Remembering Jon Vickers

OperaMetro remembers Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers, one of the great tenors of our era, passed away on July 10, 2015 at the age of 88. He was easily one of the more memorable performers I’ve seen on stage over all these years.

So OperaMetro (OM) set out to chat, via email, with two other ‘seasoned’ opera fans who were also fortunate enough to have been touched by his superb artistry. With me they share their remembrances of Jon Vickers in performance, on recording, and in person.

One is Glenn Smith (GS), who began his operatic journey with student performances at the Metropolitan Opera while in grade school. After graduating from college, he worked in the world of retail records, as in ‘vinyl,’ with Franklin Music and Sam Goody before becoming the RCA Red Seal Product Manager in the late 70's.  He jumped to the video world, as in 'VHS,' to help found VAI in the mid 80's, bringing to the American market many opera performances from Glyndebourne under the baton of Bernard Haitink. Glenn returned as a video consultant to Red Seal in the late 80's, then logged 25 years as a radio producer and host for WWFM, The Classical Network, where, most recently, he produced the first American radio broadcasts of opera performances from Teatro alla Scala, hosted by Thor Eckert.

The other is Richard Schuller (RS), whose degrees in music education are BA from Trenton State College in Trenton, NJ, and an MA from NYU. He taught music in Livingston Public Schools in NJ for 33 years, conducting many of their high school musicals, and also performed as a member of Pro Arte Chorale of NJ for 5 years. Dick was Organist and Choir Director of his local church for 15 years. He has been a Metropolitan Opera subscriber since the 1960-1961 season, two years ahead of me. So I asked…

OM: What were your first encounters with Jon Vickers on stage or on recording?

GS: I knew about Jon Vickers through recordings first, but these were followed fairly quickly by stage performances at the Met or at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia or vice versa. His Siegmund was my first on stage, preceded by the Leinsdorf Die Walküre on RCA; my second on stage was his Samson, followed by the recording of Samson et Dalila on Angel with Rita Gorr, conducted by Georges Prêtre. His Otello with Leonie Rysanek and Tito Gobbi on RCA was one of the first recordings I owned, but it would be a few years before I saw him on stage (in Philly with Renata Tebaldi and Peter Glossop).

Cornell MacNeil as Iago and Jon Vickers as Otello, Metropolitan Opera telecast

Cornell MacNeil as Iago and Jon Vickers as Otello, Metropolitan Opera telecast

OM: I was at that performance in Philadelphia. Late 1969 was it? The Met was on strike that fall…It was my first Vickers Otello on stage, and yes, I knew what to expect from the RCA, a great recording overall. His performances of Otello at the Met in 1972 were his prime years, though. My sister was pretty crazy about him too. She and I went three times that December, and once again in June of ‘73, I from U. Delaware and she from Rutgers in central Jersey. I think too these were the first times we heard Mr. Levine conduct.

RS: My first experience of Jon Vickers was the Sir Thomas Beecham recording of Handel’s Messiah, but I also know that Otello.  As I recall my first live performance with Jon Vickers was in Die Walküre at the Met in the very early 1960s. I was totally blown away by him that time and every time since.

GS: That was one of his core roles. His commercial recording of Siegmund in Die Walküre, also with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and George London as Wotan, is still my favorite recording, for him, and for that matter, it’s my favorite recording of the opera itself. [Erich] Leinsdorf led the London Symphony Orchestra: his command of Wagner was unmatched at the time, and the cast responded magnificently. Remember, it was originally released on the RCA Red Seal label in the USA in the very early 60s, the first stereo version of the most popular Ring opera.

OM: In the big red box, the deluxe Soria Series as I recall. Still have it somewhere downstairs. But for younger readers, know that it’s now available on Decca CDs. It stands up well to the competition.

RS: Yes, it’s a marvelous recording, but I think you’ll find his Siegmund in Die Walküre with Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Gramophon quite excellent as well. There is something very special about it.

OM: Agreed. I got to know that recording quite well in college. Except for Birgit Nilsson, it had most of the principals of von Karajan’s debut at the Met in 1967. That was some night! The opening of the Met's new production of the Ring, the first Schneider-Siemssen version, I mean. Vickers and von Karajan had a good collaboration going by then.

