and said, "John, I want to leave right after the class, and there are always people who want to talk, and autographs. I have to depend on you." So I said, "Of course, Maria, whatever you like." When the class was over, and everyone was gathered around Maria, she announced to them, "I would like to stay and talk with you, but Mr. Ardoin and I have an appointment, and I really must not keep Mr. Ardoin waiting."' And I would say, "Yes, Madame Callas, we should go now." And so we would get into the car and race back to the Plaza. We had to get there by six o'clock sharp, you see, because that's when the reruns of I Love Lucy came on, and Maria could not miss that show. She sat on the bed and lived every moment of I Love Lucy. I think she was Lucy, watching television with the same intensity she brought to singing Medea.
When I asked to interview John Ardoin I knew he would have interesting things to say, but he surprised even so devout a fan as I am. He was in New York for the weekend, attending three performances at the Met and appearing on the Texaco Opera Quiz, but he graciously found time to sit for an hour and chat over cappuccino. Having grown up on his reviews and books, I fully expected him to be a fountain of knowledge (which he is), but I never thought he would be such a perfectly sweet man, and, after so many years, still an avid opera fan. I began with the usual question:
James Jorden: Are you an opera queen?
John Ardoin: Oh, absolutely. I think I have been one from the earliest time I remember. My mother said that I was a difficult child. I got into trouble a lot — in an innocent sort of way. But the only time I'd ever sit still and be quiet was when there was singing on the radio. I soon discovered, when I was about 12, the Met broadcasts. And then, of course, I used to be torn in two on Monday nights. Because Lux Theater of the Air (I also am a movie queen) conflicted with The Voice of Firestone, and I would have to spin the dial back and forth. It was always clear sailing once you got to The Bell Telephone Hour. But the radio was my first important link to the whole world. Growing up in a small town in Texas, as Terrence McNally did, we had four concerts a year on our community-concert series. And to me they were like rain on the desert. Well, let's think of some of the people. I heard Jennie Tourel that way and James Melton -- who's still a great idol of mine. Melchior. Oh, so many singers. But it wasn't until I was about 16 or 17 I saw my first opera -- the old Charles Wagner Company, which used to barnstorm around towns, with Beverly Sills. Wait, I should say, that was my second opera, because I heard my first opera, Bohème, and then I saw the next year this neighboring city was doing Traviata. I went, and there was a baby Bev and John Alexander. Opera was a more, I don’t know, a more naïve or a more innocent thing, I think, in those days. When I first moved to New York in '59 and I worked in the old Steinway Building, it would sometimes take 15 or 20 minutes just to walk half a block -- because you'd run into so many people you knew. It was the center of the music world then. The Philharmonic was there, and a lot of artist managements. And just down the street was CAMI. A real community feeling. Right across from the City Center, there was a little restaurant called Francine's. My agent, who lived right above it, called The Quick and Dirty. She and I had great crushes on Mitropoulos, one of our great favorites at that time. He had lunch once a week in The Quick and Dirty. It was run by Greeks, and they had stuffed cabbage, which Mitropoulos loved. My agent had a deal with the people in The Quick and Dirty. When Mitropoulos came in, they'd bang on the pipe, and she would call me, and I'd rush over, and we'd have our lunch and watch him. But sitting at that same counter would be Balanchine and Rudel and Sills. There was no: They're there and we're here. You know, they're the gods and we're the peasants. That's one thing I really regret, is all this superstar thing that's grown up. It's a business thing, it's a money thing -- but it's removed this very human element that was part of opera once and should be again.
Where do you think this whole superstar idea came from?
I don't know.
I mean, Grace Moore was certainly a huge star.
Oh, sure. I mean, I never met Grace Moore to me she was always just Gracie. And I think, if I met her, she would have been Gracie in the flesh. I think it all started with this period when Bing came to the Met, when fees began to escalate. He began booking artists two and three years in advance. I remember Larry Kelly told me that, when they started the Chicago Opera, they did a "calling-card" performance in the spring of 1954. They found that the atmosphere was good and people wanted opera in Chicago. And so between April and when the season opened in September, they booked their entire season -- which included the American debut of Callas, and Steber and Mitropoulos and Serafin All those fabulous casts that first season were booked in a matter of three or four months. Now, all this changed with Bing at the Met. Partly because he wanted a cover system, and of course he wanted to have a monopoly on stars -- because that's what made the Met "The Met," after all. So he began booking three and four years in advance. It caused a great deal of problems for the regional companies, and I think it caused a great deal of problems for opera, too. No one can predict that far in advance what shape someone’s going to be in. I think that started making the singers more isolated.
