Charles Long is the author of Adventures in the Scream Trade: Scenes from an Operatic Life
Charles Long performed with some of America’s and the world’s most famous opera companies and sang alongside opera’s greatest stars. Now retired, Long recounts many of those experiences in this baldly honest memoir. Sparing no one, especially himself, from his acerbic observations, he sheds light onto a world many of us admire but have only rarely encountered in such intimate detail. In the process he illustrates why the word “opera,” which means “works” in Latin, truly denotes a labor of love for so many who have given their all to the art.
You sang a wide variety of roles. Which were your favorites and why?
Although I would sometimes hear that I was too slim and handsome to play villains, I relished performing the Verdi and Puccini antagonists — the marvelously dark, brooding characters. More than once skeptics said, ““Why would Tosca choose Cavaradossi when she could be with a Scarpia who looked like you?”“ But this perceived contradiction made the characterization all the more interesting. One of the most chilling bad guys ever portrayed on the screen was Burt Lancaster in the 1954 move “Vera Cruz.” You don’’t get better looking than Burt in his prime, and he used this to wonderful advantage. He would flash a dazzling smile one minute, and do something monstrous the next. It was extremely effective. In fact, I based my characterization of Jack Rance in “La Fanciulla Del West” — sometimes called the ““Cowboy Opera’” — on Lancaster’’s portrayal of Joe Erin.
Certainly my favorite acting roles were Scarpia, Jack Rance, Rigoletto, Tonio and Don Giovanni. But as far as singing goes nothing compares with the Verdi roles, especially Macbeth, Ezio in Attila, Count Di Luna in Trovatore, Don Carlo in Forza.
I hear singers talk about unrewarding roles — usually difficult to perform and devoid of opportunities to demonstrate the singer’s talent. What were your “unfavorite” roles?
That’s a tough one, because even though I made some disparaging remarks in my book about some of the operas I performed, there are worthwhile moments in all of them. However, some roles are so short that you barely get warmed up before the opera ends. For example, Escamillo, the bullfighter in “Carmen,” makes his first entrance well into the second act, singing the “Toreador Song.” It’s one of opera’s truly memorable moments, but he leaves the stage immediately afterward and appears only briefly in two other scenes before the curtain falls. I always craved more to sing.
In some title roles — Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni come to mind — the baritone slogs through a preponderance of unspectacular music while the other characters get the impressive arias. So, although you receive the final curtain call, you don’t always feel you’ve earned it.
You write exceptionally well, but you were trained as a musician, not a writer. Where did you acquire those exceptional skills?
My maternal grandfather was a newspaperman who had a radio talk show about fishing, hunting and the outdoors. But he died when I was 4, and because my mother was adopted, I doubt there is any genetic legacy. Yet I’ve always written — letters to the editor, articles about things that interested me or essays on topics of the day. I’ve always found it easier to express myself verbally by way of the written word. Only after I’ve written my thoughts on the page can I fully articulate them. Associates sometimes become frustrated because I prefer communicating via e-mail rather than by phone. There’s something about the impromptu nature of a phone conversation that unsettles me. I can’t always find precisely the right words. For me, it’s all about finding the right word.
I’m also fascinated by the music within language. My partner and I often read to each other and marvel at the immaculate symmetry of a perfect sentence. She’s a writer as well, and sometimes we find the rhythm of a great paragraph so thrilling that we’ll read it a dozen times. Good writing is like music to my ears. Through fastidious self-education and a love of words, I have made writing my substitute musical outlet.
I went about learning how to write in the same way I mastered singing, conducting and orchestration. I used the disciplined curiosity of a classical musician to study examples of artists I admired. I’d find the essence of each and consolidate them into an ideal, synthesizing and infusing it with my own gifts to create something unique. Somehow I have always been able to break the fundamentals of art into its smallest common denominator, reassemble it and make it my own. I discovered that I could do this with almost anything I set my mind to, including writing. A bit of talent helps, too.
Scream Trade was 17 years in the writing, so I had a long time to create a style. But what really honed my writing skills was two years in south Florida working as a sports writer covering boxing. It forced me to embrace the old actor’s axiom that “less is more,” and I developed a terse, crisp style that melded nicely with my lofty, sardonic prose.
Occasionally, I hear singers who sing notes and not music. What’s going on here?
I frequently make analogies between boxing and singing in my book, and here’s another good opportunity. In boxing it’s all about the knockout punch, and in singing it’s much the same. You can box beautifully for 12 rounds, or sing artistically for three acts, but what everybody is waiting for is the KO, the money shot, the high note. It’s the punctuation at the end of a sentence, a dive off the high board, William Tell’s arrow through the apple. If you miss the target, however, you risk being booed off the stage, humiliated and vanquished by a composer centuries dead. To mix analogies, some singers become so fixated on landing the big shot that they forget to box the entire round and end up losing on points.
