Thursday, May 29, 2014


I'm going to write what I know, for the hell of it. She was a wonderful person, right to the end of a protracted, gruesomely painful fight with cancer. Even at the end she answered fan mail (there was always a lot) promptly and by hand. She was generous to talk with, by which I mean she was funny, observant and emotionally available. Sick as she became there was something healing about her.

She was a phenomenal musician; the best among singers that I met before Renee Fleming (who can reduce an orchestral score at sight and play an arrangement of it at the piano without preparation). Moffo could also read a partitur, she was a master of solfege, she was harmonically very sophisticated, she could dissect modulatory movement like a professor and she had broad tastes in serious music. She adored music with both an emotional and an intellectual passion (I have met singers who didn't much like music at all, they just happened to have the sort of voices and training that let them support themselves better by singing serious music than they could have by doing any other kind of work that was feasible for them). 

I think she had one of the most beautiful natural voices ever documented. The audition tape she made at seventeen, "dead with nerves" to get considered at Curtis, is a heart-stopping, beautiful and deeply felt "un bel di". Her performance of that aria on her complete recording sounds IDENTICAL.

That suggests an amazing innate ability, musical (she taught herself the aria), emotional (it is really felt and utterly sincere but within the style and line of the piece as indicated in the score) and vocal (it is a gorgeous sound). Of course she got in, and that began the odd mixture of great and awful luck that characterized her career,

That she sang the same way after an extensive course of study meant she was singing as she felt, not with awareness or understanding of the process. But at Curtis she was snatched up by Madame Gregory (nee Eufemia Giannini of the Giannini family, as prominent a musical family as ever was native to Philadelphia, her sister was the great if eventually rather steely toned Dusolina Giannini, and her brother was the very gifted composer Vittorio Giannini, who though born in the wrong time, given how conservative he was, was really gifted and ideally would be rediscovered.)

In Moffo's time, Madame Gregory wore a hearing aid and seems to have been largely ignorant of vocal production (she also taught the wonderful Frank Guarrera, whose family were neighbors of my family). As with Frank, whose early self-made records show a gorgeous voice, and who recorded some tenor arias showing such bright richness and squillo that he was very likely a tenor, Madame Gregory tended to miss overtones and the "hints" of potential in young voices. Moffo thought she was (improbably) a mezzo, and when she won her Fulbright, the only arias she took to Italy to audition with were mezzo and contralto arias, including Dalila's from Samson, as well as a sheath of songs in the contralto keys!!!! 

It was Mercedes Llopart who taught Moffo for a time in Italy, Llopart also taught Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus who swore by her, Kraus thought she was a genius as a teacher (she also taught Cossotto and then, yes, Elena Suliotis!!!) Llopart identified Moffo's voice as a high set lyric coloratura and was supported in that belief by Luigi Ricci, the great coach, sometime conductor and best musical friend of all the verismo composer (he was personally devoted to Mascagni). 

Moffo said these two got her to vocalize higher and higher, and to do scales and fioriture. They also thought she had to sing Lucia (she had never thought in those terms, and would have agreed to a degree that it wasn't much musically). But from a working class family, having studied for four years with only a year in Italy paid for by Senator Fulbright, she had to make a decision. She needed to start a career. So she started auditioning around, instead of staying at least another year with Llopart.

She did not secure her breathing, or the way she managed register shifts, and although she had the high notes easily, was insecure singing them and was apt to force and move off the breath (the earliest habits a singer develops very often become what governs their singing for their entire career; if they are bad habits, problems will occur. It takes someone made of steel to change, the good kind as with Birgit Nilsson, who abandoned most of her training after being forced to sing Salome over a bad cold and having a triumph by doing exactly the opposite her teachers had recommended, or the Krupp's kind of Madame Schwarzkopf who invented a technique for herself and kept it going).

