The Regina Opera Presents a Dazzling Aida

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 12, Regina Opera, located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, presented a dazzling Aida. This production of Aida was dedicated to the memory of Marie Cantoni, founder of the Regina Opera. This was truly a special afternoon. Aida has never been done before at the Regina. With its Grand March and “cast of thousands,” and history of outdoor stadium performances, it seemed an impossibility. Gifts from the Donald C. Brace Foundation and The Liu Foundation made this production possible.

Composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) for the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, its premiere on December 24th, 1871 included a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni and was a major happening. It has been in the repertory of the world’s major opera houses and everyone is familiar with the Grand March. The music is pagan and magnificent, and is another Verdi masterpiece.

Music Director Maestro Gregory Ortega stepped to the podium and the magic began. We were in the King’s Palace in Memphis, Egypt. Radames, the Egyptian warrior chosen to battle Ethiopia, is in love with Aida, daughter of the enemy King Amonasro who was also captured by the Egyptians. Radames then sings “Celeste Aida” where he pledges his love for Aida. This iconic aria is one of the staples of opera. Tenor José Heredia was Radames. His singing of “Celesta Aida” was cautious and held back, then grew in strength. His final“Vicino al sol” was sung softly, diminished from the entrance of the note, which is the preferred way.

Aida (Carami Hilaire) & Radames (José Heredia). Photo by Colleen Smith.

Enrico Caruso was Radames with the MetOpera on tour in Brooklyn on January 17,1909 with Arturo Toscanini conducting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Caruso belted the final “vicino al sol” in his 1911 recording and it was pure gold. Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini had Brooklyn tenor Richard Tucker sing it loudly, then repeat it softly. Franco Corelli reduced the final note to a whisper and Pavarotti also diminished the tone. Verdi might have preferred it diminished but I am a Caruso man and prefer it sung all out. I think most audiences prefer the “all out” version.

In the next scene I enjoyed Mr. Heredia’s full voiced “Immenso Ptah.” His scene with Amneris, “Già i sacerdoti adunansi” was sung with precision and power. His “Sacerdote, io resto a te” was sung with intense abandon. His “La fatal pietra” with Aida in the tomb was sung with ample lyricism and his “O terra addio” was a bittersweet blending of a struggling and sad-but-together finale. Mr. Heredia was a Radames with strong potential.

Left- Amneris (Lara Tillotson) with Adia (Carami Hilaire). Photo by Colleen Smith

For the Regina performance, Carami Hilaire was Aida, a solid Brooklynite with a remarkable soprano voice. In her scenes with Amonasro, she was torn with emotion but she could not abandon Radames or her beloved country. Ms. Hilaire sang “Ritorna vincitor” with passion, conviction and a hint of confusion of her backing her lover against her father. Ms. Hilaire has a strong voice and it goes with her equally strong acting ability. Her “O patria mia!” was sung with beauty of tone, passionate emotion, wonderful power, and tender softness, and was a strong example of Ms. Hilaire’s outstanding talent. Her joining Radames in the last act with “O terra addio” was sung with radiant abandon as they die together. Ms. Hilaire is a true daughter of Brooklyn and a true Verdi soprano. Her performance rates among the very best Aida’s I have ever seen.

Amneris was in the persona of mezzo soprano Lara Tillotson. Her first act triumphs and her fears are combined in a exciting frenzy. Amneris’ soul was revealed by her scenes with Aida, saying Radames was dead then that he was alive, to check Aida’s reactions. The emotions were enhanced by the excellent supertitles by Linda Cantoni. In the Judgment scene in Act 4, Amneris’ “A lui vivo, la tomba” was sung brilliantly and culminated with“Empia razza! Anatema su voi! La vendetta del ciel scenderà!” which was greeted by an ovation for its tremendous – beautifully sung and acted – imploding of Amneris.

Amneris (Lara Tillotson) fanned by her attendant (Kimberly Lloyd). Photo by Colleen Smith

Amonasro, Aida’s father was sung by Peter Hakjoon Kim, whose stellar stage presence and superb baritone moved the audience. His singing of “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” in Act 2 was eloquent and elegant. Kim’s strong fearless and pliable baritone is truly a Verdi baritone and has beauty, passion and something more. His scene with Aida where he threatens to”disown” her was truly powerful.

Aida (Carami Hilaire) & father Amonasro, King of Ethiopia (Peter Hakjoon Kim). Photo by Colleen Smith

The King of Egypt was sung by Peter Ludwig. His robust basso was authoritative inSalvator della patria, io te saluto” and “Or di vulcano al tempio” in which he was joined by the excellent Regina Chorus.

King of Egypt (Peter Ludwig). Photo by Steven Pisano

Ramfis, the High Priest was sung by basso Hyong Sik Jo in a clear and regal manner. Mr. Jo does not possess the “dark” tones of a Ramfis. He did very well in the immense Ptah duet with Radames and in other scenes where his voice “took charge.”

Hyong Sik Jo as Ramfis. Photo by Colleen Smith

Justin Scott Randolph was the Messenger. His fine powerful tenor has a future in larger roles.

Aida Carducci was a splendid high Priestess. Her shimmering powerful soprano took over and made one listen.

Maestro Gregory Ortega led us in a lyrical and powerful performance. The Grand March was triumphantly performed and the “O terra addio” had heavenly qualities to it. This was a truly memorable performance from the 36 splendid musicians. Christopher Joyal deserves plaudits for the strings, which were magnificent. It was nice to see violinist Diana Barkan. Kudos to Jerome Neuhoff on the tympani. The woodwinds, brass, trumpets and horns were stirring and majestic. Bravi tutti!

Radames (José Heredia) & Aida (Carami Hilaire) sealed in the tomb. Photo by Colleen Smith

The Chorus had much to do in the Grand March and the group included chorister Cathy Greco who is truly a good luck sign amidst the various Egyptian codes. The costumes were the magnificent creations of Marcia Kresge and Tamara Belgrave. The sparkling gold dazzled the eyes and haunted the memory.

Egyptian captive in brown (Sean Murphy)
Egyptian Guard in white (Edwardo Brito).
Photo by Colleen Smith

Stage director and set design was the result of the superb incomparable Linda Lehr. The “wrestling scene” with Edwardo Brito and Sean Murphy in lieu of a spectacular march was very diverting. Wayne Olsen’s brilliant Egyptian graphic design was truly magical.

Dancer Wendy Chu, surrounded by the Egyptian priests. Photo by Colleen Smith

The excellent dancers were Wendy Chu and Kelly Vaghenas. They danced gracefully and were ethereal in their movements.

A dancer entertains Amneris (Lara Tillotson).
Photo by Colleen Smith

It was so nice to meet and greet in the audience, which included the affable bass-baritone Charles Samuel Brown, who was King Balthazaar in Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Church of the Transfiguration (aka The Little Church Around the Corner) in New York City with my grandson Luciano as Amahl. My son Marcello, his wife Tanya, and my grandson and granddaughter Luciano and Leeza enjoyed the Aida with friends Olga and her son Ilia and daughter Nicole and friend Svetlana. They will all be future Regina Opera goers.

Thanks to Francine Garber, President; Linda Cantoni and Maestro Alex Guzman, Vice Presidents; Joe Delfausse, Treasurer; and volunteer Marlene Ventimiglia. This incredible production took us “out of the commonplace and into the rare.” The Regina Opera really makes one feel welcome.

Aida Cast. Photo by Marcello Pantano

After the opera, we went for a delicious Mexican dinner at nearby Casa Vieja, where Lourdes Peña and staff treat us and our guests royally. Sunset Park is rising high among Brooklyn neighborhoods, thanks to the Regina Opera and such restaurants as Casa Vieja. A sangria toast to The Regina Opera!

Here’s to the upcoming 49th glorious season! Marie Cantoni’s creation is so vital to New York. This magnificent Aida would have made her and her new friend Giuseppe Verdi very happy indeed!


The Gerda Lissner & Liederkranz Foundations Present A Celebration Of Opera

The 2018 Winners of the International Vocal Competition & Celebrating 50 Years with Maestro Eve Queler & Opera Orchestra of New York

Sunday, May 6th, was a very special day for opera lovers. The Gerda Lissner Foundation and the Liederkranz Foundation presented their prizewinners in a grand concert at Zankel Hall, part of the Carnegie Hall Complex. It also celebrated 50 years of Opera Orchestra of New York with Maestro Eve Queler who, with the orchestra, accompanied the young awardees on their operatic journey.

Maestro Eve Queler with Winners of the International Vocal Competition 2018. (Photo by Don Pollard)

Midge Woolsey was the host of this exciting event. Ms. Woolsey, who was a familiar radio voice for years, is also a familiar face from her manifold duties as host on PBS Channel 13. She requested the audience greet and cheer her co-host, the well known opera writer and Broadway biographer Brian Kellow, who could not attend and Stephen De Maio President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation and “Father” to so many young singers through the years. We reflect on their fruitful lives, wish them well, thank them for their inspired work and thank dear Steve for this glorious afternoon with legendary Maestro Eve Queler and the splendid young singers.

Lya Pfeifer, Midge Woolsey & Jerry Stolt. (Photo by Don Pollard)

The Liederkranz Foundation sponsored prizes in two categories: the General Division and the Wagnerian Division. The top prize in the General Division went to tenor Matthew White. Soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra was the top prize winner in the Wagnerian Division. President Joseph Pfeifer from the Liederkranz Foundation presented the esteemed awards.

Rusty & Amy Shoremount-Obra &
Joseph Pfeifer. (Photo by Don Pollard)

The program began with “Ah La Paterno Mano” from Verdi’s Macbeth sung by tenor Robert Stahley, who at age 26, is the fine ambrosia for a special occasion. His voice has a very pleasing sound; good secure upper register, fluent legato and breath control building up to a strong finale. A good Verdi stylist ready to go!

Rafael Sanchez, Glenn Morton & Patricia Sheridan. (Photo by Judy Pantano)

Next was “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka by Antonín Dvorák. Elena Perroni soprano sang this rhapsodic and beautiful aria with a dark hued sound, power and a great sense of yearning of this sea creature who desires to be a human woman and love a man. The exotic and passionate orchestra with Maestro Eve Queler made for quite a treat with the sound of music and the quest for magic in the air.

I had some spinal surgery at NYU-Langone Hospital and on the corner entrance (East 17th Street & Second Avenue) there was a street sign that said “Dvorák Place.” That was the house where the great Czech composer Antonín Dvorák lived for three years while composing “The New World Symphony.” Regrettably the new hospital tore it down but the sign is still a significant reminder.

Barbara Ann Testa, Christine & Alfred Palladino. (Photo by Judy Pantano)

Bass William Guanbo Su sang Bellini’s “Vi ravviso o luoghi ameni” from La Sonnambula. Mr. Su has a pleasing sound to his bass and captured most of the poignant Bellinian style. The fioritura was good, the yearning was heartfelt and the “Italianate feel” was intact. With orchestra embellishments at the end of the aria, it was an exciting moment.

Verdi’s “Surta è la notte …Ernani! Ernani involami” from Ernani was sung by soprano Anna Dugan. Since the classic rendition by the great Rosa Ponselle, this haunting and thrilling aria and cabaletta is held to a very high standard. Ms. Dugan possesses a vibrant soprano voice, her highs and lows were forceful and there was a touch of stridency on top in the cabaletta. These insecurities can be worked out and Ms. Dugan will surely help fill the current void of good Verdi sopranos.

Michèle Classe & Betty Cooper Wallerstein.
(Photo by Judy Pantano)

“Ah, lève-toi soleil” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was in the capable hands (or voice) of tenor César Delgado. Mr. Delgado is the possessor of a fine lyric spinto voice with softness and thrust. There was good contrast from loud to soft and a strong finale swelling to an impassioned climax.

