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Opera Rhapsodist James McCourt Talks With the Legendary Victoria de Los Angeles, Who Is Celebrating Her 50th Year Onstage : Duet With a Diva

November 06, 1994|JAMES MCCOURT | James McCourt is the author of "Kaye Wayfaring in 'Avenged , ' " "Time Remaining" and "Mawrdew Cvgowchwz," the saga of the ultimate opera diva . He is working on a biography of Victoria de los Angeles for Knopf.

Victoria de los Angeles has changed. The dark diva with the gloriously soulful eyes, whose image illuminated the closing ceremony of the 1992 Olympics, has just turned 71. The city of Barcelona turned out in force to celebrate De los Angeles' 50th year on stage, one of the longest careers in the history of opera. In 1944, she made her professional debut at the Palau de la Musica, where, last May, the crowds covered her with carnations and swathed the stage in bouquets when she finished her recital. She is one of the most beloved of opera stars, the last surviving working diva of the golden age of the first LPs, the fabulous '50s, when technology was content to record the truth of voices without resort to electronic enhancement.

Filling a schedule of engagements that would break singers half her age, De los Angeles refuses to slow down. After giving master classes at a university in Santander, Spain, this summer, she took off for a series of recitals in Japan. But there have been few histrionics in this ornate career: no sensationally rich husbands, no wild temper tantrums (well, there was just that one fracas during a recording session of "Carmen"). She is not that kind of diva, hers is not that kind of life. She has always been discreet, the darling of European music. Perhaps having now achieved legendary status, she feels comfortable scoring the world of opera and some of the creatures that inhabit it.

For example:

The morning Barcelona's great opera house, the Liceo, was gutted by fire, Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe--nowadays as famous for blatant media gestures as she once was for engorged tone, hyper-attenuated phrasing, relentless pianissimi and eccentric professional demeanor--arrived with a television crew, stood in the smoking rubble and sang "The Song of the Birds," the most popular of all Catalan folk songs and the very one with which Victoria de los Angeles had closed the 1992 Olympics. Reached for comment, De los Angeles snipped to the Times of London, " 'The Song of the Birds.' Well, there lies the poor dead thing, and already the vultures are beginning to circle overhead." Since then, Victoria repeatedly, as if she were learning a new song, expresses the hope that the new Liceo should be a theater "without cabals."

And as for Sir Rudolf Bing, the former director of New York's Metropolitan Opera House, more on him later.

SANTANDER, A DOUBLE CRESCENT BAY RINGED WITH MOUNTAINS IN CANTABRIA, in northern Spain, is a sort of Laguna Beach with tamarind trees instead of palms, made popular as a royal summer resort for Victoria Eugenia, a granddaughter of England's queen, and featuring a palace called the Magdalena--a kind of San Simeon crossed with Balmoral--out on a promontory. There, in the main auditorium in what were once the palace stables, the De los Angeles master classes ran for a week, from 4 in the afternoon till 10 in the evening. It was for me a week of strange, masochistic nostalgia, sitting in an auditorium listening to work being done on the students' chosen roles--the same roles Victoria had defined for a generation in the '50s: Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme," the title role in Massenet's "Manon," Marguerite in Gounod's "Faust" and the Countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." Hearing in her demonstrations the identical tonality and coloration I'd experienced as a high school sophomore (to mistake the De los Angeles voice for another has never been possible: you either know exactly who that is or you have no idea) was more than a bit disconcerting. So it was good to sit up again, late into the evening, talking about opera, and much else, over supper.

"This must be strange for you as an American," one of the university functionaries politely said to me, "eating at this hour?"

"Not really--not for a New Yorker who grew up going to the theater, the opera and Carnegie Hall and then to restaurants afterward. Then too, Victoria and I have always had what I call this pastrami relationship."

"What kind of relationship?"

"A pastrami relationship--based on late-night performance post-mortems and delicatessen. We'd go out and get sandwiches and bring them back to Victoria's hotel suite and--pastrami, you see, is--"

"Pastrami is wonderful," Victoria declared.

"Who was it, Victoria," I asked, "who first introduced you to pastrami? It wasn't any of us; it must have been (impresario Sol) Hurok."

"But what is this pastrami?" the functionary persisted. "Where does the name come from?"

"Nobody knows where the name comes from, but Jewish people--and by extension musical and theatrical New Yorkers--get very nostalgic around it. I had a friend who always joked, 'Goldie, was that before or after Papa invented pastrami?' "

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