Opera Stars in Public and in Private

Monday, January 23, 2017 - 09:48 AM

Roberta Peters, Jack Benny and concert violinist Isaac Stern at rehearsal for a benefit appearence in 1961 (John Lindsay / Associated Press)

By now you have heard of the passing of soprano Roberta Peters on Jan. 18. She was famous for a very long time, not only for her achievements at the Metropolitan Opera (where she sang more than 500 times) and other theaters. When someone is as conspicuously present as she was — TV programs and commercials, radio, recordings and, above all, in opera and concert — we feel we know her for more than her performances.

We can know aspects of the public persona of the artist and admire performers who really inspire us with their singing and acting. We might also feel a strong attraction to them on a purely chemical level. I remember the first time I saw Ingrid Bergman on film — she was already mature yet was fascinating, intoxicating and her speaking voice was of just the timbre that I found irresistible. That is also how I felt about Simone Signoret. Only later did I figure out that these two women were among the best film actresses. You can call this fandom or a teenager figuring things out about himself and the world. The experience was all the more powerful because these women were on a distant plane where I was unlikely to encounter them.

It was as a teenager that I had my first jobs in opera and I discovered that opera singers have a different kind of allure than did actresses. The best of them have beautiful voices and are superb singers (these two things are not always found in every artist). They also are great actors with charisma that might be evident only onstage or perhaps also in life. If they are beautiful or handsome, that is an additional benefit rather than the main reason we love them.

Birgit Nilsson was not a traditional beauty but was such an extraordinary singer in every way that audiences were transfixed in her presence. Watch her singing the final scene of Salome in Italy. Not much acting to speak of in this concert version, but the power, focus and engagement with character and music make this (and everything she did) irresistibly riveting.

Peters had a very different kind of appeal. She was famous for her star-is-born Met debut at age 20 replacing an indisposed colleague. She was very pretty and had a amiable persona though she could be a scary Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. As a hardworking, practical woman from the Bronx, her persona was different from Birgit Nilsson and Renata Tebaldi, who were basically hardworking women from Sweden and Italy. New Yorkers were proud of Peters and what she represented — she was one of us.

I knew Peters somewhat and had the opportunity to work with her on a couple of occasions. She was a consummate professional who was way ahead of her time in that she believed in physical fitness, not only to look good but in understanding that a healthy body would help her as a singer. She studied the Pilates exercise regimen with none other than Joseph Pilates. She was highly principled in her work ethic, her treatment of colleagues and her sense of justice.

Peters knew her strengths and weaknesses and never pretended to be anything she was not. She was often packaged as a sweetheart type, with looks, voice and charm ready for the new medium of television. She was in the right place at the right time. I felt bad when, late in her career, she still had the musical chops but certain presenters thought of her as yesterday's news. This was due, in part, to the fact that even though she had the voice, technique, looks and physical fitness to play soubrette roles, presenters understandably had other sopranos — younger, newer ones — to choose from. Peters and I once discussed this and I tried to nudge her toward thinking of other roles, but she never saw herself transitioning to either supporting roles she had been offered or more matronly ones. I loved her seriousness of purpose and the fact that she never cut corners on her work and I certainly respected her decisions.

What I also knew about Peters was that she cherished her privacy. Many singers do and I have always made sure to honor that. One who instantly comes to mind is the magnificent Shirley Verrett, who drew from deep reserves of emotion and life experience to create extraordinary portrayals. She often communicated wordlessly, but viscerally, while working. I was fortunate to work with her a lot and knew that her inner life was hers alone.

Peters had a sincere, generous public persona that was only a small part of who she was. Her serious approach to work allowed her to be funny and accessible on the Jack Benny Show, yet made her to be more insightful than expected when singing a song by Richard Strauss. Her superb management of her voice and appearance enabled her to sing a very effective mad scene as Lucia di Lammermoor at the age of 56.

The day after Peters died, I ran into the wonderful collaborative pianist Warren Jones at Carnegie Hall. He had posted a tribute to her on Facebook that in many ways mirrored my ideas about her, including the way she worked and her discretion that led her large heart to do thoughtful things in private ways.

Jones raised a concept I found fascinating and deeply moving. He described what he calls “wordless knowing,” by which he means knowing someone through music. Those of us who are not professional musicians can have some sense of what he is talking about, but he had a more precise and gorgeous notion — that making music with a colleague at the very highest level is “unlike any other way of befriending and loving. It is very personal and private.” Jones said that he knew Peters “that way much more than the usual ways that we interact.”

Ever since our conversation I have been reflecting on and savoring Jones's “wordless knowing someone through music.” I have had, on rare occasions, that intense, private, non-verbal communication with another person through music. Perhaps you have, too. Think about how what musicians must do in private can give us such extraordinary emotions when they perform for us in public.


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Comments [1]

Suzanne from New York

Beautifully said, and quite moving. That phrase, "wordless knowing," is a keeper. Thank you, Fred.

Jan. 25 2017 02:14 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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