“Soft breeze, whispering trees….”


“Soft breeze, whispering trees……”
I can still feel the warm, late-summer breeze and see the afternoon shadows cast over my room by the elm trees outside. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of my record player. I was 14. As soon as the voice of Maria Meneghini Callas murmured “In quelle trine morbide,” I fell in love.  Mesmerized by the sound of that voice smoldering with deep emotion and dark passion, I knew my life had been changed. And it was. Through Callas, I discovered opera. Through Opera I discovered a universe of voices and music so enormous one lifetime is too short to explore the dimensions of this great art form. I did my best to satisfy that burning fire Callas ignited. Shortly after my 18th birthday, I heard Callas live. To sit, hushed with excitement, in a darkened auditorium possessed by that fierce, all-consuming sound! Well, nothing can compare to that memory, but some have come close.
Before my 20th birthday, I already had a storehouse of indelible and unforgettable memories. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf gazing in a reverie at the Marschallin’s mirror as the curtain falls on the first act of Der Rosenkavalier in San Francisco. Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson trading high Cs  in a Scala Turandot. An almost naked Inge Borkh drawing  between her legs the silver salver holding Jochanaan’s head as Strauss’ music crashed around me sitting in the front row center for a Berlin Salome. Giulietta Simionato hurling Amneris’ curses at the priests in a Vienna Aida led by Karajan. Leontyne Price’s soprano floating and soaring through the Nile scene in that same Aida. Joan Sutherland darting through the chorus like a deranged gazelle (this was before back pain made her less mobile) in the Zeffirelli Lucia performed in Genoa. Lisa Della Casa floating down the staircase as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Mandryka waited for the woman of his dreams in both Vienna and Munich. The molten voices of Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastiani blazing in two Vienna Cheniers (I had to sleep overnight on a newspaper spread on stone to get into those performances!). Leonie Rysanek searing holes in the ceiling of the S.F. War Memorial with her incandescent high notes in the second act of Die Frau ohne Schatten.  Mario del Monaco erupting like Vesuvius in the climax of the Improvviso in a San Francisco Chenier. Jussi Bjoerling entering in the first act of Trovatore with a silly mask that made him look like Captain Marvel – but, oh, the singing! At the age of 19, I had already heard Ring Cycles in Stuttgart, Bayreuth and Vienna with Martha Moedl, Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson – goddesses all – as Brunnhilde.
Today memories like that have become rare. One that endures came two decades ago at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia when a young – and to me unknown – soprano stepped on stage to sing Giselda in a concert performance of I Lombardi. Topped by a full head of reddish hair, her body wrapped in a form-fitting sequined gown, she opened her mouth and my jaw dropped. Here was the real thing! A vibrant voice, focused with youthful intensity, full and rich in tone, used with immaculate musicality and informed with a range of color. A Verdi soprano the likes of which I could hear only on old recordings. Thank you, dear Aprile Millo, for adding another indelible memory. Thank you for reminding us what singing used to be when Gods and Goddesses still sang in our opera houses.
Robert Baxter  2006


~ by aprilemillo on June 25, 2007.

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