Tell you a story: I met Jon Vickers backstage at the Old Met in 1965 as he climbed the stairs to his dressing room after Act II of Die Walküre. One knew that John Culshaw at Decca was stacking the deck in casting for the Solti Ring, of which the spectacular Götterdämmerung was about to be released. Walküre, the last in their queue, was yet to be recorded. So I rather innocently asked if he, Jon Vickers, would be the Siegmund. He whirled around, Grimes at his exercise, and said something to the effect “I’ll never work with that man again,” meaning Solti. This is pretty close to a quote. It probably stems from the Aïda recording they did a few years earlier, but I didn’t have time to ask for details.

After that though he worked quite frequently with von Karajan, especially with the opera films: OtelloPagiacci (this is one great performance!), and Carmen come to mind. Closing thought, as long as we’re on Wagner: SONY Classical has released a CD set of the Met broadcast of Die Walküre from February 24, 1968, with a dream cast: Nilsson, Vickers, Rysanek, Stewart, Ludwig, and Ridderbusch. It’s always instructive to hear the singers in live performance recordings.

Switching gears, what characteristics of his performances made them different from other tenors?

RS: For me it was both the sheer size of the voice in the house and the incredible musicianship of his singing. But more than that, what made him unique, was total commitment to the roles he portrayed.

GS: Agreed. Some artists—actors, dancers, instrumentalists, singers, conductors—can command a stage the minute they appear and never relinquish it until they exit the platform.  It’s a sort of innate charisma. But we all know it takes more than charisma. There are charismatic singers, but they perform with limited resources and therefore never achieve the pinnacle of their profession.  For me there was a special quality to Vickers’ voice that commanded immediate attention.

OM: One always recognized his voice immediately on record or on the radio.

GS: And add to that the fact that he knew how to use it to create memorable characters. He knew his instrument so well that he chose his roles carefully. I suspect that it’s one reason he felt pretty sure he’d be successful with those roles.

OM: And he knew how to use his body as well, a part of the ‘total commitment’ Dick referred to. He sustained the tension of the dramatic moment with the control of his movement. Maria Callas did this: watch her hands, watch her ‘flow’ in Act II of Tosca at Covent Garden on DVD, Tito Gobbi did this, Leonie Rysanek did this; Joyce DiDonato, Simon Keeleyside, Jonas Kaufmann do this. Others, of course. Vickers was not a small man by any means, but he did not move like a ‘big’ man. He moved more like a very strong man, emotionally taut, just holding it all back like a rumbling volcano.

RS: Yes. He marshaled his resources well. I met Jon Vickers after a performance of Pique Dame [in 1967 at the Met in Lincoln Center]. He was shorter than he appeared on stage. But he was very smartly dressed, exceptionally gracious, and he seemed very nice to his fans. I really didn’t get much of a chance to talk with him. One of those whirlwind backstage visits.

OM: Those who never saw him perform on stage: watch the DVD of the Met’s Otello from 1978: you’ll see that he moves from one position to another in great arcs, body, arms, head, often matching the vocal phrases, the text, and the orchestra. The Love Duet in Act I with Renata Scotto, or his Vengeance Duet with Cornell MacNeil in Act II, or the Death Scene…one actually senses the life passing out of him at the end. The cover art is posted on the top of this interview. In Parsifal, too, on stage at the Met in 1978 with Christa Ludwig, I remember the moment of Kundry’s kiss in Act II as being a non-verbal pas de deux, for want of a better word, between two beings slowly settling in for the game-changing monent.

Moving on, what were his greatest roles in your experience? We’ve named a few above. Include recordings if you did not see him do the role on stage.

RS: We’ve mentioned Siegmund, Otello, and Parsifal. I’d add Florestan, Tristan and Samson (both Handel and Saint-Saëns).

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes in the Covent Garden production

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes in the Covent Garden production

GS: All great roles. I’d certainly add Aeneas in Les Troyens. But to my thinking, his greatest achievement would have to be Peter Grimes. I was familiar with the Peter Pears’ Grimes from his commercial recording on Decca as well as from the film of the opera, both led by Britten himself. But neither of these prepared me for Jon Vickers. He took the character 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  It was as though Britten had (unwittingly) written another opera about the same person.  I saw him sing it in New York and San Francisco and the dimension of pathos he brought to a brute character will never leave my memory.

