A PLAYWRIGHT'S OPERATIC LOVE AFFAIR
By ALBERT INNAURATO; Albert Innaurato's plays include ''The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie'' and ''Gemini.''
Published: November 24, 1985
By the time I was 16, I had written my third opera. It was my own adaptation of ''Anna Karenina.'' I still remember the long scene where Anna, having been hit by a train but still able to sing, is discovered by Vronsky, and dying, confides in his arms that she is carrying his child. My composition class received this with undisguised hilarity and contempt. I was very upset, since I was proud of my ability to generate long, sweetly nostalgic themes in B flat from Anna's fragmented groanings in G minor.
The teacher, seeing me bite back tears, took me aside. ''You know,'' he said, ''I don't think you have much future as a composer, you have too good a memory. But your librettos are always a lot of fun. I think you should write plays.''
Well, the seed was planted and eventually I did write plays. But they were really operas. I knew next to nothing about the spoken theater. The theater, for me, was the opera house. In fact, life was the opera house. Very early on I became adept at getting in. When young, my main tactic was to stand in a prominent place outside the opera house and look pathetic. Since I was a very chubby Italian boy with big black eyes, this always worked.
It also worked the first time I ran away from home, one Saturday morning in the depth of winter. I had several weeks' allowance in my pocket, not for train fare or ticket, but for the grand and great records shops which, rumor had it, abounded in the metropolis. I got on the train in Philadelphia (it wasn't going to New York in my mind, but to opera) and wept, claiming to have lost my ticket. Then, on arrival at the old Met, I stood weeping with the standee line until someone took pity and gave me a cheap ticket for ''Andrea Chenier.''
I was utterly uncritical about what I saw. In those days, in Philadelphia, the scenery would often wave when a well-endowed singer took a deep breath. It didn't matter to me; that was life. That was the only world worth living in. A world where fat people were young and beautiful forever. A world where the darkest deeds and most horrible tragedies were celebrated in the most glorious music and the victims emerged from endless death throes into equally endless ovations. The spoken theater seemed impossibly drab after that. ''When are they going to start singing?'' I whispered to an aunt who had taken me to see the Old Vic on tour in ''Romeo and Juliet.'' I interpreted her deep sigh as her sharing my disappointment that they probably wouldn't.
I based all my early plays on operatic procedures. But I wanted to achieve the impossible. I might have been held spellbound as Tosca finds the knife, for example, but it wasn't only plot and character, it was that wonderful theme in F-sharp minor that deepened the moment. In plays I found, we have only words and action, in life, only confusion, but in opera . . . !
My interest in the subject started one Saturday afternoon when I was 7 or so: An opera was playing on the radio and I was lying around. It was ''Rigoletto,'' and it seemed to me I knew all the tunes; that I'd heard them before; that I even knew the story, sort of.
In the days that followed I wouldn't rest until somehow I had procured a libretto - one of those old-fashioned ones with the major arias written out - and I had contrived to reproduce these arias at the piano. And the next Saturday I was at the radio listening to another opera. And the Saturday following that one I was there again. No relative or family friend with a few opera records was safe from my opportunings. I entered the big library and read librettos, and puzzled through scores. I'd become an opera addict.
By the time I was 13 I was setting out to compose my own operas. There was something a little terrifying about my ambition - my talent was less in evidence. But my thirst for musical knowledge, my rapacity for all things operatic, got me into advanced composition classes.
No one was more industrious than I. I'd write my own librettos, then, laboriously, I'd draw up lietmotifs and thematic procedures, for I was a snob and all my work had to be through composed. My first opera, finished when I was around 14, was ''The Vampires.'' It was a fable about love, longing (the vampire was the eternal outcast) and espionage intrigue - the Christine Keeler affair had been uncovered in Britain and several details about that notorious call girl and her all-too-intimate relationship with government officials found their way into my plot.
