Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ice Cream With Jesus

In my last post I wrote about how dreams have played a significant part in crucial decisions I have made in my life, how they gave me courage to pursue my aspirations, those other dreams.

Some people are so fragile that ridicule or disapproval is enough to make them doubt their own desires and instincts. All too often, especially in my younger years, I have been that kind of person.

So my dream of becoming a singer was put on hold for a while; put on hold but not put down completely. At least I stayed with music: I got both my bachelors and masters degrees in music. My BA is from some small liberal arts college or other; I also received a Masters in Vocal Accompanying and Coaching at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where I studied with John Wustman. My pianism was never more than a means of bringing me closer to singers; I was never terribly adroit technically, but through enormously hard work in those years with Wustman, I still managed to play some very difficult music: Wolf’s "Ich hab in Penna" from the Italienisches Liederbuch (indeed the entire Liederbuch), as well as his "Storchenbotschaft" and Tatyana’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin. Those were probably the most difficult pieces I played, but in those years, I played about ten recitals every semester. It was intense, but it was also a very settled, happy time in my life.

Working with John Wustman changed my life completely. Observing a person who had dedicated his entire life to music, who had worked with the greatest singers in the world, who had strong and clearly formulated ideas about what made for great music-making, and who demanded that his students exceed their expectation of their own abilities. This last is how I managed to make it through that taxing repertoire. John reformulated everything that I thought I already knew about music, taught me how to make a real sound at the piano, and what legato was really all about. I left there with a more clearly defined sense of music in general and what kind of musician I was specifically.

But this all sounds so serious. The reason I learned so much from him is because he wasn’t all heavy and serious with me. He and I spent a significant amount of each lesson shooting the shit and cracking each other up. I heard more gossip about singers and it all made me feel like I was really a part of that world. Yes, he had an acerbic sense of humor (and still does), but I was never treated harshly in any way.

Immediately after getting my masters I went out to San Francisco, where I was an apprentice coach/accompanist in the Merola Program of the San Francisco Opera. Only in retrospect do I realize what an emotionally destabilizing experience that was for me. All of the administration and support staff remarked on what a friendly, well-adjusted, non-competitive batch of Merolini we were. What, in my great naiveté, did not realize, was that we were being observed and judged every second, and that the competition among some in our group was furtive, but no less harmful to someone like me, who had always lived in my own rarefied world, with no concern for or awareness of the political aspects of the world of music. The realization of this was shattering to me. I prefer not to dwell on the details of my disillusionment. I was green as they come when I arrived there and I left there no more worldly-wise but with no stars left in my eyes.

In spite of this, it was my intention to move to New York after I left San Francisco, and while I was in SF, I met the man with whom I would spend more than fifteen years of my life. That February I moved into his apartment in New York; in April we went to Italy together. I had been awarded a small study grant at the Merola Grand Finals which I used for a month of Italian study at the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia. Our first night in Perugia we stayed in a hotel, where we found that the word for double bed was "letto matrimoniale." We also learned that two young American men who requested such an amenity would not be accorded the highest regard.

The following morning we went to the administration building on campus to register and to arrange for housing. In those olden, pre-internet days, it was not possible to make such arrangements in advance, unless of course one sublet a fully-appointed private apartment, which was not financially viable for us. The administration building was sheer chaos, outside and in. The registration process involved going to at least three different rooms and by the time we left, we had our carte d’identita, but at what cost!

If the interior of the building was chaotic, upon exiting we encountered the sheer insanity such as only the Italians and the Greeks are able to sustain over time. Families with rooms to rent were supposed to register with the housing office, but more of them preferred to make arrangements themselves, perhaps to waive any fee the university might charge, or perhaps to simply have closer scrutiny over the foreign students they might house. My friend and I found it hard to get our bearings, so overwhelming was the scene, when suddenly a little Italian nonna appeared before us and asked "Lei cerca una camera?" Any wariness was offset by the thought of further administrative dealings, and the deal was cinched.

The nonna and her husband lived about ten minutes from that end of the campus. The charm of that walk is still present in my memory: thick tangled stems of wisteria just bursting into bloom, a church with a pair of beautiful bas-relief doors which N. later photographed. The house itself was very clean, but also very cold and dark. Our room at least had a large window looking out on a small patch of garden. The man of the house, the nonna’s husband, took particular pride in the bathroom, announcing as he turned on the taps in both sink and tub, "sempre acqua calda." We followed his lead and ran our fingers under the water, which at that moment was indeed hot. It was, however, the last time that month that hot water flowed from either tap.

