Bass  Lorenzo  Alvary

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Lorenzo Alvary (February 20, 1909 – December 13, 1996) was a prolific singer and producer of many operas in the United States. Alvary was born in Debrecen, Hungary and studied law at the University of Budapest, but he quickly abandoned his law career to study music in Milan and Berlin.

He first sang for the Vienna Staatsoper, but joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1942, where he remained on the roster for over twenty seasons. His most memorable roles are Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte, and Leporello in Don Giovanni. Alvary was known for his elaborate costumes and for always playing characters that were less than attractive. He also sang for the San Francisco Opera.

In 1972, he became the artistic director for the Miami Opera Guild and he received critical praise for his work with the company. Alvary started his own radio show entitled Opera Topics, which he hosted from 1964 – 1986. He went on to produce the surrealistic opera, The Spanish Lady and the Roman Cavalier, with Salvador Dali.

As well as a career in the United States, Alvary had great international success. He went on to sing in over sixty operas in South America and Europe. He also appeared in many solo recitals, and in concerts with such directors as Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini.

--  Lorenzo Alvary Papers, JPB 06-16. Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Lorenzo Alvary appeared in Chicago only a few times.  There were several performances with the Metropolitan Opera on tour in the 1940s, and then he sang Masetto in the
‘Calling Card performance of Don Giovanni which re-established resident opera in Chicago in February of 1954.  Nicola Rossi-Lemeni sang the title role, and there is a photo of most of the cast (including Alvary) as part of that transcript.  [Names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]  Then, in March of 1987, Alvary returned in his capacity as a judge of vocal contests, and we arranged to meet at his hotel for a conversation.

By that time, he was steeped in the
‘radio biz’, having had his own program in New York City for many years.  He was forthright in giving his opinions, and lavished stories and experience in all that he said to me.  I then used portions of the chat on WNIB, Classical 97 a few times, and now it is a great pleasure to present the entire encounter on this webpage.

Let me add that he was so pleased with what transpired, that he arranged another interview for me about six weeks later, with the Earl of Harewood, whose lifetime connection with British opera cannot be overstated.

Here is the interview with Lorenzo Alvary . . . . . . . . .

alvary Bruce Duffie:   You’ve been a singer, you’re a director, you’re judging vocal competitions, so tell me about all of the things you have to do with opera.

Lorenzo Alvary:   I tell you what I am now.  I’m a so-called
operatic personality, which cannot be defined.  It actually is because many people claim that opera people are those who don’t know anything, and I say that maybe they should know something.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You feel you know something about opera?

LA:   [With a broad smile]  Yes!  You see, I was singing for about forty-five years, and then about six years ago, when Dr. Karl Böhm died, then I retired because I do not want to be in an art form which is somehow degenerating because of the lack of great conductors.  This is very deplorable because we don’t know actually what direction we should go.

BD:   How can we get more great conductors?

LA:   Make great conductors, and also great operatic managers.  Incidentally you are very fortunate here in this city, because I think that Ardis Krainik is the best operatic manager in America today.  She knows exactly what is the difference between Mozart and Napoleon, and she also knows many other things which the others don’t know.  Today in Europe, the operatic managers are not nominated and not selected according to their knowledge, but according to their capacity of how to be a member of a political party which can give enough money.  If the money’s there, then they are great.  If the money’s not there, they have to go.  It is a very sad situation.

BD:   Do you think art should be divorced from politics completely?

LA:   Absolutely.  It has to be divorced from everything.  We have to adore and cultivate our art form, opera.  But there is also another problem now, and I wonder if you agree with me.  Opera was originally an aristocratic art form, but it doesn’t mean that aristocrats have to be the only ones who are sitting there.  They should maintain an aristocratic level, and if the big masses come in, then it is possible, but the pyramid goes lower.  This is a very big problem, especially because the mangers have used this, and now there is a tendency everywhere
not so much in Chicago, but mostly in Europe and in the Metropolitanthat the visual part of the performance is more important than the singing.  So, they educate a new, innocent, and not very well-versed audience to accept the change in the art form, and have, for example, productions which cost $1.5 million dollars, and the singers certainly cannot even fill the available design and all ideas which are going with it.

BD:   Are there any of these new modern productions which you feel do justice to the operas?

LA:   They cannot give justice.  They could give justice if the singers would be on the same or better level, but I accuse these people who come up with these inventions that they do these kinds of new ideas instead of focusing on the voices.  If they would do it parallel, it would be acceptable but they do just the visual instead.

BD:   You’ve been involved in opera for so many years.  Are the voices today as good or better or worse than they were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago?

LA:   This is the most interesting question you can ask, because I’m asking myself what is the reason I am asking also the people who are on my program.  What is the reason there is such a lack in dramatic voices?  Today in the whole world there’s not one Tristan who was like Melchoir, or not even like Svanholm or Windgassen.  There is not one Isolde who can replace, let us say, Birgit Nilsson, not to talk about Kirsten Flagstad.  But there is not even a Manrico who can replace Corelli or Martinelli, and there is not even a Rigoletto who can justify the monumental art of this role.  So, we are in a big problem.  However, I’m happy to say to you that I’m a member now of ten international vocal competitions, and we can find sometimes very interesting cases.  For example, three years ago, Aprile Millo, who was at that time twenty-four years old, won the first prize in the Busseto Verdi contest [Concorso Internazionale di Voci Verdiane].  She went to La Scala, and now she’s at the Metropolitan.

BD:   Is that too fast?

LA:   There are detractors who say it is too fast.  Today, nobody gets roles which are good for the singer.  Everybody gets a role, especially a dramatic role, where there is a need for someone to sing that particular role, and this is the reason that this poor girl, who is not even thirty years old, has to sing Aïda.  She does it well, but that’s not the point.  Maybe two or three years from now she could have done it better.

BD:   Well, two or three years now, will she do it even better?

LA:   I think she does everything better every day because she’s very cool-headed and extremely ambitious, but also a very intelligent woman who, very probably, will be able to get to her place at the right time.

BD:   I assume there’s no reason to expect any artist to explode full-blown onto the stage.  They should always develop, as I assume you developed as you went along in your career.

LA:   I had a very long and very tough career.  I studied roles from Zuniga [Carmen] up to Baron Ochs [Rosenkavalier], and that was not easy because there’s a very big difference.  I tell you why I did it, because it is not enough to serve the audience or to serve the manager, or to satisfy the manger or the audience.  You have to conquer the manager and you have to conquer the audience.  So you are in a permanent fight, and in order to fight, you have to be very well armed.  The greatest asset a singer can have is to be able to take punishments, to be inquisitive, and to take the hits, to take the injustices, to take the stupidity and the ignorance of people.  You will also be at the mercy of critics who sometimes have to write something, which is not because they don’t want to be nice, but they don’t know any better.  How can anybody, sitting in one city all the year round, know what’s going?  I have the privilege
or maybe the dutybut I go four times to Europe each year, and I know what’s going on there, as well as here.  I’m not an agent, and I don’t teach.  I don’t have the arrogance of teaching, so nobody can give me money, but if I call up a general manager and say, Please listen to this soprano, then he does it, because I won’t send ten or fifteen.  I don’t get anything out of it, and she’s now engaged in Frankfurt, for example.  One is Maria Russo, who is from Philadelphia from the Academy of Music.  It’s a wonderful institution because Dino Yannopoulos is there, and that is the highest level.  Russo now is in Stuttgart, and sang already four or five Verdi Requiems, and she won the first prize in the Munich competition.  I was there, and it was a great pleasure.  These Americans are really outstanding, with good schooling.  I pay back to America what I got to make a career by being available for American singers if they want to know what to do, and especially what not to do, which is just as hard.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What should an aspiring young singer do, and what should that singer avoid?

LA:   I always come back to the Bible, which is the great baritone Giuseppe Danise [shown below].  He was the husband Bidu Sayão, and was my teacher for ten years.  I never paid him a cent because he somehow liked me.  I don’t know why, but he was really a very good friend.  Now this was the greatest
operatic personality because he did know everything.  Not only did he know opera, he knew politics, he knew languages, he knew the human mind and how it works.   He did know what is in Italy, what is in Germany, what is America, of course, having sung sixteen years at the Metropolitan Opera.  He said that seventeen things that are needed, according to him, in order to make a world career as a singer, and only one is the voice.  Sixteen other things are needed besides the voice.

danise BD:   Please tell me about these seventeen things.

