Arts Review

“What’s Opera, Dad?”

The Metropolitan Opera season of 2020–2021 should have opened on September 21, 2020, with a new production of Aida starring superstar soprano Anna Netrebko. I would have been there: opening night at the Met is one of the great rituals of city life, with its celebrities, colorful elements of high fashion, intimations of New York society past and present (from Edith Wharton to Kitty Carlisle to Bette Midler), and the excitement of a new season beginning. Nobody who was there is likely to forget the cathartic excitement of opening night September 23, 2019 with a new production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess—the recognition of an opera that struggled for decades to receive its fitting place in the Met repertory—but the 2019–2020 season came to an abrupt end on March 11 with one last performance of Così fan tutte. Now the house remains dark, the opening night Aida did not take place, and Anna Netrebko, in September, was recovering from Covid in Moscow after a risky and ill-fated Bolshoi Opera production of Don Carlo that left the stars infected.

This season would have been my 93-year-old father’s seventy-first season as a subscriber at the Metropolitan Opera. He grew up in the Bronx, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, rooting for the late 1930s team of Lou Gehrig, the young Joe DiMaggio, and (my father’s personal favorite) catcher Bill Dickey. The first opera he ever heard was a puppet opera, Rigoletto, performed at the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows in Queens, at the Gas Industries Pavilion. My father was twelve in 1939 and remembers seeing on ticker tape at the World’s Fair the news that England and France had declared war against Germany on September 3. Skipping grades as if it were a competitive sport in the New York City public schools, he started high school in 1939 at the Manhattan exam school Townsend Harris at Lexington and 23rd Street, before going on to City College in 1942 and being drafted into the army in 1945, with the war already ending. He studied Japanese at Yale as part of a military cohort that was supposed to participate in the occupation of Japan, but instead of reenlisting, he went home to his parents in the Bronx (my grandfather the embroiderer, my grandmother the seam­stress), entered an MA program at Columbia to study chemical engineering, and he started going to the opera.

In January 1947, he bought two tickets to take his younger sister to see La Bohème at the Met, the evening of Ferruccio Tagliavini’s debut opposite Licia Albanese. Tagliavini had begun his career in Fascist Italy and his appearance at the Met signaled the spirit of postwar normalization and reconciliation that allowed singers from Nazi and Fascist Europe to be heard in the opera houses of America. Albanese, by contrast, had been singing in New York since 1940, though after Pearl Harbor the company yanked her signature role as Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly, which she sang on November 29, 1941, ten days before the Japanese attack, and then not again until January 1946, when my father was studying Japanese at Yale.

The Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch built her career in Nazi Germany and Austria, at a time when Bulgaria was a Nazi ally, and she performed her signature role of Salome in Vienna in 1944 on the occasion of Richard Strauss’s 80th birthday—as American bombs were already falling on the city. In February 1949 when Welitsch brought her Salome to New York, my father, almost 22, remembers waiting in a long line to buy a standing room ticket for her Met debut. Singing with Welitsch was Max Lorenz as King Herod, after singing lead Wagnerian roles at Bayreuth throughout the Nazi era, though controversial with the political regime because of his Jewish wife and gay sex life. For many in the opera world, the war appeared as a merely tempo­rary obstacle to international engagements.

On December 21, 1949, my father heard the legendary Danish Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior sing his last performance of Siegmund in Die Walküre. Melchior had spent the war in the United States, singing Wagner at the Met, while Lorenz sang the same roles in Nazi Germany. Now, in New York, Melchior sang alongside the Wotan of bass-baritone Ferdinand Frantz, a former star in Nazi Germany. The soprano Sieglinde was the 27-year-old, Bronx-born, Hunter College graduate Regina Resnik, a singer from my father’s Bronx Jewish immigrant world whom he heard many times over the following decades as she evolved into a mezzo-soprano singing Carmen.

In 1950 Rudolf Bing, a Viennese Jew who had spent the war in England, became the General Manager of the Met. Dating back to the early twentieth century, the Met had a regular tradition of taking its productions to Philadelphia, a hundred miles away, on Tuesday nights. With all the urban chauvinism of a man from the imperial capital of the Habsburg Empire, caput mundi, Bing began to phase out the Met tradition of Tuesday nights in Philadelphia. He was therefore able to open up a new subscription for New York on Tuesday nights—and my father, age 23, immediately signed up. Bing’s first season in 1950 began with Verdi’s Don Carlo, an opera which, astonishingly, had not been performed at the Met since 1922. Its return in 1950 also marked the arrival of my father’s adulthood as an operagoer. He obtained a subscription in Row A of the Family Circle, the top tier of the legendary Golden Horseshoe of the Old Met on Broadway at 39th Street. The Old Met, built in 1883, was replaced by the New Met at Lincoln Center in 1966. The Old Met was demolished in 1967.