Meals were not provided in the arrangement, but our tuition covered lunch and dinner in the student cafeteria, where the selections were less than stellar. The scariest selection was some scrawny variety of whitefish or other, always less than half-cooked, nearly unchewable, much less digestible. The safest bet was pasta con aglio ed olio.

On weekends, N and I traveled and explored other cities. Easter weekend, our first weekend there, we went to Roma, to St. Peter’s no less, and took in that whole spectacle, the ritual of the wizened, bent figure on the balcony, all in white. His voice echoed out over tinny loudspeakers as a rain just stronger than a drizzle fell in the piazza.

Another weekend we spent in Venezia, which enchanted me more than any other Italian city. Memories of the palazzo ducale, San Marco, Caff Florian, the vaporetti, the foul, intoxicating smell of the canals, are trumped for me the picture by a sheer curtain blowing in the window, set at an angle in the corner of our tiny hotel room.

A third weekend we took a trip to Firenze where the husband of N’s voice teacher was singing a lead role at the Maggio Musicale. On our other weekends away, we would return home on Sunday evening, but for a reason I no longer remember we stayed in Firenze an extra night, returning Monday morning. Having missed the first of our three daily classes at the Universita, we went straight "home" from the train station.

The moment we walked in the room, it was apparent that something was different. N said, someone’s been in this room, and I knew he was right. We were always suspicious that the nonna came into our room while we were out (which, alas, was void of a letto matrimoniale) and at first we thought this was what had happened. But no, after a few minutes, she came knocking on our door, which she rarely did, to tell us that the day before, she heard noise in our room and, entering the room, had surprised an intruder who was just escaping through the window into the garden. As far as she (or we) could tell, nothing had been taken, but a few things had been moved — what I noticed was the stuffed toucan named Tio that I used to travel with — and we could see where the window had been jimmied open.

That night I had the most vivid dream of my life. In real life, I had come out to my parents during my senior year of college; not surprisingly this had not gone terribly well. In the dream, they, distraught over my "self-avowed homosexuality" and my refusal to see a nice Christian "therapist" who would help me "change" were resorting to subterfuge: they had hired such a therapist who had agreed to examine me incognito. They would take me out for ice cream and she would pose as our waitress, which would enable her to evaluate the effects my godless lifestyle had already had on my soul, and the possibility of helping me turn back to Christ.

I can recreate the entire dreamscape in my mind: black and white tiles, sticky naugahyde booths, Wendy’s style lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling, the attached fake cherry fan blades turning gently. And, dressed in a blue and white checkered waitress outfit, with a small frilly white apron, carrying a small order pad in one hand and the stub of pencil in the other hand, our "waitress" who had donned a curly blond wig perhaps to appear less formidable.

My parents, poor actors, were feigning such naturalness that even if it were not for the blond wig I would have known that something was up. The waitress was much more interested in the state of my soul than in what kind of ice cream I wanted. Instead of closing myself off, I decided to be honest with her. I told her everything: growing up knowing I was different, feeling isolated, facing incomprehension and judgment of everyone around me and finally, realizing that being gay was what had made me feel different all that time. And now that I finally knew who I was, I wouldn’t give that up for anything or anyone.

As I spoke, the shrink sat down in the booth opposite me – she had stopped taking notes on her order pad and was listening to me intently. When I finished, she said to me, is there anything you would like to say to your parents about all of this. I turned to them, tongue-tied upon seeing their angry faces. My mouth opened all by itself and a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice poured out. "Va, laisse couler mes larmes." "Let my tears flow, they do me good. The tears that one doesn’t cry fall inside our souls and hammer the sad and tired heart. The heart collapses and weakens, nothing can fill it and too fragile, it breaks."

As I sang, the sounds from my mouth turned into musical notes, which morphed into colors which wrapped themselves around me until I was bathed in a blue light. A bird flew up to me and settled on my outstretched hand. (Hey, it was a dream!)

When I finished, my parents were looking blankly at me, understanding nothing of what had just happened. But the waitress-shrink’s eyes were filled with tears. She turned to my parents and said, "There is nothing I can do for him, because there is nothing wrong with him."

