Another Great Has Left the Stage

Teresa Berganza
March 16, 1933 – May 13, 2022

Teresa Berganza in 2018 receiving a Lfetime Achievement Honour at the International Opera Awards.

I awoke this morning to the news that my beloved Teresa Berganza had passed away earlier today. She was a singer I fell in love with the first time I heard her on a recording of Handel’s Alcina in 1962. Though I had bought the three record set because it starred Joan Sutherland I came away for it with Berganza’s voice sounding in my ears. She appeared in recital at Massey Hall several months later and when I met her afterwards she was warm and very indulgent of a teenager with a crush.

I had the good fortune to see her as Ruggerio in Alcina at Aix-en-Provence in 1978 and once again her “Verdi prati” had an simple elegance and grace that has never been matched. One thing I remember from evening was the silence at the end of the aria that was followed by thunderous applause. It is captured well in this clip from that production.

The warrior Ruggerio (Berganza) leads his lady love who is disguised as a knight (Ann Murray) to safety through the enchanted forest of the evil Alcina.

I am pretty sure I owned all of her records – particularly the complete operas and the various recitals. She was known for her performances as Rossini’s Isabella, Rosina, and Cenerentola. Unfortunately I never saw her in a Rossini opera – I had tickets for Cenerentola in Paris but took ill when in London and came home early. But I was to see her at the Paris Opera as Cherubino, another of her signature roles, in an all-star Nozze di Figaro that included my equally loved Teresa Stratas.

Berganza often sang “trouser roles” and her Cherubino was seldom equalled. She had sprung onto the scene at Aix-en-Provence and was much loved (with reason) there. And no I wasn’t there in 1962!

I’ve told the tale on here of one of the great evenings I’ve spent in an opera house: May 1980 – Carmen with Berganza and Placido Domingo at the Opéra Comique in Paris. I didn’t have a ticket but took a chance.

Standing in line for five hours at the Opera Comique waiting for a cancellation for the Berganza-Domingo Carmen. Enduring the abuse of the lumpy spun-sugar blond vendeuse at the box office. “Vous–etes fou d’attender” she heckled repeatedly, then magically produced a front row 1st loge seat 2 minutes to curtain time. The abuse was worth it – one of my great evenings at the opera.

There will never be another Carmen like her. This was not the hip-swaying slattern so often seen but a flirtatious, sensual free spirit. She was sly, seductive, playful and ultimately tragic. She was Carmen!

I was in the audience that May night in 1980, I’m sure you can hear me screaming my brava in that ovation at the end.

After her retirement from the stage she became a much sought after and loved teacher. Her master classes – many were filmed – were a reflection of her warmth as a person and her art as a musician.

Dear Teresa – you have given me much joy since that first recording; I thank you. Rest in Peace.

The word for May 13th is:
Beloved /bəˈləvəd/: [1. adjective 2. noun]
1. Dearly loved
2. A much loved person
Late Middle English: past participle of obsolete belove ‘be pleasing’, later ‘love’.

Mercoledi Musiclae

Much has been written in the past six days about the incredible talent and person that was Betty White. Justly her abilities as one of the great comic actresses of all time has been lauded and written about at great length in the media – both news and social. However one facet of her talent has been largely ignored: her singing.

Back in the early 1950s she produced and starred in her own syndicated variety show on NBC. She had full creative control and when challenged on featuring Arthur Duncan, a African-American tap dancer, as a regular she told the Network: “I’m sorry. Live with it!” The show featured skits and musical numbers with White, regulars like Duncan, and guests. It was a rating hit but ran afoul of Southern affiliates and sponsors.

She was also popular on the Summer Stock circuit in the 1960-70s and appearing most frequently in musicals as well as light comedies. She toured in South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Mr. President, Take Me Along, and The King and I. She often performed with her husband Password host Allan Ludden – their romance had begun when they toured the circuit in Critic’s Choice in 1961.

Here she is in a clip from that early show displaying her way with a song. The song ends at the 2:24 mark and for some reason is repeated for the balance of the clip. However it was the only example I could find of her singing.

As her TV career took off she had fewer chances to display her vocal talents however perhaps some of her incredible timing as an actress and comedian had its foundations her musical training?

The word for January 5th is:
Afoul /əˈfoul/: [adverb]
Into conflict or difficulty with.
North America: 1809, originally nautical, “in a state of collision or entanglement,” from a- (1) + foul (adj.). From 1833 in general sense of “in violent or hostile conflict,” mainly in phrases such as run afoul of.

Look He Made A Hat!

