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Adventures in the Scream Trade
Scenes from an Operatic Life
By Charles Long
D Street Books Copyright © 2012 Charles Long
All rights reserved.
Andante Con Moto
Have you ever wondered why a person, against the admonitions of his parents, would decide to go into music as a career?
It is often the case that American musicians arrive at their early musical experiences through a school or church affiliation — not at all unlike the early careers of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and countless others. So it was with me and most of my colleagues. I began as a woodwind player at age nine and continued with a variety of instruments until I auditioned for music school at eighteen, as both oboist and singer.
I remember the first time I held an instrument in my hands: a shiny black B-flat clarinet, a cylinder of lacquered wood with glittering, silver keys. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Nature had endowed me with an embouchure more appropriate for the woodwind instruments than for brass. Percussion didn't appeal to me, and, sadly, strings were not an option. There were no string programs in the schools nearby nor string players to teach them. Otherwise, I probably would have become a cellist.
I went home with the clarinet and a method book. My instructor expected me to decipher the first few pages by myself, but I didn't have the slightest clue how to decode those cryptic symbols.
At the first rehearsal the other kids started to play, while I sat there looking bewildered. The instructor, a wonderful man named Clarence Ebner, asked me why I wasn't playing.
"I don't know how to read music," I answered timidly.
This brought a hail of laughter from the others. Feeling like a dunce, I determined this would not happen again. I decided then and there to dedicate myself to this strange language of music.
I moved from clarinet to alto, tenor, and baritone sax. Then came flute, bassoon, and finally oboe. In this instrument I discovered an infinite beauty and more than enough repertory to keep me engaged for the rest of my life.
My oboe studies began with my first in a series of Italian mentors. Steve Romanelli played with the Pittsburgh Symphony. He also taught at Duquesne University and owned a music store nearby. He gave me lessons in exchange for my help around the store. After school, I worked the front desk, answered the phone, sold instrumental paraphernalia, and scheduled lessons for the several teachers. This was my first one-on-one experience with people who actually made music for a living. And what an eye-opener it was.
All the guys who taught in Steve's studio were active in the music scene in Pittsburgh and part of an elite subculture of professional musicians that exists in and around every major city. The larger the city, the larger this community. Pittsburgh at the time had a symphony with a modest season, an opera company that mounted a few productions a year, a well-established summer stock company, and various clubs and cabarets. Not much work, only enough for a handful of musicians. Thus, the pool of local professionals was small.
So there I was, learning my craft from these working artists. I was in heaven!
At fifteen, in a desire to round out my musical education, I began piano and voice lessons and participated in community plays and school musicals as both singer and conductor/arranger. As is true for so many people drawn to the arts, this was a way for me to stand out from the crowd.
Good thing; I was never much of a student. My scholastic record was a constant frustration to my highly academic parents, so these previously untapped artistic inclinations provided redemption from outcast status in a realm where grades and achievement were everything. Exhortations of "You better get good grades or you'll end up digging ditches!" rang in my ears. Only the music drowned them out.
The Language of Music
As intimidating as it seems at first glance, musical notation is quite simple. Each of the eighty-eight keys on a standard piano has a unique location on what is called the Grand Staff. Each note represents a specific pitch, and where the notes are placed on the staff determines which key on the piano is played. The types of notes — whole, half, quarter, and so on — determine duration. One plays the pitch indicated, for the length of time indicated, and remains silent when encountering a rest. That's all there is to it.
Musical notation is perceived and translated differently by every musician, and it has been promulgated that math skills and musical skills are closely aligned. I don't know where this started, and though this may be the case in some circumstances, it is not, in my experience, the norm. I, for example, am almost anumeric. I have no mind for numbers and possess the least amount of math skills an adult can have and still function in the modern world. For example, I use my fingers for addition and subtraction. Yet I read music fluently.
Sight-readers can look at a piece of music and perform it, never having seen it before. This ability is highly prized among professionals, and few musicians reach professional status without having acquired it. Singers may attain successful careers without reading music, but all instrumentalists must sight-read with a high degree of proficiency. The goal is to comprehend a page of music as fluently as one would read a newspaper.
My first encounter with a great sight-reader was with a pianist friend in college, Jerry Jennings. For entertainment, some us would go to the library and search for the most difficult work we could find, often a symphonic reduction transcribed for piano or a full orchestra score. Then we would seek out Jerry, who was usually practicing diligently, a lock of black hair falling over his eyes. He would sigh at our approach and bark impatiently, "Okay, what is it now?"
"Play this," we implored, as we put the music in front of him.
