Now, you might think that the life of an opera singer involves moving serenely from one long-planned engagement to another, and to a certain extent it does. However, from time to time, unforeseen events elsewhere can give rise to sudden and unexpected opportunities. It is on occasions such as these that the impulse to rise to the challenge on offer can result in frenetic activity and unbelievable levels of stress.
Whilst performing at the Met in New York in 1983, I was awakened at midnight by a telephone call from my agent, David Foster. He told me that he was in Chicago, and that the Chicago Symphony had sacked the tenor they had engaged for Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, which was to be conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. I said that I was interested and asked when the performance was to be. He told me that there was a matinee performance the next day (Friday) and another on Saturday evening. I had just finished a run of Don Ottavio in ‘Don Giovanni’, and had to be at the Met to cover the performance. It seemed highly unlikely that the management would release me at such short notice. However, the casting director of the Chicago Symphony said that Joan Ingpen (his opposite number at the Met) owed him a few favours. He said that he would call me back.
Well, at about 3.00am the phone went off again. Yes, it was Chicago saying that they had tracked down Joan Ingpen in the Village, and that she had agreed to let me do the concert as long as I was back at the Met by 8.00pm the same evening. I was advised that my flight was at 6.00 on Friday morning and that I should be at JFK airport by 5.00am. My then wife (from whom I am long since divorced) asked what I had just agreed to do.
“Das Lied von der Erde,” I said.
“How? You don’t know it. You’ve never done it.”
That was when the panic set in. I called a friend to see if she had a score; she didn’t, but she did have a recording that I could borrow. It was the same recording (with Fritz Wunderlich) that I had at home in England. I listened to it in the taxi and on the flight all the way to Chicago. By the time I landed, I had almost mastered the first two of the three tenor solos (‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ and ‘Von der Jugend’), but without a score it was difficult to know for sure.
I arrived at O’Hare airport at 9.00am local time, and was met by my agent and taken to a waiting limousine – a white Rolls Royce. Once seated, the artistic director gave me a score of the work, which I dutifully opened. It was not a vocal score but a full conductor’s score, and my vocal line was set in the C clef and not the treble clef that I was used to.
The concert was due to start at 1.00pm and a pianist was provided to work with me until that time. I was informed that Leinsdorf would come to see me at about 11.00am, to which I retorted that they should keep him off my back until at least noon.
Eleven o’clock came, and so did the conductor despite my request. I hadn’t even started working on my third, and probably most difficult, song (‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’). I told the Maestro that I hadn’t sung the piece for some time, and that I needed more time to become re-acquainted with it. He said that it would be fine, but he just wanted to be sure that I understood the poetry. Who cared about the poetry when you were trying to sight read the notes from the C clef? And from a full score!
I continued with the pianist until about 12.30pm, when it was time to dress for the performance. They changed the order of the programme (the other piece in the programme was Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ symphony) so that ‘Das Lied’ came first, thus enabling me to get back to the airport and on to New York by 8.00pm.
The first two songs went well, but I was struggling with the third. The alto part was being sung by Jessye Norman, who realised my predicament. She began humming my line, especially the notes that I had to come in on. The principal cellist picked up on this and, as he was playing from a full score, he played my part with me. Thanks guys!
I got through it – just – and, during the interval, was rushed to a waiting helicopter parked in a car park on the other side of Michigan Avenue and flew to O’Hare, zooming in and out of the skyscrapers, including the Sears Tower. My flight back to New York was delayed, so I was transferred to another flight, and eventually arrived at the stage door of the Met at 7.59pm Luckily, I wasn’t called upon to sing, so I went to a friend of mine who was a repetiteur, and spent three hours going through ‘Das Lied’.
I returned to Chicago the next morning at the same time as on Friday, but this time with a vocal score. The same limo met me, and I worked for three hours with the pianist. At lunchtime, I went to the hotel for a well deserved rest, and arrived at the hall in plenty of time for the performance – this time with more confidence, as I practically knew it from memory.
The performance went really well, and it was recorded for the radio. Unfortunately I don’t have that recording, but here is a performance from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with Edo de Waart recorded some years later.
After the concert, we were invited, by Maestro Leinsdorf, to the Swiss Hotel (next to the Water Tower) for a party in his suite. I took this opportunity to come clean, and told him that I had neither seen the score of ‘Das Lied’ before, nor had I ever sung it. His reply to this was, “Well, it just shows you what a good judge of musicians I am.”
The following morning (which was a Sunday), Jessye and I were picked up at our hotel by a stretch limousine. Jessye took up most of the back seat, and the rest of the limo was filled with her luggage. I sat on a jump seat with my case on my lap. We arrived at O’Hare airport, where Jessye insisted on a kerbside check-in. The very polite attendant told her that she could not take all of her baggage. She insisted and, after an exchange of views (in which she reverted to a Deep South accent) interspersed with many foul words, he eventually allowed her to check every piece of baggage with no surcharge. Oh, happy days!