My father remembers the precipitous rake of the Family Circle: when the other operagoers in Row A stood up to let you pass, you walked a very narrow channel to your seat, not daring to look down into the dizzying chasm of the opera house. I can almost remember it myself, because he took me to the Old Met when I was still a child, and I sat in those seats, but I’m not someone who is generally troubled by heights.

Don Carlo became one of my father’s favorite operas, and eventually one of mine as well, an interesting bond, since the story presents an inimically fraught relationship between father and son, King Philip and Don Carlo, basso and tenor, political antagonists, and jealous rivals for the same woman, Philip’s queen and Carlo’s stepmother. The great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling was Carlo in 1950, and, as someone who only knows the honeyed sweetness of his tenor voice from recordings, I envy my father who heard him sing live. Björling’s return to New York in 1945, after the war, had been announced in Time magazine: “The Metropolitan Opera’s under-lunged Italian tenor wing has been huffing & puffing, in a vain attempt to bring the house down, ever since 1941 . . . Last week 34-year-old tenor Björling reached the U.S. by plane, the first European artist to return to the Met’s roster since the war began.” Björling had sung mostly in neutral Sweden during the war, but there was also an acclaimed debut in fascist Florence in Il Trovatore in April 1943. The Don Carlo opening night at the Met in 1950 was intended to feature him in a very special way, although, soon after, he squabbled with Bing over contracts, as many did.

My father told me the story of Don Carlo when I was a child, as he told me the stories of all the operas in the repertory, often while he was playing the music in our New Jersey living room, sometimes from the Met radio broadcasts. He also had a collection of reel-to-reel tapes that he made at home from those broadcasts in the 1950s—and can no longer play for lack of a sufficiently antique player. One of the curious things about hearing the opera stories as a child is that they are remarkably opaque in their most important twists. I mean, if you don’t know what sex is, how do you understand what it is that Scarpia actually wants from Tosca in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life? Likewise with Don Carlo, the problematic love of Carlo for his stepmother the queen, the hidden love affair between King Philip and Princess Eboli, to say nothing of the unacknowledged (even by Verdi) tenor-baritone homoerotic bond between Carlo and Rodrigo, all went way over my head. What I do remember from my father’s storytelling was the complicated account of the meeting in the palace garden at midnight, when Carlo thinks he is going to meet the queen and finds Eboli instead, and she guesses why he is disappointed and threatens to expose him, and Rodrigo enters to take Carlo’s side: Verdi’s brilliant midnight garden trio!

There is a recording of Don Carlo from November 11, 1950, a Veterans Day Saturday matinee, five days after the premiere, so I can actually hear a performance very close to the one that my father heard that season, seven years before I was born. The Viennese conductor Fritz Stiedry, who had been Mahler’s assistant at the Vienna Opera, takes the trio at a much more rapid tempo than I ever heard it performed at the Met under the baton of James Levine, who in later decades regularly presided over Don Carlo. Still, Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri as Eboli in 1950 managed to find the time to luxuriate in her gorgeous Italian phrases, gliding up the scale and down again: “Salvarvi poss’io, salvarvi poss’io”—I can save you, she sings to Carlo in the night. Björling’s tenor recklessness, combined with his vulnerability in this trio, makes you understand why tenors excite such protective, vindictive, and seductive passions on the part of mezzo-sopranos and baritones—even though the tenor is fated to go to his death in love with the soprano.

The baritone role of Rodrigo was sung by Robert Merrill, like my father the New York child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Merrill, born in Brooklyn, emerging as a Met star after the war, would later become the baritone voice of the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. My father at 93 still has a lovely lyrical baritone voice with pleasant top notes and a perfect sense of pitch: during this past year of Covid, one evening on the telephone, he introduced me to the 1940s song set to a melody from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony: “This is the story of a starry night.”