LA:   All right.  The first one is, naturally, musicality, but not that which means you know the difference between a sixteenth and an eighth, and not that type of musicality to know when to start the phrase and when to finish.  Incidentally, next week I go to Naples for a competition, and will I tell you about that particular competition now.  A Neapolitan is a completely different mind from anybody else.  For a Neapolitan, musicality is not only to know the rhythmical system of the singing, or the music, but also
as Danise used to saythis is a musical voice, ‘una emissione vocale, a vocal emission which is musical or not musical.  It is the Southern Italian color of a voice.  The greatest was Caruso, or, for example, Tita Ruffo, or Danise.  They had the so-called Southern Italian quality of voice.  He called theirs ‘musical voices’.  These are contrary to the German and to the English emissionwhich is very good, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  Also, it has nothing to do with the race because, for example, the greatest bel canto musical voices were Jussi Björling, who was a Swede, and Elisabeth Rethberg, who was the greatest bel canto singer of the world.  I sang with her for quite a while, and she was the one who guided Ezio Pinza, who was the typical Italian musical voice.  But ‘that musical voice’ is something which is not known in America.  It’s a typically Italian thing, because you cannot say that someone has musical or a non-musical voice.  I don’t want to mention, for example, very great voices which had great careers, but are not musical voices in this particular sense.  Coming back to Naples for a minute, last year when I was a judge there, a very interesting thing happened.  A boy who looked like a longshoreman, about twenty-four, twenty-five years old, sang Che gelida manina, Rodolfo’s aria from La Bohème.  That was one of the most beautiful renditions I ever heard.  He went up and down with the passaggio without any problems, and the high C was absolutely perfect.  Next to me was sitting the director the San Carlo Opera, and when it was over I told him I had never heard a better La Bohème aria.  What is wrong?  Why can he not be engaged?  He said, We tried everything, but he cannot learn music. He cannot read music.  We cannot explain what it means.  He doesn’t know what a high C is.  He just sings the same way as someone who learns the National Anthem by ear.  I told him the phrasing was wonderful, and he said, Yes, because, you see, he’s a Neapolitan.  He cannot phrase badly!  That was the explanationhe was a Neapolitan, so how can he phrase badly?

BD:   Would it be worth training that man a few roles by rote?

LA:   I asked him, and he said,
I tried but nobody wants to work with me because they say that I’m stupid.  Actually, he is stupid in the how and why to be a musician.  He has not even the most preliminary knowledge of music.  On the other hand, I was told that Antonio Scotti, the great baritone who often sang with Caruso, didn’t read music.  But he sang properly because he had a musical instinctnot knowledge but instinctand an innate feeling how that particular music has to be sung.  This innate musicality, according to Danise, is just as important as the learned musicality, so musicality is Number One.  The next one, Number Two, which is very important and is also neglected, is the pronunciation of words, especially foreign languages.  This is valorizzare la parola, which means give the true value to the words.  Now, according to himand according to me, tooit’s amazing how wonderfully American singers can sing in Italian and French and German, even when they don’t know the language, because Americans are extremely talented people.  They’re healthy, they have good schooling, and they know exactly what to do.  For example, Jan Peerce sang with Toscanini all the Italian roles and like an Italian.  Nobody knew that he was not one.  I learned English only when I came to this country.  I spoke already four languages but I couldn’t speak English, and my English will never be in order.  However, I did my Così Fan Tutte recording, [which is sung in English] on which I am the only foreigner.  I accepted it because I was honest enough to say this is a character role and maybe my accent will not bother anybody.  But Edward Johnson [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera 1935-50] told me that my accent was the best of all because I could be understood.  I wish I could speak without an accent.  Number Three is the capacity to project.  Now Americans should be very careful, according to Danise, because they generally learn singing in a church, and church singing is not the same as singing opera.  Church singing is a great art, there’s no question about it, but the projection in the church is different than on the operatic stage.  Number Four is to watch the conductor and the prompter at the same time without being noticed that the watching is going on.  Sometimes, when we watch a conductor, you are worse off than if you don’t watch him.  Even the really great conductors might not give the cue, so you have to amalgamate with the music and the conductor who knows what you do.  Naturally you have to have rehearsals...  [Both laugh]  Number Five is memory.  Now, memory is a retaining power, but the memory should not be something which gives you a way of thinking and singing and doing things as you did it before.  You have to have flexibility away from the memory, but the memory has to be the basic element, because if you have no memory, you hardly can become an opera singer.  Then the next one, Number Six, is self-control.  Here we get into very big problems because self-control should not only be that you control your assets and your liabilitiesyour voice and your behaviorbut also that you have to be controlled but not self-conscious.  Americans, are a very decent, honest, generous group.  Americans are different from anybody else because they can afford to be generous, decent, and refined.  Americans are self-conscious, especially when Anglo-Saxon Americans, like you, have to be involved in our profession, which is still considered a very Italianate and Latin business.  This is true especially for the women, and especially when they’re very good looking, as American women are.  They are self-conscious, and instead of being outgoing, they have an intimidated nature, so they’re easily intimidated.  When I go to these competitions, I’m proud to say that the first thing is to say to such a girl that I feel is self-conscious and intimidated is, You are the greatest singer in the world, but you have to be convinced of it, because if you’re not convinced of your qualities, you cannot project them to me.  And, I get certain results because sometimes they really start to come out of themselves, and don’t sing in the church anymore.  They are not the nice little girls, because they now have something to fight for.  Now comes Number Seven, a very important thing, which is health.  To be healthy is not easy.  By this I mean not to have headaches, not to have stomach aches, not to be intimidated by health, not to have a bad throat.  I’m proud to say that in thirty-four years of service in the Metropolitan Opera, I canceled only one performance because I lived like a monk.  I lived alone.  I didn’t get married because I didn’t want the woman to share this miserable life and this uphill fight, which I had to put on.  I married my wife after I was already forty-five years old.  She came to my apartment and said, Tell me, where are your curtains?  I didn’t notice for twenty years that I lived in that apartment, that I didn’t have curtains.  [Both laugh]  [The apartment was left to their heir, and later it was re-modeled and sold.  The listing (with photos) is shown farther down on this webpage.]  I’ll tell you another story about health and the way of life.  I had a piano, a bed, and only one chair.  A certain Mr. Goldberg came thirty-five years ago to sell me a health insurance, and when he came in I said, Hello, Mr. Goldberg.  How are you? He said, All right.  May I sit down?  I said, “Do you want to sit down, or do you want to sell insurance?  I signed it and he left.  After twenty-five years the insurance had to be renewed, so I went to this company on the Sixth Avenue, and I see a sign on the door which says Mr. Goldberg, Vice President.  I go in and he said, Mr. Alvary, so happy to see you.  There, in his office, was a very big sign which read, ‘Do you want to sit down, or do you want to sell insurance?’  He said, You know, Mr. Alvary, I used to sell four or five policies a day because I was sitting down.  After that I didn’t sit down, and I sold ten or fifteen.  This is also the way of life.  Mr. Goldberg, who became Vice President tells everybody, Don’t sit down.  Just stand there and ask the person to sign the insurance policy.  [Both laugh]  Number Eight is to know how to sleep.  This is a great science.  I’ve slept all my life between eight and nine hours every night without tablets.  I never took an aspirin, I never took any tablets, and I canceled just the one performance because wherever I was, I left.  When a performance was over, I had dinner, and at 1 o’clock I went to bed.  Next morning at 10 o’clock I was ready.  You need stamina to stand up against frustrations and difficulties.  This is a very important thingto know how to take the frustrations.  For example, it happens with all the singers that they think that they are very well-prepared to sing a role, and yet they don’t get the engagements.  Someone else gets it who is inferior.  Why?  Not because those people are inferior.  The real reason is they don’t know enough.  All these so-called bad castings are because the manager doesn’t find them a good one, or sometimes he doesn’t know if that person is ready or not.  The singer then goes home and says to the teacher or to the husband or the wife that he was much better than the other one.  Sometimes this is possible, but you have to take it.  It’s how to take the frustrations without hurting yourself.  Now Number Nine is the greatest problemadaptability, flexibility, and to know how to behave in an unfamiliar environment.  Danise insisted that the American environment is the easiest because people here go to the opera to enjoy themselves.  In Europe, they go to the restaurant to criticize the food, and to the opera to criticize the singer.  The criticizing is more important than the enjoyment, and people have to live up to this kind of demand.  And believe me, it is very difficult sometimes to adapt yourself to a completely different surrounding.  For example, if an AngloSaxon, or a black person arrives in Naples, it is not easy for them to understand those people.  I love them because my mother was a descendant of Calabrian, so I know what a Southern Italian is.  They’re not chauvinistic, they just are different, and for them, a certain kind of behavior is strange.  Don’t be strange, be an opera singer!  Then, the behavior has not to be discussed, but we have to have a good pitch, and the intonation has to be clear, and the hearing has to be good.  Now we come to Number Ten, which is very importantappearance.  Many American singers come to these auditions and to these competitions, and are over-dressed.  They’re too elegant, or they move too much, or they don’t move enough.  As you Americans say, they are coy, and this kind of attitude detracts from the focus on normal appearance, which should be a low-profile.  At the same time, it should be absolute knowing you are there in order to win an award, because this not a social connection.  Number eleven is a fight, and everybody who is going be peace-loving should not come into this profession.  The peace and love should be done in the family, with children, or with friends, but not among opera singers.  Opera singing is a very rough bellum omnium contra omnes [war of all against all].

alvary BD:   It’s a war in the competitions.  Is it also a war in performance?