OM: I agree with you both. My first Grimes with Vickers was with you, Dick, at the Met in 1977. Heather Harper was Ellen Orford that night, as I recall. Fortunately his Peter Grimes is captured on DVD and CD, the first a BBC telecast from Covent Garden in 1981, the second a studio recording on Philips CDs from 1978, both conducted by Sir Colin Davis. To these, gentlemen, I’d have to add Canio in I Pagliacci, and therefore recommend the DVD with von Karajan and the wonderful Raina Kabaivanska as Nedda. I and Elise saw him sing Canio on stage at the Met in 1985. Good advice: don’t mess with Canio’s wife!

I know the Met has remastered a Parsifal broadcast from 1985 with Vickers and Leonie Rysanek, but it hasn’t surfaced commercially to my knowledge. It should though: I remember it being one of the best ever, Levine, every one, completely in synch. There is probably a pirate recording of the Met’s only performance with Nilsson and Vickers (and Leinsdorf) in Tristan und Isolde, but I’ve not heard it. The performance itself was one I’ll never forget. January 30, 1974.

I remember hearing a broadcast of Tristan und Isolde recorded live from Salzburg: von Karajan, Vickers, Helga Dernesch, Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig. It was quite good, what I heard, mainly a lot of Act III. I’m hoping that one re-surfaces someday! But oddly, the EMI stereo version, with mostly the same cast, spawned from the stage performances in early 70s, as was HVK’s wont, is patchy and sometimes sadly vacant. The dynamics and stereo staging shift constantly: you’ll adjust your volume many times through this. Vickers is great, but Dernesch, much as I admire her, is either not in good vocal health or really out of her league or just not awake at times.

But then there is his Tristan with Birgit Nilsson, Walter Berry, conducted by Karl Böhm in July of 1973, live from the Théâtre Antique d’Orange, France. The sound track is a complete recording of the performance, but the video portion, like that in the iconic Woodstock movie, is cobbled together from whatever scraps were available. For instance, the frenetic conclusion of Act I, instead of giving us close-ups of the doomed lovers, has a lot of aerial shots of Böhm conducting (why?)…whatever, I haven’t done the ‘this visual was from that moment’ analysis. So the patchwork video is disconcerting, and the sets aren’t much to look at anyway but, as I always say, when the images match the drama and the sound, and they do often, it’s better than my imagination. Of course better: I wasn’t there!

Okay, Birgit Nilsson was obviously a singer with whom he worked well! What other singers, in your opinion, seemed to elevate his performance? And why?

RS: Of course Nilsson. The Todesverkündigung scene in Die Walküre I always found very moving. Certainly Leonie Rysanek in Walküre, but also Rysanek in Fidelio and Parsifal; Renata Scotto in Otello. These artists were as committed to their performances as was he.

GS: No question those were very satisfying performances, but I don’t believe he ever needed to be elevated by the presence of other great singers.  It might be closer to the other way around: he often lifted them with the intensity of his performances. I never saw him on a bad night.

RS: Well, I was not particularly overwhelmed by his performance of Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino. Mid 70s, as I recall. Perhaps he just hadn’t settled into the character, but it didn’t come across.

OM: I missed that one, unfortunately. But I can understand why he might have gravitated toward Don Alvaro. Forza for me is about the crushing weight of fate or destiny on Alvaro. Vickers seemed to like characters who fought the oppressive weight, whether it’s coming from the gods, an evil intriguer like Iago, the narrow minded village, a temptress…and so on. He was able to get into the skins of those characters. Siegmund, Otello, Grimes, Aeneas, Canio, Samson, even Dalibor. They all have doom over their heads. Their happiness is brief, but sadness is pervasive. Even Don José, though it’s Carmen who takes the knife.

Were there any roles you wish he had done?

RS: I wish he had done Tannhäuser and Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.  I’m sure he would have brought his superlative artistry to both of these roles.

OM: I’m remembering it was announced that he was preparing Tannhäuser, possibly for the Met’s soon to be unveiled new Schneider-Siemssen production. And I think he was also on the fence with Siegfried. Glenn?

