Adventures in the Scream Trade - Scenes from an operatic life
by Charles Long
Mountain Lake Press, Maryland, USA. 2012
Library of Congress Control Number 2012934322
192 pp. incl. Glossary
This is the autobiographical story of Charles - ‘Chuck’ to his friends - Long. He is a baritone whose name will not ring too many bells in Europe, or even among recorded opera enthusiasts. He had a significant career, performing alongside many famous names, mainly in the USA. A master of over forty roles, involving four languages, his story is different from many such biographies in several distinct ways. First he wrote it himself in an easily read and fluent style. Second, he does not restrict himself to the good times at the top, dropping names, listing venues and roles. Rather, he recounts the slog and hard graft of achieving his ambition of a notable operatic career alongside the agonies of getting on the ladder and living the dream whilst also counting the cost in terms of his personal life. The cost is not merely emotional, but also extends to the expense of lessons, travel back to a partner if a relationship is to be kept alive and the related loneliness and temptations of being constantly, or too long away, from home.
I have been an observer of the operatic scene for over sixty years. My own interest stemmed from seeing Gigli in one of his farewell concerts; only Sinatra did more, and the enchantment of the staging of Faust with UV lighting and responsive make-up. The flashing eyes of Mephisto really did. Over the years I have attended many singing competitions, conservatory showcasing of putative stars and come to know and follow the careers of several singers. I am often surprised at how many of the more successful ones are those who come to the profession from other directions than the conservatory and strict vocal schooling from the age of eighteen or so. Charles Long could be seen as one such. He was an accomplished musician thinking of a career as an oboist when he realised he had a voice. His dilemma as to the direction he might take was settled by a motor accident that ruined his front teeth, and consequently his embouchure; a career in singing was his inevitable alternative.
Long describes the agony of finding a good voice teacher in the world outside a vocal school. I should assure him and readers that many students in such institutions have the same trouble until they find a teacher who understands their vocal strengths, even voice type, and aspirations; the search sometimes takes half their undergraduate time. Long did eventually find such a person and made his way into the business via small-time musicals in his native city. His description of those experiences is hilarious. Fuelled by an excess of testosterone, and, by his own description, an elevated libido, he relates his surprise at the eagerness of the female half of the troupe for his attentions before realising this was not unrelated to the fact that two-thirds of the male dancers were gay. He found the gay fraternity lived up to their name. Later, his sadness and humanity is evidenced as friends came to be afflicted by AIDS. Despite his liberal views and personal compassion, like others, he did not deal well with the New York gay mafia that controlled important doors in that city (p.67).
The time came when Long moved to New York and made tentative steps into the real operatic world. As any young singer will recount, sometimes it is a case of one step forward and two back. This, again by his admission, was not helped by his bluntness and he made enemies in some American operatic quarters. He certainly found New York with its crime levels disturbing, but it was in the Big Apple that he made his greatest professional impact, with the New York City Opera. There he built up a significant roster of twelve roles in ten years. These were the basis of his career around America, meeting and singing with some of the greats of the profession. He doesn’t go in for name-dropping, but the likes of Shirley Verrett, Placido Domingo, Sam Ramey and Sherrill Milnes, the latter of the same voice type, do feature.
As well as a good voice and acting skills, breaking in to the circle of being a name in an opera company intendant’s mind requires a good manager - what we in the UK call an agent. Long landed up with a good dependable one who negotiated his appearances and fees. The latter came as ‘checks’, one of several Americanisms that the reader must get used to. Less desirable is his liberal use of the F word, in its various grammatical connotations, which he uses more frequently than desirable or necessary. It takes some getting used to.
With his career on an upward curve, and in a steady relationship that was to last nineteen years, he located away from living in crime-laden New York to Los Angeles. Just when his career and personal life were on an upward curve the first signs of disaster were to appear in the form of asthma. The Voice - capital V - is the disembodied description that every singer uses, Long included, to describe their instrument. In the book he spends a few pages (pp.33 et seq) on the relationship and its care. With seeming security at his feet, a national reputation, regular work, a stable relationship all in place this was where, in his early forties, things started to unwind for Charles Long and this after years of hardship. If the lungs cannot inflate and The Voice be positioned, or even produced, then danger signs abound. Despite regular extensive, and expensive, medical fees no answer was forthcoming for Long and his operatic career ground to a croaking and voiceless end with his having to cancel engagements.
Long hoped that his musical skills might have an outlet in teaching or conducting. The former seems to have induced more frustration than satisfaction, whilst breaking into the latter is difficult. With no other plan, his relationship unable to stand the strain, he has taken to wandering the diversity of his native land. He listens to plenty of music and still hopes for a break in opera conducting. Seemingly an optimist he concludes his book (p.185) with the statement “Life is full of opportunities for adventure. We only need to reach out and grab them.”
In the present day there is a dearth of singers of Charles Long’s physical stature and vocal strength for the great Italian baritone roles, particularly in Verdi. This state of affairs has become even more acute over the period since his enforced retirement. One can only regret that his premature departure deprived him and opera lovers of the benefit of many more of his stage performances.
This book can be gainfully read by opera-lovers and would-be singers alike. It is well written and contains much wisdom along with the anecdotes and stories. It is also available in audio form that can be sampled.
Robert J Farr
Can be gainfully read by opera-lovers and would-be singers alike. It is well written and contains much wisdom alongside anecdotes and stories.
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