LA:   In the performance, I’m sorry to say, it is only partially possible to have peace because we are at the mercy of a stage director who designs the sets, and says what to do.  Number twelve is your appearance on stage.  I always design my own costumes.  For Baron Ochs, for example, when I appeared in the second act, I had enormous applause, not because of my singing but because of my costume, which I designed.  Now, Number Thirteen
is to be ready for the unexpected.  I did all my roles unexpectedly.  I had to jump in for Leporello [shown at right], even though I was the Masetto, without the rehearsal.  I did my first King Mark, which I studied with Alexander Kipnis, without the rehearsal.  I did my first Arkel without rehearsal, so you have to be ready for the unexpected.  Bruno Walter took me as Rocco in Fidelio.  That was with Regina Resnik.  Three other people were not ready, but I was ready despite of the fact I never hoped to do that role.  I had no reason to do it, and Bruno Walter selected me because I was ready.  So you have to be ready for the unexpected.  You have to learn the roles not when you sign the contract with the security of performance, but you have to learn in advance if there is any chance that you might sing the role.  This is, naturally, a very great problem because it costs money and time.  But you know that when you are singer, you don’t give your time, you don’t give your character, you don’t give your voice, but you have to give your life.  You have to sign your life away from yourself, away from your family, away for your friends.  There is only one thingto sing, and not to have any other problems, which is very difficult.

BD:   Once you’ve signed your life away to singing, have you signed it to an angel, or have you signed it to the Devil?

LA:   Not to the Devil because I believe that you can sign it to an angel.  As a matter of fact, very great singers are generally very religious, and they have nothing to do with the Devil.  I always say that you have to impersonate the Devil.  When I sang Mephistopheles, I was not the devil but I impersonated the Devil, and that is a much greater art than to be one.  Why?  He’s something else.  Number Fourteen is to understand that the greatest enemy of anybody
of you, of me, and of humanityis a weekend.  A singer cannot have a weekend.  I never had it because the Metropolitan has on Saturday two performances, and whether one was on a Friday or on a Saturday, I have to sing.  I never had a weekend, and before I was married, I never had a vacation.  How can I have a vacation when my voice has to be in permanent good shape?  This is not possible.  I have a very great respect for people who are married, and who get pregnant.  They need a vacation during pregnancy.  But, oddly enough, the voice generally gets better after pregnancy.  The weekends are necessary for further study.  I never taught, and even today I study.  I study all the time.  I study when I hear a singer singing badly because I want to know what is the reason.  Sometimes I don’t so, that is why I have to study.  I study all the time!  Number Fifteen is to rearrange all your priorities.  They are not priorities anymore.  You don’t have to go to the restaurant, you don’t have to go to call a friend, you don’t have to get married, you don’t have to die.  [Laughs]  You cannot do anything else.  Only singing is the priority.  There’s only one priority if you are singing.  Number Sixteen is very difficult, and very few people have it.  In order to be a good singer you have to have a good sense of proportion.  This means a sense of proportion in the vocal emission, in behavior, in signing a contract.  All the time you have to keep how far you should go, and, if possible, go to that limit which is still advantageous and not go over.  Don’t force your voice, but give it as it is.

BD:   How do you know when you have achieved that limit?

LA:   You must have a sober judgment of your own assets and liabilities.  Number Seventeen is the voice which you need to make a career, and this is the only thing which I cannot discuss now because we would need an hour, or maybe a day, to discuss it.  The voice is only one of the seventeen.  One of the greatest singers of our times was Bidu Sayão, the wife of Danise.  Sayão had a small voice, but she was such a great personality, and there was such a fusion between the voice and herself.  I’ll give you another one who had not the voice.  The greatest opera personality was Maria Callas.  She was certainly not a vocal phenomenon, but a phenomenon in every other way.   She had all the sixteen things, and enough voice to have all the sixteen valued in it.  I just came back in November from the Tito Schipa Competition in Lecce.  I sang with Tito Schipa and Bidu Sayão in Manon.  I was the père, the father, and I can tell you no one was singing better than Tito Schipa.  When he sang Don Giovanni, in the big sextet he said to the conductor,
Maestro, I have to stop for a minute.  In the Peters Edition, there is a B-Flat, but in the Breitkopf edition it is a G.  The conductor said, I use the Breitkkopf.  Now will you tell me how many tenors would know that there are two editions and discuss this?  This was Tito Schipa!  Another example, and here the voice was certainly not the greatest asset because he had no top, but today he’s one of the greatest singers of our timePlácido Domingo, no question about it.  Domingo is not only in the perfect position, he has the projection and the behavior.  He’s also a conductor, he knows the music, and now I will tell you a story.  About fifteen or twenty years, at the beginning of his career, he was engaged by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden to sing Aïda, and he was supposed to sing it on a Saturday.  Monday they called up from Londonhe was in New Yorkand they said they have problems.  They don’t have an Amneris, but they had an Ulrica, and they asked him if he was ready to sing The Masked Ball instead of Aïda?  He had never sung The Masked Ball, and he said he would give them an answer in three hours.  He went to the pianobecause he’s a perfect pianistand after three hours, he called up and agreed to sing The Masked Ball Saturday.  That was Monday.  On Thursday he arrived for a general rehearsal, and he sang and acted The Masked Ball without one mistake.  They are super people.  He’s from a theatrical family.  I was Director in Miami for two years, and Domingo’s mother was sixty years old, but she sang and acted in the Zarzuela completely believable and convincing.  She impersonated the twenty-year-old woman, and she was perfect.  The father was a stage director, so their son was born in the theater.

BD:   It's in his blood.

LA:   Yes.
 I would like to add that you have to have the hide of an alligator in order to survive in this competition today.  America is the greatest reservoir of good voices, and the tightest market for the audience.  The American singer is a wonder, really.  He sings in four languages, competes in France and in Germany.  There are hundreds of American singers in Germany.  Not everybody knows that they are Americans but, for example, certain houses like the Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf would have to be closed if there were no Americans.  I heard a Don Giovanni with only one German.  All the rest were Americans.  It is not the Deutsche Oper Am Rhein, it is the American Oper Am Rhein!  This is my greatest joy in life, to see these American singers develop.  It is something wonderful.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re at a competition, and you’re looking and listening to the young voices, how many of these seventeen things do you look for in any one person?

alvary LA:   Not every judge has this idea, but I have this idea.  We are looking for people who can become professional singers, and I always have only one thing in mind
will this candidate be engaged?  Is this candidate ready to go into a theater and perform a role?  This means that out of the seventeen things, at least thirteen or fourteen have to be there, because if thirteen or fourteen are not there, and only the voice is there, then it won’t work.  There is a certain level which that person has to show, and especially is that person engageable?  This is the reason why the most important judges are managers.  Sometimes, someone gets the first prize, but the managers don’t believe that person can be sold.  Actually, everything has only a value if people can use it for something, and an artist is a value in the opera company.

BD:   Once the singer signs his life away with his angel, does the singer become a commodity?

LA:   The singer, to a certain sense, becomes a commodity, but sometimes a very appreciated commodity, and sometimes a commodity which is put aside.  People have signed contracts, sing only once, and then they’re not called again.  They are paid, and they know they’re paid, but they’re sent away.  What is very important is that one recommendation, which is called the need.  If you want to have a Radames, then you cannot engage someone who sings Una Furtiva Lagrima [L
’Elisir d’amore of Donizetti].  The need, the necessity, is to have the right person.  That is very important.  I don’t want to say which career was made, but an Italian singer came and was not good, and an American stepped in, and now the American is already made.  You see, it is the need, the need.

BD:   Are the vocal competitions, such as the ones you judge, the way to get into an operatic career?

LA:   Absolutely!  However, the odds are very bad.  I go to about ten competitions this year, and I hear maybe fifty or sixty or a hundred singers.  Of those fifty or hundred, how many can make careers?

BD:   Just a handful.

LA:   Yes, five to ten.  Once in awhile comes a Zancanaro, for example.  He won a first prize in Busseto [1969] and his career took off.  Then then are there people who might or might not win the prize.  The competition actually does not create a career, but accelerates the career.  For example, if you sing and are heard by a few judges, immediately they might have an idea that maybe this particular singer could fit in a certain place.  Then they call up somebody, and it is a chain reaction.  A competition is a wonderful exposure, and the greatest asset of the competition is that the singer of a certain intelligence can find out his own values and liabilities.  A singer came recently who sang with a very good baritone voice, but the pronunciation in Italian was bad that he said to me,
“Do you think I should stay one year in Italy and not only learn how to eat the spaghettiwhich is importantbut also to learn how to speak Italian, because seemingly my pronunciation is not acceptable?  I told him, For you, this competition was positive because you found out what you have to do.  Naturally, it would be very important for everybody to go to a foreign land and feel not comfortable, because a singer should never feel comfortable.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  A singer should never feel comfortable???

