VIII. My First Season at the Lyric Opera

There were three weeks between the last performance of the 1968 American Ballet Theatre season and the first rehearsal of the Lyric Opera. The first opera of the season was Salome, and I knew that much of my future depended on how well I played the cello part, so I devoted every waking moment either to practicing the part or listening to the opera. I actually “notched” every passage on the metronome until my fingers could play everything without any participation from my brain.

Leonard Rose once told me that no one can absolutely guarantee success in any given performance, but there are many things that one can do to put the odds in one’s favor. Since I believe that there is no excuse for a bad solo, constant practicing was my way of putting the odds in my favor.

At my first Lyric Opera rehearsal I met Lois Bickel Colburn, a cellist in her late 60s or early 70s. She had been my predecessor Shirley Tabachnick’s teacher, and had four former students in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. She gave the Chicago premiere of the Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata, and was a member of the first string quartet to perform all the Bartók quartets in the American Midwest.

She must have viewed me with a certain disdain and suspicion when I arrogantly announced that I would play the Tosca solo better than anybody had in the history of Chicago. I did eventually win her over when Tosca came up early in the season, but she told me not to break my arm patting myself on the back. This was only one of her many tangy phrases. She said about one of our conductors, “What he knows about music you can put in your eye and see better.” About the cello section, minus the two of us, she offered the comment, “They add up to a big round zero without the rim.” Years later when Bruno Bartoletti conducted the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s El Amour Brujo, her response was “Jesus wept.” Whenever it looked like I might get myself into trouble, she advised, “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat.”

She had emphysema, caused by a lifetime of smoking, and had shoulder problems. Since the best defense is a good offense, she had something bad to say about everybody, and she did it in grand style. She would call the younger players “junior geniuses,” and some of the older colleagues who talked too much were “IN-sufferable!” When Joe Saunders, my stand partner, asked her to listen to him play and criticize it, she said there was a lot to criticize. I’m sure that once was enough for Joe. On the other hand, she really liked me, and encouraged me to play as loud as I could and let them know what I could do, but also encouraged me to go back and study with Leonard Rose because he was “Mister Big.” There wasn’t anything exceptionally dramatic about our friendship, but we shared our time together every day in a spirit of love and appreciation, and I treasure the memory of my time with her.

Lois was good friends with the great American luthier Carl Becker and his son Carl Jr., so she took me to their shop so they could meet me and have a look at my cello. Carl Jr. told me that this cello could never project more than five feet away, and I would do very well to commission a new cello from him. I played the cello solo in Verdi’s Masked Ball about a month after this visit with the Beckers, and Carl Becker, Jr. greeted me at the stage door to tell me how beautiful my cello solo was. I asked him where he was sitting, and he said in the top balcony. I mentioned the fact that this was a good long city block from the pit, and reminded him that he had told me the cello wouldn’t project more than five feet, to which he replied, “Life is full of surprises.”

Pinchas Steinberg, our concertmaster, was an unforgettable character. Pinky was only twenty-three years old when I arrived. After studying with Heifetz and Gingold, he held the position of principal second violin of the Cincinnati Symphony before he came to the Lyric. He was born in Israel, and could speak at least five languages fluently, which came in very handy over the years since so few of our conductors (many of whom were French, German, or Italian) spoke English well enough to communicate everything they wanted to.

Pinky’s greatest aspiration was to conduct, and he proved heroic during a performance of Don Giovanni. Our conductor, Ferdinand Leitner, was overcome by the noxious fumes emanating from the stage when Don Giovanni descended to hell. Pinky immediately leaped to the podium and conducted the final scene of the opera perfectly from memory. In 1970 when Christoph von Dohnányi failed to appear for the first rehearsal of Der Rosenkavelier, Pinky was able to conduct the entire first rehearsal without any problem. It was perhaps this experience that hastened his departure from the Lyric Opera after only three years. He left us to study conducting with Herbert von Karajan, and made his debut with the RIAS Symphony in 1974. His career as a conductor is impressive, and he regularly appears in the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls in the world.