Baritone Seokjong Baek sang “Cruda, funesta smania” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. He had just the right amount of seething rage at his sister Lucia and he sang with precision, power, shading and elan. His exciting finale on a good high note was held and inspired the audience to cheers.

During the intermission it was nice to see so many celebrities and friends: Host Midge Woolsey and husband Jerry Stolt, Cornelia Beigel, Michael Fornabaio, Karl Michaelis, from the Gerda Lissner Foundation and Joyce Greenberg loyal patron/contributor of the Gerda Lissner Foundation with friend Ralph Petrarca; Philipp Haberbauer from The Liederkranz Foundation, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Met mezzo soprano Jane Shaulis, Joseph Gasperec, Murray Rosenthal, Philip Hagemann, Janet Stovin, Cesare Santeramo, Robert Steiner, Faith Pleasanton all from Opera Index; sopranos Elinor Ross, Barbara Ann Testa, Elaine Malbin; Glenn Morton from Classic Lyric Arts, opera managers Ken Benson and Robert Lombardo, vocal coach Tamie Laurance, Deborah Surdi, from Opera Orchestra, Richard Wargo, composer and artistic director at the Marcella Sembrich Museum in Lake George, Brooklyn reviewer Thomas Lenihan, patron activist Betty Cooper Wallerstein, from Stifel investments Alfred Palladino and wife Christine, Luna Kaufman, author pacifist, export consultant Michèle Classe and husband Anthony, designer Rafael Sanchez, vocal coach Patricia Sheridan, City National Bank’s Joseph Sedillo and John Lawrence and famed opera standee Lois Kirschenbaum.

Robert Steiner & Faith Pleasanton. (Photo by Judy Pantano)

Mezzo-soprano Hyo Na Kim sang “Einsam Wachend in der Nacht” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Her warm caressing mezzo was indicative of so much more sound being saved for passages of drama. She has both capital and interest on tap and the result leaves one in awe. Her voice evoked the Champs Élysée and the Eiffel Tower in its imposing authority and grace held by great vocal support.

“Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser was sung by soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra. It was voice of strength and beauty that lit up the Wagnerian sky with brilliant streaks of light making impact on Wagnerites and giving life to new lovers of Wagner.This selection calls for brilliance of sound and Ms. Shoremount-Obra gave us that in full measure.

The familiar sounds of “Eri Tu” from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera followed and are reminding us all how wonderful it was to have Maestro Eve Queler and her orchestra behind the singers. Baritone Jaeman Yoon sang this poignant and moving aria from dark menacing phrases to those of longing and heartbreak with a full emotional plate and captured it. He hit some ringing top notes and his final d’amore ended with a passionate Italianate thrust.

Puccini’s iconic “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly was sung by Maria Natale. In the 1930’s she would have been scooped up by Hollywood like Lily Pons and Risë Stevens Met Opera stars and beauties. Jeanette MacDonald sang in opera after she left Hollywood and sang with Ezio Pinza in Faust. Mr. Eddy had a ten-year opera career before he went to Hollywood. My favorite of their films was Maytime. Maria Natale sang with admirable restraint. Her beautiful soaring soprano seemed to be hearing the legendary soprano Licia Albanese “to always sing on the word.” I told Ms. Natale that she gave me tears with her phrases and determination.The finale was beautifully accomplished with power and pathos and the wonderful Maestro Eve Queler and Opera Orchestra. Maria was a second prize winner and just sang a memorable Violetta in La Traviata in Seattle. I have to admit, I handed her a rose making her both a California gal and a “Roseworthy Butterfly.”

Hubert Zapiór, Polish baritone, was a striking looking Onegin singing” Vy mne pisali”…. from Eugene Onegin – by the great Tchaikovsky. Mr. Zapiór’s beautiful lyric baritone has a lovely quality and Adamo Didur, a star Polish bass during Caruso’s time comes to mind. Beautiful sensual voice, subtle yet moving and powerful. I told Mr. Zapiór that the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky, I am certain in singer’s heaven, is happy to see such a splendid Eugene Onegin now that he is gone.

Soprano Courtney Johnson (3rd-center) & Family. (Photo by Judy Pantano)

Soprano Courtney Johnson sang “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante” from Carmen iconicallyknown as “Micaela’s air.” This aria is said to have greatly enhanced the career of young Licia Albanese. People would see Carmen just to hear Mme. Albanese sing “Je dis que.” Ms. Johnson has a full, radiant and lovely voice with power and resilience. A beautiful top and generous shading give her a special offering to the audience. Her ample finale was poignant and heart wrenching. The Opera Orchestra of New York made everything the stuff of dreams. It was so nice to see how proud her family was of this emerging opera star.

Tenor Matthew White was the winner of the Liederkranz top prize. His singing of “O Paradis” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaina was a sensation! I always found the French diction to restrict the tenor from “opening up” and both Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli recorded it in Italian. I said when I saw the program that “O Paradis,” lovely as it is, is usually a downer because the French doesn’t open and diminishes the thrill. Mr. White opened with a lovely vibrant tenor of moderate size and his first high note was full and round and had a Corellian spark to it. Then he sang all the long phrases and at the finale came on an ascending scale evoking the quality of the great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling and brought down the house. We all felt like we were present at the creation.

Seokjong Baek closed Act One in baritonal triumph and Matthew White gave us a visceral thrill with his wondrous tenor to conclude the concert.

Dinner Host Karl Michaelis. (Photo by Don Pollard)

There was a private dinner at the New York Athletic Club honoring Maestro Eve Queler for her 50 years at the helm of the Opera Orchestra of New York. Karl Michaelis hosted, as many sang her praises which she graciously and proudly accepted and a beautiful anniversary cake was presented. She spoke of past triumphs and how she, a female remained firm, certain of her talent and opened the doors for many women who would not have knocked and deprived the world of their talent.

Maestro Eve Queler & her 50th Anniversary Cake.
(Photo by Don Pollard)

Many friends and opera lovers were there to dine on delicious pumpkin ravioli, salad, breaded chicken, wines, coffees and desserts as we heard so many great things about Maestro Eve Queler. Some at our table or passing by to chat, were Dr. Anthony Abbate, urologist and actress/stage director wife Geraldine, opera lecturer Lou Barrella and wife Kathleen, Vito & Rosa Pietanza, formally from the New York Grand Opera, photographer Anita Sanseverino, pianist Alba Mazza and opera aficionado Dianna De Martino were happy to be among the privileged many on this special day. Bravo Gerda Lissner and Liederkranz, so beautiful together.

Judy & Nino Pantano & Dr. Anthony & Geraldine Abbate. (Photo by Don Pollard)

Thank you Steve De Maio for making this event so special! You surely have the magic touch and congratulations to Maestro Eve Queler and her marvelous orchestra, loved and idolized after 50 golden years.This affair was truly special, where past and present united and the fresh young singers gave us a dazzling look at the future.

Franco Corelli – A Revolution in Singing Volume 3 By Stefan Zucker

Franco Corelli Volume 3 arrived and any page that one finds is loaded with fascinating detail and beautiful photographs. There are many tenors mentioned including some current ones.

As a child in Sicilian Bensonhurst Brooklyn, I was familiar with some of these tenors because aside from a SPISA (food shopping), music was a part of life at Sunday dinner. Both my Grandfather’s Francesco and Antonio played guitar and Antonio played the mandolin as well. Uncle Giuseppe played perfect banjo and even had a song on RCA Victor records called “Do You Recall the Hour?” My Mother Marie played the piano and we both sang also. We had a great deal of fun and no one read music!

My grandparents would take me to see Beniamino Gigli films and also such operatic stars as Gino Bechi, Ferruccio Tagliavini and Gina Lollobrigida as Nedda in Pagliacci. My Grandmother Rosalia tended to curse the villains and whores from the audience and I guess this was the way it was supposed to be. My father Santo (Sam) would tell me bedtime stories of Orlando, Rinaldo and Malagigi. Oral tradition was from Orlando Furioso and Enrico Caruso, who had a voice of gold. Thanks to Bertha Lang, my first music teacher, I became a winner on The Ted Mack Hour and the Paul Whiteman show. I sang “Largo al factotum, Vesti la giubba” and many other arias and songs and O Sole Mio was sung phonetically. My very first opera was La Forza del Destino at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) conducted by Father Pavone from Sacred Hearts St. Stephens Church in South Brooklyn. I was 10 years old but recognized the Pace, Pace aria from an olive oil commercial on WOV radio in my grandmother Rosalia’s house.

Beniamino Gigli

My first real opera at the Metropolitan Opera (Met) was Aida with Mario Del Monaco, Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren on March 8, 1952. This was related to my studying briefly with Maestro Astolfo Pescia at the Hotel Ansonia in 1949-50. He taught Grace Moore, Rina Gigli and Dorothy Kirsten. He also I read, hosted a party attended by Florence Foster-Jenkins and that must have been fun! There are many photos to see and many great and popular voices in Mr. Zucker’s current volume, making it a unique literary experience.

Mario Del Monaco as Otello

I loved Alfredo Kraus. He was a wonderful Edgardo often going “way up” in the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. His elegant singing of the love duet in Lucia was heavenly and his heroic Hoffmann in his late sixties was unforgettable. My wife Judy and I were in a bus in Spain and the driver was playing records by Alfredo Kraus singing Spanish songs, his free flying high notes were thrilling and I made sure to buy that album back in the States. What a singer! His appearance at a Lucia Albanese-Puccini gala concert was simply amazing. I believe he sung “Lamento di Federico” and “La Donna e mobile” then.

Alfredo Kraus

I found tenor Chris Merritt to be without merit. I did not care for the sound and quality of his voice. Corelli is correct on this fact. As for booing, Corelli says that the audience can, if it wishes. I disagree. Boo the management not the singers. Jane Eaglen’s Norma in 2001 was a total disaster. Her “Casta Diva” got scattered applause only. However the jealous claque that booed Enrico Caruso in Naples circa 1901, insulted him so, that he never sang in Naples again. He sang of Naples and died there. I don’t think Corelli enjoyed being booed by a young student for whatever reason, when he challenged him to a duel.

Enrico Caruso as Canio in Pagliacci

I loved the chapter on Michael Fabiano. I saw the documentary on the Met auditions and saw Fabiano attempting to sing one of Caruso’s greatest songs “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombre” by Francesco Paolo Tosti on the Columbus Day parade a few years ago in New York City. He shouted incoherently and literally killed the song. I find nothing fine in his voice. It is ambition driven – but that clearly is not what it takes to reach the soul of this Tosti song.

Carlo Bergonzi, who I recall singing a superb Ballo in maschera also was a great Edgardo, a very good Radames and Manrico. His tenor, despite its not very open or large size did very well in dramatic parts. I saw a recital of his at Brooklyn College where some of his silvery high notes à la Gigli brought tears to my eyes as did his very moving Canio. His final exit on a banana peel at an Otello concert was a bad dream.

Carlo Bergonzi as Radames

I loved Giuseppe Giacomini’s voice. His Manrico was wonderful, his Canio really good but he had a strange stage countenance that kind of lessened the effect.

Argentine tenor Jose Cura seemed a good poseur but he developed a “sing song” crooning quality that evoked the flaws of John Vickers, Anna Moffo and Renée Fleming that many found irksome.