My parents turned on her angrily, and launched a double-barreled attack on me. In spite of my best efforts, they remained in the dark. But someone else, someone who had been an adversary, had understood and had come to my defense. I began screaming and woke myself up in tears yelling, "There is nothing wrong with me, there is nothing wrong with me."

* * *

I am sitting at my desk, having just finished writing those last words and thinking to myself, this story is in two pieces. What does the first part have to do with that dream? My first inclination is to say, nothing whatsoever. That dream came from somewhere completely outside of me: it was a sign from a higher power about what would save my life.

Another part of me says that this dream rose up from the deepest part of my unconscious, that in spite of everything, my inner self knew what message it needed to impart to me. All these prior events in my life had contributed to this hidden knowledge. Wandering through a foreign country, both literally and figuratively, trying to absorb everything around me, beginning a new life with someone I loved, living through a stressful summer in which I doubted my own abilities and nearly lost my love for music. And traveling even further back in time, beyond the Bubbles dream, beyond the Callas records, even beyond the Victor Book of the Opera and that first record player, a little child whose mother would sing him to sleep with the lullaby "All Through the Night," a gift from my own mother who wasn’t even fully aware of what she was giving me.

Sleep my child, let peace attend thee,
All through the night.
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night.
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping,
All through the night.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hors d'oeuvres with Bubbles

Herein follows Part Two of the Gundlach journey to singing:

In the next few years, my further exposure to opera was limited. I remember seeing part of a Fledermaus on Public Television with a singer I learned later was Gundula Janowitz. When I turned ten years old, I was able to get a special stamp on my library card that allowed me to take out adult materials, including records. The first two records I checked out where an old Columbia pressing of the Opéra Comique version of Les contes d’Hoffmann under Cluytens and the Boulez recording of Pelléas. The Offenbach had no libretto, but the Pelléas had the original French and translations in English and German and Italian. I wouldn’t say that I quite faught myself conversational French in this way, but I sure as hell knew every word of Maeterlinck’s text. There were other recordings as well, particularly the Karajan Zauberflöte with Seefried, Dermota, Kunz and Wilma Lipp. This youngster loved Kunz and Lipp the most.

At the age of twelve, I began to earn some money as the associate organist at my father’s church (the main organist took a rather active dislike to the pastor’s kid, a know-it-all, big-mouthed pre-fag). With the money I earned, I started to buy my own recordings. When my parents found out that I was buying recordings of Bartók (the “granddaddy of cacophony”) and Wozzeck (the “devil’s tool”), I was cut off from buying any other recordings.

During this painful early adolescence, my parents sought to stave off the tell-tale signs of homosexuality by forcing me to join the junior high wrestling team. How grabbing at the shoulders, arms and thighs of my more generously muscled classmates was supposed to nip any latent homosexuality in the bug is beyond me. Actually, I believe it was advised by Dr. James Dobson in one of the books they took to heart. After three excruciating and humiliating weeks of after-school practice, I finally quit the teams. I fled instead to the public library, returning home only after practice would have ended.

My mother, of course, found out from the meddlesome mother of a boy in our church who was also on the wrestling team, that I had quit the team. She arranged a surprise attack, coming to pick me up at school after wrestling practice and of course not finding me anywhere. When I was confronted with my perfidy, I could offer nothing in my defense except that I hated wrestling and didn’t want to be on the team in the first place. My punishment was to be grounded from music for six weeks: no records, either of my own or from the library, no radio, no piano lessons. My older brother, with whom I shared a room, reported me for lying on my bed with his clock radio (at the lowest possible volume) pressed to my ear.

Shortly thereafter I assigned myself the task of listening to every opera recording in the Oshkosh Public Library (to which city we had by now moved). This was the best-stocked library I had ever had access to, replete not just with recordings, but with piano-vocal scores as well, and I took full advantage. I made so many miraculous discoveries from the beginning. First was the Ludwig-Berry-Kertész recording of Bluebeard’s Castle, which haunted me with its wealth of orchestral color and the peculiar inflections of the Hungarian language. There followed the first EMI Callas Norma. I hated it; I checked to see if the recording had been pressed off-center, so ugly did her voice sound to me. Only after I heard her “J’ai perdu mon Euridice” (recorded when the voice was in much more precarious condition) did I finally “get” her. But even at first exposure it was clear that Callas as Norma left Sutherland completely in the dust.

