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Kurt Baum: Ending On A High Note

OLD ACQUAINTANCE: Another in an occasional series in which beloved stars of an earlier age reflect on the musical past--and present.

February 22, 1987|WALTER PRICE

"Managers always told the conductors, 'Don't fool around with Baum, he's a boxer.'

"You wouldn't know it from looking at me now, but I had a great body, huge biceps. I did a 'Belle Helene' for Max Reinhardt in Berlin in 1929 where I was practically naked. Almost everything was hanging out."

Kurt Baum, one of the leading dramatic tenors of the 1940s and '50s, uncharacteristically began to serenade the interviewer with the lilting music of the Entrance of Paris from Offenbach's opera-bouffe .

Indeed, one would not imagine the frail, bent body to have been a member of Max Schmeling's Sports Club in Cologne, a talented amateur boxer, swimmer and high diver ("like that marvelous Louganis boy"). He says in a soft, almost inaudible voice, "Two years from now I'll be 90."

Although he is occasionally vague on dates and places, he warms to the interview as reminisences pour out. Even if he is blind in one of them, the eyes are a marvelous clear blue and he has the courtly manner of a European artist of the old school.

Born in Cologne to a well-to-do Jewish family, Baum does not want to talk about the early German days. He lost almost everyone to Hitler. The memories are painful.

Sensing the horrors soon to envelop Germany, he moved his base of operations to Prague in 1933, where he was a member of both the National Theatre and the German Opera and soon became a favorite.

Baum's voice was powerful, beautifully equalized throughout its range, almost baritonal at the bottom, and a touch monochromatic. Never much of an actor, he was thought of as "reliable"--in the best sense of the word. In these days, when light-voiced tenors think nothing of taking on Radames and Don Jose, managers would kill or at least kidnap for a voice likes his to serve the heavy repertory.

"I had the high notes from the beginning and I never once transposed a piece of music," he states proudly. Those high notes became the tenor's biggest stock in trade.

Few who heard them will forget the ease and authority with which he tossed off Manrico's high Cs in "Il Trovatore." He stares in blank amazement when told that almost all tenors today take the aria down.

Like the lady reproved for wearing diamonds in the morning who retorted, "You wear 'em if you've got 'em," Baum was never shy about showing off that effortless top. In a prized letter he received from Richard Strauss, he was given permission to interpolate a high D-flat in the Italian Tenor's aria from "Rosenkavalier."

Along with the permission, he received one admonition from the composer: "Do not overdo the high note as you sometimes do."

During the Prague days, Baum met colleagues he would be with throughout his career. On a visit Edward Johnson asked him to keep an eye on a young American mezzo, Rise Stevens, who had arrived in 1936.

"She didn't need anybody to look out for her," the tenor says warmly. "She was quite capable of looking out for herself, and, of course, she had her future husband, Walter Surovy. What a wonderful girl, what a wonderful couple!"

Stevens would be his Carmen and Dalila for many performances to come in America.

"Sometimes she would get mad at me when I did something idiotic, like walking to the footlights and taking a bow after the Flower Song. But she always forgave me," he says with a smile. "She was a lovely colleague."

Another lady in those days who would provide some rough times in the future for the tenor was Zinka Milanov.

"I saved her skin once, you know," he says matter-of-factly. "I walked into a rehearsal and she was having a fight with the conductor because she kept making the same boo-boos. The management wanted to let her go, cancel the contract. I said to them that she had a most beautiful voice, that she would learn, that they should keep her, and they did."

Anecdotes and gossip that would reach legendary proportions in the operatic world centered around Milanov's relationships with her colleagues and most especially with Baum. The tenor is a gentleman, however, and words on the subject have to be pulled out of him.

Was it true that once before he was to sing " Ah, si ben mio " in "Trovatore," the soprano whispered to him, "You'll never make it, Baum"?

"Yes, she said something like that. I don't remember the exact words," he muses.

"Zinka is basically a nice person, but she was always doing something or other. In Newark I remember she wanted my dressing room, and her husband forgot I was a boxer." He refuses to elaborate on that enigmatic statement.

"I can't tell you everything, you know. By the way, do they pay for this interview?"

(No, they don't.)

By 1939 Czechoslovakia was doomed with the Nazi approach and Baum and other Jews were in danger. The opera house Intendant , Dr. Eger, personally bought him a train ticket and told him to get out before it was too late. Baum did just that, fleeing first to Switzerland, then to Paris and Monte Carlo, where he had no trouble finding engagements.

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