Ferruccio Tagliavini was much loved and very popular. His films, his sweet, vigorous singing made him quite a favorite. He was Gigli-like in his use of pianissimo and sweetness and his top notes were somewhat pushed but exciting. His debut at the Met on January 10, 1947 was much talked about. His appearances on the Voice of Firestone assured large viewer response for “Anema e core.” I saw him at his “return” to the Met in 1962 in a superb La Bohème and E’lisir d’amore with Salvatore Baccaloni. That and a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) where he sang the Sicilian song “Amuri, amuri” and the Le Cid aria “O Souverain.” He also came out to the box office afterward to greet his adoring public and hopefully no children yelling “Papa,”Papa”(Quite a Lothario)

Giuseppe Di Stefano, I saw in a wonderful Carnegie concert, then a disastrous Tales of Hoffmann, then at a Maria Callas Farewell. His recordings of Italian songs thrilled us all. His Lucia di Lammermoor with Callas is heaven on disc. However, he sang roles that were too heavy for him, smoked cigars and kept late hours. His voice was ruined and he sang on remnants for quite a while. He died, loved by the multitudes and inspired many for his beautiful, warm, passionate Sicilian sound.

Salvatore Licitra & Marcelo Alvarez

Salvatore Licitra has become a lovely, charming but sad footnote. I saw him in a gutless Canio. He was born in Switzerland and spent some years in Sicily, but like the exquisite Lisa Della Casa, remained emotionally Swiss. The notes were there but Richard Tucker emoted far more. Licitra had a quality in his voice that evoked sadness but not enough. His death from a brain aneurysm while riding his motorcycle in Sicily, was very upsetting indeed. His delivery to me, was more Martinellian than Roberto Alagna who is a very fine tenor but he too, is doomed by his French upbringing.The style differs too much with the Sicilian DNA. Tenor Marcelo Alvarez, a fine artist, is sounding forced and may have sung too much and his reach at this point, may exceed his grasp.

I did a Joe Franklin TV show with Kurt Baum and his spectacular “Di quella pira” was played. He seriously wanted to challenge Pavarotti to see who between them was really the King of the High C’s. He had a radio which he played in the street,of his voice, mentioning to one and all that he was still the King of the High C’s. I liked him despite his braggadocio and I recall the many times he sang the C’s in Il Trovatore. He told me Milanov punched him for not giving her the Aida dressing room and he called Rudolf Bing, threatening to walk out. Bing told him, “Don’t do anything that rash, just step on her gown!”

Kurt Baum

James Valenti who is a sexy, tall and youthful singer was quoted as saying he was influenced by Pavarotti, Mario Lanza, Gigli and Corelli. (Because of his open throated singing and dynamic stage presence). “I am partial to warm Italianate voices.” He likes Gedda and Bjöerling but is partial to Italianate sounds.

Luciano Pavarotti

Marcello Giordani has real squillo and tries for a Carusian sound. This does not always work in this strong Sicilian tenors favor. The result is that at times, his voice sounds colorless and tired. Other times he can belt the notes with the glory of Mount Etna erupting. He visited the Enrico Caruso Museum and I saw the reverence in his soul being near Caruso. Giordani has his own sound and he should pursue that. He is among the few Italian tenors left and should pray to Caruso for guidance.

Luciano Pavarotti had great media and public acclaim but he never made me cry. Gigli would make one laugh and cry with his caressing tenor. Soprano legend, Rosa Ponselle described Caruso as having “A voice that LOVED you. It was gold wrapped in velvet.”

Rolando Villazon, a young, gifted Mexican tenor who wanted to sing all out. I saw his debut at New York City Opera (NYCO) in La Bohème and his top note in “Che gelida manina” was sublime and surprisingly echoed in longevity Björling who I saw at the old Met circa 1954. However, Villazon wanted to become Caruso and not emphasize middle notes and use legato. He literally sang on the capital with no interest. Caruso did not shout as Stefan Zucker has said, but Villazon began doing just that. He could have been a young Domingo with a top but he blew himself out. He is a major disappointment but his lack of restraint overwhelmed him. There is a concert where he sings Rossini’s “La Danza” on Classic Arts Showcase. Caruso sang it with power, brilliance and an element of grace and restraint while Villazon tears it to pieces. Villazon’s downfall is cause to pause and reflect on that fatal disease, “tenoritis.”

Joseph Calleja is the Maltese tenor. His early sounds were of Fernando De Lucia  and the almost moribund fast vibrato school. But it seemed to come naturally to him and now he is doing Pollione in Norma at the Met. His voice is full of surprises and occasionally passion. He is unique because his school of singing (like De Lucia) is gone. I think the Caruso school has won the battle. Caruso did not sing just loud, listen to his delightful “Noche Feliz” recorded in 1920 or his “De che ritorni” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africana. Was there ever a more nuanced voice?

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, trying to sing like Corelli and Caruso is, at age 48, very loud or very soft. There is no middle to his voice since he has been pushing too hard. There are a few hints of Corelli but the wreckage is pilling up with cancellations, illnesses and personal problems.

The new tenor of promise is Vittorio Grigolo, who exudes freshness, youth, vigor and sings with romance boiling over. He follows in the Tito Schipa tradition with a more lyrical lighter sound and a more aggressive top.

Vittorio Grigolo

Corelli’s comment to Stefan Zucker, that Caruso had a beautiful voice and a beautiful soul” stands out. That is what every tenor should strive for. Arturo Melocchi’s larynx lowering might be as pretentious as Dr. Dulcamara’s elisir. Who knows? Whatever works is good enough! Singers should test their instincts and feel if strain is being put on their vocal chords.

There are many gorgeous photographs in this book, among them are the chapters on vocal teacher Bill Schumann with tenors Stephen Costello and James Valenti. The confusion that seems to come when a talented singer goes to a teacher recalls my own youth. You place your soul in their hands and often fear your talent will fly away, never to return. I recall Maestro Astolfo Pescia making me sing (age 13 years) “ma, me, mi, mo, mu,” higher and higher until I fainted. He would then call his wife “Olga, bring some smelling salts for our young tenore.” Other voice teachers followed but it was a very bumpy ride that led me to love my favorite tenors, avoid vocal teachers and become an avid member of the audience.

Jonas Kaufmann

I don’t know if I would have sung at the Met as Maestro Pescia promised in the far away future, but talent, faith and (mazel) luck mean a great deal!

This splendid book by Stefan Zucker deserves our plaudits, readership and thanks. Mr. Zucker may be an iconoclast but where else and who else can produce such a range of reading on the human voice. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord” prevails in the brilliance, charm and love that Stefan Zucker has put into these volumes. They keep opening a magic box that modern events have tried to silence by declaring them of the past, forgotten, or of no use. Open the magic box and a pinata of voices come out to enlighten and make one listen to a continuing era of beauty, individuality and creativity! Bravo Stefan Zucker! Franco Corelli Volume 3  Bel Canto Society – 358 pages


Opera Index Honors Karl Michaelis at Spring Lunch

The elegant JW Marriott Essex House in New York City was the scene of the annual Opera Index Spring Lunch on Sunday, April 29th, honoring much-loved patron, humanitarian and philanthropist Karl Michaelis. After greetings and “thumbs up” to so many friends and familiar faces, the effervescent President, Jane Shaulis who is THE Jane Shaulis Metropolitan Opera mezzo soprano, sang the opening welcome. It literally “brought down the house” as voices quieted and expectations ran high. In her introductory remarks, Ms. Shaulis eagerly shared the monies collected over the years and the great help it was for so many young and gifted singers. Three talented artists provided the grand entertainment followed by a delicious lunch. All the young artists were accompanied by Michael Fennelly, whose pianistic virtuosity conjures up a full orchestra and gives both reassurance and pleasure.

Michael Fennelly, Kathryn Henry, Michele Angelini, Jane Shaulis, Honoree Karl Michaelis, Michelle Bradley & Murray Rosenthal. Photo by Judy Pantano

Kathryn Henry, soprano was the first, singing “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” from Bizet’s Carmen. She sang with power and precision, good breath control, poignant French and evoked Micaela’s basic goodness. Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle, great sopranos were challenged by Carmen, Farrar made Carmen a silent film hit with Cecil B. DeMille and roughed up Enrico Caruso, her Don Jose and some choristers when she returned to the Met Opera. (Hollywood influence) Ponselle, smarting from some critics’ opinions, retired from opera in 1937. Ponselle was struck by the “Curse of Carmen” breaking her arm during a performance in Baltimore. Ms. Ponselle’s filmed Hollywood screen test survives (1938), ironically with the great soprano doing some exciting singing and dancing. Ms. Henry need not worry, her voice rang free and clear. Her encore later on was, “It never was you” from Kurt Weil’s “Knickerbocker Holiday.” It was a captivating Broadway song with wistful and beguiling tone and Ms. Henry sang it beautifully. Kathleen Henry is a charming singer with a beautiful voice and a kilowatt smile. All of this was part of her satisfying presentation as a young artist as George Gershwin would say or Georges Guétary in the film An American in Paris “on her way to the stairway to paradise.”

(Back) Lucine Amara & Elaine Malbin, (Front) Evelyn LeQuaif & Tamie Laurance
Photo by Judy Pantano

Michele Angelini has grown in name and fame but is still “a wonderful guy” in his friendliness and personal charm. He sang “Ah mes amis” from La fille du Regiment by Donizetti. This aria, with its 9 high C’s, catapulted Luciano Pavarotti to fame. Michele Angelini is very secure in the upper register and each note was hit securely. He did not sound like the usual bleaty tenor giving us a lemon tart but rather like a master baker with a great pizza in fact 9 of them! His middle register has grown in size and I see a Duke and other great Verdi roles in the future. He gave us all a shot of adrenalin and we look forward to a very promising future for this outstanding tenor.

(Standing) Joy Ferro & Philip Hagemann
(Seated) Doris Keeley & Jessie Walker
Photo by Judy Pantano

Soprano Michelle Bradley recently appeared at the Met Opera’s Norma as Clotilde and will soon appear as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Santiago, Chile. Ms. Bradley, a Houston native, opened with “D’amor sull ali rosee” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Her powerful voice was lowered for some wonderful soft passages and to show what she took away some small refinement. Ponselle and Milanov had perhaps finer pianissimi but Ms. Bradley has her own way of following the operatic highway and she articulates the speed bumps full drive rather than slowing down. Her soprano is rich and opera worthy and she will be a formidable contender for “whose the best” in the not too distant future.

I heard the divine contralto Marian Anderson sing “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) circa 1966 at her “Farewell.” Backstage she gave me a souvenir program signed by her to my students at P.S. 129 in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. I still recall the nuance and shades of tenderness with which she lovingly sang the lyrics. Michelle Bradley awakened that immortal memory for me with her passionate encore, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Her soaring soprano took us all “in her hands and heart” as she literally loved us all in this illuminated text of love. Ms. Bradley’s heavenly highs and burnished lows took us on a trip to paradise. A full concert of of spirituals or a series of encores should be a part of her magical bag of gifts!

Midge Woolsey, Murray Rosenthal & Maestro Eve Queler
Photo by Judy Pantano

It was nice to have mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb so brilliantly sing “The Composer’s Aria” from Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos. Rihab Chaieb was one of Opera Index’s major award winners in the 2016 competition. She did performances in Cavalleria Rusticana, Louisa Millerand the Sandman in Hansel and Gretel at the Met this last season. She will sing Zerlina in Don Giovanni next season. She had a success at Glyndebourne last summer.

Stephen Phebus, Linda Howes & William Goodhue
Photo by Judy Pantano

Former President and current Treasurer Murray Rosenthal, introduced Karl Michaelis whose work with the Gerda Lissner Foundation, Liederkranz Foundation and Opera Index, have made him like Charles Dickens the voice of Christmas present. He is a philanthropic, kindly, humane man with a fine manner, elegant apparel and a good sense of humor. Karl Michaelis is well deserving of this token of our great esteem. Karl said he was “happy to support the wonderful Opera Index” and stepped down to a fine Tiffany glass apple gift and much applause.