But the Butterfly RAI film was a sensation and she worked constantly after it. For a while she still sang high, florid roles but her temperament and musical taste was geared more toward the challenges of Pamina (she was the first person to point out to me that the g minor tonality of the aria is a "secret" in the way the aria is written with its shifting dominants, showing up only as Pamina accepts death at the end, until then, the unthinkable; Violetta and Melisande for example (where her looks were a great asset).

Sadly, she made a bad first marriage to a husband who micromanaged her career and never let her rest. Besides her stage engagements, she had TV shows in Italy and Germany, sang concerts at the drop of a hat, sang live on radio in various countries, acted in movies, made tons of records, and needing to fulfill contracts, got through indications of vocal trouble, papering over nascent but obvious vocal problems. She had at least one physical collapse. But she often had to sing ill, and she did not have the technical savvy not to damage herself by doing so. 

Born in 1932, she was from a generation and background that was not sophisticated socially. Her first husband was gay. Many heterosexual female opera stars who have weathered vocal or emotional crises have told me that the love of their husbands (or a caring man in their lives) had helped them survive. Moffo had neither and no one to save her from the crazy schedule or to point out that increasing evidence of vocal decline was not a passing indisposition.

Her voice remained quite beautiful (heard when she was relaxed) into the early eighties, but by the late sixties she was often exhausted, her nerve and courage was shot, her marriage was a shambles and even getting away to think was difficult for her.

She began seeing teachers for quick fixes but had to maintain her schedule. I believe, as Beverley Johnson did -- she was the person who really tried to help her -- that had she simply taken two or three years off, practiced a sensible vocal routine every day under the microscopic ears of an expert, she could have regained much of her earlier form and sustained a career. However one issue was never going to be solved, she had barely had the power and stamina for singing in a house the size of the Met at her best, and she might have had to limit herself to European houses and concert tours in America.

But this was hard for her to hear, as inexorably waning success while still relatively young is hard to bear for anyone. However, luck struck again, with a wonderful second marriage to a wealthy man, Robert Sarnoff. He provided the love and support she had needed all along and helped in the early years of her illness, but he predeceased her by almost a decade.

I think in her best work, Moffo is ideal. She sang gorgeously into the sixties, is wonderful musically, always expressive and loves the words. On records, she manages some heavier music memorably for she retained the enticingly ripe lower octave that had misled Madame Gregory. She also made unforgettable records of lighter music; this rep has rarely been sung with a timbre so beautiful, such lively words and such musical sense, which does not cause her to condescend to the material or tempt her into mannerism. 

She had some very bad luck and that included a documented wildly circulated disaster during a Met broadcast. But I can't tell you how visceral my loathing is for pigs who have done NOTHING with their lives but pirate the work of others, who on the face of it are unmusical fools, who are stupid scum, mocking this wonderful person who might well have been a vocal genius for a time (if such can be said to exist). We can all grant that after about twelve years at the top (sensational Salzburg debut 1957), she declined and then fell precipitously. But that at her best, she was great; and the documents, live and canned are there.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Reading about opera has been discouraging. It seems that many people who comment on the Opera 'Net don't understand reality. They don't know the difference between not-for-profit (as the Met is) and commercial funding (such as Broadway, movies and TV). There is a tight dislike of unions. There is the cheering for Peter Gelb who has no experience producing anything, was dumped by Sony after a bad showing there, knows very little about arts in general (I wrote for him at Sony and know his limits).

But there is a loathing for unions, even though they represent highly specialized, trained and experienced people who are essential for production of opera, and who in most cases have studied long and borrowed much to finance their educations. That these people have a right to decent earnings and protections in one of the world's most expensive areas in which to live leaves the wealthy or stupid list commentators cold. That Gelb was rebuked by the leader of the union that represents the chorus for trying to contact individual members enraged some fools.

