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The Demon Within

The stage career of the peerless bass-baritone Norman Treigle, one of New York City Opera's most beloved stars, was a series of triumphs. His personal life was another matter. IRA SIFF remembers a great artist and a complicated man.

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The one and only Norman Treigle
© Beth Bergman 2013
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Portrait by Alen MacWeeney, 1967
© Alen MacWeeney 2013
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Treigle as Handel's Cesare at New York City Opera, 1967
© Beth Bergman 2013

On February 16, 1975, the opera world was shocked by the news of the sudden death at forty-seven of Norman Treigle, the theatrically riveting, vocally commanding bass-baritone, who seemed finally on the verge of international recognition. To those close to Treigle, the news was perhaps more devastating than shocking, tempered as it was by an awareness of the offstage fragility of this onstage dynamo, who was driven by inner demons even more powerful than those he portrayed so dynamically — demons that tested his physical and psychological endurance on both sides of the footlights.

Tito Capobianco, who directed some of Treigle's most celebrated performances, feels that "the genius of Norman was that he was a man of extremes. He went from one extreme to another — arrogance to humility — a mix of intellect and intuition. The voice of Norman had mystery, a color like crude oil — dark, flexible, but it could be tough. I think we don't have anybody today who can confront all those roles. He was unique. You can compare it only with Chaliapin." Composer Carlisle Floyd agrees. "I don't know anyone comparable. He gave the impression of being a boy who liked to spend time at the races, a real jokester. Then the artist side was absolutely impeccable."

Work with directors such as Capobianco and Frank Corsaro focused Treigle's brilliant stage energy while allowing him room to create. In Corsaro's City Opera Faust, Treigle's entrance as Méphistophélès was as a cadaver about to be dissected by old Dr. Faust. He sat up suddenly, singing "Me voici!" in that gigantic voice of his, and one simply jumped in one's seat. On the other hand, his Gianni Schicchi was a marvelously brazen rascal, and Dodon in Coq d'Or was a doddering comic creature whose physicality could not have been further from the demonic.

Treigle was born in New Orleans on March 6, 1927. His career got its start at New Orleans Opera, under conductor Walter Herbert. Setting his sights on New York, in 1952 he relocated his family to an apartment on West 121st Street in Manhattan. The move from the south was short-lived; Treigle hated living in New York, and after a successful audition for New York City Opera, the Treigles returned to New Orleans. He made his City Opera debut on March 28, 1953, as Colline in La Bohème. The New York Times praised the "brilliance and resonance" of his voice, and he was seen in four more roles that season, gaining attention and establishing his place in a true ensemble company. 

As he bounced back and forth between New Orleans, with its system of stars "jobbing" in, and City Opera, with its philosophy of theatrical/musical offerings thoughtfully directed and thoroughly rehearsed, Treigle began to see where his heart belonged. Although he continued to perform with New Orleans Opera Association through 1968, remaining a favorite son, it was at City Opera that Norman Treigle, the alarmingly versatile stage animal, was given the opportunity to flourish, offering the public a dazzling gallery of characters over the next twenty years in 237 performances of thirty-seven roles at the company's New York home base alone. As assignments at City Opera rapidly changed from supporting to starring roles, Norman's career began to flourish elsewhere as well. The bass-baritone sang in virtually every major opera center in the U.S., including San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas and Seattle, also traveling to Havana, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. He enjoyed new works, creating roles in The Tender Land (Grandpa Moss), The Crucible (Rev. John Hale) and The Ballad of Baby Doe (William Jennings Bryan in the second cast of the premiere run).

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As Olin Blitch in Susannah at NYCO, 1971
© Beth Bergman 2013

In 1956, assuming the role of Olin Blitch, the fiery evangelist in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Treigle began an artistic collaboration with the composer that led to his creating other roles, in The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962), The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (1963) and the Treigle vehicle Markheim (1966). As Floyd put it recently in a telephone interview, "I didn't realize the role of Blitch had the dramatic range he gave it — and such a tortured aspect. The full force of that intensity and that enormous, cavernous voice was absolutely extraordinary!" At City Opera, Treigle was paired with the Susannah of Phyllis Curtin. Curtin put it to me simply: "We were Susannah and Blitch. I didn't think, 'Norman does this,' or 'Norman does that.' That was Olin Blitch up there!" A rare video of Blitch's revival scene offers a glimpse of Treigle's total immersion in the role, his terrifying stage presence and volcano of a voice. Susannah was a turning point for Treigle; in a company that prided itself on avoiding the star system, he was a star. Reviews of his performances as Don Giovanni, Gounod's Méphistophélès, Boris Godunov, Escamillo and the four villains in Les Contes d'Hoffmann read like a collection of superlatives, the like of which this writer has never encountered so consistently when researching a singer.