GS: We all might have liked to see him as Siegfried, but he knew better than to attack a thankless role that shredded more voices than can be counted.  As previously mentioned, he always chose parts that suited his personality and his vocal means and I believe that we got the best of what he had to offer as singer. For which we should all be grateful.

OM: True. But he could have recorded them. Never stopped Placido. I also remember that he had a fondness for Czech opera. Vickers was right in there for Jenufa in ’74 and I recall from the telecast interview between acts of The Bartered Bride he said he very much wanted to bring Smetana’s Dalibor to the Met.

GS: Yes, of course: Vickers in The Bartered Bride! In the comic role, no less!

OM: Ah, my friends, thanks for the memories…but now, for the sake of the young opera fan reading this stuff, please recommend recordings (CD/DVD) that should be heard/seen to understand the greatness of Jon Vickers.

RS: Certainly the DVD of Otello from the Met, 1978, and I’ll repeat Die Walküre on CD with Herbert von Karajan, Gundula Janowitz, Thomas Stewart, et al. from 1966 I believe. Also on CD, I’ve always liked the Samson et Dalila with Georges Prêtre and Rita Gorr, 1962 and Aïda with Georg Solti, Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, all in their prime, also 1962. Then The Messiah under Sir Thomas Beecham is still a personal favorite, although these days the purists for Baroque performance will have a fit!

GS: Certainly Leinsdorf recording of Walküre then on RCA, now Decca CDs, stands out in my mind.  Great conducting, George London in his prime as Wotan and Birgit Nilsson, whose voice had the weight and power to match. I find it much superior to the Walküre of the Solti Ring. And of course the CD recording of Peter Grimes on Philips is a must for no other reason than the fact that it is his only recording of his most famous role. But with a little digging there are house tapes of other Grimes performances floating around.  He partnered well with Sir Colin, and Les Troyens should be heard. It was a landmark.  I’m very partial to his recording of Otello led by Tullio Serafin with Leonie Rysanek as Desdemona.

 OM: You have a personal touch to add.

GS: Two, actually. The last time I heard him sing Siegmund, Act I of Walküre, was in a concert performance at Tanglewood in 1978 with Jessye Norman, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Vocally it was a match made in Heaven. I’ve always referred to this as “the singing lesson.” The audience went wild, and for good reason!

Then second, as you know I’ve worked in the music business much of my life and met many great singers and musicians over the years.  A long list indeed, on which, alas, Jon Vickers was not one.  But I have a personal connection with Mr. Vickers that transcends his many great roles and performances.

After our twin boys were born, my wife and I occasionally attended a small church in central New Jersey. Out of the blue one Sunday morning, a regular member asked me if I worked in the classical music business. I said I did, and so he took me to meet a fellow parishioner with whom, he hinted, I might have something in common. I met Wendy Roughton; I was cradling one of my 18-month-old twins in my arms with his head on my shoulder. Mrs. Roughton thought that, if I knew a thing or two about opera and music, might I have heard of her father, who was a singer?

OM: Indeed a very low probability question from a member of a small quiet church in farmland New Jersey.

GS: You bet! Not expecting much, I said, sure, give it a try.

“His name is Jon Vickers.”

My knees literally buckled and I almost dropped my son on the floor! But I recovered and replied, “I’ve travelled all over the United States to hear your father sing!”

Then a year or so later, I was out of town visiting my parents when my wife took the boys to that church on a Sunday. As she described it, “During the hymns, there was a loud and distinguished sounding voice that could be heard throughout the church.” After the service, Wendy Roughton introduced my wife to her father.  She was holding the twin I didn’t almost drop when I first met Wendy Roughton and she introduced my son to Jon Vickers. “His name is Tristan,” she said, which it is, and when Mr. Vickers heard that, he held my son by the foot, as if to shake it, and said, “You have some very large shoes to fill, my boy.”  Indeed he does.

Thank you, my friends, for your words. JRS.

Jon Vickers, rest in peace. We are privileged to have experienced your artistry.

Check out his performances; transcend the limitations of the recording conditions and the medium.