Once again I find myself mourning the passing of someone who has defined much of what I have seen and heard in the world of music for over half a century. Stephen Sondheim has been synonymous with music theatre for the past 65 years first as a lyricist (West Side StoryGypsy) than as one of that rare breed of lyricist/composers (the list of shows is too numerous).

The first Sondheim show I saw on stage was Gypsy with Ethel Merman (who thought Sondheim was too young to compose her kind of song) and then Company when the National company came to Toronto in 1971. It caused a bit of a furor and people actually walked out. I loved it and saw it three times – once as the guest of Ed and Anne Mirvish, but that’s another story. After that every time a new Sondheim show came out I had the album within a day or two of it being issued. A trip to London and the original West End production of Side By Side By Sondheim introduced me to more of his music. I missed a chance to see a matinee of Follies for a somewhat less edifying afternoon at the 55th Street Playhouse, again that’a another story. I was fortunate to catch A Little Night Music with Glynis Johns, Len Cariou and Hermione Gingold on a trip to New York and several years later Sweeney Todd with Angela Lansbury and Cariou on a subsequent trip. After that I had to be satisfied with those albums/CDs as well as television and filmed versions of some of his most exceptional works. Everyone of them remarkable in so many ways including the disparity of their subjects and multiplicity of styles.

But in 1993 there was one fortunate occasion when I was able to spend an evening with Mr. Sondheim – first in the audience at an interview/lecture he gave in Ottawa and than at a small reception afterwards. Several things struck me about him that evening, aside from his obvious talent: his thoughtfulness, respectfulness, and conviviality. During the Q&A section an annoying woman tried to get him to trash Andrew Lloyd Weber. He would not jump at the bait but was respectful of his fellow composer and praised him. She pressed on referring to ALW as being like Puccini and he gently but sternly suggested that if she knew anything about music then surely she meant Debussy. Not to be deterred she then challenged him to agree that the big Musicals (Phantom, et al) were destroying the American Musical Theatre. Clearly exasperated at this point he quietly pointed out that if these things were playing to full theatres it was because they were giving the audiences what they wanted and that was the business of theatre. Fortunately the moderator cut her off at that point – something he should have done two questions before.

We were invited to a reception afterwards and after the group thinned out he invited us to sit and chat over a glass of wine. I never in my life thought that Stephen Sondheim, whom I had just addressed as Mr Sondheim would grasp my hand and say “Just call me Steve, after all we’re having drinks together.” He had just returned from London and he was excited over Julia McKenzie’s performance in a revival of Sweeney Todd. He had also been teaching at Oxford and was impressed with Canadian composer Leslie Arden. He was greatly taken with a musical version of The House of Martin Guerre that she was working on and talked of hopes of a New York production. It was a genial evening of easy conversation and when the time came we walked with him back to his hotel and our parked car.

No more riddles.
No more jests.
No more curses you can’t undo
Left by fathers you never knew
No more quests.
No more feelings.
Time to shut the door.
Just- no more.”

Into the Woods – Stephen Sondheim

Rest in Peace and thank you, Steve.

The word for November 27th is:
Talent /ˈtalənt/: [noun]
1. A natural aptitude or skill.
2. A former weight and unit of currency, used especially by the ancient Romans and Greeks.
Old English talente, talentan (as a unit of weight), from Latin talenta, plural of talentum ‘weight, sum of money’, from Greek talanton . talent (sense 1) is a figurative use with biblical allusion to the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30).
I am not really sure I see the connect between the word as we now use it and the biblical reference but I’ll take the OED’s explanation as gospel.

The Passing of a Theatre Icon

One late afternoon in December afternoon of 1959 I – a 13 year old – came out of the Crest Theatre so wound up that the lonely walk down to the street car stop past the Mount Pleasant Cemetery had me running at a rattled pace. (And yes dear reader I was allowed to go all the way from Etobicoke to Uptown all by myself. Three streetcars and a bus! How times have changed!) So engrossed was I in the drama of Macbeth that I was unaware that I had witnessed what was the beginning of an era in Canadian theatre history. An era that was to last until 13 days ago when Martha Henry gave her last performance in Three Tall Women at the Stratford Festival. The great actress, director and teacher died Wednesday evening after a battle with cancer that had not slowed her down in her commitment to her greatest love: the theatre.

That cold December she was listed as Martha Buhs and played the role of Gentlewoman to Charmione King’s scheming Lady but she was destined for bigger things. After two years at the National Theatre School (she was its first graduate) she joined the Stratford Festival in 1962. Over the next sixty years she was to appear in over 70 productions there and play not only Shakespeare but Chekhov, Miller, Congreve, O’Neil, Shaw, Findley et al.

