Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget
Pittsburgh, spring, 1970: a time before the advent of Great Performances, Live from Lincoln Center and the HD phenomenon, when we had to do our homework by wearing the grooves off our LPs as we followed along with the libretto — and a time when an adolescent road trip altered my life forever.
I had entered high school as my handsome jock brother's fat kid brother, but when I was cast as the lead in the fall play, I found that my friends were now upperclassmen, mostly singers and actors. The worlds of Broadway and opera suddenly opened up to me. Among the new friends were a pair of identical twin sisters, seniors Connie and Bonnie Rosenberger, and they were instrumental in my discovery of a lifelong passion.
The twins had unusually mature singing voices. Connie was a mezzo, Bonnie a high soprano (for a party trick, she would hold out her hand and put a flawless high E-flat in it), and they had identical vibratos, so when they sang in harmony, the result was uncanny. The Rosenberger twins introduced me to their heroines, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I went downtown (or "dahntahn," as they say in Pittsburgh) to the National Record Mart and bought The Art of the Prima Donna, The Age of Bel Canto, Souvenir of a Golden Era and Norma, all LP sets featuring Sutherland and/or Horne. I began listening to the Met's Saturday broadcasts.
One day at choir practice, the Rosenberger twins breathlessly announced to me that not only was Norma, starring Joan and Jackie, on the Met's spring tour, but it was playing in Cleveland, virtually next door to Akron, where the girls had an aunt and uncle. Unfortunately, none of us had a driver's license. But our choir had an enthusiastic student teacher, Miss Lundstrum, and as luck would have it, our passion overrode her good sense, and she offered to take us to hear the Friday-night performance if we would pay for her ticket and get parental permission. Those were the days before Visa and Mastercard, so the twins had to wire the $4 per ticket to the Cleveland presenter. After our final Friday classes, we dashed into Miss Lundstrum's boat of a car, pulled out our AAA TripTik, and away we sped into the rainy afternoon. Because of the weather, the way was treacherous, and farther than we had imagined, but we were buoyed by our youthful enthusiasm.
I recently checked my 1970 yearbook from Churchill Area High School, and on page eighty-seven, Connie Rosenberger admonished me to "never forget that we shared the musical happening of the century." Bonnie wrote, "What can I say? Remember Joan and Marilyn, rides to Cleveland, and the time Cuña [we called the twins Cuña and Buña] almost died on the Cleveland Bypass!" (Unlike Miss Lundstrum's, the Rosenberger car didn't have power windows, so Cuña was nearly decapitated at a toll booth when she didn't pull in quickly enough after asking for directions.)
We had left barely enough time to get to the venue — not a gorgeous European-style opera palace but the Cleveland Public Auditorium, the same place that many Cleveland sports teams played. Instead of flutes of champagne and tea sandwiches, the concession stand featured soft-serve ice cream, beer and hot dogs. Nothing, however, could diminish the majesty of Bellini's masterpiece or the peak-performance vocal gifts of Sutherland and Horne. I can still remember the thrill I felt as Sutherland made her entrance to the long intro leading into "Sediziose voci." (I had had to look up the word "seditious" months earlier while first listening to the London recording.) She sounded just like she did on the recording — the effortless legato, the evenness of the huge, auditorium-filling voice. I must confess that even in 1970, I was already a high-voice dilettante; Oroveso, and even Pollione, were just filler. We were really waiting for "Oh! rimembranza" — for those two luscious voices that we had only dreamed about to blend into a thrilling unity of sound. Then finally, "Dormono entrambi," and the hit that I had replaced my phonograph needle to endless times, "Mira, o Norma." The Rosenbergers were crying, and Connie dug her nails into my hand so hard that the half-moon indentations lasted through the intermission.
With the bravery of starry-eyed teenage singers, we wended our way to the stage door and waited forever for the ladies to exit. We were so green that we didn't know enough to wait where the rest of the fans were; we were in the parking lot outside the stage door. When Sutherland and Horne finally appeared, we accosted them with arms full of OPERA NEWS, LPs and librettos.
"Miss Horne, you are the most amazing mezzo-soprano in the world!"
"Who's a mezzo?"
"Of course, I mean contralto."
"Well, whatever you are, you're just wonderful!"
I hadn't spoken to either of the twins for about thirty years. Bonnie stopped singing professionally in 1979, and Connie made the transition to soprano and continued to sing in the Pittsburgh area for a while. Now they are both living in southern Florida. I tracked them down and scheduled a conference call for a couple of days later, and I'm happy to report that the years fell away in moments as we relived our trip. For each of us, even after decades of satisfying operagoing, nothing has come close to the Met's 1970 tour performance of Norma at a Cleveland hockey rink — the first opera I ever attended.
SCOTT BARNES is an acting coach and auditions strategist for opera singers in New York and internationally.
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