Friday, November 7, 2008

A Voice From the Past

Each year, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents four operas in a festival setting. In 1995, the highlight of the season was a production of Puccini’s Tosca.

I’ve had season tickets to Opera Theatre with my friend L and others since the mid-1980’s but I had never seen Tosca before. I didn’t know the story but I knew that I loved Puccini’s music. As usual I didn’t read the synopsis before the lights went down – I like to be surprised by the storyline. And what a storyline Tosca turned out to have.

I'll try to briefly summarize the plot.

Tosca is an opera singer and she is in love with a painter named Cavaradossi. Tosca, in turn, is the obsession of Scarpia - a powerful man. Scarpia arrests Cavarodossi on trumped-up charges for which Cavarodossi is to be executed. Following time-honored tradition, Scarpia offers to trade Cavaradossi’s life for sex with Tosca. He tells Tosca that he will arrange for a mock execution in which Cavaradossi will appear to die but in reality will live. Scarpia has papers that will allow Tosca and Cavarodossi to flee the country together. Tosca agrees but at the last minute instead stabs Scarpia to death and takes the papers. In the meantime Scarpia has double crossed Tosca by arranging for Cavaradossi to actually be executed by the firing squad. Tosca, believing the execution to be a fake, watches. It is only after it is over that she realizes her lover is dead. As the police show up to arrest her for the murder of Scarpia she flings herself off the battlements of the castle, committing suicide.

I know. It sounds depressing. But it is mesmerizing. And timeless.

As a reviewer wrote:
Anyone who thinks that there's anything new about the phenomenon of public figures hiding their profane desires under a blanket of bogus piety needs to take a look at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of Puccini's 1900 political melodrama Tosca. The villain of the opera, Baron Scarpia, is a classic example of how morality and respect for order can become a false front for lust, violence, and falsehood. Scarpia also provides us one of the great moments of Italian opera in the final scene of Act I as he plots the seduction and betrayal of Tosca while the crowd celebrates High Mass. It's a spectacular scene, and one of the best examples of dramatic irony you'll ever see.
Yes, it is a great story with soaring music. And the 1995 production also offered a young tenor in the role of Cavaradossi who was, literally, breathtaking.

As another reviewer wrote, he was:
extremely good-looking, and on Saturday night he was in great voice as Cavaradossi. His good looks -- and the fact that he seemed younger than Tosca -- made her jealousy all the more credible.
Yes, I can attest. He was extremely good looking. And his voice was perfect. He might have been the most perfect young tenor I’ve ever seen at Opera Theatre.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an Opera News review of the same tenor in another production of Tosca (no link, sorry):
After Cavaradossi was dragged onstage shirtless in Act II of Piedmont Opera's opening-night Tosca … [he] drew himself up to full stature with arms outspread and elicited gasps from women in the audience. After he sang "Vittoria!" and was being dragged off-stage, he won an ovation.
Shirtless? In my production he had his shirt on but it was ripped down the front. And did I mention, he could really sing?

My friend L and I went back and saw it a second time. I had never gone to an opera production twice in one season ever before. I’ve only done it two times since.

For years L and I talked about that production. We assumed we’d see the young tenor again. Opera Theatre serves as a training ground for young singers and a successful singer is often invited back until he or she becomes “too big” for us. When he didn’t come back I think we assumed he had become “too big” for Opera Theatre.

Eventually we realized that Google had been invented and we racked our brains to remember his name so we could Google him. But Google turned up … nothing. There were some reviews of his performances at Opera Theatre and earlier but nothing else. He had totally disappeared.

Until last summer.

I was at home reading a book when the phone rang. It was L.

Me: "Hello?"
L: "Is your TV on?”
Me: "L? Is that you?"
L: "Yeah, yeah. Is your tv on?"
Me: "Uh, no, but I can turn it on if you want."
L: "Do it."
Me: "What am I supposed to be watching?"
L: "America’s Got Talent. HURRY."

I'm now frantically pushing buttons on the remote, looking for the right station.

L: "Is that him? Is it? Is it?"
Me: "Who? What are you talking about?"
L: "His name was Donald Braswell, wasn’t it? Is that him?"
Me: "Who?"

I was totally confused.

L: "The guy from Tosca. The one who disappeared. YOU KNOW"
And suddenly there he was on television. 11 years older, telling his story. In 1995 (the same year that we had seen him) he was performing with the Welsh National Opera when he was involved in a terrible bicycling accident that had severely damaged the soft tissue of his throat. Not only could he no longer sing, the doctors thought he would never speak again. And yet he had worked through it and … here he was competing on America’s Got Talent.

Me: "Oh my God, it's him. It's him!"
L: "Yes!!!"
He’s still handsome. And he’s singing again, although the soaring sounds of a full length Puccini opera are probably beyond him at this point. He didn’t win the contest, but he came in fourth and was a crowd favorite.

Every ten years or so Opera Theatre has a gala and singers return. I hope they invite him to return to the next gala.

I wish there was a youtube to show how he sang when he was younger, before the accident. But (so far) there are none. So here he is as he is now.