How I happened to become a teenage classical music and opera nerd growing up in Springfield, Missouri is really too long and complicated a story to go into here. (Okay, twist my arm….) But suffice it to say that by the time our first local mall opened in July of 1970, I had already purchased a few classical records from the allowance my parents gave me every week. It wasn’t easy to find a classical recording for sale in Springfield, Missouri in 1970. (It’s impossible now, but that’s another story.) A few of our local department stores had small record sections, from which I had purchased a couple of discs like Columbia’s compilation “Beethoven’s Greatest Hits,” and I’d also been seduced by Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach,” just the kind of thing you might think a classical music novice might pick up. But it wasn’t until I walked into the new mall and discovered Disc Records that I’d ever been in a room with a substantial collection of classical vinyl recordings.
And was it ever substantial! Although the large store also featured pop, rock, country, soundtracks and every other kind of music, it seemed to have been stocked by someone with a serious pro-classical agenda. Years later when I got to know the Schwann Catalog, the listing of all the records in print, I realized that the buyers of the initial inventory must have stocked the store with practically everything available! The bins and shelves were filled to capacity, and there were far too many records to browse in the few minutes that my parents allowed me to spend in the store that day I discovered it. However, I managed to negotiate a return visit a few days later and it was then that my education about the breadth of what existed on records really began.
I had to start somewhere, and my somewhat limited financial resources dictated that the proper place should be the side of the bins labeled “Budget Classical.” Wow, discs for $2.99 and $3.49 apiece! Even I could afford a few of those. From my Bach-on-the-synthesizer listening I had realized that I liked the sound and style of Baroque music, so I quite naturally gravitated towards a label that seemed to specialize in that genre: Nonesuch Records. I think my first purchase was the Karl Ristenpart recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, but the next must have been a disc featuring the same conductor leading Bach’s Magnificat and Cantata # 51. My first vocal record! It featured Teresa Stich-Randall, an American soprano, discovered early by Toscanini, but whose career had flourished in Europe. She possessed a clear lyric soprano with a notably fast and narrow vibrato, which led some listeners to describe her sound as “pure” or “cool,” In fact, her vibrato was sometimes hard to detect at all, and in that sense she was a precursor of many modern sopranos who sing Bach and Handel with minimal vibrato. At the time, I knew none of this, but I remember finding her sound attractive, though lacking some quality that I couldn’t quite define.
I listened my way through a number of Bach’s vocal works and at the same time began to branch out into other composers: A Beethoven symphony, a collection of Chopin piano works, and a few more “Greatest Hits” composer samplers. Not all my choices were fortuitous, but the producers of Nonesuch, Odyssey (Columbia Records’ budget label) and Seraphim (Angel’s discount line) chose mostly excellent performances to reissue at low prices. This was also the era of Westminster Records’ re-launch, with some strikingly suggestive and/or humorous cover photographs which occasionally crossed the line of good taste. Those records are now considered camp classics.
Westminster’s Planets: crossing the line of good taste?
But as I was enjoying my budget-minded forays into classical music, my eyes kept wandering towards the back wall of Disc Records, which was lined floor to ceiling with bigger, pricier treasures: box sets of multiple discs, containing long works like the Bach Passions, Mahler Symphonies, and, most prominently, operas! I knew nothing at all about opera at the time other than Beethoven had written one, and that someone named Wagner had composed immensely long ones about some of the mythical stories I had enjoyed as a child. I mainly knew that I was going to have to get my Dad to up my allowance if I wanted to purchase any of these bulky boxed mysteries. I received a recording of the Saint Matthew Passion on four discs for my 13th birthday and treasured it, but birthdays came around all too seldom. Meanwhile, purchasing all the titles that intrigued me on that big wall was out of the question.
Over the next year or so, my little collection grew slowly, and I really did play the hell out of those LPs. Not that I gave up completely on the pop music I had grown up with. I still enjoyed my collection of 45s and a few classics from the sixties: the Beatles, of course, but also the Mamas & the Papas and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, which my parents would have banned from the house if they had understood the drug references. (Actually, I didn’t either.) But during that last year before High School, more and more of my time was taken up listening to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. (I had to do something to occupy my time; my favorite television show, Dark Shadows, had gone off the air in the spring of ’71.)