What my father remembers most vividly about Don Carlo in 1950 were the two Italian singers whom Bing had brought over to make their Met debuts at the premiere: mezzo-soprano Barbieri in the role of the vindictive Eboli and basso Cesare Siepi as the tyrannical King Philip. Only 27, Siepi got the part because it was the McCarthy Era in America, the age of the Communist Scare, and the great Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff was refused an American visa. So the Italians got the chance to show New York what Verdi was supposed to sound like, communicating Italianate emotion in phrases so brilliantly idiomatic that they register even on the old Met recording: Barbieri as Eboli, condemned to the convent, magnificently cursing the gift of her own beauty in “O Don Fatale.” My father remembers her charismatically filling the house with huge sound and Italian passion.

Hearing the story of Don Carlo from my father as a child and eventually seeing the opera as a young adult, I was slow to appreciate that King Philip’s basso meditation on old age, unhappy marriage, and failed fatherhood lay at the emotional heart of the opera. My father, only 23 and still unmarried in 1950, was perhaps also unready to grasp the essence of the role. And what did Siepi himself, at 27, make of the passions of the aging Spanish king? In the recording of the great aria “Ella giammai m’amò,” Siepi offers an unexpected tenderness for the wife who does not love him, and a sense of dark lullaby in his meditation on his own eternal sleep in the tomb of the Escorial. In January 1951, both Siepi and Barbieri, in New York for Don Carlo, sang as soloists in Toscanini’s Verdi Requiem at Carnegie Hall. My father was there, in the very last row of the balcony, and he remembers the excitement of Toscanini’s conducting, the whole hall almost shaking with the thumping ferocity of the Dies Irae.

Siepi started at the Met so young that he was still around when I started going to the opera, the first Don Giovanni I ever heard and the first Mozart Figaro, glamorously and darkly charismatic in both roles, a true basso rather than a bass-baritone. Born in 1957—the year that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd appeared as Brünnhilde and Siegfried in “What’s Opera, Doc?”—I was taken to the opera by my father for the first time in the fall of 1963, when I had just turned six: the opera was Aida. I recently asked my father what made him imagine taking a six-year-old to the Metropolitan Opera to see Aida, and he told me he really never thought twice about it, that he was just sure I would like it and would know how to behave properly, that is, to keep quiet and pay attention. I took my own children to the opera around the same age, though I was taking them to the opera in the Lowell House Dining Hall at Harvard, so perhaps the stakes were a little lower— but my kids were raptly attentive. I took my oldest son to see The Marriage of Figaro when he was five, and he was intrigued by a particularly rascally student performance of Cherubino; I took my daughter to see La Traviata when she was five, and though she cried at the end, she also perked up afterwards to exit wearing her velvet opera cape. My youngest son remembers seeing Carmen outdoors on the Boston Common when he was seven, an event that was billed as “Carmen on the Common,” since both words are pronounced identically with a Boston accent.

Aida was Bing’s choice for opening night in 1963, with the Swedish Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson in blackface as the Ethiopian Aida; tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who actually grew up in Verdi’s own region of Italy around Parma, was the Egyptian general Radamès. I think I can remember the sound of his voice in the acoustical space of the Old Met, from Row A of the Family Circle, launching into the Act One aria, “Celeste Aida.” After the opera, my father rather casually took me backstage to the area of the singers’ dressing rooms, generally open to the public at the Old Met (I remember it feeling crowded), and my program still has in fading ink the autograph of Irene Dalis, the American soprano who sang the role of Amneris and gave me some of my earliest ideas about adult jealousy and the emotional havoc that it may wreak.

My father subscribed for two in 1950 and has told me he would usually take a friend, and sometimes his own father, who was born in the late Habsburg monarchy (the generation of Rudolf Bing) and had a taste for operetta. In 1954, my father, age 27, married my mother, a Hunter College student not quite 20, and for the last 66 years she has been the other person on his subscription—though if I was being taken to the opera, by definition, my mother was staying home. My mother was born in Vienna, one of the world’s great opera capitals, but she largely discovered opera through my father in New York. The fall season of 1954, which my parents attended together as newlyweds, included a revival of Don Carlo, the perennial return of Albanese in her kimono as Cio Cio San, and the first production since 1933 of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, with Croatian soprano Zinka Milanov as a French aristocrat and Italian tenor Mario del Monaco as the eponymous poet, both going to the guillotine together on a high B. The opera became a great favorite of both my parents.

