06 August 2008

Nicola Rescigno

Nicola Rescigno has died, in Italy, at the age of 92. I have written before, in this space and elsewhere, that I consider myself to have been spoiled rotten as a burgeoning opera fan in Dallas, Texas, in the 1970s; as co-founder, artistic director, and (during the period in question) general director of Dallas Civic Opera, Rescigno is the first man to be thanked, or blamed. A gifted conductor with a predilection for the bel canto works that were my introduction to opera, Rescigno managed to bring dozens world-class singers, in repertory congenial to them and illuminating to me, right to my doorstep, exactly when I needed them most.

Bringing opera to Dallas was a quixotic enterprise: there was no particular reason to do so, and Rescigno faced innumerable challenges — starting with money. Dallas is a wealthy city, and it adores glittery, snobby outings, good excuses to wear what one has bought at Neiman-Marcus. In that sense, opera might seem like a good fit for the town. But Dallas is also deeply conservative, in every way, and moreover mistrustful of art and outsiders. Dallasites were delighted for Rescigno to import superstars; they flocked to galas and sometimes listened to the music, too. Getting them to pay for their opera was another matter, and Rescigno never did quite surmount the problem.

He had founded one American company already, Lyric Opera of Chicago, in 1954. One of his partners there was Lawrence Kelly, and the third member of the triumvirate, Carol Fox, rewarded the men for their efforts by booting them out of town. What the hell possessed the two men — one foreign, both gay — to strike out for Dallas in order to produce something so strange and so expensive can never be explained to my satisfaction. But enlisting the help of their friend Maria Callas, arguably the most famous woman on earth, they soon set up shop in Fair Park.

Boasting performances by Callas and Giulietta Simionato, the new company soon earned and scrupulously maintained the nickname “La Scala West.” Joan Sutherland made her American debut there, in Handel’s Alcina, at a time when almost nobody staged Handel — but the music was right for her voice, so Rescigno programmed it. Plácido Domingo and Magda Olivero were among the many who made their U.S. debuts in Dallas, too, and Jon Vickers and Marilyn Horne were among the faithful who returned again and again.

New York friends sometimes marvel that in my first years as an operagoer I heard Mady Mesplé in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, or Renata Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos in Anna Bolena, and that I was so frequently treated to Horne, Vickers, and Alfredo Kraus in music that was so right for them. Beverly Sills’ appearance with the company, in La Traviata, was one of her last outings in that opera, and the occasion of my first journalistic interview.

Even some of those who didn’t become household names, living legends, or musical monuments were wonderful, and I cherish memories of Roberta Knie’s delicious Salome, Beniamino Prior’s buoyant Rodolfo, and Linda Zoghby’s glittering Israelite, in Handel’s Samson. Vickers and Knie teamed for my first Tristan und Isolde, which coincided with my first date. The music went over my head, and my girlfriend’s, too, and we fell asleep — but we felt terribly grown-up.

By your friends, they shall know you:
Maria Callas as Medea, one of the roles she sang in Dallas.
(Albeit before my time.)

Regional opera elsewhere in America in those days didn’t mirror my experiences in Dallas. One didn’t hear superstars, one didn’t hear bel canto — and in most places, one didn’t hear opera at all. I had it easy. With Dallas Civic Opera’s season of four operas in the fall and the Metropolitan Opera’s annual sojourn in the spring, with another four operas, I got to hear live performances by many of the greatest artists of the day. At home, I subscribed to Opera News, timed to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Met and offering me a weekly course in music appreciation. The music critic of The Dallas Morning News happened to be one of the best in the country, John Ardoin, so that first-rate background and analysis were easily within my reach. My parents generously provided me with an allowance that permitted the purchase of several complete opera recordings per year. And my adolescence coincided with the emergence of live opera on public television, as well as the broadcast of German television productions. Television gave me my first glimpses of Teresa Stratas, Hermann Prey, Astrid Varnay, Mirella Freni, Gabriel Bacquier, Frederica von Stade, and countless others whose work is eternally meaningful to me.

A kid discovering opera today would find it more difficult to immerse himself as I did — notwithstanding the newfangled tools of Wikipedia and YouTube. The contemporary opera scene isn’t hopeless, by any means. In Fort Worth, for example, Darren Keith Woods produces wonderfully exciting opera; the Marilyn Horne Foundation dispatches the great lady’s protégés into the heartland, so the whole country can hear impeccably trained singers, live in recital. There’s a long list of attractive artists now (Fleming, Graham, Voigt, Netrebko, Dessay, et al.) who may not drop by the local concert hall very often, but who doubtless can create the glamour I found, and who can inspire the passion I felt for my totem divas, back in the day. Some younger, highly approachable singers (Martínez, DiDonato, Gunn, to name a few) may even make opera seem more inviting. But a kid today would have to work harder than I did, I believe; he’d have to be more cunning and persistent than I was. I had opera handed to me on a silver platter.

I wasn’t conscious of my good fortune; I didn’t appreciate the incomparable resources at my disposal. It never occurred to me to express my gratitude to Nicola Rescigno.

His artistic direction had a lingering, in some cases lasting impact on me. That’s a mixed legacy. It took me a long time to warm to composers who weren’t Italian, to stage direction that wasn’t traditional, to performances that weren’t singer-centric. Because Rescigno’s baton was so deft, and because the acoustics of Fair Park Music Hall are so odd, I’m still learning what conductors really do; had he chosen a different hall, or offered more aggressive interpretation, he might have answered key questions for me. I’m still crazy about singers (as perhaps you have noticed), and I count many among my personal friends. In short, for better and worse, I am the opera fan that Rescigno brought me up to be.

His work was thrilling, and memorable. Attending his performances, one never doubted that opera was worthwhile — and very far from a dead art form. It demanded my attention, my affection, and my participation. It opened up the world to me. I’m a little late in saying so — but grazie, Maestro.