John Denver photo courtesy of MIlt Okun
John Denver had one of those iconic voices which was instantly recognizable, like Willie Nelson and Luciano Pavarotti. I know that when I was driving somewhere and a Denver song came on my car radio, I would instantly turn up the volume and have a smile on my face. As a journalist who lives by words, I have long recognized that Denver lyrics were truly incomparable, beyond the ken of us normal writers. Some of his song lyrics are so magical that I once wrote that "He was the Shakespeare of today. He really broke the mold."
So when I ran into Milt and Rosemary Okun at the recent opening at the Broad Stage of the opera Dulce Rosa, which was composed by long-time Okun collaborator Lee Holdridge, along with book and libretto by their son-in-law, Richard Sparks, and with photo projections by their daughter, the brilliant architectural photographer Jenny Okun, I was pleased to join them for a tête-à-tête on the plaza before the performance, which I subsequently favorably reviewed here on Huffington. I have known the Okuns for many years, since we are both fervent advocates and fans of the L.A. Opera. I also recently reviewed on Huffington the memoir Along Cherry Road, which Milt wrote with Sparks. So when someone mentioned a new CD that was coming out shortly, Great Voices Sing John Denver, my ears perked up and I made a mental note to order it on Amazon ($10). Yesterday, the CD arrived in the mail.. .and subsequently my life has changed for the better.After listening to the record several times, I then called Milt and Rosemary to discuss this wonderful musical endeavor. How did it come about? Milt, who had met John Denver 50 years ago and became his life-long producer, mentor and friend, said that it was Rosemary who came up with idea for this album. She then went on,
We were having dinner with friends and I said I thought it would be a wonderful idea to have the world's best opera singers sing John Denver. Placido Domingo has already shown how to do it and audiences loved it. So why not a lot of other great voices? Everybody sat there and looked at me like I was crazy. But I couldn't let it go. Milt and I had been lucky enough to have this wonderful singer and performer in our lives -- lives that John enriched immeasurably before he died in an awful plane crash in 1997. And it was a true partnership, John's life was in turn enriched by Milt's work-and maybe by my cooking. So Milt spoke to Placido about my idea and he was wildly enthusiastic, saying he would help us get the opera singers to do it. And he did. No one turns down Placido.
Placido Domingo photo by Jay Weston
You may remember that Milt came up with the idea of taking Placido, a huge opera star but unknown to much of the world, to join with John to do the album Perhaps Love in 1983. "People thought I was crazy," he said. "Two guys singing a love song. But it was an enormous success." Milt told me that this wonderful new collaboration of opera stars of all voices and several generations bringing their exceptional talents to John's work, was a herculean task, and they brought in the Met's Elisa Justice to help coordinate it. They offered the opera singers a choice of John's sings and, remarkably, no one selected the same work, ending up with 17 different numbers. Composer/arranger Lee Holdridge, Elisa's husband, had worked extensively with John, and he arranged and conducted all of the numbers. Peter Primont, former CEO of Milt's legendary publishing company, Cherry Lane Music, home to John Denver copyrights, organized the business side. Imagine the task of freeing up so many opera stars to join in this album? They recorded it all in many sessions with a classical orchestra in Capital Records Studio A, home of Frank Sinatra's music. Unbelievable. But the end result is worth it, believe me!
They all agreed that wanted to get a great voice from China, for John was one of the first people to be let into Communist China. He was so amazed by his welcome there that he wrote his beautiful song "Shanghai Breezes," which is sung here by the young singer, Shenyang, in English and Mandarin. Everyone seems to have a favorite John Denver song, from "Rocky Mountain High" to "Annie's Song" (which all of the opera singers joined in to do as the last song on this album.) My ex told me this morning that she knew the lyrics to almost every song John ever wrote -- something I didn't even know. My particular favorite has always been "Leaving On a Jet Plane." Or maybe "Sweet Surrender." Perhaps it is "Sunshine On My Shoulders." I love them all, and when you hear this album, so will you!