When they know what they'll be doing four and five years to the day from today, it's hard for them to take a day off and play tennis. There's this real time pressure on singers. When Renée Fleming has a day off from La Scala, she flies into Bayreuth to coach for an afternoon with James Levine and flies back, you know?
In the '50s the jet was just coming into play. Look, when Maria was filing for her divorce, she was literally commuting for a while between Dallas and Milan. And it was in a prop jet. She wasn't sure she'd be back in time for the dress rehearsal the second year. Kelly got Elinor Ross to cover her. But even as late as 1958 or so travel was still not easy. The more easy travel became, the more easy it was for singers to spread themselves thin.
Now, one feature we have in parterre box is something we call "A Boy and His Diva", which is about not the first operatic experience, but the one that sort of converted you. Your road-to-Damascus experience. For me it was seeing Renata Scotto do the Trittico in Dallas back in 1975.
I was in bed with hepatitis -- I didn't see it. You were living in Dallas then?
No, I was living in Baton Rouge. I hitchhiked to Dallas that year.
Oh, my God! Oh, yes, I heard wonderful things about that Trittico ... but I missed it. Well, let me see. You want my first great diva experience? Well, of course, I had the biggest crush in the world on Rise Stevens.
Oh, tremendous. I had her pictures everywhere. And in 1950 or '51 my parents agreed to take me to New Orleans, to the opera. I had a choice of two things, and I really goofed it. I could see Stevens in Carmen or Flagstad in her first Isolde after the war in America. And I took Stevens.
Well, that's a coin flip. Who knew you'd have more chances to see Stevens?
And I did. Rise was still singing it when I moved to New York… Oh, what am I saying? My first diva experience was San Francisco with Jeanette MacDonald. I thought the operatic sequences in that movie were just the grandest thing in the world, and I couldn't wait to see a real opera. Which is funny -- Beverly says the same thing. We talk about it all the time. She recently gave me a copy of the new Jeanette MacDonald biography, Hollywood Diva. Beverly wrote inside: "I'll always be calling you-ou-ou-ou ou-ou-ou." Now, I saw Milanov in '51 on tour with the Met -- but that didn't make a grand impression on me. What made a big impression on me was, when I was in college we had what were called "ensemble credits" we had to work off. And I didn't want to sing in the chorus, so I did mine accompanying. And that had a tremendous impression on me, 'cause I accompanied for three wonderful singers. One of them a very great singer, one not so great, and one a fun singer who had a good career. The fun one was a soprano named Mary McCormick -- an American who had a big career in Europe. She came back and made films in America. Toured with the old San Carlo, but never had a big career -- she was too busy having a good time. But she was a great influence on me. And then next I worked with a woman called Josephine Antoine, at the University of Texas. For years and years Josephine had an exclusive claim on Gilda at the Met. She did, I think, more Gildas than anybody. Lily would only let her do like about two Lucias, but that was it. And one of my lifelong friends, whom I loved deeply, was Eva Turner -- I worked with her at the University of Oklahoma.
Those three ladies, because I knew them and worked with them, had a great impact on me. Just being in the studio and day by day hearing the mechanics of voice production, voice teaching, had a great influence on me, too. Oh, yes! I know the first diva who knocked me for a loop and sent me spinning — Martha Mödl. I lived for a year in Stuttgart when I was in the Army, and I'd go down to the opera every night. I will never, as long as I live, forget the Ring cycle there in Stuttgart -- Wieland Wagner, with Mödl. And then, later, her Isolde. Now, that's the first woman I would say -- in the theater, in the flesh -- that knocked me for a loop. From then on, I was searching for that same sort of incandescence in others. And which I found, by the way, in Rise. The commitment. I've seen Nilsson in Götterdämmerung stand onstage and pick threads off her costume. But Mödl was electricity -- from her toes to the top of her head. Never once a second out of character. I mean, the concentration was so fierce.
