Friday, October 3, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part V

The Academy of Jennifer, Part Two

My real opera education began when I invited Jennifer der Torossian to a Mexican restaurant, parked a tape recorder in front of her, and peppered her with questions as we ate. Jennifer is anything but a shrinking violet, so my part of the job was easy. She began by telling me about her childhood, how she was so fond of recreational screaming that the neighbors reported her parents to the police, assuming that somebody must be abusing that poor child. (And there was the opening of my novel.)

I also learned that her voice teacher, Maestro Salvatore d'Aura, used to work for Puccini. Maestro was a teenage tenor, singing "Che gelida manina" at the Santa Cecilia Festival in Rome, when the composer himself came up, tears in his eyes, and asked, "How did you learn to sing my music so beautifully?" Puccini was dying of throat cancer - a result of his fondness for cigars - and could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines to singers, so he hired the young tenor to do it for him.

Jenny gave me that big-eyed stare, the one that I would learn as one of her trademarks - a signal that she was about to say something impressive. "I have scores," she said, "with Puccini's handwritten notes in the margins!"

Maestro thus became my novel's most implausible character: Maestro Giuseppe Umbra, 93-year-old voice teacher and raconteur. I didn't realize until much later that I had offered up an Italian pun: "aura" meaning light, "umbra" meaning dark.

Jennifer's father, Papken, was a big-time Silicon Valley developer who owned a seaside filmhouse in Capitola. The family decided to turn the theater into an opera house, with mother Claire acting as producer and Jennifer as prima donna. I attended the first production, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and was simply astounded at the voice that emanated from the balcony at Jenny's first entrance. I soon came to understand that this was the result of bel canto training, a Jedi-like discipline with breathing techniques and phrasing that produced an effervescent tone seemingly freed from the physical body of its owner. This became the central theme of my novel, Gabriella's Voice - the idea that someone could fall in love with a voice separate from its creator.

I also took great delight in the quirks of the Bay Shore Lyric Opera - the way the water in the Seville fountain would rise and fall depending on the flushing of toilets in the restrooms, the way the cafe wall in a production of La Boheme collapsed one night, nearly taking out Rodolfo. With Jennifer's permission, I set up an unofficial residency and began taking mental notes.

The company's breakout production was The Marriage of Figaro. The opera is much too challenging for most companies, but with Maestro's ear, BSLO managed to assemble a divinely inspired combination of voices, including a Susanna and Cherubino flown in from New York (with Jenny playing the Contessa). Through my spywork at auditions, rehearsals, performances and cast parties, I learned more about that opera than any I had seen, and assembled a richly complex and humorous supporting cast for my novel.

One day, Jenny mentioned someone named Tebaldi. My plea of ignorance inspired another of her wide-eyed stares. "You haven't heard Tebaldi?" She immediately put on a CD, and my ears were met with the most perfect soprano voice I would ever hear: a broad tone, smooth as butter but alarmingly agile, like an aircraft carrier that navigates like a speedboat. My adoration of Tebaldi would grow so much over the years that I became an evangelist, and upon her death in 2004 received more than a half-dozen notes of condolence. You would have thought that I had lost a close relative.

Next: SF Opera and the big picture
Photo: Maestro Salvatore d'Aura with Met great Licia Albanese. Photo by Robert Sheaffer.

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