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Subject: Then along came Bill...
From: Niel Rishoi <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Niel Rishoi <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 31 Mar 2009 20:16:49 -0500

text/plain (45 lines)

It is with real sadness that I learn the passing of Bill Ashbrook.  Just 2 weeks ago I had asked Maestro Sparacino for his phone number, as I had lost touch with him when he was transferred from his Terre Haute home to a senior facility. Micaele had told me Bill was ill with pneumonia. How I regret not having followed through sooner.  Never wait. 

I have just put on a candle in honor of his memory.

I first "met" Bill Ashbrook in the early-to mid 90s, probably around 1992-3.  I looked up his name in the national directory service.  He had recently been made principle editor of The Opera Quarterly, and I wanted to submit a recording review.  He graciously told me to give Tom Glasow a call regarding that, as he was the publication's recordings review editor. I did so,  and became a reviewer for TOQ for about the next 10 years. How lucky I was to have had these wonderful men backing and supporting me. 

A short time later, on behalf of Nightingale Classics, I sought his permission to use his English translations for several bel canto opera booklets. He graciously turned them over, with a mere pittance fee of $50 per translation.

But that was only the start of a wonderful phone and letter association.  Bill provided, years prior to my knowing him, with our (still) most valuable contribution: his book on Donizetti's operas. He later gave me a signed copy of his book on Puccini's works.

Bill was the most marvelously giving man.  He took me to places I could only fathom: accounts of singers dating back to the 1930s. His parents took him to the MET from the time he was a little boy, and his accounts of all the great singers was eaten up by me. Ponselle, Flagstad, Milanov. Pinza, Martinelli - you name them, he heard them. He made me tapes, sent me letters, all wonderfully detailed, affectionate, and passionate. Our shared love of singing was all-consuming.  He sought my views, respected them, and lauded my understanding of singing. He was astonished that someone so young could feel and share passion for the old singers and the grand traditions. Bill made me feel so special, like my views were important, and he never condescended at any point.   

I was at the beginning, "Mr. Ashbrook," but he corrected me straight away: "Fuck that Mr. shit, call me Bill, please." 

So Bill he became.  I'd call and He'd call, and we'd go on for HOURS.  He'd have to cut me off, because his wife Florence would be calling him - "Florence is my wife, opera is my mistress, and she resents the hell out of it." 

Bill loved his whisky.  Did that interfere with his lucidness? Fuck no. He was breezy, carefree and just as blithe, and easygoing as could be.  We talked about life - do you like whisky, Niel?  Sure. Them Irish and Scottish single malts made you feel real gooood.  The talk could get bawdy, uninhibited and crude, which he loved. But through and through, he was a true gentleman. Please, thank you, were used constantly.

We had a bit of a confusing short time, where a mutual acquaintance named Ed Pearson, a nasty, gossipy old auntie of a queen, attempted to make trouble.  I have no idea what transpired, but Bill became a bit distant and frosty.  A couple of months passed, and I guess he recognized I had no part in what was conjured up, because he called me, rather contrite, saying to the effect, I'm sorry to have been so distant lately, I don't know what got into me.  Ed was a troublemaker, a rabble rouser, and loved to play the devil's advocate and stir up trouble. But he could not interfere with the camaraderie, as well as the affection, I shared with Bill, and I'm grateful this factor prevailed. 

He eventually acceded his post at TOQ to Tom Glasow, as Florence had set up numerous ocean voyages for them, which of course prevented Bill from fulfilling his duties. It was an intuitive move on Bill's part, as he was not driven enough (as he admitted) to really making a consecrating effort in shaping each issue.  Tom took over, and did a brilliant job (and TOQ has for the last couple of years turned into a ridiculously pedantic, boringly scholarly publication. The magic, fun, and entertainment value has VANISHED).

Bill would send me postcards, letters from whatever cruise ship location he was.  He regarded this clichéd pastime with amusement, and actually, I think, disliked being away from his recordings for any length of time. But he felt he owed Florence her time for her penance as the wife to a man whose mistress was opera.  He did however speak of love for his children, grandchildren, and proudly sent me photos. 

I regret that I never made the trek to Terre Haute to meet him. You could say I had such a reverence and love for this man.  At a time when I was so young, a bit green, sometimes anxious, he made me feel honored to be in his company. I am so grateful to have had the pleasure of knowing my dear friend Bill.

Niel Rishoi 


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