LA:   No, no, because it is a fight.  The most important thing Danise always said was,
Do you like to sing?  If so, that’s very bad!  You shouldn’t like to sing.  You should not enjoy your singing.  The audience should enjoy it, and if an audience enjoys your singing, then you are all right.  But when you enjoy it, it doesn’t mean anything.

BD:   Did you feel satisfied with your performances?

LA:   You might feel satisfied, and sometimes you might never be satisfied.  Bidu Sayão made these big performances, and after she would ask her husband how was it.  He would say that it was
acceptable, and never more than that.  Regina Resnik had a voice that was not decided for a long time if it was a soprano or a mezzo soprano.  She went to Danise, and after one year she became a world-famous mezzo-soprano.  When Danise died, she said she didn’t know how she could sing without him.  Every lesson with Resnik ended with crying.  He skinned her alive because he believed that that’s the way to do it.  Then there was a tenor who went to Danise and had three lessons.  He had a beautiful voice, and Danise was very rough.  So, after the third lesson he said, Mr. Danise, if the prize to become a singer is that I have to take these horrible experiences, I’d rather not make it.  Danise said, I tell you a secret... with that attitude you will not make it, and he didn’t make it.  People who cannot take these kind of horrible frustrations will not make it in this business.

BD:   You need to take the punches.

LA:   Yes.  The punches are tough, but sometimes these punches are not meant.  Sometimes the person doesn’t know any better.  For example, I know of a case where an American girl was engaged in a German theater, and they want her to sing Aïda and everything else in German.  She refused, and she left.  She took the punch because she could not do that, because she’s an Italian-schooled singer.

BD:   This is a good time to ask about translations.  Do you believe in opera-in-translation?

LA:   No.  I’m a conservative!  Opera was originally conceived in a certain way, and we know that Verdi sometimes all evening did know whether he should set mio amore, or amore mio.  If the words are such an intrinsic part of the whole composition, then I think a translation is not justified.  However, certain things like Don Pasquale or Così Fan Tutte have to be translated into the language of the audience because the audience will know what’s going on.  However, a really knowing audience would never accept translations because the phrase, which was figured out by the composer, especially these long phrases, are so much together and built on the words.  The muscles have to be on the bones.  It cannot be muscles alone, and the muscles cannot be changed because the bone doesn’t fit.  Then the muscle wouldn’t fit!  I am in principle against translations, however, I tell you honestly that I have sung about ten operas already in English despite of my accent.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yet it was Verdi who said he wanted to translate his operas!

LA:   Yes, for example, Don Carlo wouldn’t have been translated because it was done in French for Paris.  He didn’t say to translate, but that he don’t mind if they are translated.  I sang in French the Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss.  I did that with Crespin in Paris in the Opéra.  I was the only one who was not French.  Strauss, according to a source, made changes in the music so that the French music is actually composed by Strauss.  There’s another interesting case.  I sang Die Vier Grobiane [I Quatro Rusteghi], The Four Ruffians by Wolf-Ferrari.  I sang in German with Wolf-Ferrari being present.  He was bi-lingual himself, and he wrote it in both languages.  [The world premiere was at the Hoftheater in Munich in 1906, conducted by Felix Mottl, and the first Italian performance was at the Teatro Lirico in Milan in 1914 led by Ettore Panizza.  It was first presented in the United States in 1951 at the New York City Opera, conducted by Laszlo Halasz.]

At this point, the first side of the forty-five minute cassette ran out, and I asked my guest if he wished to continue.

BD:   I mustn’t tire you too much.

LA:   No, go ahead.  I’m ready with everything when you are.  You are joy!

BD:   [With great appreciation]  Thank you.  Let me ask you a very simple easy question.  Where’s opera going today?

alvary LA:   This is a question I would like to answer, but I don’t know.  I ask myself the same question because it is not true that opera can be fundamentally changed.  That is not possible because up to now, every time, every tentative change was negative.  Not only this, but you don’t even know if it going to be Boulez, or is it going to be Richard Strauss who has to continue?  Is it going to be Stravinsky?  Stravinsky, for me, is something colossal, or it is going to be like Glass and these people?  I don’t know what people want.  I know only one thing
that the real opera lover is very conservative.  The real opera lover wants to hear a phrase, wants to hear, for example, a very beautiful high C.  For me, a beautiful sound is the biological need, like food and many other things which I use.  I cannot stand cacophonic sounds because they disturb me, probably because I was educated in the classical way.  My mother was a pianist, a Dohnányi pupil, and my father was a violinist.  He was a grocer, but also a violinist at the same time.  I started as a cellist, and I was a string quartet player before I started to sing.  But I don’t believe that the human voice lends itself for anything else.  I don’t say beautiful singing, but beautiful phrasing.  For example, the way Tebaldi phrases.  Also, Licia Albanese.  When she sings that very difficult and very thankless role Michaela in Carmen, she stole every show.  Why?  Because this is the bel canto, and the bel canto can also be sung in Wagner.  The great Wagner singers also can sing bel canto, not with all that shouting, yelling, or imitating an instrument with the voice.  The instrument should imitate the voice, not vice-versa.  So, I see a very dark period if we are not going to go back where we were.  But I don’t know if we have the talent to go back.  It’s very difficult to be a conservative, because the conservative has to apply himself according to certain rules.  But these people now who are taking liberty, naturally overdo the liberty.  Freedom and liberty are only valuable if they are given in doses, not if they are completely free and everybody can do whatever they want.  So I see it all very dark, and I am a great pessimist, I’m very sorry to say, and very unhappy with what I hear.

BD:   Are you pessimistic, then, about the future of opera?

LA:   If you’re going to ask certain people
outside those who are following Boulezthe future of the opera has to look back.  First of all, we have to know from what we are going away.  These stage directors who bring these new inventions are not so sure where they’re going away from.  Because of my radio program, I was invited to Bayreuth when they did the premiere of the Chéreau Ring.  I was there, and there was a very interesting press conference.  Four hundred people were invited, and I was one of them.  A famous critic from Kurier in Viennaa very, very knowledgeable manasked certain questions, and then came my turn.  I asked Wolfgang Wagner why he had engaged two artists who claim that they never heard the Ring before and never saw the Ring before.  He said, Because these people are ‘unbeschwert’ [carefree].  They are not top heavy.  I said, They are not top-heavy of knowledge?  I had terrific applause after this.  [Both laugh heartily]  I asked another question, Why is the bird in Siegfried in a cage?  Chéreau said, Because this is a special bird.  It has to be protected because the bird talks!  But would you tell me please who put the bird into the cage?  I have no answer for that.  It never occurred to me that this would be a problem.  “Yes, but it occurs to me because I want to know what’s going on.  I had much applause again!  However, this is the sad story because you asked about the development of opera.  The problem is that at Bayreuth and other places in Europe, whatever happens, it will all be sold out.  So, we don’t know where opera is going because until people have money and they go there because they believe in it, they can do whatever they want and the opera can go completely down the drain, despite the fact that people go into the opera and it is sold out.  He is a very interesting man, and he also said to me, The Metropolitan Opera is not vulnerable.  That house can be run by an usher, and it would take fifteen years until it would lose its predominance,  This is true, because when I go to the Europe, the Metropolitan, in comparison, is still always better because in Europe, sometimes when you hear a La Bohème or a Faust, it is a caricature.  In Europe the level is even lower than here.  Here in Chicago you have the greatest manager, and you have excellent performances.  My brother, who is a doctor who practices medicine here in Chicago, heard a Meistersinger last season, and he was immensely impressed.  [The cast included Thomas Stewart, William Johns, Nancy Johnson/Patricia Wells, Julian Patrick, Dmitri Kavrakos, David Keubler, Sharon Graham, John Del Carlo; Marek Janowski (conductor), Nathaniel Merrill (director), Robert OHearn (sets), Duane Schuler (lighting), and Maria Tallchief (ballet).]

BD:   [Proudly smiling]  Yes, we’re very fortunate about that.  Let me ask you... the seventeen points that you have for singers, should those same seventeen points be applicable to a cellist, or to a conductor, or to a doctor of medicine?

LA:   I had the great opportunity to sing with the very best conductors.  I sang with Toscanini, I sang with Bruno Walter, I sang with Tullio Serafin, I sang with Erich Leinsdorf
...  Leinsdorf is the best conductor alive today because that man was assistant conductor to Toscanini, and he knows every language, he knows everything, and never makes a movement which is not necessary or superfluous.  He never dances on the stage.  It’s the orchestra that dances.  I have the greatest respect, and I know the great conductors, and I despise very much the conductor that knows less than I do.  There are conductors who know less than I do!  Can you imagine that?  But the greatest problem is the stage director.  The stage director today is a star, so it is not Verdi’s Traviata, it is Zeffirellis Traviata.  It is not Bizet’s Carmen, it is the Zeffirelli production.  I was in the opening performance of the new Metropolitan when we did Antony and Cleopatra.  Regarding the stage direction, nobody understood a damn thing that was going on.  It was just something else, and even Zeffirelli was not always clear to me.

