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Obituaries

Nonpareil music critic Andrew Porter dies at eighty-six; contralto Maria Radner and bass-baritone Oleg Bryjak.

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Frank Porretta (right) as Grigori with Richard Cross's Pimen in NBC Television Opera Theatre's March 1961 performance of Boris Godunov

FRANCIS SAMUEL PORRETTA II
Detroit, MI, May 4, 1930 — Stamford, CT, April 23, 2015 

Frank Porretta — as he was always billed during his career — was one of the most versatile and accomplished American singers of his generation. A longtime company favorite at New York City Opera, Porretta had charm, good looks and a first-class lyric tenor that delivered opera, operetta and musical comedy roles with equal facility and charisma. Born in Detroit, he entered the University of Michigan as a pre-med student — his father and two brothers were surgeons — but transferred to the university’s music school in his sophomore year and graduated with a degree in music in 1952.

After graduation, Porretta entered the U.S. Army and served as tenor soloist with the U.S. Army Band in Washington. Soon after he returned to civilian life, Porretta was awarded the Grinnell Foundation–Detroit Grand Opera Association scholarship, which brought him to New York to study voice with Eleanor McLellan, whose other students included Eileen Farrell and Jan Peerce. The Grinnell win also brought Porretta to the attention of New York City Opera, where he made his debut in on September 25, 1956, as Frédérick in the company premiere of Mignon. Porretta’s importance to the company was firmly established two years later, when he stepped into The Abduction from the Seraglio midway through Act I, after the originally scheduled artist became ill. It was Porretta’s first Belmonte anywhere, and the New York Times critic Ross Parmenter deemed it “admirable.” The tenor remained associated with NYCO through the spring 1969 season. 

The list of Porretta’s assignments at NYCO is a testament to his versatility and stamina, as well as to the breadth of the company’s repertoire during his years there: he sang Pinkerton, Luigi in Il Tabarro, Alfredo and the Duke of Mantua, as well as Sam Kaplan in Street Scene, Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, Jolidon (Camille) in The Merry Widow, Alfred in Die Fledermaus, Nanki-Poo, Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance and the Tenor in John Butler’s staging of Carmina Burana. Like many American singers of his generation, Porretta had a prodigious capacity for learning new music: during a week-long stretch during the company’s “All American” season in spring 1959, Porretta was cast in the NYCO premieres of Floyd’s Wuthering Heights (Edgar Linton), Robert Ward’s He Who Gets Slapped (Bezano) and Norman Dello Joio’s The Triumph of Saint Joan (English sentry). Subsequent NYCO premieres for Porretta included The Cradle Will Rock (Steve, 1960), Monteverdi’s Orfeo (Apollo, 1960), Gianni Schicchi (Rinuccio, 1961), H.M.S. Pinafore (Ralph Rackstraw, 1961) and Louise (Sleepwalker, 1962); his other high-profile assignments for the company included the world premieres of Carlisle Floyd’s The Passion of Jonathan Wade (Lucas Wardlaw, 1962) and Vittorio Giannini’s The Servant of Two Masters (Florindo, 1963).

Porretta’s handsome, easy performing style made him a natural for television, films and theater. He appeared as Micah in ABC’s 1961 television broadcast of The Thief and the Hangman, an opera by Abraham Ellstein and Morton Wishengrad based on a Yemenite folktale. His credits for NBC Television Opera Theatre include Grigori–Dimitri in Boris Godunov (1961), Avito in The Love of Three Kings (1962) and The Astronaut in the world premiere of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s surrealistic Labyrinth (1963). 

In 1964, when the Music Theater of Lincoln Center presented The King and I and The Merry Widow at the New York State Theater, Porretta won excellent notices as Lun Tha and as Jolidon. Porretta’s fine work in both Lincoln Center shows is preserved on an original cast album, as is his 1965 performance as Johann Strauss in Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s production of The Great Waltz. Porretta also appeared LACLO pre-Broadway tryouts of Dumas and Son (1967) and Candide (1971). His many credits with symphony orchestra include Jaquino in Fidelio for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Georg Solti conducting. 