Maria Callas as Tosca in '65

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the return of Maria Callas

 to the Metropolitan Opera,March, 1965

On the morning of March 13, on Broadway, fifty years ago, I awoke face down on the sidewalk. I’d met the woman I was with only once before, standing, mind you, not face down. We were awake, though not quite thawed out yet. But chaos threatened: there were police, even cameras around. The big event loomed less than a week away.

The rest is history.

Deeply touched by the art of Maria Callas, OperaMetro interviewed (via email) two others equally smitten by her: one, as I, who was there for her return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in March of 1965 and one who was not there but, at a young age, was profoundly touched by her voice, images, and now, importantly, is committed to preserving her recorded legacy.

The first is Ira Siff, who is Commentator for the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts and also a recognized Voice Teacher/ Interpretation Coach; the second is Andrew Ousley, who is Director of Marketing & Publicity, Warner Classics North America.

As customary on these pages, OperaMetro’s Q & A is patched together as if we were in the same room, responding to the questions, enjoying each other’s company, and negotiating who will spring for coffee.

OperaMetro (OM): First about that ’64 – ‘65 season. Maria Callas hadn’t appeared at the Metropolitan Opera since 1958. She was, therefore, more or less off the local radar, so to speak. How did you find out she was coming back to the Met? Ira.

Ira Siff (IS): My friend Lex Seldin was an opera lunatic like me. While at camp together in the summer of 1964, we read in the Times that Callas coming back to the Met the following March to sing Tosca. We were definitely looking forward to it. You?

OM: Well, I didn’t know she was coming until much later in the year. ‘64 – ’65 was my third season at the Met. Most of my first performances were with my parents, most often it was my mother and my sister or I’d go alone, sitting upstairs on one side of the house or the other. But I had a friend George in high school who sang and loved tenors. He used to scour the Jersey flea markets for 78s of Caruso, Martinelli, Gigli, and the like, he had a real crank up 78 player with the horn in his basement, the whole bit. He and his two brothers invited me to stand with them to see Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters in Rigoletto at the Met the Friday after Thanksgiving. Once I discovered the standing room option I went to lots of performances.

Each time standing I’d hear more and more buzz about the Callas Tosca. It approached mania as we got closer to March: I remember talking with others during the day-long line for the first Die Walküre (with Nilsson, Rysanek, Vickers, London, Dalis, et al., February 22, Washington’s Birthday, which, lucky for me, was a school vacation day). At that point I figured the only way for me to see Callas was to do the line. Same thing?

Tito Gobbi as Scarpia with Maria Callas as Tosca, 1965

Tito Gobbi as Scarpia with Maria Callas as Tosca, 1965

IS: Yes, more or less. For the March 19th, the Callas and Corelli performance, I had to wait in the street in front of the opera house from late afternoon the Friday before until they sold tickets on Sunday the 14th. But getting there was sort of last minute: Lex lived in Manhattan and he’d saved me a place on the line until I could get to the Met that Friday. He phoned me, I raced into Manhattan, just left a note for my parents. Two nights I spent sleeping in the street. You too?

OM: Sure. No other way to get a ticket. That Friday, March 12, my mother and sister had seats to Der fliegende Holländer with Rysanek and London (I told them they absolutely HAD to see this one!). We drove up from Jersey together; I stood for that Holländer, why not? But then, afterwards, said I goodbye to them for the weekend. See you Sunday. I also went backstage to visit Rysanek. Talk about an intense performer! I’ve always loved Leonie Rysanek.

IS: I, too.

OM: You’ll recall that there were two standing lines for Callas: the long line for the March 19th Tosca, which stretched around the left corner of the Old Met into the night, and a shorter line for the other performance on the March 25th Tosca [with Richard Tucker, not Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi], which stretched around to the right. This was so no one could have a place in both lines. The second line was filling up rapidly. Right?

IS: Right.

OM: No question I wanted the 19th even though my spot in that line was pretty far around the corner. I don’t think I’d have made the cut for Orchestra level standing room, which meant I’d end up near the ceiling in the Family Circle. Anyway, that’s how the night began. How’d you fare?