At last, High School arrived, and with it the chance of starting over and maybe making some friends. I had been a notably lonely Junior High student, with very few friends and absolutely no one to relate to regarding my passion for music. I remember liking everything about High School better than Junior High. The building seemed cleaner and more modern, the attitude of the teachers struck me as less condescending, and I had a general sense that I was going to fit in better. An altogether superior environment, the continued existence of Gym Class notwithstanding. Best of all, my teachers mostly seemed like interesting, intelligent human beings who had something to impart. In that respect, the standout was William Brandon Bowman, my French teacher, known to everyone as “Bucky.” Mr. Bowman, as I politely called him at first, was utterly unlike any teacher I had ever met.
Though he taught French and English, anyone who talked to Bucky for more than a few minutes knew that his real subject was the Arts writ large, and the Artistic life. His knowledge of history, culture, painting, literature and, not least, music, was immense. He could discourse on these subjects at length, but what saved him from seeming like an intellectual snob was his deep interest in people, his other great study. Bucky wanted to know about the lives of the people he encountered whether they were budding stars, society matrons (one of his favorite phrases), or lowly freshmen French students. In or out of class, everyone was gathered in by his benevolent attitude of fascination with other people’s lives. He made one feel noticed, heard, special.
For me there was another aspect. As a gay teen who had only begun to reckon with his sexuality and its repercussions, I nevertheless recognized in Bucky a role model and kindred spirit. I saw in him someone not only whose knowledge and confidence I could aspire to, but in some very unformed way, the first glimpse of a possible future self I could be proud of. I think I knew immediately that we would be lifelong friends.
Fortunately, the passing years proved this to be so, but in the meantime I struggled through French class along with the other hapless freshmen. Under Bucky’s tutelage, we learned as much about the arts and literature of France as we did about the language. I have since come to believe that this is, in fact, an ideal way to learn a language, soaking in the culture and background of a country, along with the nitty gritty of verb tenses and noun genders. But I digress…
In the course of the semester, Bucky heard from me about my interest in music, in its composers and artists, many of whose names I mispronounced earnestly. I think I mentioned some of the recordings I owned, and perhaps added in passing that I had yet to hear any opera. He replied something vague about an “easy solution” to that problem before the conversation moved on to other subjects.
The next morning when I walked into French class, I spied a stack of multi-disc record boxes on a table near Bucky’s desk. Noticing my gawking at the sight, Bucky casually mentioned that these were “homework” for me. I quickly glanced at the gold-colored lettering along the spines of the boxes: Carmen with Resnik, Del Monaco and Schippers, Falstaff with Fischer-Dieskau and Bernstein, The Ballad of Baby Doe with Beverly Sills, La traviata with Sutherland and Bergonzi, and Turandot with Nilsson, Bjoerling and Tebaldi. At the end of French class, I carefully picked up the stack and made for the door. “Thank you so much, I’ll take good care of them,” I said to Bucky. He smiled, and when I was just outside the door, admonished me “Listen to Turandot first!”
The rest of that day was a blur to me, as all I could think of was getting home and putting the first disc on the turntable to begin my operatic adventures. For some reason, my mother served an early dinner that evening. All the better, I would have hours of uninterrupted time to enjoy my borrowed treasures. Immediately after the family meal, I ran back to my bedroom, where I kept the Harmon Kardon stereo that my parents had generously purchased for me a year or so before. Following Bucky’s instructions, I placed side one of Turandot on the turntable and settled down, seated cross-legged, on my bed, which was right between the two speakers. (Not an ideal listening setup, I know now, but it certainly put me in the center of the music.)
And then I listened, in one sitting, to Turandot. If this were the sad, cynical type of memoir all too common these days, I would now relate my disappointment at the whole experience to the tune of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” The truth is both simpler and cornier: I was transported, instantly, into a world of sound both strange and familiar. The familiar part is easy to explain: I had been to the movies, of course, and had heard faux Chinese orchestral sonorities in any number of film scores. But the strange part was very odd indeed: I felt not so much as if I were listening to an audio-only reproduction of a theatrical event, but rather like I had entered directly into the imagination of Puccini, and that at that very moment Turandot was being created for my ears alone.
Not that I neglected the dramatic aspect of the story as it unfolded. No, I followed the luxuriously printed dual-language libretto word-for-word, a habit I maintain to this day when listening to opera recordings. And from some of the recordings of musicals I had listened to, I had grown skillful at imagining the kind of stage action that can barely be suggested by audio recordings. But my attention was only partly directed to the drama as such. Rather, my train of thought was firmly caught up in this experience of an evolving creation that moved through time with vivid specificity and astonishing beauty.
This impression persisted as the opening orchestral flourish gave way to the Mandarin’s brief solo, through the opening chorus and the introduction of Calaf, Timur and Liù and on and on as the act progressed. I noted the passing splendors of the voices of Giorgio Tozzi, Renata Tebaldi and, especially, Jussi Bjoerling. His was a sound the likes of which I had never encountered, so high and pure, and yet so brilliantly ringing and strong. The whole of Act One flew by like this, and to this day, it flies by for me in the opera house or on recordings with the same kind of organic flow that I experienced that evening in my bedroom alone. I had a good ear, even at that inexperienced stage, and could clearly hear that Tebaldi was a bit flat at the end of “Signore, ascolta,” and that Bjoerling, albeit a god, occasionally sang on the sharp side of the note, but such passing imperfections didn’t detract from the essence of the experience. If this was opera, I wanted more, I wanted all there was to be had!
Bjoerling: brilliantly ringing and strong
Acts Two and Three brought no sense of disappointment or flagging interest. How could they, with the entrance in the second act of La Nilsson? (Though I should hasten to say, I loved the first scene of Act Two with Ping, Pang and Pong nearly as much as the Riddle Scene, and still do!) Nilsson’s voice fascinated from the beginning, with its shine and brilliance, but even at first hearing I found it a sound more impressive than passionate or touching. (That’s okay, it’s plenty impressive!) The final act, of course, introduced me to that great tenor anthem, “Nessun dorma!” and Bjoerling’s is still the voice that I hear in my head when I imagine this aria. Tebaldi’s final double aria as Liù was perhaps even more powerful, but am I alone in finding the first part, “Tanto amore segreto,” more beautiful than the second, “Tu che di gel sei cinta?”
Then there is the final scene, which I had already read in the liner notes of the libretto was not by Puccini. I’ve always felt that Alfano got kind of a raw deal in attempting the impossible, to resolve the drama of the Ice Princess and the Foreign Prince after the death of poor Liù has put a damper on everything. I think Puccini was wise to die before tackling that final scene. Nonetheless, Alfano does as well as anyone could have, and in this recording, certainly, Nilsson and Bjoerling give their all to that duet that begins with anger and resentment and all too quickly boils over into passion. “All too quickly” is the problem, so it seemed to me as I listened to it that evening. “How can Calaf forget about poor Liù so quickly and start in again carrying on about Turandot?” I thought. I still think that when I see a production of Turandot or listen to a recording. Could Puccini, even with his transformative genius, have solved this dramatic problem? We’ll never know, and I certainly didn’t have an answer that night!
In the next few days I listened to the rest of Bucky’s five choices for me. Carmen I found musically exciting, but I didn’t much like the voices on that particular recording. (I should give it another try sometime!) Traviata I enjoyed but, there too, I would discover its worth through other recordings. Falstaff was an experience nearly on the same level as Turandot, a real revelation of music and drama seeming to play out in my mind. And I loved Baby Doe from the first note to the last and still do.
At the end of a week of listening, I felt proud and satisfied by my first forays into the world of opera. I returned Bucky’s LPs to him a week after I had borrowed them, and told him how much the recordings had meant to me. He seemed pleased, though just a little annoyed that I hadn’t found Joan Sutherland’s Violetta to be a spiritual experience.
The next morning, I was looking out the window on the school’s third-floor landing when I saw Bucky coming up the sidewalk with an even larger batch of LP boxes in his arms. From the distance, I couldn’t count how many boxes he was carrying, but he was struggling with them! I waited as he climbed the two flights of stairs to his classroom, which I was standing outside of. He sighed deeply as he made the last step up to the third floor, handed me the enormous stack of records and proclaimed, “Kid, you’re just into your Callas period!”
The Nilsson/Tebaldi/Bjoerling/Leinsdorf recording of Turandot is available on streaming services such as iTunes, Spotify, Qobuz and others. It’s also on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FZTx5yvahk&t=215s. The YouTube transfer, unfortunately, plays almost a half-step sharp!