A union is a collective, divide and conquer are maneuvers by management of long standing to destabilize unions. But union members vote on their representatives and will vote on any recommendations those representatives suggest. It is proper and fair for Gelb and henchpeople to meet with union representatives who understand from the point of view of their members what is essential and where compromising might be acceptable. Certainly art unions are in a more precarious situation than the movie and TV unions (I belong to three). There are problems in LA certainly, but there is also so much money, and so much potential for profit from many different platforms, that union members who work there can demand high pay, good benefits and tough protections. But the arts are terribly vulnerable in America; no institution can survive if two thirds of its cost are union costs (the claim of Met management and probably the truth). Union members may need to accept some reductions in pay and benefits, and redefinition of special services and overtime. Will they? Should they? Well, that is a long, speculative piece.

But I am more interested right now in Opera News. There is a new publisher, the second in a year. During some debate about the value of Opera News and the challenges that face it, one elderly lady notorious for her solipsistic gushing on various lists, cited the magazine's "frank" interview with Anna Netrebko earlier this season and cried out that as long as SHE loved Opera News it was safe and good.

Why is that stupid? Well, if one moronic reader were enough, Opera News would be golden. If ten were enough, if a thousand were enough, if ten thousand were enough and not all were idiots there wouldn't be a problem. Nor would there be the odd turnover of publishers. The new one follows another lady by only a few months. 

Presumably there are two connected issues that one dope given to fan drooling isn't going to fix.

2. Circulation numbers (consistent as opposed to intermittent).

I wrote for the magazine a lot in the 1990's and liked the second publisher I dealt with very much (he was very Metropolitan Opera Guild, a white Anglo Saxon Protestant from money). But he was a smart, decent man.

At that time there was much hand wringing over advertising in Opera News. Although the magazine was subsidized directly by the Guild, the Guild was subsidized by members who joined for a lot of reasons. Although back then I don't think Guild memberships were falling off significantly, advertising in Opera News had stagnated by 2000 and I assume has fallen off considerably since then (Brian Kellow kicked me out as a contributor around 2001). Advertising revenue was necessary to supplement what the average Guild member paid (Opera News was a perk for joining at the lowest level).

Opera News had begun as a pamphlet focused solely on the Saturday afternoon broadcasts and based largely on the Met. It's important to be clear though, the Guild and the Met are two different entities with different missions. Opera News was an "official" document only at the beginning (1936) and perhaps for twenty years afterwards. Because the magazine was small, it had a small staff, paid little, offered limited photography in black and white, not typically of the highest quality. There was advertising from the first but not a great deal and since the pamphlet style was inexpensive, it wasn't crucial.

However, in the 50's Opera News began to expand. Though it kept its small size, there was a slow but inexorable increase in pages. The staff grew. While the staff wrote a lot of the articles, there was more of an effort to recruit free lance writers from America and Europe (so long as they could write in English) to provide "articles". These included interviews with stars who were not in New York at the time of the interview, or even Met artists. These were also think pieces, expanded pieces about the history and time period of a given opera, articles on composers, famous singers from the past and trends in the opera world.

These writers needed to be paid, and the Guild to its credit understood that you get the best by paying well. Photography became more a part of the magazine and it was of a higher quality (Erica Davidson was quite a gifted New York arts photographer but the magazine also bought photos made by others, some in England and Europe). Making sure those photos looked good in all the issues was itself an expense, and getting good photos by outside photographers meant paying competitive prices. This meant a need for more advertising.

Mary Ellis Peltz, the first editor, a smart, tough minded arts journalist was replaced in 1957 by Frank Merkling who was a highly sophisticated editor in this period of expansion. But the most important editor (and probably the best in the magazine's history) was Robert Jacobson who began in 1974. A visionary, and an intense worker, obsessed with opera but arts savvy in general, he expanded the magazine to its current size, added pages, added color, wrote long articles himself, and recruited others to do the same. He increased the amount of reviewing the magazine did not only of the Met and occasional New York offerings, but of opera around the country and in Europe. I believe he was the first to go to Europe and report first hand on happenings there (and I think he sent a few others to do the same). 