He shook his head, peered over his glasses at the pages covered with black notation, and then ... he played. We stood spellbound as he whisked through page after page, never pausing, never hesitating despite key changes and accidentals everywhere. A flurry of notes translated to music without preparation. It was miraculous!
Impressed by what I saw Jerry do, I dedicated myself to learning this ability at my own modest level. My sight-reading of vocal music was good — I had a church job that kept my skills well honed — but I wanted the pianistic facility as well. So I borrowed a church hymnal and religiously played at least five hymns a day, every day, never stopping for mistakes, never repeating a hymn.
Hymns are written in common keys, using the standard chord progressions and structure encountered in most basic music. As I worked my way through the hymnal, its predictable patterns and progressions burned themselves into my musical memory. By the time I had completed all six hundred and thirty-three pages, I had taken a giant leap in my music education. Pursuing the life of a musician requires an intimidating, ascetic level of commitment.
Today, more than forty years later, when I sit at the piano or scan an orchestra score, I still see those patterns that were etched into my brain. Like riding a bicycle, once you learn it, you never lose the skill.
The Power of Song
I vaguely remember singing in a boys' choir at a Methodist church in Butler, Pennsylvania. I can scarcely recall this experience, except that we wore little white robes. Costumes and a sense of theatrics appealed to me from an early age.
My next recollection of singing was in junior high. The music teacher paired students, requiring each duo to sing a Christmas carol while she accompanied. She matched me with a guy whose droning monotone was so overwhelming that I couldn't stay on pitch. I earned a D in music that semester. Incomprehensible! That comedy of errors effectively ended any further desire to sing for the next four years.
It's funny how minor traumas endure in your memory and build phobias that require a cathartic experience to overcome. Why are life's terrible events the ones that stay with us in such excruciating detail? Scientists say that adrenaline, along with repeated obsessive thoughts, are the fiends that burn trauma into your memory.
Restoring the gift of song was a monumental event. It also served as the impetus that would initiate one of the toughest decisions of my early life — my first crossroad. I had assumed I would follow the steps of my mentors: go to university, become a working musician, land a symphony gig, and leverage that into a college instructor position, maybe even a professorship. Not a bad life. If I were first-rate, I'd make a few recordings and go on tour occasionally. At least I'd be making music and thriving among my own kind.
But singing brought me attention, and I soon realized there were other options — very enticing options. There was the life of a musician, and there was a life in show business — on stage, the focus of attention, a key player, not just a pawn. I could be one of many in an orchestra, part of a privileged few indeed. Or, I could become one of the elite — a paragon.
It wasn't until I saw the operas Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at Pittsburgh Opera that my aspirations finally took shape, funneling my efforts into the first phase of my career.
The tenor, James McCracken, was especially dynamic as Canio in Pagliacci. In the days leading up to opening night, local newspapers were filled with articles about him, and I read them all with great interest. I vividly remember an interview where the writer mentioned Mr. McCracken's yacht.
Yacht? Oh, my! This opera stuff is worth some serious investigation.
On opening night, I perched with my mother in the peanut gallery, where I sat mesmerized for two hours. At the end of the opera, McCracken stepped out for his curtain call, and the audience went berserk. I turned to my mother and said, "I'm going to be an opera singer."
Instead of having me measured for a straitjacket, she smiled that polite smile you give people when you want to humor their lunacy. But as the years passed, I'm sure she wished she'd called 911 and had me committed.
Twenty years after that performance, shortly before his death, I had the opportunity to sing twice with James McCracken, first in Samson and Delilah and then, ironically, I Pagliacci. He was one of the most delightful and gracious colleagues I've ever encountered.
One day after rehearsal, the cast went out to eat. When we finished our meal the waiter brought the bill and placed it in the center of the table. McCracken and I went for it simultaneously, each insisting that we be allowed to pick up the tab. Hoping to impress him with my financial success, I pulled out my American Express Gold Card and set it on the check. He smiled that beautiful Irish smile of his and trumped his Platinum card over mine. I let him pick up the bill.
The baritone singing Tonio in that same Pagliacci of my childhood was Sherrill Milnes, who shortly thereafter made a quick ascent to the throne, becoming the ruling American baritone of his era. Many years later, I had the rare opportunity to work with Milnes as well. I say rare, because singers of the same voice category infrequently get to know one another. This is partly because of competition, but practically, when singers perform the same parts their paths never cross, except in repertory companies where the operas are double-cast. Even then, you might pass in the hallway or otherwise know of each other, but you rarely associate.
