Mercoledi Musicale

Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau died late last week at the age of 90 after a remarkable career as singer, teacher, mentor and promoter of young musicians. Born in the small town of Matane on the Gaspé Peninsula he studied in Montréal, Milan and New York before making in debut in 1955 in New Orleans. Much of his career was spent at the Royal Opera House in London where he debuted in 1957. He went on to sing 850 performances over almost three decades at the ROH. He was to sing at the Met for several seasons and appeared with the Canadian Opera Company and Opéra de Montréal on various occasions but his career was primarily centred in Europe.

His recording career had an auspicious start – he sang Rochfort on a recording of the final scene from Anna Bolena with Maria Callas. Later he became associated both on stage and in the recording studio with Joan Sutherland, who was a close colleague during those early years at Covent Garden.

Amongst his favourite roles was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. He sang the blind monk Pimen with the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff as Boris but graduated to the role of the tortured Tzar shortly after. While performing the role at the opera house in Kiev he donned the costumes worn by the role’s most famous interpreter, Feodor Chaliapin. In a recent interview he said: Before each performance, I crossed myself, prayed for my father’s support, and said, “Mom, my God, I’ve come a long way from Matane.”

In 1983 Radio Canada recorded the death scene from Boris in the Rimsky-Korsakov realization. At close quarters it may seem a touch OTT but vocally it is a remarkable interpretation. I programmed the clip to begin as Boris feels approaching death and calls for his son Feydor. I am not sure if that feature is working or not so please feel free to fast forward to the 14:46 mark.

May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.

July 17th has a plethora of celebrations: World Emoji Day, National Hot Dog Day, National Peach Ice Cream Day, National Tattoo Day, Wrong Way Corrigan Day (!) and Yellow Pig Day (!!). Take your pick.

Mercoledi Musicale

The Passing of a Prima Donna

On more than one occasion I have written about the incredible evening of July 20 1974 when a full blown Mistral threatened to cancel a performance of Bellini’s Norma. Fortunately performers, musicians, technicians and audience decided to say “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead”. And magic was made.

In memory of the incredible Montserrat Caballé who gave me many nights of musical thrills but never one to compare with that night in Orange. I was truly blessed.


On this day in 1780: The Great Hurricane of 1780 kills 20,000–30,000 in the Caribbean.

Mercoledi Musicale

Many of the opera singers I grew up listening to on the Met broadcasts and eventually saw in various opera houses around the world have joined the roster of the angelic choir.  Some had long retired but others were still in their prime.  I think particularly of my darling Daniela Dessì, Lucia Popp, Arlene Auger, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Jonan Botha – just to name a few who were taken from the stage too early by cancer.  This morning the name of the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was added to that list.

I only saw him perform live on one occasion – Il Trovatore at the Arena in Verona; he was very much the go-to-Verdi-baritone of the era.  However I never really thought that he was most comfortable in that fach – the velvet was there, the power was there, the drama was there, but somehow it didn’t always mesh.  He seemed most home in the music of his homeland – his Eugene Onegin was unsurpassed and his Prince Yeletsky in Pique Dame made you wonder what the hell Lisa was thinking in rejecting him.

In 2015 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and cancelled performances while he was receiving treatment.  He reappeared at the Met in September of that year and continued to give recitals.  I thought that this excerpt from Songs of the War Years, a concert programme he gave in Moscow and St Petersburg in September of 2016 would be a fitting tribute to this great singer.

Zhuravli (Cranes) is based on a poem by the Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov and set to music by composer Yan Abramovich Frenkel.  For Russians it has become a symbol of the soldiers lost in the Second World War.  A more complete history can be found here.

Rest in Peace –Покойся с миром

On this day in 1837: Canadian journalist and politician William Lyon Mackenzie calls for a rebellion against the United Kingdom in his essay “To the People of Upper Canada”, published in his newspaper The Constitution.

Mercoledi Musicale

Barbara Cook and Stephen Douglas in the 1966 revival of Showboat.  The only time I saw her on stage.

