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A virtuoso scarlet woman

Gloria Lane made an enduring Carmen, and at 80 she remains a colorful character away from the stage.

July 17, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

First there's the red mailbox, a startling splash of color amid the cool greenery at the foot of the road leading up to the Studio City home of opera singer Gloria Lane. Then there's the red front door -- opened by Lane, whose glamorous red lipstick matches her red shirt and shoes.

On a table in the two-story entryway sits a bowl of faux bell peppers: also red. In the living room, the eye roves to the red squares and triangles on the quilted pillows that Lane makes, to a red afghan, red vases, red carnations, a red Lucite heart.

And if you think you've seen red, enter the kitchen, where the shiny cabinet doors make the word seem inadequate. This is stop sign, candy apple, fire engine, scarlet letter -- the baked-on exterior of the little Corvette from the Prince song. "I love red," Lane points out unnecessarily. "I think the Chinese believe it is a very lucky color."

And what better color to decorate the home of a mezzo-soprano who was, in the words of her musical contemporary Beverly Sills, "one of the best Carmens I ever saw"?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Mezzo-soprano's daughter -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about singer Gloria Lane incorrectly said her daughter Magda was named for a character in Gian Carlo Menotti's opera "The Saint of Bleecker Street." Magda is named for the lead in Menotti's opera "The Consul."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 31, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Mezzo-soprano's daughter -- A July 17 article about singer Gloria Lane incorrectly said that her daughter Magda is named for a character in Gian Carlo Menotti's opera "The Saint of Bleecker Street." Magda is named for the lead in Menotti's opera "The Consul."

Lane, 80, hasn't sung the title role in "Carmen" in at least a quarter of a century -- although she did recently allow herself to be persuaded to sing an aria from Bizet's opera at an anniversary gathering for friends at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills. "I said, 'This is a restaurant!' " she recalls, laughing. "People stopped eating. People came rushing up to congratulate me."

In Studio City, probably no one at Louise's Trattoria, where Lane is a regular, would object if their favorite mezzo-soprano burst into song over lunch. The kitchen knows she likes the house salad, but with balsamic vinaigrette instead of house dressing, also skip the garbanzo beans and the green peppers -- although she likes the yellow ones and, not surprisingly, the red. "She's the best -- we love her not as a customer but one of our own," says manager Julio Figueroa. "When she doesn't come it's like, where is she?"

Because her career was mostly in Europe -- in such venues as England's Glyndebourne Opera House and Covent Garden, not to say a bullring in Seville, Spain -- Lane's name is perhaps less well-known than those of some of her contemporaries, including Sills, who once performed with her in "Aida" early in both of their careers. "Gloria had the dubious distinction of being the Amneris to my miscast appearance as Aida," Sills recalls. "It certainly gave proof to the oft-mentioned theory that Verdi should have called the opera 'Amneris.' "

But Lane, official diva of Louise's Trattoria, is a veteran of more than 500 "Carmen" performances, many at Milan's La Scala, where she earned ovations from opera-goers and jealousy from the wives of male co-stars and the occasional female singer ("Fedora Barbieri told people that when I sang Carmen, I didn't wear any underwear"). A San Francisco critic once described her Carmen as "very animal, very unscrupulous, but fascinating; her feline grace made her the most believable Carmen that our stage has ever seen." It was at La Scala that the "American Carmen" earned her diva stripes: She was nicknamed La Tempesta Primavera -- "the Spring Storm" -- "because I would get angry, and then I'd cry."

Performance from the past

EVEN so, unlike many divas in retirement, Lane made almost no recordings to remind her of past glories. So she was especially delighted recently to learn that her voice -- she is known as both a mezzo and a dramatic soprano -- has been meeting the public again in the form of a three-CD edition of Shostakovich's "Katerina Ismailova," a 1963 revision of his "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," taken from a live 1976 broadcast in Rome in which she sang the title role.

"I never knew that they had put it out -- it so happened that a friend of mine who is always looking on the Internet came upon it, and so he ordered it. I was amazed, I really was," Lane says. Aside from some bootleg recordings, the only other CD featuring Lane -- a compilation of works conducted by Leopold Stokowski that includes her 1963 performance in Falla's "El Amor Brujo" for the BBC -- was released in 1999.

She is unperturbed that she will receive no royalties from the new recording. "I couldn't care less as long as it's out, and as long as I can hear it, because I'd never heard it -- it was thrilling for me," she insists. "It's something that I'm very proud of, because it was extremely difficult, musically and vocally also."

One of the most difficult things, Lane says, was that the opera was in Russian. "I did it completely by ear, because I don't speak Russian. I did it all phonetically. And the best thing that happened was, after the first act, there were lots of Russians who came backstage and spoke to me in Russian -- they were sure I was Russian."

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