Jacobson changed the tea and crumpets aura of Opera News for a more flamboyant, newsy, sometimes gossipy and much tougher minded magazine. It had been stated before that Opera News was not a house organ for the Met, but Jacobson abandoned the euphemisms, high church tact, and omissions that had been in use from the beginning for franker and tougher assessments of the performances reviewed, and the policies of the house in general.

I don't think the magazine had ever pretended there wasn't opera elsewhere but Jacobson covered opera in America thoroughly, recruiting often tough minded local journalists (Stephanie von Buchau, among the best of these, was one of Jacobson's first hires. Her beat was the West Coast. She was sharp. funny, sophisticated. She was one of the first fired by Brian Kellow, the power though not the editor from 1999).

Jacobson dealt with the City Opera (now dead), smaller companies that did new, unfamiliar work often in challenging productions (most gone now or much reduced) and got "you are there" type articles about European endeavors, including one he wrote himself, a memorably frank analysis of that era's Bayreuth Festival. But all of this meant a greater outlay of money for fees, and for writer expenses, and to print the magazine. 

His confidence was based on the explosion of the classical record industry that followed the first years of long playing records and the need of those labels for advertising and endorsements. He also courted manufacturers and sellers of audio equipment who found willing buyers among those who wanted to realize spectacular sound in their homes. He glamorized a lot of the "divas" of his era (he was friendly with many personally) and used them to advertise clothes, jewelry, accessories and so on. It was very likely the last era when Opera meant glamour. social status and seemed important. 

He got the job by telling the Guild's Board that he was Norwegian when he was Jewish, which he did not admit on the job, One of his important writers changed his name from Zinzer to Wadsworth for similar reasons. 

Jacobson died a lingering horrible death, and I think that was the end of the great Opera News. He was replaced by a long time staffer, Gerald Fitzgerald, small minded, mean, who was taken off by the plague as well. The Guild refused to appoint another staffer, the invaluable Jane Poole, because she was female, and hired an Englishman who soon became famous for his drinking. It was Roberta Peters, the great coloratura, who asked at a meeting of the Guild Board "why do we need an English editor when we are an American arts organization?"

The Englishman staggered out to be replaced by Patrick J. Smith who hired me to write, which I did a lot. He was another WASP of wealth, good manners and discretion with a strong interest in American opera, new work and challenging productions of familiar operas. He followed Jacobson's example of allowing reviews of Met productions to be frank, and sometimes even allowing articles to be critical of Met favorites. I wrote two of those, so three enraged phone calls were received by the first publisher Patrick worked with, Patrick and me. I thought Joe Volpe was funny but I grew up like him and knew many people of the same sort. The WASPS shook. But Patrick stood his ground bravely.

Brian Kellow had been hired in Fitzgerald's time. A very ambitious not to say lean and hungry type, he became Patrick's right hand, and was a great help. For all Patrick's excellent intentions and right mindedness he was indecisive and disorganized. He had run a valuable small magazine about serious music with an emphasis on the new but Opera News had become quite a big proposition needing a tougher minded and more decisive editor. It is my memory that Kellow added pages, expanded photography and like Jacobson, allowed longer articles by a range of expensive writers. I also think he and Patrick expanded the staff. Advertising became more and more important to underwrite ambitious articles about opera everywhere, not just in New York. 

And that was when I was aware that there was anxiety that the magazine was becoming too expensive. Patrick left in 1998. During an interregnum, Kellow cleaned house but decided not to become editor, getting his long time friend, F. Paul Driscoll, an authority on Gilbert and Sullivan, to do that job, officially in 2003.

These two have run the magazine since. They tried various initiatives. Seeking to expand readership especially among a younger demographic, they put good looking, hunky baritones on the cover; they commissioned PEOPLE like tabloid interviews, such as the idiot I mentioned above, loved. They were dumbing the magazine down but not without reason. They were seeking advertisers and hoping that by presenting a hip, contemporary look and "vibe" they could attract people in the 18-39 year old demographic that advertisers want, and thereby attract more advertisers and perhaps increase the cost of advertising in the magazine. The gay angle became important. I believe the thinking was that gay men, supposedly and perhaps actually, the backbone of opera in America, have on average higher disposable incomes and even when older are more conversant with current trends.

