30 June 2008

Edgar Vincent

Is Saigon burning? Sills’ Met debut, 1975

It’s one measure of how good Edgar Vincent was at his job that, when I did a Google search for pictures of him today, all I found were pictures of his clients. And I daresay that the veteran publicist, who died on June 26, would approve of the fact that I paid tribute to him by attending a performance by one of those clients, Plácido Domingo, now conducting the world premiere of Howard Shore’s The Fly here in Paris.

Without a photograph, then, you will have to imagine a slight, elderly, elegant man with a pencil moustache, an impeccable wardrobe, and a memorably soothing voice. An unlikely superhero, and yet he was one of mine, for he has been in no small way responsible for the survival of opera in America.

Other people in Opera World refer to him as “Edgar,” but I didn’t have that kind of relationship with him, and it would have been presumptuous to call him anything but “Mr. Vincent.” We were strictly professional, we knew each other only by telephone, and the one time I ventured a personal remark — wishing him a speedy recovery from surgery — he seemed frankly embarrassed. Only once or twice did he ever address me as “caro,” surely less by endearment than by expediency (he’d probably forgotten my name), but that was what he called the big shots in opera, and I felt validated.

Distinguished client: Domingo at the podium
(You know, he sings, too.)

For decades, Mr. Vincent represented many of the best-known names in opera, from Lily Pons and Ezio Pinza to Dolora Zajick and Cecilia Bartoli; and I’ve written about him here already, in connection with Beverly Sills, who became a household name in the United States not least because of Mr. Vincent’s canny persistence. On the one hand, these are artists who do not seek out press coverage; reporters seek them out.

But on the other hand, opera needs publicity. There’s a revolution going on in media and mass culture, and it’s bypassing opera. The art form becomes more foreign every day to the public at large, because we’re exposed to it less. Music-appreciation classes bit the dust in public schools more than a generation ago. That’s no loss to pop music, because we comprehend it instantly (and forget it just as quickly); opera takes more work. Most of us have to be guided into it, and most of us require an invitation first.

Those invitations are not forthcoming. Ed Sullivan used to feature a classical musician once a week on his variety show, one of the most popular on television, but it’s rare indeed for any opera singer (much less a symphony orchestra) to show up on, say, The Tonight Show or Oprah — and the majority of the audience wouldn’t have the background to appreciate the performance, even if it got programmed. A lot of the old avenues to the mainstream have been closed off.

There’s no telling how many people would be inspired to pursue opera if Bartoli or Natalie Dessay or Deborah Voigt were to appear, say, on The Muppet Show, as Sills did (at right, singing Pigoletto), or if Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet or Stephanie Blythe or Susan Graham were to appear on The Odd Couple, as Marilyn Horne did. These women are great entertainers (and they’re funny, too), and my mind reels at the possibilities. But those shows don’t exist anymore, and even if they did, it’s unlikely that these exciting artists would be hired for them.

Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines have cut back, or eliminated entirely, their arts coverage. TIME Magazine used to feature classical artists on its cover at a rate of about one per year; about the only way for that to happen today would be for Nathan Gunn to shoot the Pope. It ain’t gonna happen.

Programmers heed the growing majority of people who say, “Opera is boring,” yet never heard a note of it. Classical music on radio is best served now by satellite stations, books about classical music yield minuscule sales, and the classical recording industry is still trying to cope with changing technology. And the less that young people know about classical music, the fewer tickets they buy to concerts and opera. The perception that opera is a niche market at best, ratings- or box-office poison at worst, becomes more entrenched by the minute, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The singers I’ve mentioned thus far are established stars. What’s to become of younger artists, such as the soprano Jennifer Aylmer, who combines the looks of a fairy-tale princess, the voice of a Fourth of July fireworks display, and the sophisticated comic timing of of a second Carole Lombard? She’s a one-woman Ed Sullivan Show, with something for everybody (give or take Topo Gigio and Chinese acrobats). If only more people knew it.

Aylmer: Ready for prime time.
(Pictured here in recital with Kenneth Merrill on piano, 2001.
This was one of the most entertaining performances I’ve ever witnessed.)

I’m not sure that Mr. Vincent could have bucked the downward trend of opera single-handedly, but he held it at bay for a long, long time. As a friend recalled recently on her blog, I was already in a state of breathless, agitated anticipation even before I saw my second opera, The Siege of Corinth. That’s because the fame of the leading lady — Beverly Sills — preceded the performance, and Mr. Vincent was instrumental in making sure that kids like me in the heartland knew who she was.

When Sills made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Siege, Mr. Vincent got the story on the front page of The New York Times, even though Saigon was falling at the time. He facilitated preview stories, as well, in TIME and heaven knows what other publications. Thus primed, I went to the Dallas performance (on the Met tour, another vanished promotional venue), and became an opera fanatic on the spot. About 14 months later, when Sills returned to town, I landed an interview with her for my high-school newspaper. From that day forward, I have never written a word about music without the awareness (and the hope) that some other misfit kid in the middle of nowhere might discover that opera speaks directly to her soul or his, as it does to mine.

The subject is important to me; I’ve written about it before, and I daresay I’ll do it again. But for now, please join me in bidding farewell to Mr. Vincent. He will be missed.