Cesare Santeramo, Corradina Caporello &
Dr. Jose Vito. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was nice to meet and greet President Jane Shaulis and Executive Director Joe Gasperec, Vice Presidents Phillip Hagemann and Janet Stovin, Treasurer Murray Rosenthal, Opera Index board members Robert Steiner, John David Metcalfe, Midge Woolsey, Opera Index patrons Jessie Walker and Doris Keeley, the genial Michael Fornabaio and energetic Cornelia Beigel from the Gerda Lissner Foundation, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Philipp Haberbauer from the Liederkranz Foundation, Maestro Eve Queler, opera managers Ken Benson and Robert Lombardo, vocal coach Tamie Laurance, Italian teacher Corradina Caporello and husband Maurice, opera legends sopranos Lucine Amara, Elinor Ross and sparkling New York City Opera and television soprano Elaine Malbin. Other familiar faces in the crowd were virtuoso Chopin pianist Marjan Kiepura and his lovely wife Jane, conductor Stephen Phebus and actress Linda Howes, Joy Ferro from Daniel Ferro Vocal Program, the elegant patron and tenor Cesare Santeramo, David Bender from Career Bridges, Edna Greenwich Director of Operaexposures, classy Michèle Classe, export consultant and husband Anthony and innovative filmmaker Marcelo Remizov.

Michael Fornabaio, Karl Michaelis, Jane & Marjan Kiepura & Philipp Haberbauer Photo by Judy Pantano

We are all friends at Opera Index and were eager and happy to “seize the moment.” Thank you Jane Shaulis and Joseph Gasperec for sharing the beauty of another memorable event together.

Jane Shaulis & Joseph Gasperec
Photo by Judy Pantano

My Caruso by Aldo Mancusi & David Mercaldo, PhD

A book review by Nino Pantano

Commendatore Aldo Mancusi who is the founder and curator of the Enrico Caruso Museum in Brooklyn has added his book with the assistance of author and Vice President of the museum, David Mercaldo, PhD. Many have profiled the great tenor since his tragic and untimely death at age 48, in Naples, Italy on August 2, 1921. The book is dedicated to the memory of Michael Sisca, who with his father Marziale Sisca, provided so much memorabilia to the Enrico Caruso Museum. Marziale’s brother, Alessandro Sisca wrote the lyrics to “Core ‘ngrato” (“Ungrateful Heart”) using the name Riccardo Cordiferro. Enrico Caruso, a splendid caricaturist, drew caricatures free for “La Follia di New York” as a favor to his friend Marziale Sisca, the Editor and his son Michael Sisca.

The book contains many caricatures drawn by Enrico Caruso and many personal conversations held with Michael that are first hand memories of Caruso the man. Pictures of busts, death masks, letters, records, phonograph horns, jewelry, ties, Caruso’s black and white shoes, documents, silverware, canes, phonographs, cylinders, recordings, an opera piano and a movie theatre that shows his silent film My Cousin. (1918)

Aldo Mancusi in his museum

Michael Sisca, while a teenager, was present at Caruso’s last recording session in September 1920 and told me that the greatest of tenors, who just returned from a month long tour of Cuba and the United States, had the beginning of his final illness that day, in the form of a cold. His great recording of “Rachel, quand du seigneur” from La Juive, was sung under duress and one could hear Caruso breathing heavily near the golden finale. Sisca, a charming man, always spoke of his friend Caruso and remembers being in bed since it was nighttime during one of his father’s soirees. Enrico Caruso was there, Puccini, Toscanini and a total of thirteen distinguished guests. Caruso insisted they get Michael from bed to join them because thirteen was bad luck. So young Michael Sisca sat with Puccini, Caruso and Toscanini at that unforgettable dinner.

Enrico Caruso, Ada Giachetti & wife Dorothy Benjamin

Members of the Caruso family from his first “wife” Ada Giachetti (Mistress) and his American bride Dorothy Park Benjamin, have visited the museum as well as Eric Murray, Gloria’s son and Caruso’s grandson and his charming wife Lynne. Eric, a wonderful gentleman, is a board member of the museum.

Lynne & Eric Murray & Aldo & Lisa Mancuso. Photo by Judy Pantano

Aldo describes how he first became acquainted with the tenor through his father Evaristo who collected his recordings and his mother Marietta who possessed a lovely soprano voice. There is an original caricature of Caruso’s father Marcellino, donated by Andrew Farkas who wrote the book, “Enrico Caruso, My Father and My Family” with Enrico Caruso Jr. Mr. Farkas tells the story of Pierre V. R. Key, Caruso’s friend and biographer who saw Caruso weeping backstage after singing Canio in Pagliacci. The great tenor said, “Caruso is a damn fool. He feels too much!” There are pictures of the Enrico Caruso postage stamp. I met Enrico Caruso Jr. (1904-1987) at the Postage Stamp ceremony in the late 1980’s at The Metropolitan Opera House. We attended with friends the late Cuban-American baritone and Caruso aficionado Alfredo and his wife Audrey Villoldo. Enrico Caruso Jr. age 82 died a few weeks later (April 9, 1987) He too, was a lovely man – R.I.P!

Caruso Stamp – 1987

On pages 86 and 87 are the richest and most poignant gift. It is the last photo taken of Caruso on July 19, 1921 in Sorrento, Italy where he went after partially recovering from his illness. (Lifting his robe and showing his still painful wounds in a photo for Dr. Antonio Stella in New York) A piece of scenery fell on him at the Metropolitan Opera during a performance of Samson on December 3, 1920. He had pains on his side but the house doctor, Dr. Horowitz said it was merely intercostal (between two ribs) neuralgia and taped him up. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in Elisir D’amore on December 11th, 1920, Enrico Caruso began bleeding from his throat and the audience begged him to stop. He collapsed backstage and Met Manager Gatti-Casazza said he had an apparition that this was the end. Surprisingly, Caruso sang three times more in great pain, at the Met that month.

Aldo & Lisa Mancusi & Italian Caruso Family

On December 24th, 1920 Caruso sang Eleazar in La Juive. The photographer Mishkin impulsively took his picture backstage and that was Caruso’s last photo at the Met. That night, Caruso went to his apartment for Christmas supper and began screaming in pain. He was heard many floors below. The doctors operated on him several times, removing a rib, probing deep areas of infection and a lifesaving transfusion. After the transfusion Caruso asked, “Am I still Italian?” Straw was added to the streets below his apartment so that sounds of horse or car traffic would be silenced. Fifty pounds lighter Caruso, his bride Dorothy and baby Gloria sailed for Italy on The President Wilson on May 28, 1921 from Pier 7 in Brooklyn. He waved to the cheering crowds telling them he would come back “and sing, sing and sing!!!” This film footage still exists. Caruso spent a happy two months at the beautiful Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento, Italy. Friends took him on an exhausting tour of Pompeii and his late mother’s old doctor probed his wounds, possibly causing a relapse. Caruso sent a touching letter to Dr. Stella, who he remembered from New York telling him that he still had persistent pain in his side. He opened his robe for a photo of his wounds and sent them to Dr. Stella in America. Dr. Stella received the letter and photo the day after Caruso died. Caruso died on August 2, 1921 in the Hotel Vesuvio on the way to Naples for an operation. There is a caricature of Dr. Stella drawn by Caruso and a copy of his $15,850 dollar bill for the operation which was “shaved” of $850 at Caruso’s request donated to the Enrico Caruso Museum by Michael Sisca.

Enrico Caruso, Wife Dorothy & Daughter Gloria – May 28,1921
Leaving America for Naples, Italy Aboard the Woodrow Wilson
Brooklyn’s Pier 7

Aldo Mancusi received a copy of the letter and the photo, unexpectedly from a member of Dr. Stella’s family. They are mentioned in the book and it was very sad indeed. Penicillin, not yet discovered, would have saved him. But like Abraham Lincoln, Caruso died in his prime, no decline in his magnificent voice (Despite his heavy smoking of Egyptian cigarettes) and remains unsurpassed.

A few years ago in May 2011, Aldo Mancusi got a phone call from 92-year-old Dorothy Alleva from Brooklyn, NY telling Aldo that Enrico Caruso and his wife Dorothy were her godparents. Her parents, Ernesto and Micalina Alleva, owned a restaurant in Manhattan called Villa Manfredi. Caruso and Dorothy loved the restaurant and seeing that Micalina was pregnant said, “If it’s a girl and you name her Dorothy we will become her godparents – well, that is what happened. The baptism papers and photographs show it all. Even the beautiful dress that Dorothy Caruso purchased can be found at the Caruso Museum. Caruso was loved and that is only one small example of his kindness, generosity and largess.

Aldo’s museum, now thirty-five years old, evolved over time and when a tenant left, Aldo was able to use even more space and to give lectures. Artist Marguerite Celesia created a beautiful “sign in” book with Caruso as the Duke in Rigoletto on the front cover. I remember WQXR Opera radio host George Jellinek signing in. Aldo’s wonderful wife Lisa always supported and accompanied Mancusi to many Caruso areas in Naples where they befriended one and all. Many musical and political figures have attended the museum and Aldo Mancusi, like the great Caruso, is a “Commendatore” of the Italian Government. In 1997, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani helped Aldo celebrate Enrico Caruso Day at Merkin Hall in New York City where a proclamation was given. Great grandson Riccardo Caruso sang a Caruso favorite “M’appari” from Martha by Frederich Von Flotow.

Consul General Natalia Quintavalle,
Commendatore Aldo & Lisa Mancusi
Photo by Anton Evangelista

MetOpera tenor, Marcello Giordani, visited as did both Caruso families. Former Brooklyn Borough President, the ebullient Marty Markowitz listened to Caruso’s “Over There” at the museum with the former Italian Consul General Natalia Quintavalle.

The Sisca-Albanese Mini-Theatre at
The Enrico Caruso Museum

New York City Opera bass and Brooklynite neighbor the late Don Yule and his wife artist Jaye Adams visited the old phonographs and recordings and found them  to be a great source of fascination. The mini-theatre is named after Michael Sisca and Met Opera soprano Licia Albanese. (1909-2014) Licia Albanese also contributed her Madama Butterfly costume and other items from the Metropolitan Opera. Chairs and old Met Opera wall panelings were gifts from the late board members Enrico Aloi and Joseph Puglisi. They were fans and friends of the late soprano Rosa Ponselle who was a Caruso protege. There is a lovely photo taken by my wife Judy of Mme. Albanese at age 104 joyfully laughing to see her friends Aldo and Lisa Mancusi. A few decades before, the effervescent cable television opera host Lina del Tinto and husband Harry Demarsky introduced Aldo and Lisa to Judy and me and it was a wonderful moment.

Aldo Mancusi, Soprano Licia Albanese & Riccardo Caruso

Board member and opera lecturer Lou Barrella and his wife Kathleen, volunteered their talents and efforts for the museum; Giuseppe Sarcona and Maria Valenti helped to translate into Italian, Mancusi’s daughters Kim Collins and Cindy Borriello are valued board members and Anthony Mancino, artist and illustrator from The Readers Digest with his beloved wife Grace who is now with Caruso in Paradise.

Aldo Mancusi and board member, Vice President and author, David Mercaldo, PhD have created a mini-masterpiece in this beautifully written and crafted publication. Linda Mercaldo, like Lisa Mancusi gave their talented spouses the freedom of time to create this wonderful tribute to Enrico Caruso and we thank them for that! The book is almost 100 pages of memories, stories, photos, hopes and dreams, colors, caricatures. His over 200 recordings from “Celeste Aida” and “Pagliacci” to “O sole mio” and “Core ‘ngrato” with their message of loves joy and sadness bring out humanity to its fullest and make us all uplifted to a heavenly realm.