When Callas came to the Met to sing Norma in 1956, my father claimed not to understand what the fuss was about; her voice was too small and too mannered for the Met, he thought, and she was outsung on the stage by the tenor Del Monaco and the mezzo-soprano Barbieri, her frequent singing partner. My father much preferred the glorious Milanov in the role of Norma. Often he has said to me, when I raved about one soprano or another: “But you should have heard Milanov!”

Birgit Nilsson’s Met debut as Isolde in 1959 was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times, while her Aida in 1963 was covered on page 46, with Harold Schonberg noting that “hers is not an Italian approach to the music,” and that “the quality of her voice, with its absence of vibrato, tends almost toward hardness.” I can so well imagine my father’s satisfaction in 1963 at Schonberg’s further comment that “nobody could match the ravishing pianissimos that Milanov used to bring.” Milanov would not actually sing her farewell performance (Andrea Chénier) until 1966, but Schonberg in 1963 had already adopted the nostalgic tone that my father would be sounding for decades to come.

The greatest Aida of the mid-twentieth century, however, was certainly Leontyne Price, the first internationally celebrated African-American Aida, in San Francisco in 1957 (a few weeks after I was born), then in Vienna and London in 1958, at La Scala in 1960, and finally at the Met in 1961. She is my father’s exact contemporary, born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1927, two months before he was born in the Bronx. She came to New York to attend Juilliard in 1948, and the first opera she ever heard was Salome with Ljuba Welitsch in 1949—from the Met standing room, possibly at the same performance and in close proximity with my father.

By the time I heard Aida as a child in 1963, Price had already transformed the way the opera—about an Ethiopian slave in Egypt—was performed and understood. 1963 was the centennial year of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and, though I heard Nilsson that year, the role belonged to Price for a quarter of a century. In May 2020, as the Covid death toll in New York City reached 20,000, the Met, in lieu of live opera, was offering nightly free streamings to its public, including, one night, the video telecast of Price’s Met farewell performance of Aida from January 1985. Price and my father were both almost 57 at the time of her farewell (which he did not attend), both 93 at the time of the 2020 streaming. My father and I watched separately from lockdown on our computer screens.

The most celebrated moment from that performance came in the third act Nile Scene when Price made her entrance in a caped gown of midnight blue and silver and sang Aida’s aria of deep nostalgia, “O patria mia,” remembering the homeland of her childhood in Ethiopia which she would never see again: mai più! Nilsson may have sung Aida without vibrato, but Price’s rapid vibrato gave her voice its very recognizable smoky quality, especially in the gorgeous middle register, but then more carefully controlled in her top notes. What was hypnotically fascinating about the video on my laptop screen in 2020 was that you felt you could actually see from close up the quivering of her mouth and throat as she delivered the Price sound, both producing and controlling her vibrato, as each note was exquisitely brought forth into the opera house. She sang the final phrasing of “mai più,” ascending on a single syllable from F, stepwise, accompanied by the oboe, all the way up to a perfectly pitched high C over tremolo strings. When she concluded the aria on a sustained pianissimo high A, the applause in 1985 continued for three minutes: Price standing almost motionless on stage, bowing only her head, then looking up to the Family Circle, just barely controlling her tears, though tears would not have been breaking character as Aida. They would also have been perfectly appropriate for anyone who was watching from Covid lockdown in spring 2020.

For Verdi, as for many Italians, the homeland that inspired his musical sense of nostalgia—“O patria mia”—was always Italy, even when the drama suggested Ethiopia. “O verdi colli” (O green hills), sings Aida, “O fresche valli” (O fresh valleys), as if she’d grown up in the Italian countryside and was longing to go home. “Non ti vedrò mai più,” I will never see you again: it was a very powerful sentiment during spring 2020, the sense of things that we might not see again for a very long time, including operas, including parents, for that matter including Italy. Talking with my father on the phone about Leontyne Price performing Aida on both of our computer screens, I thought of all the operas we’d attended together, going back to Aida in 1963. My father has brought many different things into my life, including values and attitudes that can’t easily be articulated: but he taught me to jump waves, and he taught me to play bridge, and he taught me to make a martini, and he showed me how to love opera. Feeling nostalgic with Verdi in spring 2020, I was longing for the “homeland” of normal life, wondering when we would ever see it again, and the laptop opera streamings were making me yearn for live performances ands wonder when I would go again to the opera with my father.