IS: I’d never experienced anything like the scene on Broadway and 39th Street that first night. Lots of sleeping bags. I remember seeing a man apply cold cream…never saw that on Broadway before, and [that Friday night] [Franco Corelli and his wife Loretta] were working the line with hot coffee and doughnuts, carrying their poodle. Loretta would inquire who you were there on line to see. I felt like if you said “Callas,” the dog would bite you! Maybe you wouldn’t get a coffee and a doughnut. I played it safe and said “Gobbi!” I’d say the fact that we had to wait for days in the freezing cold for it made it unique, a much bigger event. But, on the down side, many standees had the flu for the performance [the following Friday].

OM: Certainly I remember Corelli and his wife graciously serving coffee to the standees. He was quite striking close up in person. And also I’ll never forget how much darker and colder it became once past midnight. But then some of the regulars came around to make a numbered list of those standing so as to reserve everyone’s place in the line. A good number of them then went home or to nearby hotels for the night. The first 30 or so in the line were from out of town, I think # 1 was a fellow from Maine. They’d been on the streets since Monday or Tuesday and had no other option but to brave the cold. Thank heaven it didn’t snow.

It became very quiet, even for Broadway and folks on the line began to wander about. I recognized a young German woman whom I’d met on the Walküre line (I think…could have been the Salome line). Jutta was her name. She graciously shared her blanket with me. We managed to keep somewhat warm by snuggling in the left door well that framed the great wooden doors of the Old Met. But it was cold; neither of us got much sleep.

Standees brave the cold outside the Metropolitan Opera, March, 1965

Standees brave the cold outside the Metropolitan Opera, March, 1965

Then sometime before dawn one of the great doors creaked opened: the Met’s management came out to make an official standee place list. I remember some of the regulars who were still there at that hour frantically searching for dimes and a pay phone to call those who’d left their places for a hotel, others racing to the parked cars in which their friends were sleeping. I went from number 200 something on the old list to number 40 on the Met’s list.

IS: I was number 44. I saved the green stub for years.

OM: I think I still have mine. I know I have the program from the performance. Then the next morning all hell broke loose when the rest of the line returned, those who’d not received the call. They demanded their places in line. Maybe it even made the news on TV. But the Met’s list ultimately ruled the day. Believe me, no one left the line Saturday night into Sunday morning. Jutta’s younger sister Holda, appropriately named because she was petite and lovely, joined us, thankfully with a heavier blanket. That night was much more cozy. They sold tickets early in the afternoon Sunday.

IS: Once I had my ticket, a bunch of us went to the airport the night she was scheduled to arrive to see her, greet her, but also, I guess, in order to make sure she was really coming. She had canceled performances recently. Francis Robinson [of the Metropolitan Opera] met her, and we all screamed and waved as she emerged from the arrivals section. There she was in her mink coat and hat. I recall the sort of semi-chilly way she said, “Hello Frahn-cis” with her mid-Atlantic accent as she greeted him.

OM: Not I. Seriously, a hot bath, some real food, and my bed with an actual mattress and springs were all I craved when I got home late Sunday afternoon, ticket in hand. I had homework from Friday to do, school and track practice all the next week.

Okay, now to the night of the performance.

IS: It was not only Callas’s return, but a Metropolitan Opera Guild Benefit performance on top of that. The audience was star-studded. And we were out front waiting to be let in. Limos were already arriving, photographers, there were these guys in street clothes in the front of the house carrying placards that read “Bravo Franco!” Ironically, Jacqueline Kennedy was there. It was over the top. Actually, I was fortunate enough to go to both performances of Tosca with Callas.

OM: How did you swing that?

IS: The first I stood for, as I said, but my mother got me a ticket to the second performance from a member of her Pioneer Women organization that raised money for Israel. At a meeting the woman said she didn’t want to go because she didn’t like that Callas woman - in spite of the fact that Richard Tucker was singing.

OM: How did the two performances compare?

IS: They were quite different for me in several respects. The first night I was really close to the stage on that side in the downstairs standing room. So, I could see the nuances of her acting with Gobbi. She and Corelli were quite playful in the first act; in the first act love duet the voice, although small-ish, was far more lyrical and beautiful than I expected. The ovation at her entrances and after Vissi d’arte seemed endless, full of welcome and gratitude from the audience.

