Backstage With Corelli

In May, 1967, the fledgling Ear was a 19-year-old student born and bred in a small Midwestern town in Illinois. Despite rarely having been farther from home than the 45-minute drive to St. Louis and growing up in an area not known for its embrace of the Arts, I was irresistibly drawn to the nearest place to catch the Metropolitan Opera on its annual tour, which turned out to be Memphis, Tennessee, 400 miles away. Strangely, the need to do this (and it really was a need) was circuitously sparked by attending a double feature at the local movie theater with my little brother 6 years before.

We went to see The Three Worlds of Gulliver and stuck around for the second  film, The Student Prince, already 7 years old and an unlikely companion piece for an audience almost entirely of children. Originating as a Mario Lanza vehicle, the film had finally been made without Lanza but with his voice issuing from the lips of actor Edmond Purdom. Lanza had died at 38 almost two years before our Gulliver outing, and had become a film star and recording artist when I was a small child. What followed changed the course of my life. As soon as Lanza’s voice hit the first high note in “Drink, Drink, Drink”, I felt a thrilling shiver up and down my spine, a feeling often repeated before the words “The End” sent the kids who still remained rushing for the exit. The next day, my mother was amazed to hear me request an advance on a few weeks’ allowance to buy an LP of Lanza singing the songs from The Student Prince. Mom was so impressed that she offered to buy it for me. That my now 84-year-old mother was the first reader of this, The Ear’s Another America debut piece, is appropriate.

I gradually sought out every Lanza LP available, even including some records of operatic arias, and retreated to my room for several years. My position as the family oddball was soon permanently established, my father in particular spending a lot of time shaking his head in bewilderment.

A few years later, I read an article comparing Mario Lanza unfavorably with another dead tenor, Jussi Bjorling. Never having heard of this Swedish upstart, I went to my university’s Music Library to find a Bjorling record to prove that Lanza could put this fellow to shame. That evening, the first aria quickly put me in my place. Bjorling’s superiority was obvious even to my untrained ear.

The next turning point was becoming aware of the Met’s live Saturday matinee radio broadcasts. The first one I heard was Turandot with Birgit Nilsson, Mirella Freni and a tenor named Franco Corelli, all in their prime. I had heard of the sopranos, who impressed me immensely.  All I had known of Corelli before was that he was famous, handsome and tall. But that voice!

6 months later, I was on bus to Memphis to see the Met’s new La Gioconda with Corelli, Renata Tebaldi and Cornell MacNeil, faced with the return 400 mile trip just a couple of hours after the opera ended. Could the performance possibly be worth all this?  At 8 P.M. the answer began to unfold. When Corelli entered singing his first note, the crowd went wild, almost stopping the show. The amazing power and beauty of that unique timbre and the man’s appearance and stage presence had me in a state of ecstasy.

After Act Two, I summoned up the courage to write Corelli a note asking if, having taken on an 8-hour “day” trip just to see and hear him, I might drop by for a moment after the opera. I found a stagehand and asked him to take the note to Corelli, who soon sent word that I could come backstage immediately, right in the middle of the opera! Though my Italian was then nonexistent and Corelli’s English little better, we got along fine with the assistance of his wife’s much better English. The tall tenor kindly leaned back against a wall and slumped a bit in a considerate effort not to dwarf me with his impressive height and treated me with great courtesy and kindness. This was the temperamental terror I had read about? The conversation had gone on for about 20 minutes when I suddenly heard the music begin for the first scene of the third act. I immediately thanked the Corellis and started to leave, but Franco said I was free to stick around for another 20 minutes or so since he wasn’t in that scene. I could hear the performance from the dressing room area, but even if that hadn’t been possible, I was in no hurry to leave. In the end, I was with him for about 40 minutes before he said it was almost time for his next entrance. I proceeded to the rear of the auditorium for the second scene of Act Three, personally inscribed photo in hand. For the last act of the 4-act Gioconda I went back to my seat. My new “friend’s” magnificent singing continued until his exit on an effortless high C near the end of the opera.

I never recovered from the experience and an opera fanatic was born. A lifetime of study, live performances, broadcasts and recordings slowly transformed that naive boy into The Operatic Ear. I have been inspired by such well known writers on opera as Francis Robinson, J.B. Steane and Paul Jackson. Mr. Robinson was a true mentor, as he was a personal friend from 1969 until his death in 1980. My plan is to approach these articles in his spirit. The aim of The Operatic Ear is to stimulate budding interests which may lead to deeper enthusiasms, so see this as just the Prelude to what I hope will be a long performance.