Episode 41. Ira Siff: La Gran Scena and Beyond



Today’s episode is an interview I did with Ira Siff, artistic director of La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York, alter ego of the beloved “traumatic soprano” Vera Galupe-Borszkh, lecturer for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Weekly Commentator on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. My association with Ira and Gran Scena goes back more than thirty years, when he provided me with my first employment as a singer when my alter ego Daniela della Scarpone sang for two years with the renowned travesty opera company. I sat down with Ira in his East Village apartment last this past January for a wide-ranging interview in which we discuss his early days as a standee at the old Met (where some of his opera-going experiences included Maria Callas’s final Tosca performances, Renata Scotto’s 1965 debut as Madama Butterfly, and Leonie Rysanek’s wild traversals of Verdi and Wagner). He discusses his first performing experiences in the early 1970s in association with Al Carmines and others, the genesis of La Gran Scena and their development into a worldwide phenomenon, and his subsequent “legitimate” career as lecturer, stage director, vocal coach and voice teacher and commentator all stemmed from in his words, “getting in a dress and singing soprano,” which he dubs “the strangest part.” This is a free-wheeling and extremely Opera Queeny interview, peppered with Ira’s unique anecdotes and snippets from Gran Scena (and other!) performances. There is no better way to celebrate Gay Pride in isolation than to listen to this episode!

Ira Siff is a native New Yorker, who grew up on the standing room line of the old Metropolitan Opera, worshiping the famous singers of the 60’s.

A graduate of the Cooper Union, with a degree in Fine Arts, Mr. Siff began to study voice, and made his debut as a tenor in 1970. For the next decade, he performed roles in opera, operetta and musicals in the New York, at The New York Shakespeare Festival, Circle in the Square, Playwrights Horizons, and many other venues. Turning to cabaret, Ira created an act using vocal parody of opera, jazz, and other styles of music, gaining critical acclaim, and a loyal following.

In 1981, he founded La Gran Scena Opera Co. di New York, the internationally acclaimed travesty troupe, whose gifted falsetto “divas” have spoofed opera with great affection for over two decades, in New York annually, and on tours to some of the great festivals, theatres and opera houses of the world.

For the past thirty years, Mr. Siff has been a voice teacher and interpretive coach, teaching in New York, Italy, Israel, Holland and China, giving Master Classes for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and was on the faculty of the Renata Scotto Vocal Academy. Ira was a guest teacher of bel canto technique at The Royal Conservatory in Den Haag in 2008, and then at the Dutch National Opera Academy for five seasons, and at the Amsterdam Conservatory in The Netherlands where he returned annually, and was appointed Permanent Guest Teacher.

In 2000, he turned to stage directing, gaining critical acclaim for his productions of operas ranging from Tosca, Turandot, and La Fanciulla del West to Lakmé, Werther, and La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Sarasota Opera, The Caramoor Festival, and the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he directed productions of Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and Ariadne auf Naxos. All in all, he has directed operas for companies in New Jersey to New Zealand, with stops along the way in Puerto Rico, Lima, Peru and Utah. Singers whom he has directed include Sumi Jo, Dolora Zajick, Aprile Millo, Eglise Gutierrez, Krassimira Stoyanova, and the late Marcello Giordani. Conductors with whom he has collaborated as a stage director have included Richard Bonynge, Christoph von Dohnányi, and James Levine.

He has also given master classes in bel canto and verismo for the Metropolitan Opera Guild every season since 2008 and has presented sold-out lectures for the Met Guild as well on a variety of operatic topics. These lectures can be heard on the podcast of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Ira also lectures on opera twenty times a season for two private classes, has been a contributor of reviews and features to Opera News since 1997 and has been Weekly Commentator on the Met Broadcasts since 2007.

La Gran Scena Opera Company was conceived and launched in 1981 by its Artistic Director Ira Siff and performed extensively in New York and around the world for the next twenty years, including seasons and tours in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and The Kennedy Center and at some of the world’s most prestigious opera houses and festivals. In New York, the company’s performances at Town Hall, Symphony Space, and (finally in 1998 at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall) were enormously popular and earned them a legion of fans, including Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, James Levine, and Anna Moffo, among many others, whose appearances at live performances of the company were a thrill and delight for all who were in attendance.