More about Milnes later. Let's get back to the 1960s.
School was always a trial for me. I hated getting up in the morning, sitting in class repeating the same material year after year. Worst of all, I despised being forced to listen to some blow-hard teacher pontificate on a subject that, even in my intellectual infancy, I knew I would never use again.
Curiosity is the key to learning. In my years in public school, I recall only two teachers who ever piqued mine. One taught literature and read Edgar Alan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" aloud in class, followed by Shakespeare's Macbeth. I was hooked.
My second Muse of this period was Margaret Zook, a perky, attractive woman, recently graduated from music school, hired to teach high school chorus. By this point I had experimented with singing in my church choir and possessed a newly developed bass voice, courtesy of a blast of testosterone from Mother Nature. Even while consciously holding back, I could boom over the others in the chorus. This caught Margaret's attention, and she asked me to stay after class.
"You have quite a voice. Were you aware of that?" she queried.
Humble as ever, I replied, "Yes, I guess so. I've been singing a bit here and there ..."
Did I mention that Margaret was very attractive and not too far from my age? And built? Needless to say, I jumped at any excuse to share her company.
She told me she was planning to mount the musical South Pacific and wanted me to play the lead, Emile De Beque. I was flabbergasted and delighted. My mother had a recording of the soundtrack of the movie and another featuring the original Broadway cast. I listened to them incessantly, filling my mind's ear with the resonant tones of Giorgio Tozzi and Ezio Pinza.
During free class periods I worked on Emile's songs in the music room. Previously, I would have used these times to practice the oboe. But as I said, singing brought new temptations, and my mind was wandering farther away from my instrumental responsibilities. Anyway, there I was, seventeen years old, singing "Some Enchanted Evening," practicing a French dialect, and learning stagecraft — actions that would redirect my potential.
My success in South Pacific inalterably changed my life. My popularity soared. Cliques and social circles from which I'd been ostracized now sought my attention. I'd been blessed with a healthy ego, but now a unique self-confidence bourgeoned and with it a sense that I could use my newfound gifts to supersede the class valedictorian, achieving accolades and a future standard of living far beyond past expectations. It was intoxicating. I could thumb my nose at the authority figures who had chided me.
Damned be their excoriating pleas for scholastic achievement. Some other voice was crying out to me with a greater passion. I didn't know if it was an inner state of grace, a trace genetic memory, or a psychotic episode. Whatever it was, it told me to be aware of my intuition, trust my gut-level instincts, and be my own judge. To exhaust all the clichés, I resolved to march to my own drummer, be the master of my fate, and the captain of my soul. The expectations of others were simply that — and that alone. It was my will and determination that mattered; nothing else.
That year I also sang King Melchior in a concert version of Amahl and the Night Visitors. My first opera. I didn't know much about the composer at the time or the fact that he was still active. Nor could I have imagined this composer would play a part in one of the most wonderful and disastrous events of my yet-to-be career.
More about that later, too.
I was faced with a dilemma. I had spent years in endless hours of practice, honing my instrumental skills with the hope of becoming an oboist. But now my instincts were telling me this might not be the right move. I wrestled with all the possibilities. I thought of Steve Romanelli, who had engineered an oboe audition for me at Duquesne University. I had passed muster and been accepted.
My voice teacher at the time, though not as inspirational in her support, arranged a vocal audition for me at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) with which she was affiliated. CIT, most notably a school for engineer types, also had a fine drama school. The music department was not far behind. I auditioned and was accepted, despite my less-than-stellar academic record.
I approached Steve and told him of my difficult dilemma. He stood silent for a moment and then said something that would help me make many decisions thereafter:
"Always follow your heart."
He put his hand on my shoulder, nodded, and that was it. Short, but profound. Inarguable.
Then my decision-making angst suddenly became irrelevant. An auto accident a few days before my eighteenth birthday sent me through the windshield, taking three of my front teeth with it. After months of dental work my permanent crowns were in place, but by that time my embouchure was gone. I faced the choice of excruciating months of practicing to get my chops back or pursuing a career as a singer.
Margaret Zook visited me on my birthday. I still lay in a hospital bed, looking like a war casualty. She gave me her score of Mozart's Don Giovanni as a gift. In it she inscribed:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the under growth,
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken, Mountain Interval
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
So, with good conscience, I chose the path less traveled. I still have that score and sometimes turn to those handwritten lines and contemplate what my life might have been, had I chosen the other road.
Excerpted from Adventures in the Scream Trade by Charles Long. Copyright © 2012 Charles Long. Excerpted by permission of D Street Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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