I remember when I saw Gwyneth Jones do one of her last Brunnhildes here. The moment she saw the ring on Siegfried's finger, in Act II of "Götterdämmerung," she flung her cape off. And suddenly her wig frizzed -- like it was filled with static electricity.
I love Gwyneth deeply, and I've been through some real ups and downs with her. But even when she was really sorely out of voice, there was, again, this incredible glow, is all I can call it, and a concentration that was extraordinary to watch. Gwyneth was never anybody you really thoroughly enjoyed, I think, purely on records. But in the theater, when she was really on, it was a night to remember. You know, she made her American debut in Dallas, in Macbeth.
Dallas gets everyone first.
Well, we did. I mean, the company's in sad shape now. But in Kelly's days it was pretty phenomenal. The first thing I saw down there was, of course, the American debut of Sutherland in Alcina and Don Giovanni. I was living in New York, but I went down for my magazine. I worked for Musical America then. I just went reeling -- the Zeffirelli productions, and Miss Sutherland at the end of Alcina interpolated "Let the bright seraphim!" And I said: my God! We don't have anything remotely like this in New York. The greatest opera I'd seen before that were the Wieland productions I had seen, which were opulent, of course, but in such a different sense than Zeffirelli. The Dallas company was something extraordinary. It's a shame -- people forget and people don't know. It was Kelly's doing -- he was an amazing man. I think he was really one of the great impresarios of our time -- a phenomenal personality.
How do you make a great opera company? I mean, is there a recipe?
No, there's not a recipe. It's the individual. Everything must ride or fall on the taste of one man. As it did with Wieland Wagner; as it did with Diaghilev and his company -- as it did with Kelly and his company. And I don't hesitate to put Kelly in that company. He went through all kinds of crap for 10 months out of the year -- mean fund-raising and playing social games and all -- to do what he loved the most for two months out of the year. And Kelly didn't care if you did Aida, or Rigoletto, or Carmen -- it just had to be the best Aida, and Rigoletto, and Carmen. He would agonize over it, and think it out. Nothing was ever casual with him, in the casting or the productions. That's not to say he didn't make mistake. But, ultimately, it was his taste, and his vision, and his commitment that did the trick. But too much of today opera has become opera by committee.
Which is bland.
Oh, totally bland. I guess I'm very impractical, but I can't imagine just borrowing a production for, what, Carmen or Puritani, because you want to give Carmen or Puritani. It has to be something you have a real belief in. There are all kinds of ways to do Carmen, but there would only be your way. Not a mishmash with whoever's available -- just because you haven't given Carmen in five years. You don't do Carmen until you're convinced you can do your Carmen. But this requires too much thought and preparation on the part of people who are inherently lazy.
Obviously, if you were writing movie reviews, that would be about people reading the newspaper and deciding what movie to see this weekend. That's not the same thing when you're writing a review of opera. I mean, when you're a critic, you have a different responsibility.
I've never believed in the critic is a schoolteacher with a ruler, giving out report cards. I've never believed in the critic as a traffic cop, giving out tickets. I've never believed in the critic trying to be an educator. I think that when you hear a performance of anything, you have an obligation to say why it worked or didn't work; how it was different from other performances of the same work, or other artists who play the same repertory. In other words, you have to buy your right to an opinion. And it's as much of a cop-out to say, "Gee, that was great," and nothing else, as to say, "Ugh, that stunk," and nothing else. Above all, a critic writes for himself. You write so you can live with yourself; so that you can, to the best of your ability, convey what you thought and felt, and why. Nobody wants a singer to get up and perform a role without having a real vivid commitment to it, and a desire to bring something of their own to it. Well, a critic should be no less. He should have just as strong a commitment to a work, and want to bring his ideas to his writing about that work. But he's got to always be prepared to have his principles, or his eyes and ears, shaken by a performance that is so different and so incandescent that he hadn't considered it before. To say: "All right -- oh, my God -- it can be done that way, too. How marvelous! I really learned something!" When that happens, you're in the presence of the greatest artists. They open windows, convey new aspects of a work to you that you never dreamed were there before.
