What Keeps Him Going

March 16, 1994|By WILLIAM McCLOSKEY

The Baltimore Opera, while providing the unique opportunity to hear the first essay into several new roles by a hometown boy who is also one of the world's major basses -- James Morris -- has also given us the pleasure of hearing two of the leading basses of the previous generation in roles to which they can still bring great authority.

Four seasons ago Georgio Tozzi, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, performed the scurrilous music master Don Basilio in ''Barber of Seville'' with the same spooky humor that delighted Met audiences throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

And Jerome Hines, holder of the Met record for number of seasons by a major artist -- 41 seasons starting in 1946 -- has performed for Baltimore in recent years his lustily sneering Mephistopheles in ''Faust,'' the stately Druid priest Oroveso in ''Norma,'' and his magisterial, frightening Grand Inquisitor in ''Don Carlos.''

This week at the Lyric Mr. Morris is assuming for the first time the title role in Verdi's operatic version of ''Macbeth.'' Mr. Hines sings the doomed Banquo, who anticipates his assassination in an aria that is one of the opera's finest moments.

What keeps him young? I asked Mr. Hines this 11 years ago backstage at the Met after a performance as the Grand Inquisitor, when his longevity was already a phenomenon. The answer, as might be expected, related to discipline and stability.

I had first heard Mr. Hines sing at the Met in 1948 when I was a student and frequent standee. The tall young man towered over every other singer on stage, as he still does. With his youth hidden by white beard and gray makeup, and by dignity (rather than a corny stoop) he had become Rise Stevens' blind father Lothario in ''Mignon'' and later in the season Lily Pons' tutor Raimondo in ''Lucia.'' The voice was clear and deep.

Here in his dressing room during the 1983 backstage interview, trading the scarlet Grand Inquisitor's cassock for a comfortable bathrobe that showed firm arms and chest, was the man whom I'd seen at the Met as Mephistopheles and the tortured Boris Godunov, and often as the majestically contained Father Guardiano in ''Forza Del Destino.'' During the 1966 closing performance at the old Met, as Colline in ''La Boheme'' singing farewell to his overcoat, Mr. Hines boldly substituted his own words in English, bidding farewell to the opera house. In 1981 at the Washington Opera, he easily walked offstage with the hefty soprano in his arms, after he had strangled her as the blind King Archibaldo in ''Love of Three Kings.''

The voice, darkened over the years, still had the same splendid sonority.

''When you get older as a singer you can't get away with as much as you could when you were younger,'' Mr. Hines began. His natural voice was as deep as the singing voice on stage. ''If you don't keep stricter and stricter discipline you're not going to continue. Disciplines include not singing too much and not singing things wrong for you. And correct physical habits. Don't smoke. And no parties the night before the performance -- that wears out your voice talking.''

He began removing greasepaint from his face. Once smooth, it now had rugged vertical lines from cheek to jaw that accented his tall frame. ''The real discipline for me,'' he said, ''is a vocal system of scales. Some singers have no system. To warm up they'll try a phrase or two of this and that. I firmly believe in having a system of scales that have increasing difficulty, always in the same order. Then in the end I'll lighten and relax the voice a bit.

''By having the steps, the routine of scales, you're giving the voice a standard. The moment you begin the first couple of scales you can tell the relative condition of the voice from experience. It's like a horse that knows the road home from the stable. The voice is running a track that it knows well. If you're a little out of line vocally you can feel it's not doing what it always does, doesn't feel the same, and you know what to head back into.''

By now Mr. Hines was ready to receive visitors waiting outside his dressing-room door. Old friends and new admirers pressed his hand with compliments and reminiscences. He autographed some programs. When the dressing room had cleared again he returned to the subject.

''Longevity also needs motivation. Opera singing is an extremely stressful occupation. It's important to have a strong emotional backbone. It gives you the moral fiber, the steel, to face up. Your mind has to be free to go out there and imagine the sounds you want to hear from yourself.''

To illustrate what he termed ''steel,'' the singer recalled a night when the American soprano Eleanor Steber was called from her dressing room too late to prepare emotionally for an important aria. ''By the time she hit the wings she was so upset she was crying. But the moment she stepped on stage, there was no trace of that emotional struggle. Instead there was that steel. She was a great performer.''

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