But that Thursday, the second performance, I was up in a seat in the Family Circle, which was rare for me, but from there I could see the geography of her performance, the famous red gown in Act II darting across the stage to try to get to Mario as he was being dragged off. At both performances, her whimpering sounds she made after she killed Scarpia were chilling. It was a thrill to hear in person as opposed to on recordings the many famous Callas readings of the text. Indelible memories.

OM: I nearly missed it: the day of the performance, Friday the 19th, my bus from Princeton to the Port Authority left just as we pulled into the parking lot to drop me off. Bless her, my mother, driving like James Bond, followed the bus to a stop light a few miles away. I ran ahead and pounded on the doors to get on. I also ran the two or so blocks from Port Authority and made it just in time. I think they let the standing line in early to prevent too much congestion or chaos out front, and as the line was beginning to go in, I remember a fellow stepped out of a limo and offered me $500 for the standing room ticket, which was $2.50. I shook my head, tied my tie (dress code the Met had for Standees), and the rest is history.

Most of the folks with lower line numbers went to the back center of the orchestra, which I normally did for the view of the entire stage, but this night, on advice from those around me, I dashed to the standee railing at lower left hand corner of the orchestra, the so-called Milanov Corner, named by fans of the great Zinka Milanov, another famed Tosca at the Met. Pre-performance, the house applauded as one celebrity after another appeared down the aisle of the Orchestra seats or in the Parterre Boxes. Jackie, Rose, and Bobby and probably Ethel Kennedy made their entrance. I literally collided with Bette Davis in the stairwell during the first intermission.

I remember the chill that ran through me, through the entire audience as a body, when Callas uttered her first off stage “Mario, Mario.” I still shake. She was striking in appearance, beautiful in person. She was only 41. She also moved beautifully on stage, as if every motion were choreographed to Puccini’s score. Her hands and arms, in particular, were captivating, particularly from as close as I was to her. She had such graceful hands…still photos simply cannot convey this motion. Vocally the performance itself met every expectation set by her newer recording, though her voice was a little smaller than I’d expected. Maybe it was because I was so far to the side of the stage.

I felt that her recordings, wonderful as they are, were completely complemented by her persona on stage. I was a real fan now: I understood in the space of that night what the legend was all about. Most impressive was Callas’s sheer intensity of character. She was ‘on’ every second of the evening, especially when interacting with baritone Tito Gobbi, with whom she frequently performed in Tosca. Callas played the coy but jealous lover with Cavardossi; she was the caged woman with Scarpia desperately making moment-to-moment decisions about how to save her man; she was herself trapped with no one to save her. The house erupted volcanically with applause, certainly at her entrance, but also after her big exits, arias, and duets. It was a total performance…as I recall it ended very late, almost too late for me to catch the bus back to New Jersey.

IS: Indeed it was a total performance.

OM: Yet when I think back to that same season, I saw Nilsson’s Turandot, Salome and Brünnhilde, Rysanek’s Sieglinde and Senta, London’s Holländer and Wotan, Corelli’s Don Alvaro, Bastianini’s Don Carlo, Gedda’s Hoffmann, Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin with Della Casa, Rothenberger and Edelmann, Vickers as Samson, and so on. Believe me these were equally exciting and truly memorable performances. But I felt that, if not in the same role, I’d probably see the same artists next season and beyond to the new Met. That first season at Lincoln Center I saw Nilsson’s Elektra with Rysanek and Rysanek as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. But with the Callas I was sure this time would be my only chance to see her on stage, and also probably Gobbi’s Scarpia. Sadly, too, I never saw Schwarzkopf or London again on stage.

IS: Yes, one sort of knew this was very likely our last chance to hear Callas on stage. And the irony of her career, a large portion of which was spent before the public “got” her, particularly in New York, was not lost on me even then. Now that the voice was somewhat compromised, and her future questionable, she was unconditionally adored by thousands of people. At the peak of her powers years earlier, she was an object of controversy.

OM: Andrew, you weren’t there.

AO: No, I was born 6 years after her death, but if there’s one artist I’d go back in time to hear live it’d be Maria Callas. The video of the 1964 Tosca, Act II, from Covent Garden makes me think that every time I see it.

OM: Excerpts of this performance can be found here on the page Show and Tell. How did you first discover Callas?