I always like to ask singers what's the dumbest thing they've ever done onstage, and I've gotten some good answers from that. Is there a review you've written that, three or four days later, you said to yourself, what was I thinking?
Oh, yes, of course. Everybody has those. Reviewing for a daily paper you never really have the kind of space you need. Sometimes you feel so damn superficial. And reviewing opera is particularly difficult, because you have so many elements at work, and it depends on what the critic is looking for. For one person it might be the conductor; for somebody else it might be the staging or the lighting; for someone else it's the singing, and he doesn't care what else happens. There are so many different ways to approach it, and they all have to be balanced according to your own particular taste. Sometimes there's not the time or the space to do that. Frankly, there were very few things that I wrote for the paper that I could really be happy with. But I did the best I could, and moved on.
Now, this Tristan that you're seeing tomorrow -- as well the Elisir tonight. They have both been prettily heavily reviewed. Do you feel that affects you as an audience member -- when you've read a review that's strongly positive or strongly negative?
Not at all. One thing critics and performers have in common is they both must have big healthy egos. They're not going to be shaken. Your interpretation, if you're a singer, is the right one, and it can't be any other way. And a critic is interested in seeing what other people say, but he's not going to be shaken. I don't care who wrote a review and what they had to say -- if you feel differently, you're going to feel differently. Now, naturally, just as there are some artists I respect more than others, there are some critics I respect more than others. I suppose that's because, in the long run, there are people that I've been basically in agreement with. We tend to draw near to us those people who fulfill needs within us -- as artists or as critics.
One thing that you're going to be remembered for -- and this won't be for a while, yet, because you're going to be with us for a good deal longer...
I turn 65 next month. I can't believe it. I don't know how it happened. You know, Jim, I remember everything wonderfully well up to 50 -- and after 50 it's all a blur. I remember one of my dear friends, when I lived in New York, was a marvelous critic in Philadelphia, Max DeSchaunsee. After a performance at the old Met, Max and I would go out for dinner. I would sit there and just bask in his talk, because Max talked opera better than anybody I've ever known. And if you wanted to discuss Tosca, he would start with Farrar and Muzio and come down to Callas -- but so graphically you felt you had seen them. It's very funny, now, with the passing years I find that I'm sort of in the same position. It's a very weird feeling, you know? I start talking Toscas with Milanov and come down to the present. But it's virtually the same thing.
A certain part of your career is identified with criticism and appreciation of Maria Callas.
A large part!
Can you talk about the difference between your being there and our sort of knowing her only as the legend? You know, we know recordings, and we know reputation. But you were there.
Of course, you missed something by not seeing her. You missed not only the electricity of her onstage, but you missed the communal thing that happens in an opera house when everybody is excited at once. But you get an awful lot from the records. As Terrance McNally always said, "You know, it's a voice with a face." Well, look at the appeal-- You know, new people discover every year, who never had a chance to hear her live, and the pull is just as dramatic. As a person, well, I said this recently, and I just got holy hell, because there are a lot of people who don't want to believe anything less than the best about their idols. Maria was not a saint. Maria was often a difficult, mean-spirited, unhappy lady. She also could be very sweet and almost sisterly. It depended on how threatened she felt at the moment, or what she had pressing up against her. But I said to someone in a piece that Maria was no intellect. Now, by that I didn't mean she wasn't smart-- she was a different kind of smart. What I meant was, she didn't read books; she didn't talk about intellectual issues or matter. She loved cartoons on television. I felt that what she did was purely instinctive, which I think is very good. I'm always suspicious of people like Schwarzkopf. They can analyze what they do down to the last hemidemisemiquaver. And I think it sounds that way. Rescigno once told me he had done a concert with Callas one night, including the final scene from Anna Bolena. And he said it was riveting. He said he had to really concentrate to conduct. The next morning on the plane, flying to the next city, he said, "My God, Maria, what you did last night was incredible! I can't believe the different way you expressed the Bolena scene from the other piece on the program. And Callas said, "Well, Anna was a queen." That's all she needed to know. Carmen was a gypsy. Leonora was a woman who lost her lover. She did not read a history of Anna Bolena. In fact, I once asked her about that and she said, "History has its Anna Bolena, and music has its, and I'm not interested in anything but music. All I need to know is what's there in the notes." But a lot of people don't want to hear this. They want to think that she thought all sorts of weighty thought and researched her roles to a fare-thee-well. No. She had the score, and for her that was enough. You know, conversations with Maria were very mundane -- very mundane. What happened when she sang was a totally different creature -- almost, at times, an unrecognizable creature. I've known a number of artists who were very close friends, and somehow they're very different when they start performing. Something comes over them. It's like a spell, almost. The only person I ever knew who I recognized as my friend when she was onstage -- was Jenny Tourel. Other people, no-- they become transfigured. When I lived in New York, I knew Lotte Lenya very well. I adored her. But the first time I met her I was rather surprised; she was so quiet and so low-key. She wanted me to come down and see her in Brecht on Brecht, which she was then doing down in Theater de Lys. And here was this ... radiance, this brilliant aura, like she was six feet tall. But when I visited her backstage afterward, there was this little old lady in her chair. She had become simply supercharged for the act of performance.