Yet even during this remarkably creative period, Treigle led a sort of dual existence, falling into a circular pattern of gratification and self-torture. He was drinking heavily, Scotch being the beverage of choice. His drinking and emotional distress had already produced a stomach ulcer, while his chain-smoking grew so out of control that he had lit cigarettes waiting for him in the wings during performances. Acute, torturous insomnia resulted in an addiction to barbiturates in order to get any sleep at all, and he had perpetual dark circles under his eyes. Another addiction, gambling at the race track, supplied diversion, sometimes ending in financial woes. Ambivalence about everything, even his seemingly happy existence as a star of the City Opera ensemble, made complete enjoyment of anything impossible. 

Onstage, the roles he played so well seemed to exorcise some of the demons within, but there were constant letters to his wife, Loraine, back home, containing messages such as, "Get me to stay out of this business here from now on and make me stick…. If you want to keep me, then make me do it. Otherwise I'll go nuts." Loraine, always supportive, was never pushing him: Norman drove Norman. And then there was his philandering, which came to a head when Loraine was giving birth to their daughter, Phyllis Susannah — named for Curtin and the opera they performed so often together. Norman had begun an affair with Linda Smith, a married woman, which continued after his daughter Phyllis was born. Ultimately, Treigle and Loraine divorced. Treigle married Smith and adopted her young daughter. 

Now, he felt the pressure of supporting two households. Typical of his atypical behavior, Norman remained close with Loraine, visiting daily when in New Orleans, continuing to write constantly and routinely calling her from his dressing room before a performance. All this conflicted behavior and these moral lapses were at odds with Treigle's religious bent, which seemed at times a desperate attempt at atonement. Floyd sensed the inner battle. "So much personal guilt — as well as I knew him, I never knew all of it. And he certainly paid a price, didn't he?"

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As Boito's Mefistofele at NYCO, 1969
© Beth Bergman 2013

At New York City Opera, Treigle enjoyed performing regularly with costars such as Curtin and Beverly Sills — with whom he'd formed an extremely close brother–sister relationship. But there was gnawing ambivalence about his career, exacerbated by the absence of an invitation from Rudolf Bing to sing at the Met. In a 1963 New York Times interview, Treigle claimed, "The Met was my dream when I was a kid, but I gradually got it out of my system.... When you have a company based on the star system, it's impossible to build that kind of rapport that you need for opera as I conceive it…. It's less important to me where I perform than how I perform." But the issue must have eaten away at him, as review after review noted the absurdity of his absence from Bing's Met.

Everything came to a boil with the 1966 New York City Opera production of Giulio Cesare that made Beverly Sills a national celebrity. General director, conductor and long-time collaborator Julius Rudel decided to mount Handel's opera at the company's new home at Lincoln Center, staged by Treigle's preferred director, Tito Capobianco. "It was meant for him," recalls Rudel. "I did Caesar only because I heard him do some Handel and was amazed at his flexibility. He had high hopes that it would establish him, and [the glory] went to Sills instead. It was a double whammy, because it was his little sister Sills, and she walked away with what was supposed to be his." 

In October 1967, Treigle sent Rudel a letter stating his intention to fulfill his contracts with the company through the fall of 1968 and then leave. Citing a change in the company's philosophy, he stated, "Unless I want to die an early death, the City Opera, with me as an integral part of it, can't possibly continue together as a unit." A month later, during the opening-night bows of City Opera's Cesare on tour in Los Angeles, Treigle physically blocked Rudel from taking a solo call. As Capobianco sees it, "The miracle of Beverly Sills was comparable only with the miracle of Marilyn Monroe or Shirley Temple — all America adored them. Until then it was the perfect ensemble company, and when it started to change, Norman had an encounter with Julius Rudel. The crystal broke and never was put together again between the two of them." "It was a shock," recalls Rudel. "For what it's worth, I think he didn't know what he was going to do when we encountered each other. It was totally spontaneous. I tried to treat him afterwards in as civil a way as before, but unquestionably there was a coolness between us."