I even pubesced at the opera. This was during ''Die Walkure'' in Philadelphia. Regine Crespin was Sieglinde, and when she held Nothung, Siegmund's shattered sword, aloft in Act Three and filled the house with gleaming tone at ''O hehrstes Wunder,'' I understood several things about life which theretofore had been mysterious to me. Those 29 measures from Wagner through Crespin, her abandon, her mixture of voluptuous yielding and steely determination -all in terms of sound - gave me my own notion of womanhood (and a very problematic notion it was to prove).
I am very aware of all the elements in opera but I love voices, and I believe the human voice is the most perfect instrument, the most completely expressive sign of humanity. Orpheus sings to tame the beasts and quiet the demons; how much less appropriate had he rolled out a grand piano and tried to conduct them with a baton.
In my opinion the singer is the soul of opera. It doesn't matter whether the singer can ''act'' in the limited mimetic style sanctified by television and the movie close-up. The ''acting'' must be done first in the voice. Singing is breathing. Good singing is directing that breath with thought, consciousness and feeling. In the great voice can be heard all the strivings, the joys, the defeats, the longings of being alive on this earth. And because breath, like life, runs out, in the great voice we can hear death, too.
Who or what are the greatest singers? Are they tenors or sopranos? Have they good coloratura? Maybe. But as I hear them the greatest singers are those who are utterly singular, who in fact invent their own voices. This is why great singers tend to be unique and why great singing transcends vocal athletics. Some great singers have had flawed instruments or insufficient techniques. Some great singers have bad luck. Callas was such a great singer in our own time. Whoever sounded like that? Whoever dared sound like that? Where did she come up with that voice? She did not discover it singing at parties or in the shower or (if indeed it was she) singing ''Un Bel Di'' for Major Bowes. Was she a mezzo with a remarkable upward extension, a spinto with same, a dramatic soprano with extraordinary flexibility, a coloratura with (in her prime) a remarkable richness and size to her tone and an astonishing downward extension? She was all those things. But basically she was self-invented. Caruso was such a singer. He was influenced, of course, but he transformed those influences into an utterly unique style and manner. None of his predecessors sounds the least like him or, as far as we know, sang in the same way - not Marconi, Tamagno or De Reske. No one much believed in the young Caruso. He seemed a baritonal lyric tenor short on top and technically unreliable. His early years were full of crises.
Like Callas he gambled and struggled to maintain a technical equilibrium. It is a moot point if he was more successful than she, for he too had a fairly short time, disappointed audiences during the final years of his career, and died early. Chaliapin was such a singer; so was Lotte Lehmann.
Nor were any of these people ''just'' singers. They leaped beyond professional accomplishment to become clergy of the opera temple. When, in listening to Chaliapin, we realize there is next to no difference between his speaking or declaiming and his singing voice, we realize that after a time he became music, that singing was as organic for him as breathing or thinking. I'd say the same about Lehmann and Callas and Caruso. Those who saw Giuseppe Taddei sing Falstaff this fall at the Met saw a similarly organic achievement. Who could say where the acting left off to become singing or where that beautiful diction became music? Taddei was not performing, he was living. And I am positive one can hear this in the Caruso and Chaliapin and Callas records - however imperfect some of them are. They are not singing or acting they are living.
I still have my scores and records and tapes. And I still trudge wherever I can to hear interesting new voices and pieces. I've spent a long time pining away, wishing somehow that I had been able to make a career in music. God knows I tried hard enough. But then again, perhaps I was lucky.
I remember the exclamation of a very famous pianist/teacher with whom I once studied. I was hopeless but avid, so he pitied me. Once he threw all the music out the window into the snow, screaming in his heavy accent, ''Go out there in the mud and wallow, you . . . you . . . elephant!'' But this one day he had returned weary and discouraged from a tour. I feared the worst, because I had a memory lapse in Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu. I sat aquiver, expecting all hell to break loose. Instead there was a deep groan and then a sweet smile. ''Thank God you not talented, Innaurato,'' he said. ''That way you will die loving music.''
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