I guess that's when the Greeks talked about inspiration -- about a god coming into the body and leaving again.
Oh, I believe it. And I don't think Maria had any control over this. The music possessed her -- that's the only thing. That's why the film of Medea is not very good -- in that she's not sparked by music at all. But she was really possessed by music — it charged her and made her into a totally different being.
You've been there for many of Magda Olivero's performances. Maybe you can compare and contrast a little bit.
What Magda and Maria had in common was a really firm bel canto training. You know, I moved to Dallas in '66, and I had just gotten, before I left New York, an incredible tape of concert by Magda that had taken place about a year before. I remember early on in Dallas playing it for Kelly one night, who was bowled over. He said, "My God -- I didn't know she was still alive!" I said, "Well, Larry, she's only about in her late 50s. And he said, "Does she still sing like this?" I said, "This was a year ago." This is the kind of person he was — he couldn't wait to get her to Dallas. We talked about all sorts of roles. Rescigno hated Adriana, so that was out. Kelly said Fanciulla was out, because Dallasites wouldn't see it as opera. One day he called me and said, "What do you think about Medea?" I said: "Huh? That's not her thing at all." He said: "But I think Medea is a role that has to be sung by somebody that has really solid bel canto training, and then goes beyond that. And Magda is that person." So, by that reckoning, she had that in common with Maria. They approached the role from totally different directions, but wound up at the same point. Equally valid, but different.
My goddess is Scotto.
I love her. You know, though, that's an interesting point, Jim. I had a lot of her records, and I liked them, but I wasn't bowled over by them. Then one week Scotto came to the Met. I forget which she sang first, her debut. Was it Lucia?
Butterfly was the debut, and then Lucia.
I was at both. And they sent me into orbit. Talk about a "diva moment!" Wow! Just about that time, I ran into Licia, and she was wild about Scotto’s Lucia: "What an artist! What a lovely voice! But," she continued, "It’s so sad! Because, you know, she will ruin herself singing Butterfly!" Licia was just a little territorial! So after hearing Scotto in the theater, I'd go back to the records, and they'd have a totally different meaning for me. They would have a presence and an excitement that I hadn't heard before. After I saw her, I had a face to put to them. I think she's astounding. I love her deeply, like you do. Scotto had such bashing. I don't know what it was. Because she wasn't Callas? Because of something she said in an interview? That's nonsense. Scotto adored Maria, and was always so wonderful to her — even at the Vespri at La Scala, when Maria behaved very badly. Which actually is something I want to talk about. I hate this diva-bashing that goes on. I hate it when people feel that the only way they can make themselves feel important is to start tearing people down. You know, you've got to realize that these artists are human beings. They're going to have good nights, they're going to have bad nights. And just because you love Madame X doesn't mean that you've got to tear Madame Y down -- or expect her to be Madame X. You've gotta take each person in their own case. And if you dislike someone, it's gotta be for really good, solid reasons. Not just some sort of queen reason. I hate right now this bashing that's going on with Bartoli. She, and Terfel too, are artists. I don't think that they can do no wrong, but I think it has to be in perspective. On the whole, you need to get down on your knees and be grateful that we have people like this. They brought back fun and glamour and expressiveness to opera. The worst case of diva-bashing I know of -- it just breaks my heart -- is Fabbricini, who, I think, is a very, very great artist. Certainly the greatest Lucia and the greatest Traviata I've seen in my life. But people who've never heard her talk viciously about her. I don't know what it is. People reviewing her go beyond professionalism and make these nasty personal remarks. And, yet, Jessye Norman can do her cow act -- unmusical, and unexpressive, and just plain bad singing -- and nobody says a word. They just applaud. I don't get it. Why Miss Fabbricini, become such a target for such unbridled hatred? I don't get it.