Another pleasure from early in the alphabet was the Lear-Böhm recording of the two-act Lulu torso (some baritone or other who shall remain nameless was Doktor Schön). The library had a vocal score of the opera as well, published only in German. Armed with an English singing translationof the libretty and an extremely fine-tipped pen, I wrote the entire English text above the printed German text.

Around this time, I had a dream that changed my life. This was neither the first nor the last time this happened to me. There was a convention attended by all the world’s greatest singers and due to a last-minute emergency, it was being held in the basement of our house, in a half-finished room where I holed up for hours every day listening to records. It was my responsibility to make sure that the singers had enough to eat, so I was passing trays of canapés to Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, too deep in conversation to even notice me. Martina Arroyo was there; I complimented her on her Ballo recording which I had just heard. Tatiana Troyanos was there, and Shirley Verrett, just transitioning into soprano rep. Scotto was primping in a mirror, admiring her new svelte figure. Even my adored Leontyne was there, but I was much too intimidated to even take the tray or hors d’oeuvres over to her, much less speak to her.

The master of ceremonies at this event was Beverly Sills, nearing the end of her “Bubbles” period, before she became the more formidable BEVERLY. I had borrowed one of those enormous coffee urns from the church, when Bubbles grabbed my arm and interrupted my duties. What are you doing, waiting on everyone, she asked. You’re supposed to be up here with us. When I found my tongue, I said, but I’ve never even studied voice, I barely know how to play the piano—and she cut me off. You don’t believe me now, she said, but you wait, and you’ll see that I’m right.

Though “only a dream” this pronouncement had a huge effect on me. No one in my family ever had exhibit such enthusiasm for or belief in my vocal talent. Perhaps this was unsurprising, since my only vocalizing consisted of me singing along at climactic phrases of arias as recorded by my favorite sopranos: Leontyne singing Thaïs’ Mirror Aria, Sutherland singing the final pages of the Lucia mad scene, Janowitz singing “Ozean, du Ungeheuer,” Tebaldi singing Desdemonda’s “Ave Maria,” Scotto floating her magical pianissimi in the Canzone di Doretta. This was hardly a typical pastime for a red-blooded American boy; I had merely given up trying to make myself into something that I wasn’t.

A few weeks after I had had my Bubbles Dream, my parents asked if I intended to pursue music when I went to college. By “music” they meant my piano studies, so it came as rather a shock to them when I said to them, I’m going to become a singer. Their shock turned quickly to amusement: who are you kidding, they said, no one wants to hear you sing. And they laughed. It was an extremely hot and sticky summer evening and I went down to the basement and turned on the tap in the cinder block shower, and stuck my head under the water and cried.
But my wish wasn’t killed, just trodden underfoot. It took another dream twelve years later for me to finally realize that there was only one lot for me in life, and that was, after all, to be a singer.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

A is for Aida

A bit of advice is given to young artists of any stripe: if you can do anything with your life other than be an artist, for God’s sake, DO IT! If you can’t live without pursuing your art, then the choice is made for you, but otherwise... Music chose me; I didn’t have that much to say about it. Apollo or one of those damn muses must have deposited me from some distant planet into the middle of a typically dysfunctional family that happened to live in Wisconsin. Nothing was out of the ordinary in this family except for the religious zeal that formed the basis of our existence. My father was a minister in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, one of the most conservative factions of any branch of Christianity. In our family, whether one embraced the hand of Jesus or pushed it away (which was something one could only do in secret), the motivating force of either action was the same.

And yet I somehow existed on a different plane, and all thanks to Sophia Loren. Early in the days when my parents were dating, they went to the drive-in to see Aida. This hybrid Italian production featured a young Sophia Loren as Aida singing with the voice of Renata Tebaldi. Though neither of my parents had the slightest interest in opera (but rather in fact, a mild aversion to it), the film nonetheless played some kind of significant role in their courtship.

For their first Christmas as a married couple, my father bought my mother an edition of The Victor Book of the Opera and inscribed it thus: "To my darling wife, that she may enjoy this festival even more. I hope this gives you many hours of happy reading. Love, Ted". I’m not sure my mother spent too many hours reading the book herself, but once I came along, I gravitated toward it, and we would spend whole afternoons and evenings (at least so it seemed to me) reading the story of Aida. We never got much past this story together; it seemed to occupy a singular place in my mother’s imagination. We planned to write an operatic alphabet in verse, but never got farther than the letter "A":

"‘A’ is for Aida,
Written by Verdi.
They get sealed in a tomb,
But they don’t get scaredy."