In a well-regarded change of pace, Porretta sang Jimmy in the U.S. professional premiere of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a rock-flavored staging presented off-Broadway at the Anderson Theater in 1970. The same year, Porretta made his big-screen debut as composer Rikard Nordraak in Song of Norway, a lavish musical biography of Edvard Grieg that was a box-office disappointment.

After Porretta retired from singing opera, he went on to a new career as a choir director. A resident of Darien, CT, since 1962, Porretta was the choir director of St. John Church for more than forty years.

Porretta’s five children include tenor Frank Porretta, who made his Met debut as Calaf in 2009, and actor Matthew Porretta. In 1997, Porretta made a guest appearance on his son Matthew’s television series The New Adventures of Robin Hoodspacer 

NAOMI SANDERS FARR
Salt Lake City, UT, August 18, 1918 — Sandy, UT, April 4, 2015 

Naomi Sanders studied on a Fulbright Grant in Europe, where she worked with baryton-martin Pierre Bernac and developed friendships with Francis Poulenc and Madame Gaston de Tinan, the stepdaughter of Claude Debussy, who introduced her to the most prominent musicians in Paris.  The lyric soprano made her New York recital debut in 1948 at Town Hall, accompanied by pianist Lowell A. Farr, whom she later married.  She remained a much admired recitalist, specializing in French song literature and twentieth-century music.  Farr made her Broadway debut in 1956, in the ensemble of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and made her New York City Opera debut in 1962, as Ann Putnam in Robert Ward’s The Crucible.  Farr was principally celebrated as a voice teacher and taught on faculty at SUNY Purchase and at the University of Utah, as well as in her private studio, which she maintained until she was in her nineties.

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Andrew Porter 

ANDREW PORTER
Capetown, South Africa, August 26, 1928 — London, April 3, 2015 

On this side of the Atlantic, Andrew Porter is known best for the long period he spent as the classical-music critic of The New Yorker. His influence on the opera world, however, was far wider. He was a librettist, a prolific author of English-language singing translations, coeditor (with David Rosen) of Verdi’s Macbeth: A Sourcebook, editor of the newsletter of the American Institute for Verdi Studies and an occasional stage director. He also reviewed for London’s Financial Times and the British magazine Opera, still contributing to the latter as late as 2014. 

Porter’s secure place in opera history would be unassailable had he done only one service: while perusing the archives of the Paris Opera, Porter discovered that a substantial amount of music written by Verdi for Don Carlos, long assumed to be lost, and for which no conductor’s score existed, could in fact be reconstructed from the individual orchestral parts and singers’ rehearsal books. The music, which was cut after the final dress rehearsal and before the opening night in 1867, included a long Prelude and Introduction to Act I, an extended duet for Elisabeth and Eboli in Act IV and a long duet for Carlos and Philippe, with chorus, in the second scene of Act IV. In the orchestral parts, the cut passages had never been removed but were stitched or pinned or folded over, or covered by thin papers known as papillons. Porter built up the passages line by line, producing a full conductor’s score, and the music was published in the critical edition of 1974. 

After his boyhood in South Africa, Porter studied English at University College, Oxford. After graduating, he began freelancing for various London newspapers, then joined the staff of The Financial Times in 1952. He became the newspaper’s lead music critic, remaining there until 1972 before going to The New Yorker. Porter’s “Musical Events” column at the magazine quickly established him as the most knowledgeable music journalist writing in English. He originally was hired for a single season, 1972–73, during which he also reviewed dance. He returned to London for a season, making arrangements for a long-term commitment to New York. A typical review, reflecting what to all appearances seemed like unlimited space under the magazine’s editor William Shawn, might begin with a consideration of the manuscript of a given composer’s work, or the position of it in the composer’s output, or a history of revisions to the score and previous performances. Porter traveled extensively to hear anything that interested him, and other reviews began with an appreciative overview of a city, with Cooperstown and Cincinnati receiving the same warm, open eyes as Milan. (One review began, “Bologna, a cultivated city that has long provided the world with a model of Communist civic administration….”) Poetry, architecture and the acoustics of various halls often came into play. Only after a full consideration of the context of the music would come an assessment of the actual performance, for which the reader was now thoroughly primed. Porter did not always immediately write about every event he attended, but over time he would draw on his huge reservoir of experiences, with the late performances of Janet Baker or Jon Vickers sparking a perceptive précis of an entire career, and with revivals of Britten operas assessed in the context of the entire performance history of the work since its premiere. 