Singers can also be trapped by tradition and imitation. They listen to recordings of notable performances and feel they have to do something bigger and better. Those who are less enlightened often think this means high notes to the exclusion of all else.
I always preferred taking the risk of being original. Sometimes this means going back to the page of music and studying it afresh, free from the constraints of tradition. I remember doing a production of “Il Trovatore” with Anton Coppola. During the first rehearsal, after I sang the big aria, he stopped and said, “In all my years of conducting this opera, this is the first time I’ve ever heard it sung as written. I like it!”
It takes enormous courage to buck tradition and sing what the composer has actually written. Most people don’t have the cojones to do it. But sometimes audience expectations can force even the most daring to wither under the weight of convention. I always wanted to do the Prologue to “Pagliacci” without the high A-flat — come scritto. Not because I feared it — I had a great high range — but because the way Leoncavallo wrote it is far better than the interpolation, which creates a false climax on an unimportant word. The actual musical climax is in the following line on the word “Incominciate!” This high G also happens to be an interpolated note, but it’s a good interpolation, befitting the drama and poetry. However, had I sung it as written, I would have been shunned and never offered the role again. Such is the stress of tradition.
You were trained as a musician and an instrumentalist before you turned to singing. Has that training helped you? Would you recommend such training for singers?
Absolutely! Nothing can substitute for a solid musical background and attaining some level of excellence with another instrument, especially piano. Singers are often the least skilled within the musical world, and it shows. I would urge young singers to help break that stereotype and make the serious study of music their priority. As I said before, the regimented discipline of a classical musician can be applied to many things in life. Time spent in the pursuit of excellence is never wasted.
What about ungracious moments in vocal music, those awkward passages that are difficult and even ungainly? For example, baritones complain about the uncomfortable line, “car avec les soldats,” in the Toreador Song from “Carmen” — it takes the singer down to a low B-flat for no particular musical or dramatic reason and it’s difficult to sing properly. What were some of those moments for you and how did you handle them?
That particular passage never gave me any problem. I started as a bass-baritone and could usually access the lower voice with far more ease than many of my counterparts.
The tessitura has a lot to do with it. It’s much easier to hit those funky low extensions when you’re singing some of the French baritone repertory than when sustaining the high tessitura of a Verdi role. Singing high in your voice all night tends to jack it up, and dipping out of that higher position becomes more difficult. All you can do is go for it and hope for the best.
Singers tell me that they like Puccini because he wrote so well for the voice. In your opinion, which composers didn’t write well for the voice?
Puccini wrote well for the soprano and tenor, but less so for everybody else. For example, when Puccini has a duet for baritone and tenor, it’s usually written in a key more ideal for the tenor. The harmonies he chooses for the baritone are often awkward and far from scintillating, sometimes merely doubling the tenor an octave lower. He fared better with the baritone alone on stage, but even then Puccini sometimes requires the voice to be exclamatory in parts of the range that are not well suited for that purpose.
Verdi is the only true master of all voice categories, and everybody else is running to catch up. He pinpoints the sweet spot in the voice and allows you to stay there all night. While Puccini is my favorite opera composer because of his mastery of melodrama, Verdi is the singer’s composer.
From my perspective the German and Russian composers, while there are exceptions, display a certain melodic dysfunction in terms of vocal writing. While they are marvelously skilled at orchestration, and put many of their Italian and French counterparts to shame in that regard, an intimate understanding of the complexities of the human voice seems to have escaped them.
Were there any roles you very much wanted to sing but never did?
I very much wanted to sing Renato in “Ballo Un Maschera” and Gerard in “Andrea Chenier.” I did both arias from “Chenier” in various orchestral appearances, but never got close to a production of “Ballo.” It would have been a great role for me. I regret never having had the opportunity to perform it.
Did you enjoy singing the bel canto repertoire? Why?
I’m assuming that by bel canto you mean the works of Bellini, Rosini and early Donizetti. In short — no. This was the period in opera when the voice category of baritone was still in development. Mozart had no idea what a real baritone was, even though the roles of the Count in “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” are designated as such. Donizetti was still experimenting with the capabilities of this evolving category until late in his career. It was not until Verdi, purportedly a baritone, himself, that the baritone as a major force in opera really came into his own.
All of this is understandable since the baritone exists in a kind of alternate universe between tenor and bass. While possessing some traits of each, it is neither fish nor fowl, but something “other,” and many composers are perplexed by its potential. It’s a tall order to combine the masculine roar of the bass and the impassioned squillo of the tenor into one package. It simply eludes some composers.