It’s possible that it was the buried alive part that attracted my mother’s fancy. She did, after all, recommend the works of Edgar Allan Poe to me when I was ten years old. (But this is more a matter for my shrink than for my blog!) Whatever the source of my mother’s fascination with one opera in particular, mine extended to opera in general, at least tragic opera. Not for me Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro, Rosenkavalier (at least not at that age); if someone didn’t die at the end, I wasn’t interested.

I would pore over the photos of the great opera stars whose photos were reproduced in the Victor Book: Gladys Swarthout as Carmen, her face imperious and mocking behind her fan, Olive Fremstad as Kundry, lying on the ground in rags, staring madly something outside the range of the camera, Ezio Pinza as Giovanni in an immaculate white period outfit (and sporting an earring, which fascinated me no end), the all-glamorous Jarmila Novotna as Manon, swathed in mink, Lotte Lehmann as Sieglinde proferring that horn (its significance escaped me); Bidú Sayao as Mélisande, hair trailing nearly to the ground, looking anxiously over her shoulder.

What was odd about all of this was that I had no idea what opera actually sounded like. My mother told me it was people singing high and loud in a language no one could understand. But what this actually sounded like I had no idea. All I knew was that they acted out these stories that had completely captivated my imagination. I was desperate to know all there was to know about opera.

My father had a few records from the time before he and my mother were married, but we had no record player, so classical music in general was a relative mystery to me. And yet the lure of this unknown Thing was so great that I could not forget about it and move on to something else. I was hungering for food that I had never tasted.

Finally at my fourth Christmas Santa Claus brought me a record player (we were disabused of the notion of Santa Claus very early on, but at this point I was none the wiser). The record player looked like nothing so much as a suitcase, which is what they told me it was when my grandfather brought it out of the back room after everyone else had opened all their presents. They couldn’t fool me, though, because the little metal sticker on the front bore the Columbia Records emblem (my father’s records were all from the Columbia Record Club, so I recognized the trademark immediately).
Finally I was able to listen to all those records that had been lying in the basement gathering dust. One of my favorites was Aida: Opera for Orchestra with André Kostelanetz and His Orchestra. So nice to have all the tunes without those pesky loud voices entering into the aural picture.

My life was now filled with music at nearly every waking moment, from the Firebird Suite to Scheherazade (which I would proudly and perfect spell for anyone who would listen), the Tchaikovsky Fourth (which I dubbed "The Lady Picking The Flowers" because of the picture on the cover) to the Dvorák New World Symphony to the Grand Canyon Suite to Bernstein’s Fancy Free and Milhaud’s Création du Monde. Each favorite piece of music had a specific narrative associated with it (for wasn’t all music like opera, in that it told a story?)

My father had a few jazz albums as well, but my favorite pop albums were Saturday Night Mood, a collection of twelve fox trots by "your favorite dance bands", the Norman Luboff Choir singing Easy to Remember and other nostalgic gems, and, especially, The Second Barbra Streisand Album, which belonged to my father’s sister Judy. It took some doing to get my parents to allow this record into the house; not only was the singer in question a "conceited" "hook-nosed Jew" but, worst of all, she had campaigned for JFK, who, though dead, was still The Enemy. I couldn’t be bothered with any of these particulars; I just loved "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home", "Down With Love" and "When the Sun Comes Out" (shit, I had good taste even then!) I would dance around my bedroom holding the record cover (with that famous pageboy photo) in front of me, pretending that I was dancing with Miss Streisand herself. At this moment in my life, I wanted two things: to work in a record store and to meet Barbra Streisand (neither actually transpired, however).

All this time and I still did not know what opera sounded like, until one Saturday afternoon my father called me up into his study where he was studying his sermon. He always listened to classical music on the radio while doing his work, and he happened upon a live Met broadcast of Aida with Leontyne Price (pronounced "Lee-ON-teen"). Imagine, my first exposure to actual sung opera was Leontyne singing "O patria mia" in her creamy prime. It was a sound that I could never have imagined in the farthest reaches of my mind. All this talk we always heard of angels and I was finally hearing what one sounded like. I was bewitched. Somehow against all odds, music had found me, and has been at the center of my life every single day since.

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