A Catskill Catalog: Sept. 1, 2010

On first glance, opera might seem, I don’t know, a bit unusual for the Catskills. Somehow, not down-home, a bit highbrow, too civilized, at home in the Berkshires, maybe, but the Catskills? Yet, Phoenicia’s “Festival of the Voice” was a rousing success, three days in August celebrating the art of singing, held in church sanctuaries, playhouse and park.

Actually, there’s a bit of an opera tradition in our mountains. In 1922, Amelita Galli-Curci, one of the world’s most celebrated sopranos, and her second husband and concert accompanist, pianist Homer Samuels, purchased land on Belleayre Mountain, above the summer resort-village of Fleischmanns, where they built a great estate, Sul Monte, “On the Mountain” in her native Italian.
For the next 15 years, Madame Galli-Curci spent the warmer months of the year at the estate, until it was sold in 1937. Her presence there drew such interest, so many pestering fans, that she had to have a high fence built around the property to gain any peace.

Her popularity rode the crest of a new technology: a 1916 recording contract with Victor records. Her recording of Giuseppe Verdi’s aria, “Caro Nome” from “Rigoletto,” sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies. Think Lady Gaga, 1917 style.

Perhaps, it was regional pride, cultural curiosity, or downright neighborliness that allowed Amelita Galli-Curci to become such an icon for the people on the west slope of the Catskills. When I moved to the mountains, my Margaretville friends boasted of three famed summer residents: Jazz photographer Art Kane, New York City lawyer Joe Brill, and Madame Galli-Curci. Yet, she hadn’t been around for over 30 years!

Of course, the movie theater on Main Street, Margaretville, was named for her. Built by pioneering entrepreneur Clarke Sanford in 1922, the brick building housed Sanford Chevrolet in the west-end showroom, with the theater in back. Upstairs was the Catskill Mountain News.

Ever the shrewd businessman, Sanford offered to name the theater after Madame Galli-Curci if she sang there opening night. She agreed, closing the concert with her famed rendition of “Home, Sweet Home.” You can hear a Victor recording of her singing that old-time, sentimental standard on You Tube. Just search under her name.

My longtime neighbor, the late Bob Russell, was 16 when the theater opened. I wonder if he attended the concert? I wonder if Madame Galli-Curci sold him, at that impressionable age, on opera? All I know is that Bob listened to the opera every Saturday, often the volume turned up high, so the voices carried through the windows to the neighbors next door. He also grew Swiss chard and potatoes in the big back garden, worked for years in the Roxbury creamery and, later, as a custodian in the school, and caught five or six fat trout every darn time it rained. Not our common picture of the opera buff.

So, maybe none of us should be surprised that several hundred enthusiastic people sat in lawn chairs and on blankets in Phoenicia’s Parish Field one August Saturday evening to hear a concert performance of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Or that a crowd, said to be even bigger, greeted coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral at the same venue the evening before. She sang arias, including the “Caro Nome” that Galli-Curci recorded over 90 years earlier. She also sang from the American tradition of Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and Leonard Bernstien.

Elizabeth Futral, like Amelita Galli-Curci before her, is a colortura soprano, “a female voice with an ‘upper extension’ of high notes and a light quality or color which allows the voice to be capable of rapid and highly ornamented passages.” Such voices, I’m told, are rare. And treasured.

Amelita Galli was born in 1882 to an upper-middle class family in Milan, Italy. She was very well educated, mostly at home with tutors, mastering, by age 21, five languages and the piano. By 1905, she was teaching piano when composer, Pietro Mascagni, noticed the “unique timbre” of her voice, and she began to sing, largely training herself. In 1908, she married an Italian nobleman, the Marchese Luigi Curci. She toured Europe and South America, coming to the United States in 1916 to make a wildly popular and acclaimed American debut with the Chicago Opera. She divorced her husband in 1920.

Maria Todaro, Louis Otey, and Kerry Henderson are three accomplished opera singers who, like Galli-Curci, maintain residences in the Catskills. They are the founding directors of the Phoenicia “Festival of the Voice,” slated to become an annual event. “Falstaff” seemed a perfect opera for an outdoor mountain performance, as the big baritone voices of Otey and Henderson, playing romantic rivals, sparred in the open air. Steven White, who has conducted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducted. Roger Cantrell, on the piano, provided all the musical accompaniment. This festival was truly about the voice.

One voice ripped the roof off the Phoenicia Methodist Church earlier that day. Rozz Morehead has appeared in Broadway shows, on TV, and made numerous recordings. Perhaps, though, her work as music director at All Souls Community Church in Nanuet, most informed her “Festival of the Voice” performance. Hers was a Gospel music concert, and while most in the audience, probably, came for the art of that traditional African-American musical genre, Rozz Morehead gave them the spirit. The place jumped.
© William Birns