There was nothing dogmatic about anything Porter ever did. In a 2010 interview with opera news, after beginning to answer three different questions with the same words, he said, “I think you should call your article ‘It all depends.’” Unlike many of his British colleagues, he did not automatically dismiss American composers and performers. He was particularly appreciative of the stage directors Sarah Caldwell and Peter Sellars (though not of Frank Corsaro) and the composers Sessions, Carter and Leon Kirchner. It is possible that the bel canto composers never received as sympathetic an ear from any other working critic. As he gained hands-on experience as a stage director, especially with La Forza del Destino in Seattle, he became quite collegial in his sympathy for this task. His real-life practicality was also reflected in his discussion of singing opera in English translation, where again “It all depends” was a refrain. Porter’s own singing translations numbered in the dozens. They included the entire Ring des Nibelungen, which was sung repeatedly, and recorded, by English National Opera and published by Norton. Other translations, including Tristan und Isolde and Otello, are published in the ENO guides to those works. Porter’s astute comments on opera librettos, in English or any other language, came to incorporate his experiences as librettist of John Eaton’s Tempest and Bright Sheng’s Song of Majnun

In his long-term correspondence with composer Ned Rorem, documented in Rorem’s collected letters Wings of Friendship, Rorem refers to Porter’s “caring elegance.” The caring was manifest in Porter’s extraordinary attention to detail and his work ethic. When reviewing an opera that was new to him, such as Bloch’s Macbeth, he might attend three performances before he felt qualified to write about it; he frequently returned to productions after opening night to refine his viewpoint, and he reviewed virtually all music only after learning it from the score. The elegance came from his study of English at Oxford. The combination of deep musical knowledge with a sophisticated writing style, enjoyable as language alone, put Porter on an exalted plane matched only by Virgil Thomson. Porter demurred, saying that Thomson “was the master of us all,” but the bulk of Porter’s New Yorker reviews were collected in five published anthologies, and there is no question that they will continue to inspire musicians to try to meet the Porter standard. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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Maria Radner and Oleg Bryjak

Remembering MARIA RADNER and  OLEG BRYJAK
Two opera singers were among those who lost their lives in the March 24 crash of Germanwings Flight 4U9525.  

German contralto Maria Radner, thirty-four, and Kazakhstan-born bass-baritone Oleg Bryjak, fifty-four, had just finished a run of Siegfried at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona the night before their flight to Düsseldorf, which crashed in the southern Alps. Radner sang the role of Erda; Bryjak performed Alberich.

Following news of the crash, the Teatre del Liceu observed a two-minute silence at noon on Wednesday in remembrance of the two singers.

Radner, who was born in Düsseldorf, made her Met debut as the First Norn in Götterdämmerung in 2012. She also sang in performances at Geneva Opera, La Scala and Royal Opera, Covent Garden, among other companies, and was scheduled to make her Bayreuth debut in August. Radner’s husband and her child were also on the plane. 

Bryjak, who had a career repertory of more than thirty roles, was Alberich in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ring from 2003 through 2005. He had been an ensemble member of Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf since the 1996–97 season and also sang as a guest in Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin, Munich, Zurich and Los Angeles, among many other theaters. Bryjak sang the role of Al­berich in Bay­reuth Festival performances of Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung last season and was scheduled to return to the festival this summer. spacer 

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