I could even see an excuse being made in the case of, say, a Scotto -- that she sang a lot in New York; sometimes in repertoire that people thought she was a little questionable in.
But Fabbricini has sung three Traviatas here in New York, the three Lucias in Houston and two Traviatas in California. And that's it. Now, how could all these people hate her? They certainly can't hate her from her one recording, which is the most fantastic video of Traviata I think we'll ever have. Where does all this hatred come from? It's scary.
I think critics don't know how to react. They're disturbed by the unexpected.
You should go back and read the initial reviews of some of Maria's albums, that are now held in awe.
That no one could think to criticize, now.
She got blasted right and left. She was a strong woman, and she had EMI behind her, and her husband backing her. That kept her going through some of the rough periods. But Fabbricini — it just kills me. We could be having so much from this woman, one of the towering great artists of today. Organasova was to have sung Lucia in Houston. She cancelled at the very last moment, and that's when Gockley brought in Fabbricini. It was a horrible production, like Lucia staged in a Rome subway stop. But, by chance -- it was on a Saturday I went down. Before I left that afternoon there was a broadcast of Lucia with Miss Devia. Uh-huh -- that's lovely, that's nice. Oh, I wish she had done that. Oh, well, yeah -- but she didn't carry that part. A lovely performance -- but not an ideal performance. That evening I heard a Lucia that was so revelatory that I would not have changed a single note of it. Every note was exactly what it should be. I went out the next day in Houston and bought a ticket for the next performance and flew back on my own. I said, "This couldn't be what I heard. I've got to go hear it again." And, if anything, the second performance was even better. Yet this first performance was the one that Bernard Holland in the Times tore to shreds. I've known Bernie a long time. I saw him at the intermission, but I didn't talk performance with him -- there are very few of my colleagues you really can talk with. As we were walking back in he said to me, he said, "Isn't it a tragedy? This pathetic girl who has no voice, and gets up and tries to sing a role like Lucia. And she's so off-pitch, and this and that." I said, "Bernie, I think it's the single greatest Lucia I've ever heard in my life, and I'd be grateful to hear it anytime." That's the extent of the exchange, and it was not hostile. But the next day Bernie said in his review that he was "violently attacked by a local critic."
I thought, boy, if you want to know what "violently attacked" is really get me mad. And then I was at the Traviata out in California. My old buddy and good friend Martin Bernheimer said in his review in the LA Times that Fabbricini reminded him of Florence Foster Jenkins. The big difference was Florence Foster was funny, and Fabbricini wasn't. Now, that's not criticism. That's a cheap shot, and I told Martin so. I was at the same performance and I was in tears.
It was past seven o'clock, and I knew John had to be at the Met soon. We strolled up 9 th Avenue toward Lincoln Center, and John changed the subject to CD burners ("my new favorite toy") and his delight in recently receiving three CD compilations of James Melton radio airchecks ("who ever would have guessed that we would enjoy such riches?").
By the time we reached the plaza, I felt we were old friends. He paused for a cigarette before entering the theater, and I greedily begged John Ardoin for just one more Callas story.
"Well, once I remarked to Maria that she was very similar to Judy Garland, you know, in that really intense give-and-take with the audience, and the absolute emotional commitment in the singing. 'I hope you don't mean I sing like her,' Maria replied, 'To me Judy Garland always just sounds like she's yelling. But there is one singer I do like…' I tried to guess -- Ella? Peggy Lee? Mabel Mercer? 'I really like that Nancy Sinatra,' Maria said."