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Why I Went To New York

GREAT performers encompass the hall. This is true in politics. When Gov. Mario Cuomo addressed the Gridiron Club's hallful of Washington Who's Whos a few years back, President Reagan at his side, even the waiters were wrapped in the seine of humor, warmth, and intellectual challenge the New Yorker cast over the audience.

It is just as true, and as rare, in a mode of performance that is akin to politics: opera. Last Friday night Pl 135>cido Domingo, the Spanish/Mexican tenor, gave a benefit recital at Carnegie Hall. It was "a musical salute to Spain in anticipation of the Quincentennial" of the New World's discovery. Domingo clearly was the impresario of this performance. With inclusive gestures he ushered his fellow principals, soprano Ainhoa Arteta, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, and conductor Enrique Garcia-Asensio, onto and off stage. Holding his tuxedo lapel with his left hand, Domingo "conducted" himself in sweeping motions of his right hand. When his arias were interrupted by the playing of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Domingo turned his back to the audience. He seemed to want to walk among the musicians, to sing from the orchestra as if he were part of it. He listened to catch each wave of the orchestra's sound. I have never seen a singer listen so hard.

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Perhaps that was what I took a train to New York to see and hear. Every great live performance offers a specific revelation. The nature of this revelation is usually unanticipatable. But it never fails to come. The true genius of performers may be only hinted at when they are known only by recordings or reputation.

I have often felt that if Kathleen Ferrier, the British contralto, were to give a concert today in London, or Amsterdam, or Rio, I would go. Her recordings of Mahler and Brahms songs convey deep dimensions of womanhood not discernible in any other way. After a late start in singing, Miss Ferrier died in mid-career after World War II. She was the highest-paid singer of her time, rare for a contralto. I would make a similar pilgrimage to hear the great basso Ezio Pinza, whose career similarly ended before I could get to it. Pinza was the classic Don Giovanni. The voice was elegant and manly. The ladies, it is said, swooned.

Something happens in a hall that may be only hinted at on discs and tapes, even videotapes. The great Maker, evidently, created something more with our species than what can be captured by electronic impulses. The risks of great singing are enormous, no doubt adding to the drama. It is a high-wire performance, where a fall could happen at any moment.

Well, I had known Domingo only through his recordings, so I took the train down to New York for the Spanish concert gala.

"Buenas noches," said the man in the black cape, catching my eye as he entered the stage door, a half hour before the peformance. Domingo is my height, taller than I expected. His face is enlivened by intelligence and good humor. Quickly he was gone to his dressing room after this chance encounter as I picked up my ticket in the manager's office.

The voices around me in the hall spoke Spanish - a reminder of the minority in America rising to an entirely new prominence half a thousand years after Columbus. Ladies in black feathers and sequined dresses moved to the thousand-dollar seats at the foot of the hall. Lights dimmed. The concert was on.

I have already remarked on Domingo's attentive impresario manner. When he and Zajick sang at full voice the sound was palpable - you could feel it. Zajick, the young mezzo from Oregon, is herself a formidable talent. In later years many will be able to say they heard her perform one early April evening with Pl 135>cido Domingo.

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I would like to have talked with Dante, who imagined Virgil as his mentor in the Divine Comedy. Where would Dante put opera singers, a species not fully evolved among musicians in Dante's era, in his ordered world from the Inferno to the empyrean? Certainly above politicians.

Time deceives. History is both a succession and a presence. Our immortals are accessible now. Why not make a pilgrimage to see them while they are with us? They may prove to be less than heroes, or far more.

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