AO: I first encountered her voice as a teenager when my mother (who was an opera singer in her youth) played Vissi d’arte from the 1953 Tosca. What immediately captivated me was her sheer expressiveness. Obviously Puccini’s music and the orchestral performance were both extraordinary, but it was her voice and its ability to communicate such a powerful combination of despair, strength, anger and everything in between which converted me led me to explore all of her other recordings and videos.  Even as the vocal technique wavered in time, she never lost that expressiveness…the 1953 Tosca is always the first recording I turn to. Un bel di was the second aria my mother played me, from the 1955 Madama Butterfly with Karajan, followed closely by the 1954 Norma (I can’t not include this one on my list of favorites!) and the 1964 Carmen. Again, it’s the way she cuts to the heart of the character and her situation that makes this a must-listen.

OM: You and I have talked separately about the Callas Remastered project for Warner Classics.

AO: Yes it’s been a particularly gratifying project to work on and now do publicity for. The restoration and improvement of the sound is remarkable. Many nuances and subtleties in her performances, recorded in the studio on the masters but lost on the original vinyl pressings, have been uncovered.

OM: We also first encountered her voice on recordings.

IS: Certainly. I had LPs of highlights of her two Lucia recordings (the 1953 and the 1959). At first, I really didn’t understand the second Lucia highlights - it was my first recording by Maria Callas, and with the wobble in her voice, compared with Joan Sutherland, the only other soprano I knew at that point…I just didn’t get it. Yet, as I listened over and over to it I was mesmerized by certain phrases. Now I adore it. The Puritani excerpt on the Callas at La Scala, taken from her complete 1953 EMI Puritani, showed me what the voice was like when she was young and heavy, and what she was capable of. I adored it instantly. The Anna Bolena Mad Scene on the Mad Scenes album always affected me deeply, especially Al dolce guidami. Miraculous! I knew nothing of “live” Callas performances until about a year after the NY Toscas. But, as soon as those appeared on LP’s (often published a half tone sharp by a rabid fan who wanted to conceal the slow vibrato!), I was hooked on them. I also eventually had her complete Butterfly, both Toscas (1953 and the then-new 1964), and highlights for several operas, including Norma (1954) and Gioconda (EMI 1959), and several recital LPs.

OM: Well, most of my Callas recordings were from late in her career and in stereo: Callas’s EMILa Gioconda was my first, I think, still a favorite, but I also had highlights of the stereo Norma, an album of Mad Scenes, as well as La Forza del Destino (mono). My sister had Il Barbiere di Siviglia in our house. I swooped on the Callas Tosca in stereo but by then I knew she was coming. My exposure to her voice on recordings was closer to what she actually sounded like in ’65. Callas at the Met brought Tosca to life for me, made me understand her art much better than ever before. Since then I have grown to love many of her other recordings, particularly those from 1953 to 1958, especially now in their remastered versions.

Thank you, gentlemen, for your contributions!

Photo of standees: Tony Ray-Jones, from The Golden Horseshoe: the life and times of the Metropolitan Opera House by Frank Merkling, John W. Freeman, Gerald Fitzgerald and Arthur Solin. New York: The Viking Press, 1965, p. 279

Photo of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca. From Callas, which includes The Art and the Life by John Ardoin (pp 1 – 46) and The Great Years by Gerald Fitzgerald (pp 47 – 264), plus Chronology, Statistics, Index. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1974. p. 216 top from Covent Garden by Houston Rogers (London)

As mentioned above: on the OperaMetro’s page Show and Tell, please find three excerpts from Tosca with Maria Callas, live on the stage. The first two are video clips from Act II of her Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia at Covent Garden in 1964 (alas, but without subtitles): Vissi d’arte followed by the murder scene to the end of the Act; the third is an audio-only file of the entire historic March 19th Tosca at the Met in 1965 with Callas, Gobbi and Corelli. Bravi!

Please refer to the page Opera Recordings on OperaMetro for a discussion of these remastered studio operas of Maria Callas on Warner Classics.

Please refer also to the page Programs on OperaMetro of a few scanned pages of the Metropolitan Opera program from the night of March 19, 1965. In addition to cover and cast, three artist ads from Angel Records, as well as the Met casts for the following week. Those were the days my friends.

You're only as old as you feel. Seems like only yesterday.