Risë Stevens maintained that singing Mozart was therapeutic for the voice. Do you agree?
I hate to disagree with such a renowned artist, but I’d have to say that it depends on the voice. Mozart’s vocal music is angular and instrumental, as is the case with the music of many German composers. While I can see the advantage of this kind of intervallic gymnastics as a vocalise, when it comes to therapeutic song, give me the limpid legato of an Italian art song over Mozart any day.
You excelled in Italian and French opera but sang little in German. Why?
Actually, I didn’t sing any German. Partly because of what I previously stated about German composers, but also because of the language. I’m at least one quarter German, and I don’t wish to disparage the German people, so I’ll simply parrot what one of the Italian composers said in the movie “Amadeus,” when he contemplated writing “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in German: “German is too brut for singing.” I think that says it all.
In my lifetime, men and women who stage and direct opera have become dominant figures. Are you happy with their preeminence?
Ha! To quote a line from my book, “Directors are generally the repressed, frustrated wannabe performers of the industry, and most of them should be locked in institutions.” It was bad enough when conductors became such powerful forces in the industry, but at least they were musicians … but stage directors? Give me a break!
All us opera fans have our favorite works and a list of operas we can’t stand. Which operas do you put into those two categories and why?
As I said before, one can find some redeeming tune or moment in most operas, but works like Alban Berg’s “Lulu” and some of the other 12-tone abominations move quickly to top of my Hate List. It’s not a prejudice against modern opera — I like the 20th- century works of Hansen, Bernstein, Menotti, Flloyd and Ward, among others, and I absolutely love transitional works like Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” But the painful, atonal drek of the Germans from the last century makes me want put a 45-caliber slug through my speakers. Lock n’ load, baby!
Opera enthusiasts are divided in how they appraise Maria Callas. Where do you stand on that lady?
One word: Superlative.
If you could change one current practice in the way opera is performed, what would it be and why?
I’d like to see an end to these dreary updated productions that put Don Giovanni in Beverly Hills and Carmen in some modernized Neo-Nazi wet dream. These attempts are noble, but ultimately unsuccessful. What’s the saying? “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
However, I would like to see more multimedia in opera — imaginative sets and projections, video and more technology. With some creativity this can be done without intruding on the period of a piece.
Name the singer you most admire and explain why.
That’s a tough one. I’ve had so many wonderful colleagues that it’s impossible to pick only one. Certainly in the top 10 are a few I mentioned in my book: Carol Neblett, a fellow free-spirit who took courageous chances during her career and never shirked; Shirley Verrett, one of the most gracious and talented souls I ever shared the stage with; and of course, Placido Domingo, whose enormous gifts, longevity and kind spirit are an inspiration to us all.
The tendency in new productions these days is to depart from realistic and historically accurate stagings and to use modern dress and sometimes surreal sets and costumes and acting. Is that a desirable trend? Why?
I’ll reiterate what I said before and I’ll give you another quote from my book in referring to Gian Carlo Menotti’s style of direction. “I was delighted he was not one of those micromanaging narcissists who thought of singers as puppets whose only reason for existence was to act out a highly controlled vision of their dream.”
This about sums up what I think of those who drastically distort an opera’s period. These are the deeds of feeble minds that fail to realize that part of the texture and essence of a play, opera or musical is its time stamp. It’s as much a part of the work as the language and orchestration. One cannot toy with these things without damaging the work at the molecular level and creating some kind of genetic mutation. As long as that admission is made up front, I guess it’s okay. But to insinuate that it’s somehow an improvement is folly fraught with arrogance.
I feel the same about updated theater. Watching Patrick Stewart play the despotic madman of a modern, warring society in the 2010 version of “Macbeth” makes me cringe. And a refurbished version of “South Pacific” that’s been contorted into some modern day, politically correct anti-racism vehicle makes me want to throw up. For me, they just don’t work.
What does the future hold for you? Some role in opera other than singing?
Well, that’s an open question, isn’t it? I’ve likely made enough enemies with this book — or at least awakened so many sleeping dogs — that I probably won’t encounter too many open doors in the opera world. And though I would like to conduct opera again, because this is the discipline where I’m most uniquely qualified, I think I’d like to do more symphonic work. I’ve conducted most of the Beethoven symphonies and I’d really like to do all of them before I hang up my baton. So I guess my “bucket list” includes getting my hands on a good orchestra somewhere and completing that dream.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to scribble.
Writer Tom Glenn fell in love with opera at the age of 6 and has never stopped studying it. The Independent’s go-to guy on opera, he regularly lectures on the art form.