Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cesare Siepi

He died on July 5, at the age of 87, and I'm a bit late in taking note of the sad fact. May he rest in peace.

I became an opera fan in the late 1960s, which means that all the singers who were then in their prime and played a big part in winning me over to the art form are now dying, or dead. It also means that I am slowly turning into one of those crotchety old fans who believe there aren't any great singers anymore and who respond to a younger fan's praise of any current star with a condescending "Yes, but you never heard _____________." The blank is to be filled in with the name of some long-retired diva whom I got to hear in person and the younger fan never will. It's a game that I imagine has been going on for centuries.

I knew Siepi from his many recordings, but I didn't get to hear him in person until the last decade of his active opera career. He was Philip in Don Carlo, the first performance I ever saw at the Met. It was a role he had also sung 21 seasons earlier, in his Met debut, and most fans thought he was better than ever. His voice combined the two qualities that usually are an either-or choice for an operatic basso--dark richness (so you know he's not really a baritone singing low) and agility (so you're tempted to think he might actually be a baritone singing low). There was never any question about what you were hearing when Cesare Siepi sang.

A couple of years later I heard him as the bass soloist in the Verdi Requiem at Carnegie Hall. My reaction that night was the reaction of most people to any Siepi performance: "That's exactly the way that music was meant to sound."  In those days, I went backstage to get autographs. For some reason, Siepi didn't have the felt-tipped pen that singers usually have at the ready for such occasions, so in addition to handing him my program, I offered him the gold-filled Cross fountain pen that my parents had only recently given me as a college graduation present. He took the pen, looked at it admiringly, and gave me (in the attractively accented English that apparently drove women wild) a bit of advice that I have taken to heart ever since:

"Thees ees a very nice pen. You should not lend it to people. Someone might lose eet."

Here he is, in the serenade from Don Giovanni. A simple-sounding tune that is surprisingly difficult to sing well.

And here, for something completely different, is Siepi in American operetta. It's a hokey staging of "One Alone" from Romberg's Desert Song, but it displays Siepi's voice (and that attractively accented English) wonderfully. He tosses off a world class high F (pretty much the highest note a bass ever has to sing) at the end.

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