BD:   [Being Devil
s Advocate for a moment]  Someone like Zeffirelli, who does the Traviata on the film, and yet you’ve got someone like Plácido Domingo, whom you admire so much in the cast.  Does that form any kind of conflict?

LA:   Yes, but don’t forget that there is always a financial angle to it.  Furthermore, whoever does that Traviata in that film has a form of publicity, and Domingo is not only paid well, but needs that publicity.  Everybody needs it.  Even Pavarotti needs publicity to remain on the top!  Then the managerial machinations are also important.  They are told they have to sing this because the consequences are this, or if they don’t do it, then the consequences are that... so you never know really how these things are compiled.


BD:   Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

LA:   It should be definitely art, but people should look for that type of entertainment which is art.  You can be entertained prestidigitator, or by dancing, but opera should be on a very high artistic level.  Every high art is entertainment, because if you go to see a Michelangelo sculpture or a painting, that is highly elevating your mind.  Opera is art, first of all, and then it is entertainment.

BD:   Then comes the Capriccio question.  In opera, where should be the balance between the music and the drama?

LA:   Prima la Musica [first the music], says the Richard Strauss opera.  The music should be there.  However, we know many cases where Hofmannsthal, the librettist who was very important and inspired, sometimes was negating certain things.  So, there must be a very close cooperation because that type of writing opera on a very simple, stupid and primitive story, was not done anymore.  Strauss had very good luck with his librettist, and Boito [librettist for Verdi
s final works], naturally, wrote those very good things which are exemplary.  Let’s put it this way... the music should not be overshadowed by the text or by the story.

BD:   [Pressing the point just a bit]  But it’s okay if the text is completely overshadowed by the music?

LA:   It should not be.  I didn’t say that the music is the only thing which is important.  On the contrary, the rest of the phrase is poi le parole [then the words].  It’s very important that the words should have a very great effect on the audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You recorded the Alessandro Scarlatti piece, The Spanish Lady and the Roman Cavalier.  Let me ask you about that.


LA:   That is a very interesting thing because Giulio Confalonieri extracted from Scipione nelle Spagne, a very long tragic opera, these four different interludes to have these kinds of conversations.  That is what we recorded, and also we did it in Paris and in Brussels.  Fiorenza Cossotto, who is a very famous singer now, sang in that.  She was a very young woman at that time.

BD:   Are you pleased with that recording?

LA:   Not a hundred per cent.  Musically, yes, but there were many cuts, and I’m not so sure that the microphones were placed properly.  But it is a very interesting recording.  It’s not something which would change anything or influence many things, but I think it is very entertaining.  The Così Fan Tutte is probably the best recording of that work, and I am very proud of it.  What a formidable coloratura Tucker has there in that second ensemble.  That is something absolutely phenomenal.  [This is also mentioned in a review of the recording, shown at the bottom of this webpage.]  A week before he died, Tucker and I discussed this on the air, and it is very interesting singing.  Tucker was actually very modest, but at the same time resolute man.

BD:   How does that recording of Così compare with the performances on the stage with that same cast?

alvary LA:   That was a very special cast because, first of all, we had one of the greatest stage directors who ever touched opera, Alfred Lunt, so actually it was very easy to record because we had been together so often.  It went by itself, and Fritz Stiedry was a very congenial conductor... not a great conductor, but a congenial one.  Many people have told me that it is a very excellent recording.  I did it also in Italian with Schwarzkopf, but I believe that this recording with Eleanor Steber is the best Fiordiligi who ever lived.  I don’t know if you agree with me...

BD:   I very rarely compare voices against one another.  I like to enjoy them all.

LA:   Yes, this is the most human, most artistic attitude, and I complement you in the name of all of us who are interested in this.

BD:   [Smiling]  Thank you.  Because opera’s such a dramatic art form, do you feel it works well on recordings?

LA:   Yes, but I hope that recording will never replace the theater.  I believe in the theater.  I believe in that immediate and personal contact with the audience.  I believe that the audience is part of the show.  I believe that without an audience, you cannot perform a hundred per cent.  There is a recording of Frau Ohne Schatten with Birgit Nilsson, and I’m in that recording.  We did it in the Vienna State Opera, and it was taken from the stage.  I like those kinds of things with all their faults and with all their mistakes and inaccuracies.  That is an excellent performance.

BD:   Are the recordings that come out of the studio perhaps too perfect?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Roberta Peters, Blanche Thebom, and Frank Guarrera.]

LA:   When the recordings are too perfect, then I don’t like them because, first of all, I don’t know what
too perfect is.  If something follows the composer’s intentions, and is given in such a form that it respects the surroundings, the artistic inclinations of certain people, fine.  For example, you cannot perform Così fan Tutte in Naples the same way as you do in the Metropolitan Opera.  I have done it in both places, so I know.  This nonsense of these love affairs is very entertaining, but when every word in Italian is understood, the reaction is different there.  [Alvary speaks about this again at the end of this conversation.]  They enjoy it like a desert and not like a main course.  The main course is always Aïda and Trovatore and Carmen and these kinds of operas.

BD:   Should we not, as a world community, try to enlarge the repertoire of main-course operas?

LA:   Yes, but who will do it?  Who is capable?  Who can today compose a main-course opera?  Opera will not survive if we don’t have contemporary composers.  Now according to many people, Puccini and Strauss were the last ones.  However, I would like to end with two of my favorite operas, both of which I sang with Karl Böhm
Wozzeck and Lulu.  I think Wozzeck and Lulu are definitely an advancement.

BD:   Even though a Lulu performance will drive people out of the theater?

LA:   What people?

BD:   People who don’t understand it.

LA:   This is a most interesting question which you have brought up because Herbert Graf, the great stage director, made an interesting statement when he said that opera is theater, and the theater should have a hundred per cent impact on an audience at first hearing.  In this case, Lulu at first hearing cannot please and cannot satisfy an audience.  At first, certain operas, certain paintings, and even certain buildings, and even certain human beings can only be appreciated if they can be compared with previous experiences.  For example, it is not conceivable that someone, who heard only Mozart and Donizetti operas should suddenly be interested in Lulu at first hearing.  Therefore, it is necessary to have at least a fifty per cent knowing audience, the ‘habitués’, the connoisseurs who guide the rest in that direction.  This is a very complex problem.  Lulu, in my view, is one of the masterpieces.  Whatever Stravinsky wrote is always a masterpiece, but only for those people who yearn to have a development, and realize that this development is in the hands of geniuses.  Alban Berg was a genius, Stravinsky is a genius, but these people here who we commission and spend a lot of money on are not geniuses.  They are people who write such music that if I tear out two pages, then every student of composition in their academy can replace them.

BD:   Stravinsky is a genius?

LA:   Yes!

BD:   Berg is a genius?

bertelli LA:   Yes!

BD:   Verdi?

LA:   They’re all geniuses.  I am speaking now about the people who are writing today, but I don’t want to name the dozens who are not geniuses.  I don’t want to mention them because I’m not a critic.

BD:   Is there a place on the operatic stage for operas by composers who are not quite geniuses?

LA:   I don’t think so, because that would be a step backwards!  I do not believe that it is justified in Germany, where the theaters are subsidized by the State, that the theater has to put on each year one new opera by a living composer.  Sometimes it is a work like Die Soldaten [Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970)], which is all right, but mostly it comes out another way.  I was in these theaters where the audience completely rejected the work, knowing that they have to listen to it because of the subsidy.  Penderecki wrote an opera, which I heard two or three times, and it is very interesting...

BD:   Are there some Italian verismo operas, or even romantic operas which you feel should be resurrected?

LA:   [Deflecting the question]  Yes, there are, but let’s not talk about them.  These new works are contortions and distortions.  They produce melody, but it is so trivial and it is so uninteresting to me that it’s sometimes very painful to sit through it.  Generally, I have to sit through it because I know the composer, and I cannot say to him that it is a lousy piece.

BD:   [Persisting]  But what about composers who are no longer living?  Are there some obscure Mascagni (1863-1945) or Zandonai (1883-1944) works that should be done?

LA:   Yes, it’s very good now.  When I was in Italy studying, about forty or fifty years ago, I sang in three Mascagni operasPinotta, Lodoletta, and Guglielmo Ratcliff.  These operas were written for an interesting reason.  For Guglielmo Ratcliff, there was a tenor, Nino Bertelli [shown at right], with formidable top notes.  At that time, all Europe was inundated with Johann Strauss operas, and the Viennese operetta became very famous and very popular.  The Italians didn’t like them because the tenors, outside of Richard Tauber, were not naturally very good.  Not one of these tenors was really beautiful, vocally, and when Bertelli came out and sang these high notes, people began enjoying it.  They didn’t care about the opera, and they didn’t care about what was going on.  They just wanted to hear these notes, and they enjoyed that.  So, Mascagni wrote for him.  Now I will tell you something interesting about Luciano Berio.  He was on my program about a year ago, and at that time he was nominated to be the artistic director of the Florence Festival.  He came to New York, and he explained what he was going to do.  I asked him if he was really convinced that in his composition and in his musical activity, he should take part also in our present political situation, and he said, “Absolutely, because we are living in a society, we are living among human beings, and the political angle of everything is very pronounced now, and it should be pronounced also in music and in opera, and everywhere.  I then asked if he believed that these kinds of operas, which he and others were writing, should be performed even if the audience is not coming, and he said, Absolutely, because we have to go ahead, and we cannot go ahead if we have operas by Mascagni.  Mascagni’s operas should all be put into a suitcase and thrown into the water!  [Both laugh hysterically]  I tactfully and quietly told him that everybody’s interested in Cavalleria Rusticana, and nobody’s interested in those operas which he was going to perform, and I was not so sure that he was going to be successful in Florence.  He put on a Rigoletto in which, in the first act, there were paintings of Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini.  Bartoletti, who is your Artistic Director here in Chicago, [and later held that title in Florence], refused to conduct that Rigoletto.  Then Cappuccilli refused to sing the title role, and Berio, who is a very talented man, had to resign his position.  He’s not there anymore.  So actually we conservatives sometimes are winning, not because we want to, but the situation develops in our favor.

BD:   Coming back to my question, are there any masterpieces from the nineteenth or very early twentieth centuries that you know of that don’t get performed?

LA:   I don’t think so because people are looking them, and if they find anything, even something mediocre, they perform it.  I don’t miss anything.  Do you know about such an opera which was not performed?

BD:   No, but every once in a while, I’ll play a recording of something that I haven’t heard of before, and I’ll think it is really very nice.

LA:   Yes, but these operas have been performed.  Everything by Mascagni was performed.  I heard, for example, La Notte di Zoraima (1931) by Montemezzi (1875-1952).  Now that is an opera which was very successful, though it was never performed here.  Only his L’Amore Dei Tre Re (1913) was performed here.  There are operas in Italy, for example, Il favorito del Re (1932) by Antonio Veretti (1900-1978).  There are other operas, but I don’t miss them.  The last opera which I enjoyed, in which I sang Trulove, was Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951).  Now that is a good opera, but the audience at the Metropolitan did not take to it.  The same applies to Menotti’s operas, because Menotti’s a very talented man.  He is one of the greatest operatic personalities who lives today, in my view, though not necessarily his music, but his knowledge of opera.  His stage direction is phenomenal, and he knows everything.  That’s a great talent, but I could live without those operas... though The Consul is very, very good.

BD:   Let’s go back to the earliest days of opera.  Should we revive Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel?

LA:   If you have the bel canto singers, yes.  It is very difficult to find the real bel canto singer for Cavalli and for Monteverdi, and there is nothing more horrible than distorted bel canto music.  That is like if you would burn the steak instead of cooking it!  [More laughter]

BD:   Why did you not sing more here in Chicago?

I never had the time.  I started in the San Francisco, then I had eight concerts in four weeks, and then I was in the Metropolitan, and I was there all the time.  Once I sang Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte in Naples.  That was with Stich-Randall, incidentally.  She was very good, and Capecchi was also in the cast.  I sang in Italian, but when I sang the recitatives with Despina, I sang them in a Neapolitan dialect.  My mother was from Calabria, and I had a terrific personal success.  The next day in the paper the critic said, One of the great successes of the evening was the basso, Lorenzo Alvary.  Who is Lorenzo Alvary?  He must be one of our colonials!  It seemed strange that he would say that, so I went to the general manager and said, What are these colonials?  He told me, They think that you are an Italian, but from the colonies because you have a Y in your name.  Otherwise it would be an I.  Apparently, when they are from the colonies and have an I, they change it to a Y, because it’s not the same.  Incidentally, there are many colonial-Italians, like, for example, Manuguerra, who was born in Tunis.  The manager said to me, “This is not criticism, this is a very positive thing.  They are very proud if you’re from the colonies.  But the next day the paper printed that, no, I’m a European, I’m not Italian.  You have no idea how wonderful that was.  I mention all this because when Don Alfonso says, A man of my age with a girl like you can do very little, I did this [makes an obscene gesture].  It’s a vulgarity but I did it in Naples, and I had a hurricane of applause because everybody understood what I meant.  It is not vulgar if an Italian nobleman does it.  It is vulgar if you or I did it, but not Don Alfonso because he’s an aristocrat.  [Both laugh at the story]  I talk too much!

BD:   Not at all.  This was just fine.  Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

LA:   I feel very proud and I am very grateful.  Mr. Bruce Duffie, I thank you very much.

This recording of Così fan tutte is a souvenir of a memorable production that took place early in the tenure of Metropolitan Opera General Manager Sir Rudolph Bing. During that period, the Met and Bing, hoping to attract Broadway audiences, staged new productions of operetta and "light" opera. The performances featured English translations of the original librettos, and were directed by luminaries of the dramatic stage. December 20, 1950, the Met unveiled its new production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, directed by Garson Kanin. Mozart's Così fan tutte made its debut December 28, 1951, directed by Alfred Lunt, who also made an unforgettable cameo appearance at the start of each performance as a candle-lighting servant. The Met's sparkling new Così proved to be successful with both critics and audiences. The following June, the Met and Columbia Records joined forces to produce this recording. With the exception of Despina and Don Alfonso, the cast is identical to that of the Met premiere (in the recording Roberta Peters and Lorenzo Alvary replace Patrice Munsel and John Brownlee).

There are many reasons why this cannot be the preferred recording of Mozart's masterpiece. First, any translation must, by definition, deprive us of Mozart's sublime wedding of music to the poetry of Lorenzo da Ponte's original Italian libretto. While for the most part Ruth and Thomas Martin's translation "sings" relatively well, it is still a matter of compromise as far as the delicate synthesis of text and music is concerned. Further, the translation contains more than its share of dated colloquialisms that, for me at least, grate upon repeated hearing. For example, Despina's admonition, "Paghiam, o femmine, d'ugual moneta questa malefica razza indiscreta" ("Ladies, pay in kind this impudent, evil breed"), becomes "Pay them in kind when they flirt and philander. Sauce for the goose is the same for the gander!" If that sort of thing bothers you, consider yourself forewarned. Other shortcomings include a modern piano as accompaniment for recitatives, and the lack of such stylistic considerations as appogiaturas and ornamentation. Further, there are several cuts in recitatives, as well as deletion of Ferrando and Dorabella's second-act arias.

That said, there are many reasons why I would not want to be without this recording. It contains two outstanding performances -- Eleanor Steber's Fiordiligi and Richard Tucker's Ferrando. Steber was a renowned Mozart singer who, in addition to Fiordiligi, also sang the Countess, Donna Elvira, Pamina, and Donna Anna at the Met. The voice is rich, full, and beautiful throughout its range, and the florid requirements of the role pose no hurdles for Steber. Further, she masterfully portrays the pain the character experiences as, little by little, she succumbs to temptation. Tucker's masterful Ferrando may well come as more of a surprise. After all, this was a singer who made his greatest reputation in lirico-spinto and spinto roles. Even at this relatively early stage of his career Tucker had already sung such formidable roles as Enzo, Riccardo, Turiddu, Gabriele Adorno, Des Grieux, Cavaradossi and Don Carlo at the Met, as well as Radames in a concert performance with Toscanini. Tucker's voice certainly is more heroic than one would normally expect for Ferrando, but that is not necessarily a drawback, given the grace with which Tucker negotiates this demanding music. Tucker's identification with the role, enhanced by his superb diction, is also first-rate. It is unfortunate the production did not include Ferrando's second-act arias; as it is, Tucker's performance is a valuable memento of a great tenor who was too often taken for granted.

The remainder of the cast, while not on this exalted level, is never less than acceptable. Neither Thebom nor Guarrera match the vocal splendor of their higher-voiced counterparts, but they are engaging, vital singers. The young Roberta Peters employs her bright tone and vivacious energy to good effect as Despina, although I wish she was consistent (one way or the other) in terms of rolling her "r's." Lorenzo Alvary, while not an outstanding vocalist, does winningly project Don Alfonso's insinuating nature. Fritz Stiedry's conducting is rather heavy-handed, but still provides reasonable support. The remastered monophonic sound is superb.


--  Review from  

Lorenzo Alvary, Plaintiff-appellant, v. United States of America, Defendant-appellee, 302 F.2d 790 (2d Cir. 1962)

Annotate this Case
US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit - 302 F.2d 790 (2d Cir. 1962)

Argued December 14, 1961
Decided May 18, 1962

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED Nicholas R. Doman, New York City (Doman & Ablondi, New York City, on the brief), for plaintiff-appellant.

Robert Arum, Asst. U. S. Atty., Southern District of New York, New York City (Robert M. Morgenthau, U. S. Atty., and David Klingsberg, Asst. U. S. Atty., on the brief), for defendant-appellee.

Before LUMBARD, Chief Judge, and MOORE and HAYS, Circuit Judges.

LUMBARD, Chief Judge.

The plaintiff-taxpayer, Lorenzo Alvary, appeals from the dismissal of his suit for a refund of federal income taxes paid for the calendar years 1951 and 1955. He claims that he is entitled to a deduction in those years for a net operating loss carry-back to 1951 and carry-forward to 1955 from the tax year 1952 when, he alleges, two pieces of real property located in Budapest, Hungary, which he owned for rental purposes were nationalized by the Hungarian Communist government. Internal Revenue Code of 1939, §§ 23(s), 122, 26 U.S.C.A. §§ 23(s), 122.1  The taxpayer received the properties as a gift in 1947 and 1948. In the District Court for the Southern District of New York, Judge Holland, sitting without a jury, denied the refund on the ground that the properties had no fair market value at the time of the gift and thus no tax basis to the taxpayer. We reverse and remand.

The taxpayer, a naturalized citizen of the United States, is an opera singer and a member of the Metropolitan and San Francisco Opera Companies. About March 1, 1947, his aunt, Mrs. Alfred Dietrich Ilona Beke, signed and executed a written document making a gift of her interests in two pieces of real estate located in Budapest, Hungary, to the taxpayer. She gave him a brick and stone house at Istenhegyi ut 84, called the Uptown Property, located in the fashionable residential area on the right bank of the Danube. This building contained three apartments, of which two were rented and the third was occupied by the superintendent. She also gave the taxpayer her 50% interest in a three-story apartment house at Nagymezo utca 28, called the Downtown Property, located in downtown Budapest in the center of the city's theater and night club section. This building has six street-level stores and approximately 37 apartments, each with bathrooms and modern conveniences.

Mrs. Beke reserved for herself a "usufruct" in the Downtown Property, the right to receive its net income for her lifetime. She released the usufruct in mid-1948, and the gift of both properties was then recorded. Alvary, who resided in New York City, took possession by an agent who used the rental income for necessary repairs and for the payment of taxes.

On February 17, 1952 the Hungarian Communist government by formal Decree No. 4 nationalized a great deal of real property. Although no copy of the Decree was introduced in evidence, the testimony indicates that the Decree apparently covered all rental property and all houses owned by "former capitalists and enemies of the present regime." See Elek v. Commissioner, 30 T.C. 731, 732 (1958); Daniel v. Commissioner, 19 T.C. M. 1960-274 (1960), for translations of the 1952 nationalization decree. Under the Hungarian system of recording land titles, the history of each parcel of land appears on a separate page of the record book. The certified extract from the title pages for the Downtown Property shows that the title was taken by the Hungarian State under Decree No. 4 of 1952.

All the Uptown Property was also nationalized. It had recently been broken into two separate sections for recording purposes. One section of 800 square ols or fathoms shows the Hungarian State as owner under Decree No. 4. The extract from the other section, which is described as a house with court, garden, and forest, consisting of 833 square ols or fathoms, shows Lorenzo Alvary of New York as owner. Mr. Alvary testified that the whole Uptown Property had been expropriated. Furthermore, Decree No. 4 would apply to the Uptown Property for two separate reasons: it was used for rental and was owned by Mr. Alvary, a capitalist. It is possible that the extract from the land record did not reflect all the entries actually on the land record, or that the Hungarian Government failed to record their title. But the government's expert on Hungarian law testified that recordation is not a necessary prerequisite to the acquisition of title.

The taxpayer claimed a deduction on his federal income tax returns for the loss of these properties for which he received no compensation from the Hungarian Government. If property held for the production of income or in connection with a trade or business is confiscated without compensation, the owner is entitled to deduct the amount of his adjusted tax basis in the property. Internal Revenue Code of 1939, § 23(i). In determining the amount of a loss, a donee's unadjusted tax basis is the lower of the donor's basis or the fair market value at the time of the gift. Internal Revenue Code of 1939, § 113(a) (2). It is conceded here that the fair market value of these properties in 1947 and 1948 was less than the donor's basis. Therefore, in order to ascertain the deduction, if any, to which this taxpayer is entitled, it was necessary for the taxpayer to establish the fair market value of the Uptown and Downtown Properties in 1947 and 1948 when the gifts were made.

The taxpayer deducted the claimed loss from his 1952 federal income tax return, which deduction wiped out his 1952 taxes. The Commissioner did not dispute this deduction. Taxpayer sought to carry the unused portion of his loss back to 1951 and forward to 1953, 1954 and 1955, Internal Revenue Code of 1939, § 122, and the Commissioner denied the deductions. This suit is for a refund of $1,196.90 on account of 1951 income taxes and $1,455.68 (including $89.69 interest paid) on account of 1955 income taxes. Claims for 1953 and 1954 are pending in the Tax Court.

Although there was expert testimony on both sides that the confiscated buildings had some market value at the time of the gifts to the taxpayer, and no evidence that the properties were valueless, Judge Holland, giving credence to materials in the New York Public Library not cited by the parties, held "that the infiltration of communist ideology had so taken hold of the economy in Budapest, Hungary, both in 1947 and 1948 that there was no market value of the two properties in question." It was error for the trial judge to take judicial notice of text books that were not a part of the record. Although it is proper, and all too frequently necessary, for a judge to do independent research on questions of law, the value of these two pieces of real property and the status of Hungarian free trade in 1947-48 are questions of fact. On fact questions the court should not use the doctrine of judicial notice to go outside the record unless the facts are matters of common knowledge or are capable of certain verification. See, e. g., Brown v. Piper, 91 U.S. 37, 42, 23 L. Ed. 200 (1875); McCormick on Evidence, chapter 37 (1954).

Fair market value is defined by the regulations as "the price at which * * * property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell." Treasury Regs. 108, § 86.19(a); now Treas. Reg. § 25.2512-1. During an abnormal period, such as depression, war, or political turmoil, when there are few or no willing buyers, fair market value is, at best, an elusive concept. But the small number of willing buyers does not preclude a finding that property has some fair market value. There is a difference between value and liquidity; that no buyers are presently accessible does not make the fair market value zero. See Groff v. Smith, 34 F. Supp. 319 (D. Conn. 1940); First Seattle Dexter Horton National Bank v. Commissioner, 27 B.T.A. 1242, 1247 (1933), aff'd 77 F.2d 45 (9 Cir. 1935). In a time of emergency the value of property must be viewed in light of the existing situation. One can analogize the taxpayer's Hungarian building in 1947-48 to a structure which is located in the path of a fire. If no one knows of the danger, then the building will sell for a fair price. If people generally know of it, the price will decline as the blaze comes nearer and nearer because the chance that the building will escape damage decreases. There was expert testimony that the sweep of Communism in Hungary in 1947-48 had not yet materially reduced the value of real estate. Judge Holland disregarded this testimony and decided that by 1947-48 free trading had ended and there was no fair market value. A trial judge cannot arbitrarily disregard all the expert testimony in the record and rely upon his unsubstantiated personal beliefs instead of upon evidence. Cullers v. Commissioner, 237 F.2d 611 (8 Cir. 1956); Nachod & United States Signal Co. v. Helvering, 74 F.2d 164 (6 Cir. 1934); Pittsburgh Hotels Co. v. Commissioner, 43 F.2d 345 (3 Cir. 1930). The finding that the two parcels of real property here in question had no fair market value in 1947 and 1948 was clearly erroneous.

All the experts testified that subsequent to 1938 the Hungarian real estate market was in a state of constant flux, first because of the war and then because of the threat of Communist takeover. Therefore, they valued the property as of 1938 and then estimated the change in value from 1938 to 1947-48. In Lajtha v. Commissioner, 20 T.C.M. 1961-273 (1961), the Tax Court used 1938 values in valuing Hungarian realty in 1944 at the height of the Second World War. See also Daniel v. Commissioner, 19 T.C.M. 1960-274 (1960). Leslie E. Acsay, the taxpayer's expert, testified that although the volume of the real estate market after World War II was very small, the prices were firm for the good properties and it was a fair market. He further testified that in 1947 there was no political turmoil. He valued the Downtown Property at $120,000 during 1947 and the Uptown Property at $18,000 to $20,000 during 1947 and 1948.

The government's expert, Laszlo Miskolczy, agreed with Mr. Acsay that they were indeed valuable properties. Except for estimating that the Downtown Property was worth slightly less, Mr. Miskolczy also agreed with Mr. Acsay's valuations of the properties as of 1938. Although he did not make any attempt to value the two properties in 1947-48, he testified that in 1947 there was a good market in smaller properties like the Uptown Property and that he was not an expert in large properties like the Downtown Property. But Mr. Miskolczy then testified that because of the political situation, "in many cases" the 1946-48 selling price was not a true representation of the 1938 values, and that "only in exceptional cases, if an honest buyer would pay the honest price" could a seller get the 1938 value in 1947-48. He explained that the richer people who wanted to leave Hungary would sell their property to get some money for the trip "and sometimes they would not get the real value of the property." However, he explained that the expropriation of all industrial plants with more than 100 employees in March 1948 "was the first sign that here the Communists decided to take over the country." After that, he testified, people became "a little bit" fearful of buying and selling property, and this fear increased as 1952 approached. At the time of this initial expropriation the taxpayer had already received the gift of both properties and shortly after the expropriation his aunt's usufruct was released. Therefore, the fear generated by nationalization of the large industries could have had little effect on the value of the properties at the time of their receipt by the taxpayer.

The taxpayer's second expert, George S. Pinter, testified that the Hungarian real estate market did not begin to deteriorate until August 1948, although there had been fewer buyers between 1946 and 1948 than during the late 1930's. He estimated the value of the Downtown Property in 1947 at $130,000.

David Tobler, an international economist and analyst for the Chase Manhattan Bank, who testified for the government placed the Communist takeover of Hungary in May of 1947. Mr. Tobler's testimony must be viewed in light of the fact that he has been in the United States since 1921 and has not made a survey of economic conditions in Hungary since 1925. Moreover, he admitted that the United States had economic, political and diplomatic relations with Hungary during 1947 and 1948.

From all this expert testimony it is clear that in 1947-48 real estate values in Hungary had not yet begun to tumble in anticipation of Communist expropriation. Although in the Tax Court a taxpayer need only prove that a deficiency is erroneous, in a suit for a refund in the district court he must prove the amount of the error by showing what the value was. See, e. g., Burnet v. Houston, 283 U.S. 223, 51 S. Ct. 413, 75 L. Ed. 991 (1931); United States v. Anderson, 269 U.S. 422, 443, 46 S. Ct. 131, 70 L. Ed. 347 (1926); Taylor v. Commissioner, 70 F.2d 619, 620-621 (2 Cir. 1934), aff'd sub nom. Helvering v. Taylor, 293 U.S. 507, 55 S. Ct. 287, 79 L. Ed. 623 (1926); 10 Mertens, Federal Income Taxation § 58 A. 35. However, since fair market value is not susceptible to exact proof, "it is not necessary that the value arrived at by the trial court be a figure as to which there is specific testimony, if it is within the range of figures that may properly be deduced from the evidence." Anderson v. Commissioner, 250 F.2d 242, 249 (5 Cir. 1957), cert. denied, 356 U.S. 950, 78 S. Ct. 915, 2 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1958). Taxpayer's expert testimony on the properties' fair market value is as precise as one can expect in light of the inherent inexactness of the concept of fair market value and the remoteness of both the location of the property and the relevant date. In response, the government, conceding that the properties had some value, challenged the accuracy of the taxpayer's estimates, but did not offer any estimates of its own. Even were the court to accept the government's position that the value of the properties had declined, there is no evidence in the record on which to reach a specific lesser figure. If the government fails to offer its estimate of value in a situation in which it is able to do so and no other substantial evidence on which to base a lower valuation exists, the court may accept the taxpayer's figures.

The taxpayer in his brief offers to accept the lowest values testified to by the experts rather than submitting to the expense and vexation of another battle of experts. See Galt v. Commissioner, 216 F.2d 41, 51 (7 Cir. 1954), cert. denied, 348 U.S. 951, 75 S. Ct. 438, 99 L. Ed. 743 (1955); Kweskin v. Finkelstein, 223 F.2d 677, 679 (7 Cir. 1955). This court has the power under 28 U.S.C. § 2106 to affirm, modify, vacate, set aside, or reverse the judgment. See Kweskin v. Finkelstein, supra; Galt v. Commissioner, supra. Having rejected as clearly incredible in light of all the testimony the few suggestions that property in Hungary had no market value in 1947-48, we accept the lowest valuation testified to at the trial. Mr. Miskolczy, the government's witness, gave the lowest valuation of the Downtown Property, $106,500.2  The taxpayer's one-half interest amounts to $53,250. The lowest valuation of the Uptown Property, $18,000, was offered by the taxpayer's expert, Mr. Acsay.

A necessary prerequisite to carrying this loss back to 1951 and forward to 1955 is that it be "attributable to the operation of a trade or business regularly carried on by the taxpayer." Internal Revenue Code of 1939, § 122(d) (5).3  For several years prior to World War II, the taxpayer himself managed the Downtown Property for his aunt and her co-owner. When his aunt gave him her interests in the Downtown and Uptown Properties, Mr. Alvary took possession of them by his agent in Budapest, who thereafter collected the rents and used the income to pay taxes and make repairs, until the two properties were nationalized. In addition to these rental activities in Hungary, the taxpayer was a member of a partnership that owned for rental purposes three pieces of real property located in the United States.

The rental of real estate is a trade or business if the taxpayer-lessor engages in regular and continuous activity in relation to the property, Pinchot v. Commissioner, 113 F.2d 718, 719 (2 Cir. 1940); Gilford v. Commissioner, 201 F.2d 735, 736 (2 Cir. 1953); Grier v. United States, 120 F. Supp. 395 (D. Conn. 1954), aff'd per curiam, 218 F.2d 603 (2 Cir. 1955), even if the taxpayer rents only a single piece of real estate. Lagreide v. Commissioner, 23 T.C. 508, 512 (1954); Reiner v. United States, 222 F.2d 770 (7 Cir. 1955); Elek v. Commissioner, 30 T.C. 731 (1958); Schwarcz v. Commissioner, 24 T.C. 733, 739 (1955). Of course the owner may carry on these activities through an agent as well as personally. Pinchot v. Commissioner, supra; Gilford v. Commissioner, supra; Elek v. Commissioner, supra; Schwarcz v. Commissioner, supra, at 739; Lajtha v. Commissioner, 20 T.C.M. 1961-273 (1961); 5 Mertens, Federal Income Taxation, 1961 Cum.Supp. § 29.06, at 112-13. If the taxpayer, personally or through his agent, continuously operates the rental property without deviation from the planned use, the trade or business is sufficiently regular to satisfy the § 122(d) (5) requirement that it be "regularly carried on by the taxpayer." Lagreide v. Commissioner, supra, 23 T.C. at 512; Elek v. Commissioner, supra; Schwarcz v. Commissioner, supra, 24 T.C. at 739-740; Daniel v. Commissioner, 19 T.C.M. 1960-274 (1960). The taxpayer's rental activities in this case clearly satisfy these requirements.4 

Reversed and remanded with directions to deduct depreciation allocable to the period between taxpayer's acquisition of the property and its confiscation and to compute the amount of the refund in accordance with this opinion.

HAYS, Circuit Judge (concurring in the result).

I concur in the result on the ground that the lower court was required under the circumstances to accept the evidence submitted by the taxpayer.


Section 23. "In computing net income there shall be allowed as deductions: * * * (s) * * * For any taxable year beginning after December 31, 1939, the net operating loss deduction computed under section 122."

Section 122(a). "As used in this section, the term `net operating loss' means the excess of the deductions allowed by this chapter over the gross income, with the exceptions, additions, and limitations provided in subsection (d)."

(d) (5). "Deductions otherwise allowed by law not attributable to the operation of a trade or business regularly carried on by the taxpayer shall * * * be allowed only to the extent of the amount of the gross income not derived from such trade or business. * * * This paragraph shall not apply with respect to deductions allowable for losses sustained after December 31, 1950, in respect of property, if the losses arise from fire, storm, shipwreck, or other casualty, or from theft."


Although this estimate was as of 1938, the government has not shown the extent of the decline in real estate values, if any, between then and the date of the gifts to the taxpayer


Or that the loss arose from "fire, storm, shipwreck, or other casualty, or from theft." Internal Revenue Code of 1939, § 122(d) (5). However, the taxpayer does not contend that confiscation falls within the phrase "other casualty," and, indeed, previous decisions apparently preclude such a contention. See I.T. 4086, 1952-1 Cum.Bull. 29; Mayer v. United States, 115 F. Supp. 171, 174, 126 Ct. Cl. 1 (1953); Gurry v. Commissioner, 27 B.T.A. 1237 (1933); Formel v. Commissioner, 9 C.C.H.T.C.M. 782 (1950)


Elek v. Commissioner, 30 T.C. 731 (1958); Daniel v. Commissioner, 19 T.C.M. 1960-274 (1960); Lajtha v. Commissioner, 20 T.C.M. 1961-273 (1961), are other cases in which a net operating loss carryover has been allowed for the 1952 Hungarian nationalization of rental property

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 21, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later in the year, and again in 1989 and 1994.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.