Enrico Caruso singing “Over There” at the Police Games, Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in Brooklyn on Labor Day 1918

Enrico Caruso, from Naples, Italy, conquered the world with “Vesti la Giubba,” the first million selling record. Caruso was held as an idol and example for the millions of Italian immigrants who were made proud by the voice of gold that emerged from the old phonograph horn to give them pride and hope. Not only the opera “swells” at the Metropolitan Opera where he sang over 600 performances in the house from 1903 until 1920, loved the man and the voice, but Caruso loved people of all backgrounds. The man on the street heard his big-hearted message of humanity through song through the Victor Record Company and his many personal kindnesses. Enrico Caruso sang over 20 performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Met on tour and also sang at the police games and a Liberty Loan Rally at Sheepshead Bay Racetrack in Brooklyn on Labor Day 1918. Aldo Mancusi holds forth the banner that gave light to the world. The great sorrow remains that Enrico Caruso did not live long enough to enjoy his wife Dorothy and daughter Gloria. In the book, Aldo Mancusi takes Enrico Caruso on a tour of his museum and knows that he would be pleased.

Enrico Caruso convalescing on the balcony in Sorrento, Italy, July 5, 1921 one month before his death

The book is available through The Enrico Caruso Museum of America and you can email Commendatore Aldo Mancusi at Phone-718-368-3993. The seventy-five dollar price is a truly worthwhile investment! It is like a carriage ride to an exciting past, a past that still lives through the resounding voice of the great Enrico Caruso. This “foot in the past” surely gives hope for the future. Visit the museum by appointment only at 1942 East 19th Street in Brooklyn and see for yourself!






Elysium Between Two Continents Celebrates Its 31st Annual Erwin Piscator Award

Erwin Piscator House in Marburg, Germany

At the prestigious Lotos Club in New York City, Elysium between two Continents celebrated its 31st Annual Erwin Piscator Award. The luncheon on Thursday, April 5th honored J. T. Rogers, Broadway and political playwright and Jolana Blau, longtime Elysium supporter and its Vice President for her immense humanitarian efforts on behalf of arts and culture.

In the excellent program booklet, designed and edited by Michael Lahr, there is a message of greeting by The Lord Mayor of the University Town of Marburg, Germany where a house was opened in 2016 called the Erwin Piscator House entirely dedicated to culture. In Marburg, Erwin Piscator spent his formulative school years and after his return from exile in the United States. In 1951, he directed 4 plays with record attendance.” On behalf of the community of Marburg, I congratulate the honorary Piscator award recipient, the philanthropist Jolana Blau and this year’s Piscator award recipient, J.T. Rogers on this worthy distinction.” The booklet also had Best Wishes from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also sent a note of congratulations to J.T. Rogers and Jolana Blau.

Playwright/poet/ theatre director Bertolt Brecht said of his partner Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), “Piscator is the greatest theatre man of all time. He will leave a legacy which we should use.”

Maria Ley Piscator in front of the house dedicated to her husband

According to Erwin Piscator, “art only achieves its purpose when it contributes to the improvement of man” and “the purpose of theatre should not only be to teach us about the creative process, but to teach us of human relations, human behavior and capacities. It is to this task consciously and unconsciously, suggestively and descriptively, that the theatre is best suited.”

Images of Erwin Piscator

Gregorij H. von Leïtis, Founder and President of the Erwin Piscator Award and Michael Lahr, Chairman, work to benefit Elysium’s International Educational Programs in conjunction with The Lahr von Leïtis Academy and Archive that promotes “Art and Education without Borders.” These programs follow Erwin Piscator’s humanitarian goals to educate the next generation. Their light takes us out of a dark place. “Hate is a failure of Imagination” is a recurrent theme of Elysium and Gregorij von Leïtis and Michael Lahr have toured many countries to spread the word. They are like two brilliant planets that are a vital part of the positive success of our solar system.

The welcome followed by Gregorij H. von Leïtis, who truly relished seeing this beautiful afternoon develop with enlightenment like some wonderful garden of rare flowers.

Alexis Rodda opened the program with “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) by Franz Schubert, with a text by Friedrich Schiller. Ms. Rodda’s splendid soprano soared and flooded the room with joyful abandon. Her excellent piano accompanist was Dan Franklin Smith.

From left: Heather Randall, Cesare L. Santeramo, Luna Kaufman & Mark Watson. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

Chairperson Heather Randall welcomed the audience. Her late great husband was actor Tony Randall, an opera lover, whose wonderful praiseworthy comments on America’s great baritone Leonard Warren were in author Mary Jane Phillips Matz’s extraordinary biography of the great Verdi baritone from the Bronx. Warren’s brilliant career ended with his sudden death onstage during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Metropolitan Opera in March 1960. Tony Randall had a long, vibrant acting career including “The Odd Couple” and was a master actor, especially in light comedy, equally deserving of the praise he gave to others. Ms. Randall’s brief comments were much appreciated by her many friends and admirers.”

“Schiffahrt” with music by Egon Lustgarten transferred us to a salon, matching the treasures of the Lotos Club. Lush voiced Alexis Rodda and her fleet fingered accompanist Dan Franklin Smith, evoked a past era, perhaps of cognac and a good cigar (Or a pastry with a dollop of whipped cream and a cappuccino).

Among the guests were representatives of several illustrious consulates stationed in New York: Miroslav Rames, Consul General of the Czech Republic, Jens Janik, Deputy Consul General of Germany, Julius Pranevicius, Consul General of Lithuania and Karel Smekal, Deputy Consul General of the Czech Republic. Lya Friedrich Pfeifer, Vice Chairperson and President of the Max Kade Foundation has been a wonderful supporter of Elysium between two continents as well as Mrs. E.L. Doctorow, whose brilliant late husband wrote Ragtime & Louise Kerz Hirschfeld Cullman, whose late husband was the illustrious illustrator/caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose works are all over Sardi’s Restaurant on Broadway in the theatre district and many other venues.

From left: Judy Pantano, Cesare L. Santeramo, Nino Pantano, Helen Doctorow, Edna Greenwich & Dwight Owsley. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

The elegant Michael Lahr made the introduction of André Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theatre, who was to make the award to famed playwright J.T. Rogers. Since Bartlett Scher, the international director of theatre and opera could not attend, Mr. Bishop happily filled in with an inspiring tribute to J.T. Rogers. Rogers gave a brief but truly touching response to an award that represents a lifetime of observing and creating plays such as the award winning Oslo at Lincoln Center and then Broadway and London that not only moved people, but in the right direction. His works have been staged throughout the United States and other venues and Rogers has received many acknowledgments of his work. Gregorij H. von Leïtis also spoke eloquently of the importance of such performances as Oslo and Blood and Gifts, which are in the tradition of Erwin Piscator. Judy and I chatted briefly with J.T. Rogers and he was the epitome of bonhomie and effervescence.

André Bishop, Gregorij von Leïtis & J. T. Rogers. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

Michael Lahr then introduced distinguished Chev. Cesare L. Santeramo, who along with his lifetime partner Dr. Robert Campbell, have been at the fore of generosity of spirit and time and are lionized by all who know them. Cesare Santeramo introduced the awardee, Jolana Blau. Mr. Santeramo was a tenor of renown with the New Jersey State Opera and active with the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. He also held a high position with Western Electric. His versatile career also included the Board of Opera Index, Let there be hope and Polish Assistance of New York. His is a vital and vibrant presence a past winner of the Piscator award, ever chic and ever head over heels with life, music and helping those in need.

Jolana Blau, a concentration camp survivor, who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, was liberated in 1945.”It is so important to remember – therefore I am grateful for the work that Elysium is doing. The younger generation, through Elysium’s programs must learn the lessons from history.” Jolana Blau was awarded the Honorary Erwin Piscator Award in memory of Maria Ley Piscator – Erwin Piscator’s wife. After the Prague Spring in 1968, Jolana Blau and her daughter Simona, emigrated via Austria to the United States in 1972. Jolana married Vojtech Blau an antique rug and tapestry dealer whose company supplied rugs and tapestries worldwide and also to the White house. After Vojtech’s death in 2000, Simona Blau managed the company privately. Vojtech himself was also in a concentration camp. The labyrinth paths and twists of fate are written in the sands of time. It was a pleasure to meet Jolana Blau’s charming and appreciative two daughters, daughter- in-law and family. Kathryn Hausman, accompanied by two friends, presented Ms. Blau with a lovely floral bouquet.

From left: Gregorij von Leïtis, Jolana Blau & Cesare L. Santeramo. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

Soprano Alexis Rodda sang “Spiel auf Deiner Geige” by Robert Stolz with joyful abandon and dance “Here on the banks of the blue Danube, here in the beautiful Hungarian land, one sings other songs while drinking Tokay” (text by Alfred Grünwald/Ludwig Herzer and translation by Michael Lahr) and brilliantly accompanied by Dan Franklin Smith. Ms. Rodda was a vocal symbol of the strength and resilience of her songs. They spoke for the winners past and present who, despite obstacles beyond belief, have emerged with messages of freedom of expression and universal love.

Legendary Opera Soprano Elinor Ross & Michael Lahr. Photo by Letizia Mariotti

The names Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr are exalted and they are revered during their lifetimes. They are a force for the good. I leave with a quote from Gregorij H. von Leïtis, “I thank each of our honorees for the Erwin Piscator and Maria Ley Piscator awards, our guests, at the 31st Erwin Piscator award luncheon, our supporters friends and colleagues who join us on our way to create a world of creative and educational exchange and mutual friendship between the people of the United States and the world.” The award winners are immersed in their life’s work but hearing the praise will keep them aware that there are those who applaud, care and are motivated to do the right thing.

As we finished our delicious luncheon and went out into the chill of an uncertain April, we know that, thanks to Elysium – between two continents, Spring will come and the warmth of enlightenment will give us peace, joy and creativity in a milder, more gentle and giving world.






Sarasota Opera Presents Bellini’s Norma

The Sarasota Opera presented a thrilling first performance of Norma by Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) who created this masterpiece with librettist Felice Romani. The opera is both tuneful and full of conflict and truly different in a new and revolutionary way. The combination of chorus, aria and cabaletta, a fast aria after the lyrical passages that brings the passage to a dramatic trilling and thrilling usually with a high note finale. Norma had an abundance of melodic sweep made for what was seemingly a fiasco but became a much loved “must see” hit in the opera world preceding Verdi but with strong hints of a new direction for opera. Norma had its world premiere at La Scala in Milan, Italy on December 26th, 1831. Bellini’s early death was tragic indeed, but like Mozart or Brooklyn’s George Gershwin, what he accomplished in his short life was eternal.

My first Norma was at The Metropolitan Opera, (MetOpera) circa 1956 with Mario Del Monaco and Maria Callas. Callas was vocally unsteady, but visually captivating even then, but Del Monaco as Pollione revealed a voice of heroic mettle and Herculean thrust.

The Winter Festival of 2018 at the beautiful William E. Schmidt Opera Theatre at the Sarasota Opera on the afternoon of Saturday, March 17th, was indeed special by its first airing of this incredible work. Maestro Victor DeRenzi, looking as elegant as his photo on Verdi Place in the impressive souvenir program and an imposing sculpted bust of him in the theatre, raised his baton and the world stood still. The final words in his program message were, “We work hard to create a performance and we love what we do! We want you to enjoy it and to love it as much as we do.”

After the spirited overture, we see a stage evolve into brilliant color. Suddenly, we were in Gaul during the Roman occupation. It was like coming out of cataract surgery and seeing the world with colors you forgot existed. Cameron Schutza, truly as Pollione, looked the warrior in his colorful costume. Mr. Schutza has a very fine tenor with metallic grace and sang heroically.

Cameron Schutza as Pollione (left) & Thomas Massey as Flavio. Photo by Rod Millington.

