Carlo Bergonzi was one of the "other" tenors when I was a teenager going to the Metropolitan Opera. Like Nicolai Gedda, Bergonzi was a tenor's tenor. He did not send off fireworks like a Tucker or a Corelli. He did not summon the deep wells of sadness that Vickers could. He was simply perfect.
I did not ever expect to conduct him but, like other great opera singers from my teenage years -- like Leontyne Price, Roberta Peters, Rosalind Elias, Nicolai Gedda, Evelyn Lear, Jerome Hines, Christa Ludwig, Phyllis Curtin and Hans Hotter -- I somehow found myself conducting Carlo Bergonzi in my first Tosca performances at the Washington Opera in 1982 with Shirley Verrett in the title role. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that both artists were totally professional and collegial, sharing experiences as well as their needs in singing these enormously difficult roles.
Almost 60 years old, Bergonzi was near the end of his career in 1982 and his desire to spin a line and hold a note had become even more challenging than I had ever remembered. But the joy of looking up from the pit and holding this man in the palm of my hand was, needless to say, one of the privileged moments of my life.
However, what I remember most of all was the reception after opening night, at which my mother Mary, her twin sister, Mae and Uncle Peter were all present. It became known that it was my wife Betty's birthday, and Carlo stopped the show once again, joyously singing Happy Birthday to Betty. This is how I remember him and his art -- I can hear every word, diphthong and portamento -- and it was a beautiful gift to us both. Of course we all possess the potential for unplanned and spontaneous giving. For Bergonzi, it was a simple and natural response to a situation in which he could bring a little more joy to the world by using the art he had perfected. And I am sure he never gave it another thought.
Thank you, Carlo.
Elaine Stritch is someone I met only a few times but, like all inadvertent angels, her influence lives with me and always will. The first time was in 1985 and the occasion was the 75th birthday of Roger L. Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center and a Broadway producer. At that time I was serving as Roger's advisor on music theater. The first half of the celebratory concert in the Kennedy Center's 500-seat Terrace Theater would be classical with Leonard Bernstein, Isaac Stern and Mstislav Rostropovich playing chamber music. For the second half, which I was to produce, Roger wanted songs from his flops. My job was to put a program together and get the original performers to come back and revisit what certainly were mixed feelings as a way to honor Roger. Lenny, for example, had not heard music from his 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for over a decade and was not especially keen to sit there and be reminded of its failure.
It should give us all a sense of Roger and his extraordinary personality that he chose, as a birthday present to himself, his flops, because, as he said, "I'd like to hear some of that music again." Roger had many hits, and of his musicals, West Side Story was perhaps his greatest. But, like all producers, there were the shows that didn't work and one of them was Goldilocks -- a vehicle for Don Ameche and Elaine Stritch from 1958, with music by Leroy Anderson and book and lyrics by Jean and Walter Kerr.
Stritch sang two songs from the show ("Who's Been Sitting in My Chair?" and "I Never Know When") and then spoke. What she said changed my life.
Like Elaine, I had frequently found myself being angry after a performance. I well remember my first Rite of Spring with the Yale Symphony in 1971. The performance was a personal victory for the orchestra and me. But I could not understand why I was so irritable during the week that followed. I had thought it had something to do with Stravinsky's music, which had inhabited my soul. That was only part of it.
Elaine spoke of her personal rage after performing and the root of it: she felt that people did not love her but only loved her as a performer. In other words, if she didn't sing and dance and crack wise, no one would have given a hoot about Elaine -- and that made her mad. As I heard her speak, I was thinking, "Yes. That's it! If Johnny didn't play the piano, didn't tell jokes, didn't get an A on his exams, wasn't blessed/cursed to be the one kid in the family with blond hair AND blue eyes -- doted on by all my aunts -- would anyone actually love me?"
Then Elaine explained her breakthrough: "Then I realized," she said "that the performing Elaine WAS Elaine and everything I did onstage was Elaine -- not something Elaine did -- and suddenly it was OK." And just as suddenly, it was OK for me, too.
I have more stories about Elaine. I suppose everyone in show business, even those who barely knew her, does. Maybe I'll tell you the one about her fear of flying and how she expressed it when we sat together coming in for a landing at JFK. I am sure there are people who were on that flight who still tell the tale, but that story and others can wait for another time.
Thank you, Elaine.
Inadvertent angels pass through our lives in unexpected ways. Mary Rodgers, Lorin Maazel, Carlo Bergonzi and Elaine Stritch are four of mine. We can only hope that we too can do some good, acting as messengers of wisdom to others, especially when we are unaware of how and when we do it. It surely is not accidental. As they say in the circus, it is death defying. And just as surely, it is one of the miracles of being human -- to pass on something good when you have no idea you are doing it.
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