Friday, May 15, 2020

Always a student

The scene – the summer of 1978 in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Pendleton, Indiana.  On an out-of-tune upright piano my friend and colleague, George Daugherty, is accompanying me as  I am singing for Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, Rosalind Elias - a private master class with this wonderful singer. 

I finish an aria, Miss Elias corrects a few things, makes suggestions and gives compliments.  George and I then launch into a second aria and when finished Miss Elias again offers a critique and praise.  She is gracious, honest, kind and proffers professional advice.

Miss Elias asked where I was going to school and I respond that George and I are students at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.  Immediately she asks, “Do you study with Italo Tajo?”  Yes, I had been directed by him in the opera La Cenerentola and had taken his opera characterization class. 

In our continuing conversation, she states that Italo is a great teacher and colleague.  A year or two earlier, Miss Elias had performed Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Mr. Tajo directing.  Watching her face light up while she described the experience indicated the joy she had working with him. She had sung the role of Rosina many times before working with Italo.  Rosalind recounted how he had opened her eyes with new insights into Rossini’s music and his staging brought her a whole new perspective on the character.  The opera had come alive like she had never experienced previously.  She poured compliments on the great Italo Tajo as a teacher, director and colleague.  She then said I should make sure to listen to all he has to offer as Italo had a deep connection to an operatic era that must be kept alive.

Adding to her Italo Tajo story, she went on to recount her recent performances of Charlotte in Werther with tenor Alfredo Kraus in the lead role.  Again, her face lit up with the excitement of having worked with a wonderful colleague, someone who also taught her something new.  Each evening as Mr. Kraus sang the aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller” he held a letter in his hand and at the exact moment each evening, the letter floated out of his hand to the stage floor.  Miss Elias said that every evening her heart skipped a beat as the letter left his hand as it always took her by surprise.  It was organic, it was intense, it was a transcendental love sick poet moment where his emotions gripped his colleague’s heart.  She asked Mr. Kraus how he was able to recreate that moment every evening making it new and yet always the same.  His response was that the moment was in the music waiting for him to express it.  She held great respect for him as he taught her something new and something to add to her own musical knowledge.

As I listened to her stories I realized that though Miss Elias was an accomplished Metropolitan Opera star, someone who performed around the world, she was vulnerable, warm and always a student seeking out new ideas and ways to improve her craft.  Always a student!

How did this experience happen?  Well, my friend and colleague, George Daugherty, made it happen and I am thankful to him for asking Rosalind Elias if she would take the time to listen to me sing.  All these years later, I remember her warm and encouraging spirit.  Thank you, George.   

George was the founder, conductor and director of his own Pendleton Festival Symphony in his hometown of Pendleton, Indiana.  That summer Miss Elias was his featured soloist with his orchestra and the Harvard Glee Club.  George invited me to be Miss Elias’s understudy -  learn her arias and the Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, then rehearse with the orchestra and George the night before Miss Elias arrived.  What an honor and privilege to work with George and his fine orchestra.  And, I learned a great deal from the experience - always a student. 

Ever the student and not one to pass up a new opportunity to perform …. in 2011,  Miss Elias made her Broadway debut at the age of 81 in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies!  Sadly, Rosalind Elias died on May 3, 2020.  I’m sure she continues her quest of always being a student!


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