Mr. Schutza whose tenor was of more modest means than the stentorian Del Monaco had a fine reliable instrument that gave warrior resonance to his arias and certainly heroic flair to “Svanir le voci” which was very well done. His lyrical passages were also present enough to evoke sympathy for his character. Some of Bellini’s “choppy” war like passages were like Betty Davis “a bumpy ride” before a triumphant take off. “Me protege, me defende.” Mr. Schutza was indeed a force as Pollione and one I shall remember. I still can’t understand why he strays unto fiery death with Norma and becomes a prosciutto Pollione when he played with two women so casually earlier. But that’s opera! Pollione fathered two children with Norma and then became lover to her best friend Adalgisa and he is a detested Roman also. George Costanza was accused of “double dipping” in Seinfeld but Pollione is even worse!

Oroveso, Norma’s father, the Chief Druid, was in the presence of Young Bok Kim. Mr. Kim has a moderate sized lyrical basso with an amazing quality of emotion in it. His expressive eyes and face were part of an ensemble of humanity. His opening aria “Ite sul colle o Druidi!” showed how much Mr. Kim is able to get from his vocal arsenal. His final scene with Norma,”O in te, ritorna” was like a rainbow of turmoil from anger to acceptance. A truly impressive and passionate performance.

Oroveso Chief Druid (Young Bok Kim – left in blue). Photo by Rod Millington.

Norma the Druidess, was Joanna Parisi. This was her first performance of this brilliant opera. I have heard Callas, Caballe, Milanov, Sutherland and Jane Eaglen in this unique role and I rate Ms. Parisi very high both vocally and dramatically. Ms. Parisi was a wonderful Butterfly with the Sarasota Opera last season, so I know she has the “goods.” Her Norma seemed to have, as it should, a dual personality both in voice and as a person. She would suddenly go up and come down to a Hades like low or go up and touch the hem of the gods “non so, diversi, affetti”. One thing prevailed, love, and deepened her humanity. Her decision to be the “guilty” one and join Pollione in the fire but making certain that her children are raised by Oroveso was that of a woman and a mother.

Joanna Parisi, Druidess (center in green) as Norma. Photo by Rod Millington.

Casta Diva, quite possibly the most beautiful music ever written, was sung divinely. When the chorus joined in, as Norma, under the light of the moon, delivers sacred mistletoe and flowers, one is transformed to another world until Bellini, through Norma, sets you down. Norma’s (Joanna Parisi) confrontational scenes with Adalgisa were angry, then compassionate and their scenes together were quite exciting. Legendary soprano and Norma, Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) made a famous recording of “Mira O Norma” with mezzo Marion Telva in 1927 (as well as her own glorious Casta Diva) and captured the vitality and melody of this soprano-mezzo duet and triumphed!

Jennifer Black, Cameron Schutza & Joanna Parisi. Photo by Rod Millington.

Adalgisa was portrayed by Jennifer Black. Ms. Black has a truly radiant soprano voice and I did not hear any dark tones overshadowing the bright freer ones. She sang beautifully, with passion and was particularly-engaging in the Mira-Norma duet. She and Ms. Parisi  were outstanding in their long scenes together, “Salva mi, dal mio cor” with plenty of the coloratura, fioritura, and vocal variations of the day sung to illuminating perfection in the Bellinian style. Verdi admired Bellini, who set the musical world in a firmer more cohesive direction.

Norma (Joanna Parisi) with children. Photo by Rod Millington.

A personal aside, the Sarasota audiences are wonderful and knowledgeable, but why did Casta Diva not get the deserved ovation – or Mira o Norma? I don’t think audiences in general  are that aware of Bellinian music and they should be exposed more to it so they can properly applaud, and cry “Brava, Bravo, Bravi!”

Nicole Woodward (Studio artist) was a noticeable Clothilde, Norma’s confidant. Her rich mezzo was ear worthy and savored.

Thomas Massey (Studio artist) was Pollione’s friend Flavio and revealed a strong tenor and good stage presence.

Norma’s children were both excellent and brave enough – no wonder they happily survived her tantrum.

Adalgisa (Jennifer Black) & Norma (Joanna Parisi). Photo by Rod Millington.

Music director and Maestro Victor DeRenzi gave Bellini a truly brilliant reading from the overture to the incredible finale. The excellent musicians are much appreciated for their treasured efforts. Kudos also to Mark Freiman, Stage director for his easy to follow, brilliant and thoroughly digestible and memorable episodes on stage.

Oroveso Chief Druid (Young Bok Kim) center in white & Norma (Joanna Parisi) & Pollione (Cameron Schutza) on right. Photo by Rod Millington.

Scenic designer Michael Schweilkhardt for the brightness of his designs and the clarity of purpose-easy on the eye dazzling as a spectacle.

Costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s triumphant ware for Pollione and outstanding costumes for Norma as a leader and as a woman.

Ken Yunker’s lighting design was both vibrant and at the finale full of impact and flame.

Hair and make up were by Brittany Rappise-subtle and striking but never overdone.

The chorus excelled under Roger L. Bingaman. The Casta Diva and “Guerra, Guerra” episodes were quite thrilling.

The subtitles by Victor DeRenzi are helpful and informative. (by Words and music)

I always think of Norma when dining in a fine Italian (Sicilian) restaurant. Order Pasta Norma, it was Bellini’s favorite dish. Pasta, tomato sauce, eggplant slices topped both with ricotta insalata cheese. It represents Mount Etna and like Norma – it is a masterpiece! (Albeit a culinary one)

Executive Director Richard Russell who once  resided in Brooklyn wrote in the beautiful program article featuring “Opera can transform our souls.” We chatted with our neighbor Greg Trupiano, longtime Director of Artistic Administration. Ready for a nearby ice cream at “The Farmacy” in Brooklyn, Greg? We missed Sam Lowry, former Park Slope resident who heads Audience Development and thank him for his assistance. It was nice to chat with opera lover, August Ventura and his charming vibrant mother Romola and their friends from Brooklyn. Ventura was showing excerpts from his forthcoming Verdi film and the opera Luisa Miller at the opera house that week.

If its great opera that you want to see
Come to beautiful Sarasota – like Judy and me!
Whether it be comedy or catastrophe,
They will shine like magic with Victor DeRenzi and his splendid company!

A Thrilling Performance of Madama Butterfly at the Regina Opera

On the afternoon of Saturday, March 10th, Brooklyn’s Regina Opera, located in Sunset Park, and in its 48th season, presented a thrilling performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. As soon as the house lights dimmed, we were suddenly in Nagasaki, Japan in 1904. Goro, a marriage broker, shows off a new house to American naval officer Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who has just leased it for his upcoming marriage to Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) the geisha.

The translations for the wall hangings in each act are: Act One “Joy and Love,” Act Two “Sorrow and Hope” and Act Three “Horror and Death.” Three ladies in black represent Bunraku puppets and called Kuroko, are supposedly invisible to the audience and do everything from filling and serving a cup of tea, to handing Cio-Cio-San the knife that kills her.

The stage was ablaze with action, color and mayhem. There were colorful umbrellas and brilliant costumes and we become acquainted with the characters. The composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa witnessed an opening night fiasco on February 17, 1904 when the audience rioted. Puccini re-wrote Pinkerton’s part giving him an aria of “Remorse” (Addio fiorito asil), and making him a much more sympathetic character. Even today some audiences boo him because of his callous indifference to his young geisha bride, who converted to Christianity and could never accept the notion of his not returning to her.

Puccini kept working on Madama Butterfly and came to America to oversee its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House on February 7, 1907 with the immortal tenor Enrico Caruso as Pinkerton (1873-1921) and American soprano Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San. Both Caruso and Emmy Destinn sang Butterfly in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on November 22, 1910 with the Met on tour. Caruso and Farrar also recorded excerpts from the opera that are available today on CD.

Madama Butterfly (Megan Nielson) with wedding party. Photo by James Burger

The beginning of the first act shows Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy singing with U.S. Consul Sharpless “Amore o grillo dir non saprei” with toasts to Pinkerton on his wedding, with the horns playing the Star Spangled Banner. Kevin Rockover as Sharpless was afraid that Pinkerton was too frivolous towards the marriage and that his 15 year old bride might be taking it too seriously. Mr. Rockover sang with a truly fine manly baritone with warmth, prescience and diplomacy.

The Marriage broker Goro (Tai Collins, center in yellow). Photo by James Burger

Jerett Gieseler revealed a splendid American tenor (Eugene Conley’s name pops up) who also looked the part. His ringing tones in the National Anthem portions were quite exciting and I found it hard to believe that Gieseler was a baritone until recently. The great heldentenor and MGM film star Lauritz Melchior was a baritone for 6 years and a world famous tenor afterwards (1890-1973). Mr. Gieseler sang eloquently throughout with abundance of solid, easy ascents. His handling the very end of the love duet (Ah! Quanti occhi fisi) was fine; he sang with relative ease and held the final C with passion and ecstasy. In the third act, his remorseful “Addio fiorito asil” was quite touching although one never really believes it – especially when compared to the composers first version. Jerett Gieseler was a very credible Pinkerton with a very promising tenor career to come.

Marriage of Madama Butterfly (Megan Nielson) & Pinkerton (Jerett Gieseler). Photo by James Burger

Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), a geisha, was portrayed by soprano Megan Nielson. Her entrance aria “Ancora un passo” was sung with a lovely, stylish and youthful abandon as she and the wedding guests walked over the bridge with colorful umbrellas creating an image for the memory. In “Ieri son salita,” Cio-Cio-San reveals that she has embraced Pinkerton’s religion. All the while her voice denotes innocence, not using the “baby tones” of many past Italian Butterfly’s. Is her image to Pinkerton, she queries, of a butterfly pinned to the wall by her captor? The Bonze, her uncle appears suddenly and denounces Butterfly for abandoning the religion of her ancestors. Kofi Hayford used his impressive basso to make his point and abruptly left the ceremony with family members.

Kofi Hayford on the bridge as The Bonze – Butterfly’s Uncle Denouncing her for giving up her religion. Photo by James Burger

In “Bimba dagli occhi,” the famous love duet, Butterfly blended beautifully with Pinkerton and was swept away with his passion. They are finally united in love. Ms. Nielson’s voice was passionate and powerful and bright as a blossom.

Pinkerton & Butterfly’s wedding night (Bunraku puppets in black). Photo by James Burger

In Act 2, Pinkerton has been gone for three years and Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant, portrayed by Hannah Kramer, doubts he will return. Cio-Cio-San (Megan Nielson) then sings the iconic aria “Un Bel Di” Butterfly with the hope that the sweeter the voice, the heavier the despair. Her voice retained its sweetness until the finale, when, in a tsunami of passion, she ascended the higher notes of the finale and received an ovation.

Sharpless surprisingly visits Butterfly and tries to read her a letter from Pinkerton “Ora a noi” but she simply shuts down and refuses to accept even the thought that Pinkerton will not return. In “Sai cos’ebbe cuore,” she would rather die than go back to being a geisha. She shows Sharpless her and Pinkerton’s child, “Sorrow”

Left- Suzuki (Hannah Kramer) & Butterfly (Megan Nielson) with child Sorrow (Sabrina Seweryn). Photo by James Burger

Sharpless was correct when he sang the words “Diavolo Pinkerton” just as Suzuki was when she sang “Povero Butterfly.” Sharpless seemed angry when Pinkerton was excited about marrying Cio-Cio-San who admittedly is only 15. (An old 15) as she stated.