1962: Martha Henry as Miranda in The Tempest with Peter Donat
2018: Martha Henry as Prospero in The Tempest.

I was fortune to see many of her performances at Stratford and with several other Canadian companies. So many moments that were incandescently Henry stick in my mind. Her evil but sexy Lady De Winter in The Three Musketeers being dragged off to her death crying “I’m to young to die!”; the terrified look on Isabella’s face as her brother’s freedom had been accomplished but she found herself locked into the prison of an unwanted marriage in Measure for Measure; the triumvirate of Marti Maraden, Maggie Smith, and Henry keening for Moscow as The Three Sisters in the most brilliant ensemble production I have ever seen; a sparkling Raina in Shaw’s Arms and the Man in the early days of the Shaw Festival; a world-weary Vera telling us how “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered” she was by Pal Joey; and the list goes on. Perhaps the strangest thing I saw her in was a schlock murder mystery in London’s West End in 1970. Who Killed Santa Claus starred Bond girl Honor Blackman, who wore Belmain. Martha Henry got a red felt Father Christmas costume. It was one of her few forays outside Canada. She was devote most of her working life to theatre here in Canada.

Fortunately she was back the next year at Stratford darkly demanding that the hypocrite Tartuffe be sent to her. Perhaps her finest years were during the Robin Phillips directorship when she commanded the stage with Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford and William Hutt as frequent partners and adversaries in a company that was overflowing with remarkable talent. She was absent from the Festival for over a decade but returned for a “golden” second era as actress, director and teacher, nurturing and mentoring young performers.

The last time I had the joy of seeing her on stage was in 2014 when she brought all her artistry to the small part of Lady Bountiful in The Beaux’ Stratagem – gleefully brandishing a phallic zucchini as witness to the efficacy of her herbal concoctions. She was slightly stooped with osteoporosis but even that was part of a characterization that could have become caricature but through sheer stage magic was a delightful comic cameo.

Her first major Shakespearean role was a Miranda in The Tempest that first season; she was to return to that play 56 years later when she played Prospero as her farewell to Shakespeare on that stage that she had made her home and where she was at home. I only wish that I had been able to see that and her appearance this year as Albee’s A. It would be incredible to have been able to say I had seen both the beginning and the end of that era but I am thankful that I was able to see a truly great performer at so many stage in her remarkable career.

Thank you Martha for all that you gave me, and the rest of Canada, over the past six decades. May you rest in peace.

The word for October 22nd is:
Icon /ˈīˌkän/: [noun]
1. A painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.
2. A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.
3. A symbol or graphic representation on a screen of a program, option, or window, especially one of several for selection.
Mid 16th century (in the sense ‘simile’): via Latin from Greek eikōn ‘likeness, image’. Second sense dates from the mid 19th century. Third sense dates from late 20th century.

Mercoledi Musicale

It seems that every second Mercoledi Musicale* seems to mark the passing of an artist that I spent much of my musical life listening to. On June 20th of this year the remarkable Jeanne Lamon died at her home in Victoria.

The tribute banner at Tafelmusik’s website.

The American born Lamon came to Canada as a guest artist with the nascent (1979) Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and became it’s music director in 1981. For 33 years she led the orchestra and moulded it into one of the finest baroque ensembles in the world. In 2014 she stepped down and I remember the final Ottawa concert with her as director that year at the ChamberFest. The ovation at the end had the vaults of Dominion-Chalmers echoing.

Here is Jeanne Lamon, with that incredible smile reflecting her delight, doing two of the things she did best: shining as a performer and then stepping to the side and allowing others to shine as bright.

The Galileo Project was the first of their multi-media programmes where the ensemble performed with narrative, projects and movement but without sheet music. It was fitting that Tafelmusk marked the death of this great artist with a broadcast of the programme last week. A tribute to the riches and love she brought and gave to music here in Canada.

And here, just because I love Handel and it shows off the fine ensemble that Jeanne Lamon nurtured for three decades, is an extract from their The House of Dreams programme.

*This is the 281st Mercoledi Musicale that I’ve posted and the 3000th post since I began the blog on November 12th 2006. But more about that tomorrow.

The word for July 7th is:
Nascent /ˈnāsənt,ˈnasənt/: [adjective]
Just coming into existence and showing sign of future potential.
Early 17th century: from the Latin nascent “being born”, from the verb nasci.

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