It seems that almost weekly I’m reading of the passing of  a performer who helped define my youth and taste in theatre, music, and the arts.  Yesterday it was the remarkable Barbara Cook – one of the greats of musical comedies in the 1950-60s.  After a troubled period fighting depression, obesity, and alcoholism, during which her career waned, she return to the spotlight in a landmark concert at Carnegie Hall 1975 with Wally Harper.  It was the beginning of a partnership that was to last until his death in 2004.  And it also relaunched her as a premier cabaret and concert singer.  She was to continue to perform until into her 80s and made her last Broadway appearance singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim in 2010.

Here she is in one of her most famous role – Marion the Librarian in one of the most delightful musicals in the canon, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.

I was fortunate to see her on stage back in 1966 when the Lincoln Center brought it’s magnificent revival of Showboat to the stage of the O’Keefe Centre.  It was one of the largest shows to tour with a full size showboat sailing on to the levee with a dream cast of the time:  Constance Towers, Stephen Douglas, William Warfield, David Wayne, Margaret Hamilton, Rosetta LaNoire, and Barbara Cook.  It was probably one of her last “ingenue” roles, her subsequent appearance in book shows were in more mature roles.

But in her concert career she both twitted and celebrated her years as Broadway’s leading ingenue.  And no where was it more celebrated than in her version of “Ice Cream” from She Loves Me. Here she almost 40 years after she created the role of Amelia and she hits that last high B with the same panache and accuracy as she did back in 1963.

Tonight the lights on Broadway will dim in tribute to her and perhaps, if you believe in that sort of thing, the stars in heaven will gleam a little brighter.

On this day in 1173:  construction of the campanile of the Cathedral of Pisa (now known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) begins; it will take two centuries to complete.

Mercoledi Musicale

The New Year had hardly begun when news arrived of the death of Roberta Peters, an opera singer who I had grown up listening to on so many Met Saturday afternoon broadcasts.   She had begun studying singing at the age of 13 with William Herman, known to be an exacting and thorough voice teacher.  Herman included the study of French, German and Italian as well as fencing, ballet and gym exercises in his teaching methods.  And he also taught Peters many of the roles she was to sing on stage in North America and Europe.

The 20 year old Roberta Peters on the evening of her unscheduled debut at the Metropolitan Opera on November 17, 1950.  Max Rudolf (l)  the musical administrator and Rudolf Bing the great General Manager of the Met flank her. 

One of those roles was Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  This was to prove serendipitous when at three o’clock on the afternoon of November 17, 1950 Rudolf Bing, the General Manager of the Met, called her to replace an ailing Nadine Connor that evening, a full two months before her scheduled debut.  She had never sung a full opera before, had never been on a stage nor had so much as a piano rehearsal but she delivered a performance that set the tone for the next 35 years.  The critic for the World Telegraph said, “The voice came through the big house as clear as a bell, the notes equally bright and focused and the phrasing that of a true musician. And the girl – she is all of five feet-two – turned in a very smooth job of acting, too. She will bear watching – and listening.”  And watch and listen we did as she sang over 520 performances at the Met until her retirement in 1985.

Peters had just turned 20 when she made that unscheduled debut and here she is two years later in an early TV broadcast singing Zerlina’s first aria “Batti, batti o bel Masetto”.

Though she sang many, what are considered, soubrette roles – Despina, Adele, Adina, Sophie, Rosina, Zerbinetta – she was also sang the more dramatic Gilda, The Queen of the Night, Lucia,  Amina and Susanna.

Her “Deh vieni, non tardar” in Marriage of Figaro had that combination of gentle teasing and a expression of true desire that drove so many Figaros mad with jealousy over the years.

As well as being a well-loved member of the Met she was well-known to TV audiences of the 1950s-1970s.  She held the record for number of appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show – 65 in all.  And she was a frequent guest on  TV talk and variety shows trading quips and appearing in skits with Jack Benny,  Captain Kangaroo, Johnny Carson and Jack Parr.  She was so well known to TV audiences that  American Express had not problem featuring her in their “Do You Know Me?” commercials.

It is perhaps of measure of the lady that she never forgot Rudolf Bing and the way he mentor her and so many other young singers.  When Bing developed Alzheimer’s and became the subject of tabloid fodder with a gold digging young wife who went through his money leaving him in financial distress, she and Teresa Stratas took care of his well-being and visited him until his death in 1997.

On this day in 1915:  D. W. Griffith‘s controversial film The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles.