When the invitation to audition for a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury arrived in the mail last winter, my first reaction was to drop it into the trash. I hadn’t sung anywhere in public for nearly 15 years, and I had imagined myself safely retired from a lifelong ambition to star at La Scala. It was a fantasy I had been nourishing since the age of 16, when I was taken to the opera for the first time to hear a performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser at the old Met in New York. I was entranced as well as bowled over by the singing of Lauritz Melchior, the leading heroic tenor of his time. I imagined that I had found my life’s career and had not the slightest doubt that one day I would make it.
I pursued this dream relentlessly, under the tutelage of expensive singing teachers and coaches, until my mid-20s, when I was forced to confront the reality that I simply didn’t have a big enough instrument in my throat to soar above a 60-piece orchestra and shake the roof with the sort of ringing high notes people like Pavarotti and Domingo can produce with infuriating ease. What I had was a pleasant light tenor, mostly suitable to musical comedy and operetta. I had a comedic flair and specialized in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, singing mostly with amateur companies in and around NewYork. I would have starved to death if I hadn’t begun to earn a much better living as a novelist and magazine writer.
But the fantasy never quite died. I went on singing here and there, in opera workshops, on the radio and in concerts. I not only had fun, but each time I found myself wondering if I could have made it. I could hit the high notes all right, and in my bathroom, I sounded like Caruso.
Soon after I moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1966, I found myself touring the San Joaquin Valley with the Pacific Southwest Opera Company in an hour-long version of Die Fledermaus.
Later, I sang in a number of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, the high point of which came in the form of a good review from the Times’ Martin Bernheimer, the fastest critical gun in the West. With every success, no matter how small, the old dream revived, only to be shattered whenever I tuned in to a Met broadcast or slapped an LP of any one of my favorite opera stars onto my turntable.
The trouble with being a light tenor is that most of the good parts are written for fecklessly romantic young men. As I eased into my 40s and my hair fell out, I sang less and less, drifting gradually into character roles. My last appearance in L.A. was as an aging, lovestruck clergyman in Gilbert and Sullivan's Sorcerer. Even though no one handed me any bouquets, I considered the occasion my farewell gala.
Three years ago. I moved to the San Diego area, where I discovered, to my amazement, that the city had a resident professional Gilbert and Sullivan opera company, almost the only one of its kind left in the world. I subscribed to it but never went to see a performance and had no intention of trying to sing in it. Then the audition notice arrived and caught me in a moment of weakness. I had just emerged from the shower, where I had been belting high notes off the walls and complimenting myself on the powerful new maturity of my voice, darker and heavier, I told myself, than it had been when I was young. In fact, I was sounding, I decided, more and more like another idol of mine, the late Tito Gobbi, one of the finest dramatic baritones of his day. Once again. La Scala beckoned.
I went to the audition, which was held in a church with acoustics not unlike those of my bathroom. I sang a baritone ballad that convinced me I could now embark on my favorite roles, Scarpia and Iago, both dramatic baritone parts I would have killed to be able to sing anywhere. I told my wife afterward, with what I thought was becoming modesty, that I had sung pretty well, an assertion confirmed two days later when I was offered the part of the counsel for the plaintiff in Trial. Furthermore, I told my helpmate, this was a professional engagement; I was being paid $50 for only six weeks of rehearsals and two weekends of performances. My wife knows about dreams and kept quiet. My salary scale worked out to about nine cents an hour, but what did that matter? I was on my way to La Scala again.
The performance went off well enough last spring, even though none of the local critics covered the show, for some reason. My friends and family told me I sang very well, however, even though the Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park, where the company performs, is an acoustically dead house, with a false low ceiling that swallows up sound like a quilt. My wife told me she had trouble hearing my lower notes, but what did she know? Titto Gobbi could not fail to be heard. And now that my silly tenor years were behind me. I had found a new vocal identity, one fully in tune with the vision I’d always had of myself.
I auditioned for and won the role of Major General Stanley in the company’s next production. Pirates of Penzance. This was a big part, with two solos, including the famous patter song, ‘‘I am the very model of a modern major general....'’ I would be funny in it, I felt sure, but I’d also sing the hell out of it. And I was being paid $75 this time, about 11 cents an hour. My wife nodded, smiled a little grimly, and said nothing. She’s a very smart woman.
The San Diego Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company rehearses in an old building in the Gaslamp Quarter that has high ceilings and walls off which you can bounce your best notes. I was sounding more like Gobbi every day, and, once I had mastered the fiendish intricacies of the patter song, I felt absolutely certain that I was about to wow the local buffs. I even toyed with the idea of inviting Ian Campbell, the general manager of the San Diego Opera Company, to one of the performances. I didn’t want him to miss out on the vocal phenomenon right under his nose, when he was constantly having to go abroad, poor man, to hire foreign singers for his local opera seasons.
The curtain went up on Pirates in late June, and this time, the critics all came.
To my amazement, not one of them mentioned the magnificent new baritone timbre of my voice. I was commended for my dancing ability and for “cutting amusing capers,” but my singing?
Owing, I’m sure, to what W.S. Gilbert terms “the agency of an ill-natured fairy.’’ all the critics turned out to be deaf. One of them even had the effrontery to say that he couldn't understand the patter song, “partly due to Murray’s feeble vocal support.’’
I guess I’m not going to make it to La Scala after all. at least not as a baritone. I’m back in my bathroom, singing the old tenor parts, and, you know, I hit some really ringing high notes the other morning. In fact, I'm beginning to sound not unlike my old idol, Lauritz Melchior. There’s a terrible shortage of true Wagnerian tenors around these days....