There was a fascinating spiral up and down that was typical of Treigle-esque contradictions. The success of the Cesare had extended to Treigle, who won accolades for his florid singing and regal presence. He began to attract interest from abroad, and to record. In addition to a complete Giulio Cesare, Treigle made two impressive solo aria discs. He indeed did not return to City Opera in the spring of 1969, but not because of his letter to Rudel. Treigle suffered complete physical, mental and emotional exhaustion and canceled all appearances between mid March and late July. But then, on September 21, 1969, came the greatest triumph of his career, as New York City Opera unveiled its brilliant Tito Capobianco production of Boito's Mefistofele, conducted by Rudel. Brian Morgan's deeply researched biography of Treigle, Strange Child of Chaos, quotes a Time magazine feature: "Small, skinny, seemingly naked, Treigle flashed through the role like a black-voiced cobra. Plunging from profundo depths to baritonal heights, his voice remained huge and perfectly focused through one of the cruelest bass roles ever written." Mefistofele was to be Normal Treigle's final new role.

Recordings of Hoffmann, opposite Sills, and Mefistofele, with Domingo and Caballé, both under Rudel, documented his staggeringly brilliant portrayals and pointed to a more major-league recording career. Under the Bing regime, Treigle had covered a single Faust Mefistofele, in 1965, but with Bing's retirement in 1972, his successor, Göran Gentele — who died tragically in an automobile accident before assuming the position of general manager — was in discussion with Treigle about an English-language Boris Godunov at the Met. A November 4, 1972 "posting note" cites a phone conversation in which the next Met general manager, Schuyler Chapin, offered Treigle the role of Procida in the Met premiere of Verdi's Vespri Siciliani, with a request that he be available from January 7, 1974, for rehearsals, and spoke about including him in the 1974–75 opening-night revival of Vespri. The note ends, "He seemed very interested." A November 17 telegram from Chapin to Treigle presses him for a definite answer. 

On November 18, Chapin received a wire from Norman saying, "After careful consideration of score, I must decline, as not my cup of tea. Hope we can continue to discuss other projects." On December 4, Chapin sent a telegram to Treigle, saying he understood about Vespri but was "very disappointed" and proposing Dallapiccola's Prigioniero on a double bill with Gianni Schicchi — "a fine premiere for you." A January 18, 1973 note from artistic administrator Charles Riecker reports that for 1973–74 and 1974–75, "all offers rejected between conversations with Treigle and Chapin." According to the Morgan biography, Chapin then proposed Massenet's Don Quichotte for November 1975. It was initially met with interest, but then Treigle changed his mind.Had Treigle agreed, he would not have lived to do that production. 

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spacer "Conquering Caesar" An excerpt from Julius Rudel’s memoir (Julius
Rudel and Rebecca Paller, July

Enormous interest from the Met, more recording offers and a scheduled Covent Garden debut made it appear that Treigle's star was finally ascending, but at the same time health issues — both physical and mental — increased. An appendectomy was followed by a second abdominal surgery. He had separated from Linda, pill addiction and drinking were out of control, and a fall in his London hotel room before his November 22, 1974 Covent Garden debut as Gounod's Méphistophélès caused a broken foot. This, combined with bronchitis, severely compromised what were to be his final performances. Returning to the U.S., Treigle stopped in Florida en route to New Orleans to visit his protégé, bass-baritone Michael Devlin, whose career he had helped launch. Devlin was distressed by Treigle's appearance.

In February, Treigle called Rudel, hoping to patch things up and return to his artistic home. Around that time, he proposed the idea of remarriage to Loraine. On Friday, February 14, Treigle called Loraine, asking her to bring a carton of cigarettes and leave them at the entrance to his apartment, as he'd be asleep. When she could not reach him by Sunday evening, she went to the apartment. The cigarettes were still where she'd left them Saturday morning. Climbing the stairs and entering Norman's bedroom, she saw his body lying near the bed. The cause of death was determined as over-ingestion of barbiturates causing massive internal bleeding due to an ulcer. The death was officially deemed "accidental." 

Norman Treigle's recorded legacy, augmented by thrilling live performances released by VAI music, is unfairly small but ample enough to give one an idea of how immeasurably gifted this artist was. But perhaps his legacy can best be measured by the indelible memories he left. Once you saw and heard Treigle onstage, you could never forget the experience. As Sherrill Milnes told this writer, "I think Norman was about the greatest singing actor in the world." spacer

IRA SIFF is a New York-based voice teacher/coach, permanent guest teacher at Amsterdam Conservatory and commentator on the Saturday Met Broadcasts. 

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