The famed “Flower duet” followed with Butterfly and Suzuki preparing for Pinkerton’s ship as it enters the harbor. As they sing the “Flower duet” and fill the house with blossoms, with “Sorrow” seated nearby, the vocal blend was heavenly. Ms. Nielson’s soaring soprano and Ms. Kramer’s luscious mezzo took us all to the land of milk and plenty from an emotional land of silk and empty. The gorgeous sounds of the Regina Opera chorus made that moment a sacred one.

Scattering blossoms are Suzuki (Hannah Kramer) & Butterfly (Megan Nielson) with Bunraku’s preparing for Pinkerton’s arrival. Photo by James Burger

The final scene has a lovely interlude. Alexandra Felipe, was the dream Bonze, Susannah Booth was the colorful dream dragon and Yoko Yamashita as the beautiful and graceful dream Butterfly.

Dream sequence with Bunraku. Photo by James Burger

Maestro Gregory Ortega and the Regina Opera Orchestra took us on an incredible journey! There was a large transparent American flag and so many dazzling dreamlike images.

The last act has Pinkerton returning with his American wife, Kate, sung by Mary Gwynne Langston, who have come to Japan to adopt “Sorrow”. Pinkerton and Sharpless sing a dirge-like melody, haunting and sad. Butterfly meets Kate briefly and then rushes inside to be with Sorrow.

Meeting of Butterfly (Megan Nielson) & Kate (Mary Gwynne Langston), with Sharpless (Kevin Rockover). Photo by James Burger

Pinkerton sings his “Addio fiorito asil” with tenderness and thrilling high notes, and runs off. Butterfly blindfolds Sorrow and quotes her late father’s suicide note.”Better to die with honor than live with dishonor.” The Bunraki give her the knife and wrap her in red – the deed is done, with the red banners shimmering as Pinkerton runs toward the dead Butterfly calling her name. A huge discord note with the Death theme ends the opera, which was followed by an ovation from the emotional and deeply moved audience.

Death of Butterfly – Pinkerton (Jerett Gieseler), Sharpless (Kevin Rockover) with Sorrow (Sabrina Seweryn) & Bunraku. Photo by James Burger

The other characters who deserve very honorable mention: Tai Collins was a robust voiced tenor and dynamic animated Goro; Prince Yamadori, a suitor, was in the patient, versatile, and comical hands of dark voiced Grant Mech; Kate Pinkerton, Mary Gwynne Langston, was touching in her brief but imposing role; Thomas Geib was an able Imperial Commissioner, with Davis Tillistrand as the Registrar, and adorable Sabrina Seweryn as “Sorrow”. Special plaudits to the Kuroko: Wendy Chu (Dream Pinkerton), Alexandra Felipe (Dream Bonze) and Susanna Booth (Dream Dragon).

Saori Morris’ make up and wig design was fabulous! Credit goes to Jahn Visone, an excellent make-up artist, and Yoko Yamashita a wonderful – Japanese movement consultant. It was so nice to see the lovely and familiar faces of Cathy Greco and Shelley Barkan from the ensemble, among the Choristers and actresses who are such a vital part of the scene.

Maestro and Music Director Gregory Ortega led the Regina Orchestra of nearly 40 superb musicians who gave us a Butterfly to remember always. The late beloved founder of the Regina Opera, Marie Cantoni, I am certain would say from her heavenly perch, “Wow, that’s quite a show!”

Kudos to President and Producer Fran Garber-Cohen, Linda Cantoni (who provided the supertitles), and Principal Stage Director Linda Lehr, who brought us a magnificent and brilliant slice of life from the past that still breaks the heart and thrills the soul, in a new and special way. Compliments go to Marcia Kresge’s magnificent and beautiful costumes, and to Regina’s Vice President Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, whose publicity helped to fill the theater. Many a person emailed me saying it was one of the very best Madama Butterfly’s ever – unforgettable and vibrant! Bravo Regina Opera! Here’s to their first Aida in May.

Opera Index Presents 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award Dinner

On the evening of Sunday, January 21st at The JW Marriott Essex House in New York City, Opera Index celebrated its 2018 Distinguished Award Dinner honoring legendary American mezzo Mignon Dunn. The program began with an operatic recital of young Opera Index 2017 awardees. During the cocktail hour, I was happy to chat with great mezzo Dolora Zajick, legendary Met soprano Lucine Amara, brilliant Met soprano Diana Soviero and the glowing awardee Mignon Dunn. Of course I thanked them all for their careers which made the operatic multitudes very happy indeed. I told Mignon Dunn how beautiful she looked and sounded as Magdalena, the Duke’s girlfriend in Rigoletto, and as a young man, how happy I was to see her so vocally alluring and sexy as the trollop sister of Sparafucile! Ms. Dunn, radiant and youthful, now teaches and like Johnny Appleseed, is planting many new singers and sending them off for future generations. I told Lucine Amara how a commercial for “Pace, Pace Mio Dio” Olive Oil on WOV Italian Radio in my grandmother’s house, made me familiar with the aria and helped spark an interest in opera. Ms. Amara sang the aria with such glory-even recently. I always tell Diana Soviero how moved I was by her unrivaled performance as Suor Angelica at the Metropolitan Opera. Dolora Zajick, up beat and full of fun, is one of the greatest Azucena’s in Metopera history in Verdi’s Il Trovatore and she too has a school of teaching and is helping to keep opera alive. Earlier we chatted with the Metopera legend, the indomitable Elinor Ross whose dramatic soprano still echoes in memory.

Lucine Amara, Mignon Dunn, Dolora Zajick &
Diana Soviero. Photo by Judy Pantano

President Jane Shaulis came to the lectern and with one golden note, got the attention of all and the program began. In her introduction, Ms. Shaulis, who is a much heralded and loved mezzo at the Metropolitan Opera thanked the patrons, whose generous support sustains the awardees, who bring us all hope for the future and the honored guest Mignon Dunn who remains both in memory and current times a historic American opera presence.

The presenter of the award was Joan Dornemann, pianist and vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera from 1974 and she also serves as assistant conductor. Ms. Dornemann gave a rousing and animated speech getting much applause and joyous laughter. She mentioned the wonderful Amato Opera with its Aida and the Egyptian army of 4 people. Ms. Dornemann spoke of her years in Spain at the Gran Teatro del Liceo and all the great singers she worked with. Her stories and wit were most amusing.

Mignon Dunn, looked so much like we remember her. She worked hard but had fun with her colleagues. Ms. Dunn was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Tyronza, Arkansas and Memphis. Her opera debut was in New Orleans as Carmen in 1955. She sang over 600 performances at The Metropolitan Opera in a 35 year career and taught voice at Brooklyn College and Manhattan School of Music among others. Her late beloved husband was conductor Kurt Klippstatter. Her advice was high praise for Opera Index for the award and profound thanks. She misses her colleagues and says it is important to “always be good to each other.”

Top Row: Jane Shaulis, Dolora Zajick, Wendy White, Marianne Cornetti, Jane Bunnell & Cori Ellison
Seated: Rosalind Elias & Mignon Dunn.
Photo by Judy Pantano

The concert then began with Tamara Banjesevic who sang “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo e Juliette. Her soprano has power depth and flexability. Ms. Banjesevic danced through the tables in the dining area and had much allure. Her voice had the necessary frisson to make us all feel her newfound love and joy. Her coloratura flights showed us how happy Juliette was and while dancing, it was a nice bit of vocal and stagecraft by a future star.

Pianist Michael Fennelly with singers Brittany Nickell, Tamara Banjesevic, James Ley, Bryan Murray, Courtney Johnson, William Guanbo Su & Opera Index President Jane Shaulis.
Photo by Judy Pantano

Bryan Murray sang “Mein Schnen, mein Wähnen” from Die todt Stadt by Korngold. Mr. Murray has a caressing baritone and was able to draw the audience into his mood as if it was a Schubert lieder. His voice has a nice cadence to it and was always in legato balance and fell gently and passionately on the ear.

Courtney Johnson sang “Come scoglio” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Her impeccable soprano was well balanced with a lovely piercing top and flawless legato. Her coloratura flights were exciting and her ascendancy and downward slides were seemingly effortless. Ms. Johnson captured the spirit of Mozart’s character and shared that with us!

Cavaliere Edward Jackson, Joy Ferro & Marcelo Santos Remizov.
Photo by Judy Pantano


James Ley tenor, sang “Vainement, ma bien-aimée” from Le Roi d’Ys by Lalo. This aria is like an illusion. Most think it to be a simple ditty when it is really a high bridge partially obscured by mist and fog. The outreach for the satisfying high notes are deceivingly out of reach for too many tenors. Tenor legend Beniamino Gigli’s superb honeyed recording should be heard. One has to interject a vocal personality in this piece. Mr. Ley’s capabilities are strong enough to achieve this. Let that note float – and satisfy. Don’t just reach for it – let it float and carry us on an emotional journey with it!

William Guanbo Su, bass sang “Vi ravviso” from La Sonnambula by Bellini. I am Sicilian, I love Pasta à la Norma and I love Bellini. I felt that Mr. Guanbo Su was a fruit in the midst of ripening. A few touches here and there and then bravo – la frutta perfecto! His first part was lyrically sung but one did not feel the pulse of Bellinian melancholy. The cabaletta had more energizing spirit to it. The voice itself has all the good baritonal and darker sounds one desires. They have to be kneaded like pasta, and a covering of tomato sauce with graded cheese and a bit of mint will create a true Bellinian singer. Then we can all celebrate with Pasta à la Norma! In 2017, William Guanbo Su was the first prize winner of the Gerda Lissner Foundation. The ripened fruit is near happening. We eagerly await for it at the table with some fine wine!

Murray Rosenthal, Ken Benson & George Voorhis.
Photo by Judy Pantano

Brittany Nickell soprano, sang “Robert, toi que j’aime” from Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer. Ms. Nickell posses a fine flexible soprano of pleasing quality from top to bottom. Strong emotions were displayed and her ascents and descents were formidable. Her soprano had subtle shading and she was “in control” of her instrument and seemed to know the “feel” of Meyerbeer. Perhaps one day, a revival of this work-just for her!

I thought of Met Opera librarian Lionel Mapleson with his cylinders recording of Meyerbeer’s operas at the old Met in 1901-03. The “live” sounds of the golden age and the wild applause of the transfixed audiences with Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, American soprano Emma Eames and some legendary names that never made recordings.These are the only recordings of the elegant Jean de  Reszke. Ms. Nickell and the extraordinary Opera Index piano accompanist Michael Fennelly gave us the thrills that Mapleson yearned for over 100 years ago.

Dr. Robert Campbell, Rosalind Elias, Elinor Ross
& Luna Kaufmann.
Photo by Judy Pantano

After the concert and presentations, we had a delicious Filet Mignon (Dunn) dinner and chatted with many of the guests. It was nice to see Metopera legend mezzo Rosalind Elias, Opera Orchestra of New York conductor Eve Queler, journalist and patron Meche Kroop, elegant Executive Director Joseph Gasperec, patron Sachi Liebergesell, author pacifist Luna Kaufmann, vocal teacher Joy Ferro, Opera Index Vice Presidents Philip Hagemann and Janet Stovin and treasurer Murray Rosenthal, horologist and board members John David Metcalfe, conductor Stephen Phebus and Linda Howes, Robert Steiner and Faith Pleasanton, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Michael Fornabaio and Karl Michaelis, distinguished patrons and representatives from the Gerda Lissner Foundation, suave David and glittering Barbara Bender from Career Bridges, opera manager Ken Benson, computer whiz George Voorhis, Cavaliere poet Dr. Edward Jackson, Jolana Blau from Elysium between two continents and the classy tenor Cesare Santeramo and Dr. Robert Campbell, sage patrons and benefactors, who added to the sparkle of this joyful evening at the fabulous  JW Marriott Essex House.

