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Nora London: An Aria For George

October 11, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

The libraries are full of books about famous singers, many of them written, more or less, by famous singers. Most of them are very boring.

They tend to recount and embellish successes.

You know--"After my devastating conquest of Vienna and Liverpool, I sang Carmen in Buenos Aires, and the audience loved me so much it wouldn't let me leave until I sang Brunnhilde's 'Immolation' for an encore. Then the fans, bless them, met me at the stage door and carried me through the streets on their shoulders. Later, they named a delicious dessert after me. I hated to leave, but I had to sing Aida in Ethiopia at the special invitation of the King, who happened to worship me blah blah blah . . . . "

Star biographies tend, by the converse token, to fluff over failures. They ignore problems and shortcomings. They steadfastly avoid analysis and introspection. They put a smile on everything. They confuse puffery with truth, anecdotal gossip with enlightenment.

Most disappointing, perhaps, they tend to hide character definition behind tired cliches and vapid stereotypes.

"Aria for George" (E. P. Dutton: 244 pp., $19.95) isn't like that.

In the first place, George London--the George of the title--was hardly a garden-variety hero. An imposing singer, a brilliant actor and a stubborn idealist, he was too intelligent, too thoughtful, too resourceful to fit the usual operatic mold.

In the second place, his life was far too dramatic, ultimately too tragic, to accommodate the customary narrative trivia.

In the third place, the author of this poignant literary portrait is too close to the subject to offer dispassionate generalities.

"Aria for George" wasn't cranked out by some well-meaning admirer in biographer's clothing. The book was written, in abiding affection and in pain, by Nora London, George London's widow.

London's career began in Los Angeles, where he grew up and received his basic vocal training. His modest debut--as the fleeting Doctor in a Hollywood Bowl "Traviata" in 1941--led rather quickly to genuine triumphs in Vienna and Bayreuth, at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala in Milan and even the Bolshoi.

It was in Moscow that he made national history--bringing coals to Newcastle, as it were--as Boris Godunov.

In 1967, a crippling throat ailment brought his stage activities to a sad end. Virtually undaunted, London turned his attention to arts management, to lecturing, to teaching and to stage direction. Then, while on a trip to Germany, he suffered a heart attack that left him unable to move and unable to speak.

Day and night for seven years, until his death in 1985, Nora London tended heroically to her husband. She refused to place him in a hospital. She refused to abandon him to the care of others.

With simplicity and candor, "Aria for George" chronicles the ascent and the decline of a fine artist. The book paints a fascinating, candid portrait from a domestic perspective.

This is, above all, a good, clear-headed, unsentimental love story.

"Writing the book," Nora London says over lunch during a Los Angeles visit, "was wonderful on some days and terrible on others. I couldn't face it every day.

"It was wonderful to be able to relive the good times, to reread George's letters, to sift through all his memorabilia. He was a hopeless collector, and he never threw anything away.

"In a way, I hoped the book might be some sort of catharsis for me, a way of getting over things. But it wasn't that. I can't get over.

"My motives were simple. I feel George led an extraordinary life. The full story had never been told. It was particularly important to me to recount how he lost his voice, and how marvelously he coped with that.

"He never once complained. He always had hope. He never thought negative. That helped me later.

"He was incredibly honest, sometimes to a fault. In spite of the tragedy, he still got in life what he wanted. That is why, all in all, I think he had a good life.

"I would have preferred him to die, if he had to, when he had the first attack. He was the last person on earth who would want to be dependent on anyone. But. . . . "

The voice trails off.

She brushes aside any suggestion that her devotion exceeded the norm.

"No one should think that I took care of him because I had to. No one should feel sorry for me. I wanted to take care of him. I wanted to see him, to touch him, to be able to be close to him. I never regretted that decision.

"The doctors and our children said he should be placed in an institution. If he had been, I still would have visited him, day and night. The last nurse he had had been rough with him. I couldn't watch that happen."

Nora London appreciated the cruel irony of her husband's condition. This well-read, remarkably articulate, overwhelmingly successful artist was first deprived of his singingvoice, then deprived of the ability to speak at all.

She did not give in. She insisted on stimulating his mind. She played records for him, preferably his own. One day, a strange thing happened.

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