However, they had to weather continuing crises in the economy, as well as a huge cultural shift, of which so many of the elderly and about to be ancient commentators on the 'Net (I am one myself) seem unaware. 

"High Culture" no longer means anything, there is no longer glamour and social status to be gotten at the Opera. Even Netrebko's impact is "soft" compared to the pop, movie and reality TV divas that get huge coverage in the most accessible markets of our culture, while opera and all other high art endeavors are entirely ignored. Surveys show not only a tiny number of people interested in various art forms (2.5% of Americans say they have an interest in opera and the spoken play for example) but younger people are farther and farther away from being exposed to any of the art forms inherited from the 19th century.

The death of newspapers and general interest magazines nearly all of which had substantial cultural pages thirty years ago, the total lack of mainstream TV production and discussion of any of the arts (in fact there's not even an on demand or pay cable channel showing the telecasts of opera, concerts and plays that are frequent in Europe) is devastating. PBS scheduling of Met HD telecasts and occasional concerts is often confusing, slotted in inconvenient time periods, and not carried at all in various parts of the country. Education in the arts is hap hazard when not lacking entirely. As he writes in Inside A Pearl, Edmund White was shocked that when he returned from twenty years writing in Europe that what he accepted as commonplace there, frequent discussions on main stream television and the radio of all the arts, with new novels, works of non fiction and their authors frequent guests not only to promote themselves but to debate and analyze what their colleagues were writing about struck Americans as bizarre. He and his many writer friends in France and England, in Germany and the Czech Republic were at least known by name to a large public; in America no one knew of any serious writers at all and there were absolutely no mainstream outlets for discussion of literary, historical, philosophical work. 

Moreover the cultural change I refer to means that people under 40 are far likelier to stay home and play video games, surf the net and multi-task in their rooms than they are to go out to anything. For example, overall attendance at movies has suffered as much as anything else. The wiping out of a serious, artistically oriented but commercial movie industry by remakes, endless reiterations of sci fi, superhero, cartoon character, "gangsta" style films of chases, shoot outs and mayhem, frat boy comedies and recently, movies that show that women can behave as disgustingly as men and achieve profitability is a tribute to the death of a varied but often seriously intended adult culture in this country. Movies now, many dependent on mechanics rather than scripts or acting and none in need of ideas, are an attempt to lure "tweens", teens and young adults in America. But they are also a concession to an unfortunate reality: a huge foreign market, which accounts for almost half and sometimes more of the money made by movies in general release. Extensive, sophisticated dialogue is hard to translate and means hiring expensive voice actors fluent in the many different languages, ideas can shock or enrage foreign cultures, better a fantasy about giant monsters and cars that become lethal people than anything that concerns real human beings. Old people can watch pay cable and the endless reruns in syndication of the sit comes of their youth and middle years.

Even if many of the popular movies of the studio era (its best years ended by 1955) were pulpy and manipulative, they included a huge range of actual human experiences, characters and dilemmas, enacted by recognizable human beings. Joan Crawford walks into the sea to kill herself after smoking a carton of cigarettes and knocking back a bottle of vodka. Her one time lover and protege, now a famous violinist, is playing the Liebestod in a concert being broadcast nationwide. That is the end of Humeresque, a hit of 1946, partially written by the great American playwright, Clifford Odets.

Although it has its amusing aspect, her sorrow and mourning for love lost, her understanding of what making serious music demands from those who would make careers doing it, the power of the music itself (played in a Franz Waxman arrangement by Isaac Stern) make an effect still for that waning population that understands what is happening. Showing this to a texting, sexting college class elicits yawns or guffaws and when questions are asked, much puzzlement about everything that has happened. Even bright young people who have educational backgrounds beyond the usual, no longer have the frame of reference such a movie demands; 90% of its original viewers had not gone to college and many had not finished high school. The brighter College students may be astute enough to disdain Godzilla or Transformers, they may agree that Neighbors is unfunny and improbable and oddly, titillatingly and pointlessly or dishonestly gay in subtext, but their brains and cultural awareness have been sabotaged anyway.