Christoph von Dohnányi, the grandson (and student) of the Hungarian composer Erno Dohnányi, made his American debut with the Lyric Opera in 1969 with the Flying Dutchman. He returned for consecutive seasons conducting Salome, Rosenkavalier, Masked Ball, and Cosi fan tutti.

Bruno Bartoletti was the Lyric Opera’s music director and principal conductor. He was born in Florence in 1926, and studied flute and piano at the Florence Conservatory. He made his conducting debut with a performance of Rigoletto at the Teatro Comunale in Florence, and over the years introduced many important contemporary works to the Italian stage, like Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo, Kreneck’s Jonny Spielt Auf, and Shostakovich’s The Nose. He first came to the Lyric Opera in 1956, and became the principal conductor in 1964.

His conducting technique was nonexistent, but his ability to make an orchestra sound great was undeniable. I spent more than 38 years with him at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and this never changed. I found it fascinating that he was able to conduct amazing performances of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth without any kind of technique. His rehearsal method was to constantly drill the motivic material, asking for the highest degree of rhythmic precision and emotional commitment, and he would often start at an extremely slow tempo and work the material up to speed. This kind of rehearsing was possible in the late 1960s and early 1970s, because the Lyric Opera contract gave him excessive amounts of rehearsal time every week. Nothing of the sort could ever be done in the 21st century.

Antonino Votto had been Toscanini’s assistant at the first performance of Turandot, and he conducted it by memory when he came to the Lyric. Once, when I played a wrong but plausible note in a solo, he commented, “Well, that’s another opinion.” He was a wonderful man and totally non-dogmatic. Argeo Quadri was another great conductor, and his 1969 and 1970 performances of Madama Butterfly were amazingly beautiful. Only Daniele Gatti came close to equaling his interpretation.

In 1968 Placido Domingo made his Lyric Opera debut in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. His Manon was Renata Tebaldi, the most famous soprano of the golden age of opera, rivaled only by Maria Callas. Domingo went on to become one of the greatest tenors of the later 20th century, rivaled only by Luciano Pavarotti. The dress rehearsal was stunning, but the performance never took place. Renata Tebaldi contracted the Asian flu and was too sick to sing, so she canceled the entire run. This was the only time in the history of the Lyric Opera that a performance was canceled. Carol Fox substituted Don Pasquale until a new soprano could be found. I found it absolutely astonishing that anyone could be too sick to perform, until I got the Asian flu. That was about as sick as I’ve ever been.

June didn’t come with me to Chicago, and I found myself very depressed and lonely when I wasn’t working. I called Bob Gardner every Sunday, and he gave me good advice about how to handle the job and the depressing aspects of loneliness. Fortunately June got a job in the opera orchestra for the next season, and we were together during the opera seasons from then on.

Carol Fox, the person who hired me as the principal cellist of the Lyric Opera, and hired June as a member of the violin section, invited me to lunch at the Tower Club when I was in Chicago with the American Ballet Theatre in 1969. I mentioned that I had a friend who was a conductor. She replied, “Everybody has a friend who’s a conductor.” I said, “However, not everybody’s friend who’s a conductor is George Szell’s assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra and knows 30 operas by memory.” In dismissing my comment out of hand, she missed the opportunity to engage James Levine at the beginning of his career.

After a few years as principal cellist of the Lyric Opera, I felt richly entitled to a raise. When I explained to Miss Fox that I was definitely worth more money than I was making, her reply was, “Danny, I don’t think I can find a better principal cellist than you, but I have a dollar amount in my head for how much I will pay my principal cellist, and if you go one penny over that, I will do less well.” I responded by saying, “There are two things that I know. I know that you know how much you can pay me, and I know that you are fair.” She gave me a $100-per-week raise, which was a lot in 1971.