a ticket. People were so much more self-sufficient in her generation.