One statistic that has borne up through different kinds of polling is that the average person under 40 is watching three screens at once most of the time (some watch more screens simultaneously). For forms that require concentration, good short term memory, patience and intense focus, this is death.

So suddenly the light of day hits Opera News. Advertisers work from numbers. How many people read the magazine regularly and carefully. How many people get the magazine because they are Guild members but throw it out after at best a skim? The advertisers discount the skimmers. 

What is the age range of the average reader of Opera News? Advertisers want that younger demographic, but if they don't dominate the number of readers, it's not worth the money to advertise. What is the average amount of disposable income of those younger readers? For example if you have a circulation that is 250,000, people on limited incomes are only a part of the readership, you will have a significant number of well to do and rich readers.

Specialized industries, the producers and sellers of music that people actually buy, the makers and sellers of high end sound and picture reproducing equipment, "high priced opera tours", glamorous hotels -- the standbys of Opera News advertising, are either out of business or stressed by contemporary economic realities and ever changing trends in leisure time. Those who sell very high end fashion and accessories, trendy clothing, and gadgets have research that shows that customers are no longer mostly middle aged and older but a smaller number of younger people with large disposable incomes, But those people have no idea about opera, no interest in it and are better reached elsewhere than a magazine that no matter how broad and obvious its coverage has gotten does not attract them.

For young gay men The Opera, the Ballet, The Symphony, The Theater are no longer rights of passage into a cultured circle, but irrelevant, silly (visits to the gay discussion board Datalounge >get your fix of gay gossip, new and pointless bitchery< ( shows long threads where nothing but contempt is spewed at these arts forms beloved by elder scolds, as people younger than me who dare show an interest are called ("hisssssssssssss" is the way people my age are indicated.) But when I moved to New York in 1974, the hoards -- it seemed -- of younger gay men could be seen in standing room, as guests of better off older connoisseurs of those art forms and everybody had arts oriented talking points however superficial their interest was.

I assume this new Opera News publisher, from an odd background (the higher level skin magazines seem to have been her breeding ground), has demonstrated to the Board that she can turn some tricks to attract advertising -- maybe she has done it before. Presumably she has contacts in mass market advertisers and perhaps she can make a case to them. I have no idea if she will have an impact on what Opera News covers, how it looks, or how it is distributed and I don't know how dire the problem is (if she can do somewhat better than her predecessors it may be enough for now, particularly if the magazine cuts back on the number of pages and there is some thinning of the staff, Kellow is no kid and might be looking to retire, I assume he has the highest salary).

But Bob Kosovsky of Opera-L made a good point: Opera News itself is on line but other on line forums compete effectively with no or limited cost, especially among the somewhat younger people the magazine needs to BUY it and what it advertises. I wonder if the fate of Opera News is to become an exclusively on line enterprise? This can be done with a very small paid staff (three people?) and operate like Musical America and The Huffington Post. It can pick up articles published elsewhere (say in England and Europe, translators work cheap), it can find bloggers who will work for free, or if there are a few favorites they will blog for a pittance. Portal enterprises have not been a huge success except in porn (as witness the troubles of the New York Times on line and in general) but perhaps there can be a sort of subscription level to lure the obsessed to more detailed and "insider" style articles -- save those can be had in a lot of places for free on the 'Net.

Opera News was certainly a great institution for American opera lovers but one begins to have the feeling it is going to be yet another victim of the Koch Brothers culture: the creation of an uneducated, culturally ignorant, poorer but huge underclass, easily distracted, contemptuous of the higher things, who disdain unions and think it only just that they be exploited by a smaller ruling class.