Maestro Eve Queler, John David Metcalfe, Gloria Gari & Cesare Santeramo.
Photo by Judy Pantano

May opera thrive in the new year and beyond! Thanks Jane Shaulis and Joseph Gasperec for this splendid evening and for the loving assistance you render to these Opera Index artists of the future.

Executive Director of Opera Index Joseph Gasperec & President Jane Shaulis.
Photo by Judy Pantano


Franco Corelli – A Revolution in Singing (Volume Two)

This volume, Franco Corelli – A Revolution in Singing (Volume 2), by Stefan Zucker comes at a time when many traditional opera customs are being looked upon with such inquisitional curiosity by today’s book burners. The directors’ various brain and sexual disorders appear to be silencing the singers and appealing to guilt laden complexes that seem to be working on the side of the devils. Make-up gone, Canio castrated, Don Jose executed by Carmen and Calaf beheaded by Turandot. How can a book, however scholarly on opera singers and composers, have any relevance today? Well, this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening book has been a source of unalloyed joy and pleasure to me and Stefan Zucker’s (Bel Canto Society) insatiable appetite for gossip, rivalry and jealousy among these artists speaks volumes.

I was blessed to have been an opera-file as a young man when Franco Corelli (1921-2003) was having his triumphs. My love of the voice of the great tenor Enrico Caruso made me a follower of the careers of so many legendary names. Since Franco Corelli began his rise in the 1950’s I can aptly say I saw and heard him with his brilliant powerful voice, film star persona and the excitement of his physical presence that made him unique. No one today can rival those exceptional qualities. He had sex appeal, power, pathos and could diminish a tone until it became a whisper. His larynx lowering was part of his vocal magic. I believe that Giacomo Lauri-Volpi was the tenor who influenced Corelli the most. Franco Corelli’s personal letters to Lauri-Volpi are very touching and show his great admiration for this legendary tenor. Franco and Loretta were very devoted to Lauri-Volpi and his wife Maria and Lauri-Volpi still sang in his eighties.

Maria Callas & Franco Corelli in Norma – 1964

The author, Stephan Zucker, gave concerts with his mother, famed soprano Mme. Rosina Wolf, embellishing the nine high C’s in the La Fille du Regiment aria. Stefan’s mother knew Franco Corelli, who babysat for her while she was performing in Italy in 1951, watching young Stefan. Stefan became one of the great personalities in the opera world creating a “buzz” and a “stir” with his comments and his “Opera Fanatic” radio show which featured many opera singers and was truly an anchor for Franco Corelli.

Franco Corelli & Leontyne Price in IL Trovatore – 1962


I met Stefan at the home of TV opera pioneer Lina Del Tinto and her husband Harry Demarsky and found Stefan to be not only extraordinarily intelligent, but a delightful dinner companion with a strong wit and willing ear. Mr. Zucker discusses 54 tenors spanning 200 years from cast ratings to castrati! 

The great composers wrote music as well as the embellishments so championed by the great singers of the day. The singers knowledge allowed them to enhance the music with phenomenal scales and variations. But things changed and composer Gioacchino Rossini felt that a grand era was ending and that singing was becoming lackluster. Gilbert Louis Duprez formed a high C in singing that swept the opera world.

Farinelli and Velluti were not the name of a law firm in Italy but were two of the great castrati who, like dinosaurs, reigned supreme. The castrati recalled my grandmother Rosalia’s Easter and Thanksgiving feast which was a delicious capon with its tender breast meat – always tasty – never fowl. These birds were a delicious blend of male and female capabilities that evoked unique (eunuch) rich voices and many rhapsodic fans of both culinary succulents and operatic ecstasy! The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), made a series of recordings with the Vatican choir in 1902-4-for the Gaisberg Brothers, who also recorded the young Enrico Caruso as well as 93 year old Pope Leo 13th. While Moreschi was not a great castrato, he sang with rooster like tones, haunting and sad.

Rossini admired the castrati who themselves added the coloratura and vocal displays that thrilled and drove audiences to a Farinelli frenzy. When my grandparents re-visited Gangi, Sicily in the Madonie Mountains near Palermo in 1939, they took their son my Uncle Ignacio along. They planned a big surprise. The surprise was a farm girl who scrambled pigs testicles in a pan with eggs and milk. It was made for adolescent young men and was called “La Festa di Pape.” (The feast of Popes) He had the good sense to say NO, thank you! He is 91 today and a retired ballroom dancer. (Bill Tano) guess he didn’t need that extra testicular jolt!

Giovanni Battista Velluti who was a “ladies man” rather than the opposite (man’s lady), was the last operatic castrato hero and Rossini and others mourned the loss of the great “senza gazze.” Giovanni Battista Rubini (1795-1854) was a fabulous high C tenor who studied with Andrea Nozzari and sang some of the repertory of Giovanni David, who was called the “Paganini of Song.” Two wonderful illustrations of Rubini are enchanting. There is a lengthy segment on “Balls” and the varied surgeries that made castratos.

Mario Del Monaco as Otello

The new school of  “high C ” tenors took hold ultimately, leading to such stars as Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905) Verdi’s first Otello, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957), Giacomo Lauri-Volpi)(1892-1979), Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969), Mario Del Monaco and Franco Corelli. When Enrico Caruso passed away in 1921, the world went into mourning. Tenor Giovanni Martinelli said Lauri-Volpi, Beniamino Gigli and he had to sing the late Caruso’s roles. Mario Del Monaco (1915-1982) was a handsome, robust voiced tenor whose rise to fame was about the same as Franco Corelli. They became intense rivals. I saw both these great tenors in their prime. As soon as Del Monaco heard of Corelli coming to the Metropolitan Opera, he left. Del Monaco was not a relaxed singer. You felt the tension and saw his muscles collaborate and his burnished and dramatic tones rocked the house. Del Monaco, who I saw in Norma with Callas at the Met made a film where he was heard as “The Young Caruso.” He was also quite an exhibitionist-but that’s another story. Franco Corelli would step back, open up and out would fly these free and furious notes, defiant and heroic. Once he tapered the tone to a whisper at the end of Celeste Aida. His defiance of his Turandot, Birgit Nilsson was an outpouring of two volcanoes, his melting kiss was a triple gelato almost too much to bear. Corelli said it would not be out of place if he saw Del Monaco and punched him in the jaw. Corelli did bite Birgit Nilsson on the neck in Turandot when she held their duet note longer than he and ran offstage in Italy to challenge a student who booed him-with sword in hand!

Birgit Nilsson (Turandot) & Franco Corelli (Calaf)

A friend, artist and Italofile James Albano, told me of Corelli’s singing of Calaf in Vienna that had women throwing their keys at him. Corelli’s wife Loretta was in constant tension about these real or imagined liaisons. She said “I was extremely jealous. If I didn’t have 10 fingernails, I had 20, to scratch out the eyes of women who were after Franco.” Corelli said that soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara was his greatest love (She was a brilliant Tosca), but he and Loretta stayed married. Franco Corelli sang at The Metropolitan Opera from 1961 until 1975. In 1975, Corelli and Tebaldi sang a legendary concert at Brooklyn College. That’s the year they both left the Metropolitan Opera. They were, according to Zucker, associates and friends, not lovers. There is a chapter on Corelli’s various liaisons, mistresses and flirtations.

This splendid book has many glorious photographs including those of Franco and Loretta. They were a handsome couple and one extraordinary shot of Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Brooklyn’s great tenor Richard Tucker as Canio. Can you imagine, seeing them both on the same night. I did! Corelli was a superb Turiddu and Tucker a great Canio. Corelli’s “Addio alle Madre” was impassioned and Richard Tucker’s heartbreaking “Vesti la Giubba” and his screamed “La commedia e finita” haunt the memory! They too were rivals but “friendly” ones. Tucker and Corelli became closer as time passed. Tucker told Corelli how to secure a note (or the other way around) and they were much friendlier after that. Metropolitan Opera Manager Sir Rudolf Bing used to assuage them by threatening to pay the other one dollar more! I recall seeing Franco Corelli at Richard Tucker’s (1913-1975) wake at the Campbell Funeral Home in New York in 1975 and he looked, in his grief, as if he had been punched in the stomach. Tucker had a brilliant 30-year career with the Metropolitan Opera. Tucker still lives on through The Richard Tucker Music Foundation run by his industrious son Barry.

Richard Tucker & Franco Corelli

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) had a voice of incredible sweetness and honeyed tone. He could “cover” and also add some delicious “fortes” and made about 20 films including Forget Me Not, in England where he sang “Non Ti  Scordar di me” and  “Mama.” In “Mamma,” (1940) Gigli sang the title song and the delightful “Se vuoi goder la vita,” where his diminishing tones were breathtaking. Corelli listened and learned. He was no Gigli but he was renowned for his dimuendos and silvery masculine tones. Gigli’s final film was the charming Taxi di notte in 1953. I would go to the Benson Theatre with my grandparents Antonio and Rosalia Pantano to see his films. She would loudly curse the villains both wife and her lover and weep for the poor cuckolded Gigli! Gigli succeeded the mighty Caruso at the Met (1920-1932 and again in 1939 to demonstrate his Radames. He came back to America for three Carnegie Hall concerts at age 65 in 1955. I attended one of the concerts where Gigli sang a dozen arias and about 15 encores. He covered beautifully and his “covering” pianissimi were still prominent, his top, a bit short but quite thrilling. At age 65 he was still a wonder. His intoxicating and emotional “E Lucevan le stelle” tore the house down. His “Oy Marie,” and “Quanno a femmena vo” drove the audience to a frenzy. It’s all been recorded and is incredible to see, but also to witness – amazing! According to Zucker, Gigli’s greatest gift was “chiaroscuro of timbre.”

Beniamino Gigli – “Nel verde maggio” Loreley

I met Franco Corelli at a Michael Sisca’s “La Follia” concert when he was about 80. I kissed his hand in respect. He said “No, no, no!” But I thanked him for the visceral thrills he gave me and so many. Corelli was a very nervous performer. His professional recordings don’t have the special “edge” that his “live” performances had. I recall with a shiver and a smile his incredible performances in his prime, but I never listen to his recordings for comfort or inspiration. Occasionally I play Gigli (I love his Spanish song “Marta”) and I always find comfort in Caruso. When not in a tenor mood, it’s great basso Ezio Pinza who moves me. Once in a while I play (castrato) Moreschis’s “Ideale” with his haunting ironic torment. On occasion, Martinelli, Peerce, Tucker, Melchior and Sicilian tenor De Stefano help fill the void.

I wish to thank Stefan Zucker for his brilliant and stimulating book with its vital and vibrant photographs. It is what opera is really about and of the importance of all these great artists who used their vocal talents to remind us of the troubadour. Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Verdi and Puccini surely second the motion. Soprano Gigliola Frazzoni said, “Corelli was the Callas of tenors!” This splendid book has 351 pages adorned with many magnificent photographs of Franco Corelli in costume and with his wife Loretta and other artists from Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi to great baritone Tito Gobbi. Illustrations of the distant past singers are incredibly artful and truly make the reader part of the action. Whether its romance, gossip, technical truths or memory refreshing, this book stands out as stimulating reading for the next year and decades to come. I strongly recommend Stefan Zucker’s Franco Corelli – A Revolution in Singing  (Volume Two) as I did Volume One.

Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli, Sir Rudolf Bing & Maria Callas – Tebaldi & Callas reunited after feud

We eagerly await “Hitler’s Tenor,” a book on Beniamino Gigli, another tenor from the Adriatic (Recanati) whose worldwide fame put him among the gods of opera as well as thrilling audiences worldwide for over 40 years! Some may object to the relationship of Gigli to the German Nazi regime but all that will come out in Stephan Zucker’s new book. My advice is listen to Corelli and Gigli! It is artistry, voice and the universal pleasure reserved for angels and tenors!