I was always depressed. Often about a woman. Sometimes about my weight. Or just my life. And none of these things were truly that terrible. Depression would’ve come even if all other circumstances had been perfect. It’s genetic, I know that, now.
But I could sing, even if depressed. I might mangle the languages a bit, but I aimed for the intensity. That’s what I identified with when it came to opera. It’s overblown, big, and strange. It’s yearning, impassioned, and sad. I was raised in the south and heard mostly hymns, classic rock and country music before I turned 13. Once I was introduced to opera I felt what it was about. I understood it.
The competition was held at a theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in early spring. I’d recorded the audition tape months before. They took long enough to get back to me, I later wondered if I was just the least bad choice left to round out the competing singers to ten. But maybe that was my depression talking. Or being from the south. In spite of the presence of my first wife, who had a worldly and cosmopolitan air I felt I lacked (and who in hindsight was enormously gracious in going with me–our marriage was by then pretty rocky), I felt like a rube the moment we ferried across the Sound from Long Island to Connecticut.
I felt like a rube entering the theater and meeting the other singers. Every singer except for me had an established career. There was a tall bass who was a legitimate star in his native Taiwan. A tenor named Chuck who is today a staple in European and NYC opera houses. He’d already done Mozart roles with the New York City Opera. A soprano who’d won the Metropolitan Opera National Council final competition. I’d only ever won the first round of that.
The other singers were, to a person, friendly and personable. I particularly liked my fellow tenor. Tenors compete hard onstage, but we always get each other backstage, if we set that aside. In the world of classical voice, being a tenor can be very strange.
My ego wanted to surge at learning I had the most humble career of anyone there, at the time (I would go on to do roles with the Atlanta Opera and some good concert work–but it took a few years). It seemed promising. But I think the depression that was already hovering had begun to descend.
I’ve talked with other singers–other performers in general–and it’s often hard to recall anything that happens once you walk on stage. I recall nothing about that competition in New Haven. The light, perhaps. I did my best, but the dark anchor had already pulled me down.
My wife was frank but not unkind when I asked about it after. You just sounded under-powered.
One of the things I’d always had was sheer vocal power. I could project. Over 80-piece orchestras, 60-voice choirs, you name it. That day, I gave an anemic, careful performance. My wife said she heard someone behind her remark I had a nice voice, it just wasn’t very strong.
In the end I couldn’t truly be ashamed of how I’d done. The judges seemed to consider me in the middle of the field, fifth out of the ten in quality.
One of the judges was opera great Licia Albanese. One of the very first opera records I ever owned as a teen was a La Boheme she’d recorded as Musetta, with perhaps my favorite great tenor, Jüssi Björling, playing Rodolfo. I do recall what she said to me after.
You sing ‘Nessun dorma,’ said the old diva, you are not yet a Calaf. Not yet.
I received a modest, runner-up award check–I can’t recall the amount but it might have been $150–and my wife and I headed back to the ferry. Then we were on Long Island, at the small Ronkonkoma Airport. We were very low on funds by then, and there was no way to cash the check there. Our flight was to be the first out the following morning–the airport shut down at midnight, and flights began departure around 7 a.m. the next day.
We didn’t have enough money already in the bank for a motel.
We slept in the airport. At least I think my wife slept. I stretched out, the suit bag holding my rental tuxedo under my head, and listened to the muzak.
I remember scrounging change for peanut butter crackers from a vending machine around 5 a.m.
I don’t think I slept. No, no sleep at all.