Singers and Swingers: Opera and Golf

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I have been a speaker for Crystal Cruises for quite a few years—on opera, among several topics—and discovered that these elegant ships have a golf pro. He or she coaches passengers on the ship and then they play on courses near the ports of call. On one of my sailings, the pro was named Roberto Borgatti and I noticed that he had a particularly resonant speaking voice. He came to my lectures and confided to me that he loves opera.

I wish I could have told Roberto that my passion for golf is equal to his for opera, but that would not be accurate. I have never quite understood why some people love this sport—baseball is my game—but I realize that millions of people play and follow golf. To me, it seems like a long and futile effort to get a little white ball into a hole 18 times while hitting it as seldom as possible. If there is a Zen of golf it has so far eluded me.

I have given the sport a try and seemed more able to hit for power (to use a baseball term) than close the deal once the ball is near the hole. I even played a round with a golf pro at St. Andrews in Scotland, which is to golf what Bayreuth is to Wagnerian opera. I was transfixed by the beauty of the place but just did not connect with the tasks the game presented.

In my years in the opera business I have discovered that the sport has a passionate following among certain excellent singers, including many of my favorites. A partial list includes sopranos Barbara Bonney, Karita Mattila and Kiri Te Kanawa; tenors Piotr Beczala, Paul Groves and Matthew Polenzani; baritones Thomas Allen and Thomas Hampson, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and basses Ferruccio Furlanetto (right) and Gwynne Howell.  The late soprano Evelyn Lear and her bass-baritone husband Thomas Stewart were both avid golfers.

I contacted Polenzani, who will be singing Ferrando in Così fan tutte at the Met on May 3 and 8. He brings his golf clubs everywhere he goes, though he does not use them in his hometown of Chicago in the dead of winter. He mentioned that the Met has a biannual golf outing with more than two dozen players, mostly singers but also stage crew and members of the orchestra. He added, “I also enjoy playing with board members from theaters where I sing. It's good for the company, as I'm playing golf with people who are supporting their companies, and it's good for me to meet and interact with the people who are helping perpetuate this beautiful art form.

"More than that, random people who I've played golf with have come to the opera, so by being out on the course, and meeting people, I'm hopefully bringing new fans to the theater.”

Polenzani was one of several singers who described the links between golf and opera. "Golf is also good for singing from a concentration standpoint," he said. "Carrying your focus across a four- or five-hour round of golf is a lot like carrying your focus through the course of an opera. It requires the same type of practice as singing – focused sessions that don't last too long. Specific shots require specific technique, which is the same as in singing.

"Golf keeps your mental acuity active and sharp, especially since when you play from under the trees as often as I do, you need creativity to figure out how to advance the ball to the green. A creative mind is an important tool for any artist, and golf is a great way to get the creative juices flowing.”

To Furlanetto, "Golf is a sport that is absolutely perfect for my profession: Physical activity but not pushed to excess; concentration on the game and contact with nature. And—why not?—also an occasion to play with friends and the ever-increasing number of colleagues who golf on the days between performances. After playing, we end the day seated at a well-laid table for a good meal."

"In the summer of 1991," Furlanetto recalled, "when I was at the Salzburg Festival for the Mozart bicentennial, I was singing in two different productions, as Leporello and as Figaro, with three series of two consecutive performances. On the day of the second performance I would go to play golf and, magically, could eliminate the stress of the previous evening and feel ready for the performance that evening.”

In preparing this article, I recalled that mezzo-soprano Susan Graham played Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, in John Harbison’s opera version of The Great Gatsby. I contacted her to ask about the sport. “I do not play golf," she said, "other than the summer I turned 40 when I played in Salzburg with Paul Groves and Tom Hampson. Once.” So, I asked, how did you prepare for this role you played so memorably? Graham replied, “I grew up in a family of athletes and have always played sports myself, so Jordan Baker was not much of a stretch in that regard.”

Roberto Borgatti, 42, is the author of A Swing You Can Trust which also has a video. He grew up in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He studied literature and philosophy at the University of North Carolina with the benefit of a golf scholarship. Later, he studied voice for a time at the Manhattan School of Music.

His family is from Bologna and included his great uncle, the famous baritone Giuseppe Valdengo (1914-2007). Borgatti studied singing with Valdengo, with soprano Antonie Denyagrova in Prague, with baritone John Fiorito (“who prompted my breakthrough as a student”) and soprano Stella Zambalis. His talents as a golf pro also brought him in contact with Gwynne Howell, the excellent Welsh bass. They created a mutually beneficial exchange in which Borgatti would coach Howell in golf and received coaching in singing opera.

Although Borgatti has sung recitals, he is about to make his opera debut as Giorgio Germont. The New York Opera Exchange will be presenting La Traviata from May 7 to 18, with Borgatti singing the cover performance on the 8th and the 16th. It should suit him to a tee.

Weigh in: Do you think there's a special connection between golf and opera? Leave your comments below.

Photos: 1) Ferruccio Furlanetto at At Gut Altentann in Salzburg, Austria; 2) Roberto Borgatti (Facebook)