A 40-year circle is closed

Ernest F. Imhoff

October 25, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff

FORTY years ago my opera-crazy father took our family to the old Met on 39th Street in New York to see Verdi's "Don Carlo." It began a 40-year circle that closed for me this week.

The old man said there was this big young American in it, Jerome Hines. "They say he's pretty good."

I was 14 and already an opera fan. My first was either Flotow's "Martha" (Dad took us because it was my mother's name) or Wagner's "Parsifal" (an Easter tradition). I forget which.

There's very little I remember about that 1951 "Don Carlo" except Hines. Catholics picketed the "anti-church" opera set against the Spanish Inquisition; their anger was partly aimed at the opera's Grand Inquisitor, who liked to burn heretics. Hines was the Grand Inquisitor, a mean old blind priest in a red robe with a deep voice. Hines was great.

I heard him a lot at the Met in the next 10 years, especially during a year of graduate school when we'd be in line for hours and run up flights of stairs for Family Circle standing room. Once he sang King Philip in "Don Carlo," another time Sarastro in Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

One Saturday, my father and I heard Hines as another priest, Padre Guardiano, in Verdi's "The Force of Destiny." It was March 20, 1954, and the singers were all top of the line: Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker, Zinka Milanov. I remember details because I kept the program.

By then I, too, was opera-crazy. Hines became a focus of my interest, though my favorite moment was hearing Maria Callas in "La Traviata." Music for sopranos, tenors and baritones seemed finer. I also heard Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monico, Jan Peerce, Victoria de Los Angeles.

Years passed. Opera for me played out on Saturday afternoon radio, at the Lyric, on TV and records and sometimes outside of Baltimore. My father, a German immigrant, died several years ago, an Italian opera man to the core and a fine accountant on the side.

I finally saw Hines again in recent years, three times at the Lyric: in October 1986, as the same padre we had heard 32 years earlier, in 1954 in "The Force of Destiny," as Wotan last year in a Wagner scene and last Saturday as -- who else? -- the mean old blind Grand Inquisitor in "Don Carlos," a role he's repeating at 8:15 tonight and at 3 p.m. Sunday.

On Nov. 8 he will be 70, 50 years after his original San Francisco debut as Monterone in "Rigoletto." Critics vary greatly on the timbre and quality of the Hines voice today, though many agree it's still strong. To me, he sounded more in control last Saturday than last December.

My circle of 40 years with Jerome Hines was closing. Backstage last week at a Lyric dress rehearsal when he brushed by, I resisted grabbing him and saying, "Jerry, Jerry, it's me, Ernie." Instead I arranged to meet Hines for the first time at the Dickeyville home of his sculptor friend, Barry W. Johnston.

It was 90 minutes of pure fun. Hines told us one story after another: how he'll retire when his wife, the soprano Lucia Evangelista, tells him he's had it; how he didn't sing as well last December because of a vocal cord problem; how he took a Baltimore bum to dinner last year ("He put the bite on me and I won't give him booze money"); how the late Finnish bass Martti Talvela became friends with the Hines' retarded son, Russell; how Hines and his wife still dive 80 feet down in the Caribbean near their island place.

The singer talked of how his theater company in Newark is launching young singers; how he hopes to take his own opera on the life of Jesus, "I Am The Way," to Moscow's Red Square; how he's writing a book on vocal technique, how he once called an 11-year-old "the little boy with the big talent" and the boy became Met music director James Levine; how Boris Godunov is his favorite role and how Mussorgsky and Puccini are his favorite composers for just listening.

Hines' mouth dropped when I showed him my old Met program from March 1954 listing Warren, Tucker and Hines. The old story-teller gained speed now, and he reminded me the trio was the same that was together with Renata Tebaldi the famous night Warren died on stage March 4, 1960.

"Let me tell you the real story of that night," he said. He said that the three American singers privately complained of Tebaldi's lavish publicity as a foreigner, so Warren's death saved Tebaldi from awful notices on her troubled Met return. Tebaldi nonetheless whispered praise to Hines each time he sang, and the normally conservative Warren sang more emotionally than normal before he dropped dead. Hines said his own doctor was in the audience. When he saw Warren fall, he said simply, "He's gone."

I decided my time was up. Hines had returned my questions with his own gracious interest. The grand old inquisitor signed my 1954 program with a reference to Jesus Christ from the book of John and wrote, "I'm so happy our paths have crossed again." We parted as we met: old friends.

Ernest F. Imhoff is an assistant managing editor of The Evening Sun.

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