Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part IV

The Academy of Jennifer

One day in the mid-nineties, my editor at Metro, Michael Gant, called with a rather odd assignment.

"There's this soprano who's giving a recital at San Jose State. I keep telling her father that we don't cover recitals, but he keeps hounding me. Tell ya what, it's a free concert, so why don't you check it out for me? If it turns into nothing, I'll give you ten bucks for your time."

I wasn't expecting much, but it was nice to see the old concert hall, to take in that familiar musty smell along the hallways. I took a program and a seat, feeling like a spy, and listened to the opening act, a rather run-of-the-mill mezzo. Then came Jennifer der Torossian, the soprano in question.

Jennifer radiated a professionalism and panache far beyond her bachelor's degree, and her voice was astounding. It carried a buoyant lyricism that I would soon learn to seek out. She was also quite atttractive, a petite brunette with long, dark hair and large, expressive eyes. It was hard to believe that a voice of that size was emanating from such a small frame.

The details of the program are hard to recall, but the clincher was Ophelia's Mad Scene from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, a work notorious for its pyrotechnics (operaphiles say you've got to be already half-insane just to attempt it). As delivered by Jennifer, it brought the house down.

I slunk out of the joint like a private dick in a Raymond Chandler novel, gave my glowing report to Mr. Gant, and got my assignment. I would write a piece on Jennifer and my old choir-mate Stephen Guggenheim for the Saratoga News, a community paper owned by Metro. Both singers were Saratoga natives, and Stephen had just made his debut at San Francisco Opera. I also decided to do the photos for the piece, and a couple weeks later had a handsome cover story all my own, with a photo of Stephen on the steps of Villa Montalvo, plus a shot of Jennifer in the Villa's Greek garden.

Interviewing Stephen felt like cheating, but talking with Jennifer sparked something deeper. She had an infectious passion for opera, complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of its history and musical pathways. I had to stop her several times during the interview to ask for definitions of terms like "spinto," "squillo" and "mezza voce," and the same puzzle I had with Irene Dalis, role names that I couldn't connect with operas.

What I began to realize was that I wanted to use the opera as a setting for a novel - but before I did so, I had to get much further into the subject. And I decided that Jennifer could be my gatekeeper. Several events fell into place to provide me with one hell of an education.
Photo: Jennifer der Torossian


Patty said...

Gee, I just ran across this blog entry and I see you're a local sort. I attended SJSU, but prior to when you were there, I'm sure (I'm class of '79). But still ... small world!

Oh ... and I play oboe in Opera San José. In addition, my father was a teacher and he had both Brian Boitano and Amy Tan in his English class during one of their middle school years. (I read your link to them in your bio.)

How funny. Well, to me at least.

In any case, I'm going to have to find your books now!



Michael J. Vaughn said...

How cool! It sounds like we're leading parallel lives. Did you play at the gala? Had a blast there - my date was Barbara Divis, who's an old pal (and one hell of a soprano!). Nice to see her get such a welcoming.

Patty said...

Yes, I played at the gala. (I won't bring up the fact that I was extremely unhappy with my playing. Nope. Won't mention that!)

It was wonderful to hear Miss Divis sing again. I always loved it when she sang with us.

I've been in OSJ since the beginning ... and my how it's changed! It's my favorite gig.

I suspect you and I performed together; I landed in San Jose Symphony in 1975 and was there until its demise. (I was on English horn, though, so I didn't play everything.)

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Yes! I sang Beethoven's Ninth with the Symphony, probably in '82, along with Rigoletto in '83, and I also remember Vaughan-Williams' Sea Symphony sometime. I didn't notice any oboe flubs at the gala, but then you know how ignorant we critics are about orchestral parts;-) (And I was stuffed on filet mignon at that point.)

Patty said...

Well ... I'm QUITE pleased that you didn't hear the flub. Whew! Since you've been (are??) a reviewer I'll assume the best ... that what I did wasn't as huge an issue as I had thought.

Each of us is so focussed on ourselves ... I always feel as if it's all about me, even while knowing that it's not about me at all. Go figure.

Michael J. Vaughn said...

That's funny, and very true. I hadn't heard Barbara sing live for a number of years, and after she made me weep like a little baby with her "Mi chiamano," she said, "Omigod! I totally messed up my breathing on two different phrases. I'm so embarrassed! I hope it wasn't too obvious." Like the average opera fan pays attention to breathing technique!

Patty said...

I love that my husband and I have season tickets to San Francisco Opera this year. It does remind me of how insignificant I really am. :-)

Now the soprano ... never insignificant, eh? But I can't imagine anyone critiquing Barbara's breathing ... she's just such a wonderful singer!

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Barbara has this amazing quality of being as good as she is, but having this astounding humility. She's never been able to break through to the next level - the SFOs, Houstons and Mets of the opera world - but I keep having to remind her of how good she really is, and that she's making money as an opera singer, which is pretty darn cool. The SF season has pretty darn cool, too - they're getting very adventurous this season!