The company wound down its activities with a New York Farewell in October 2001 and a week of performances at the Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona in November 2002, but the company’s prima donna, “traumatic soprano” Vera Galupe-Borzkh, (as embodied by Ira Siff), continued to alternately present comeback performances and annual farewell recitals until 2009, when Ira and Madame Vera finally bid farewell to the stage for real. Fortunately, for the joy and amusement of opera lovers everywhere, many of the performances of Vera and other favorite company members, including Philene Wannelle, Sylvia Bills, Fodor Szedan, Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi, and the legendary 105-year-old diva Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola, under the various batons of the company’s various music directors, including Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni, Sergio Zawa, Helmut Maria Dorf, and Lorenzo Costellata-Denaro are available for viewing on Madame Vera’s YouTube channel as well as on DVD’s published by VAI, including the delicious biographical show, Vera: Life of a Diva and The Annual Farewell Recital.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 40. Sisters in Sappho [Queer Pride I]



The first of my two Queer Pride episodes is devoted to a group of pioneering lesbians in the 1970s and beyond, in both classical and pop music. Two iconic mezzo-sopranos whose careers began in the 1960s and extended through the 1990s are the Greek-American Tatiana Troyanos and Brigitte Fassbaender, daughter of the German baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender. I explore the similarities and differences in the repertoire and career paths of these two unique artists, and share examples of them singing repertoire from Handel to Weill, Scarlatti to Penderecki, with particular focus on Fassbaender’s Lieder performances and Troyanos’s work in bel canto. Then I turn to key figures in the Women’s Music Movement of the 1970s, including Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam, Holly Near, and Deidre McCalla, while also paying tribute to those who, in turn, paved the way for them, including Janis Ian, Dusty Springfield, and Ronnie Gilbert. We also acknowledge the work of queer African American singers, including Deidre McCalla, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Toshi Reagon. We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to these extraordinary artists, who created a world of possibility for their musical and artistic descendants, at the same time setting standards that will stand the test of time. Vocal guest stars include Janet Baker, Ileana Cotrubas, Margaret Price, Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Arleen Augér, Cecilia Gasdia, and Reri Grist.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 39. Pathos à la Cotrubas



Several weeks ago I began a series on particular vocal and artistic qualities that I find most important in a singer’s artistic profile. I had already done episodes on Charm and Glamour. Then the BLM protests intervened and I felt impelled to respond with two episodes examining Protest in Music. Today I resume my previous series with that all-important artistic trait Pathos. And who better exemplifies Pathos than the great Romanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas, who celebrated her 81st birthday this past week? Cotrubas was a deeply expressive and communicative artist who gained heights and plumbed depths that (in my estimation) no other artist of her generation was able to achieve. In this episode, I examine the earliest projects that brought her to international prominence, including the Glyndebourne production of Cavalli’s La Calisto, in which she sang the title role. I devote ample time to her traversals of Mozart operas, including her surprising (and surprisingly effective) assumption of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Pausing briefly to acknowledge her work in the French repertoire and the bel canto soubrette parts, I then turn to her two greatest assumptions, Mimì in La bohème and Violetta in La Traviata. In relation to these I offer excerpts from live performances with Carlos Kleiber and Bruno Bartoletti. I conclude with a discussion of how her vocal flaws revealed her humanity in a way that an artist with a more perfect voice and technique might not have achieved, while never compromising musical values. The episode begins with a brief tribute to another singer of a different stripe who also exemplified Pathos: Judy Garland, who celebrated her 99th birthday this past week, and the 51st anniversary of whose death we commemorate next week.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 38. Something in the Air



This week I continue our exploration of the movement for social justice as expressed in song. This constitutes not just the fight in the United States for racial and class equity but also the worldwide struggle against imperialism, focusing in particular on African and South American singing freedom fighters, including Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour, Letta Mbulu, Mercedes Sosa, Milton Nascimento, and Víctor Jara. Other artists heard include Marvin Gaye, Leontyne Price, Nanci Griffith, Frederica von Stade, Nina Simone, David Crosby, Pete Seeger, Marin Mazzie, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jefferson Airplane, Sam Cooke, Joséphine Baker, Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman, Thunderclap Newman (whose song lends the episode its title), Harry Belafonte, Dawn Upshaw, Phil Ochs, Rosemary Clooney, Curtis Mayfield, and Mahalia Jackson, as well as number of present-day troubadors. Composers represented include Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington, John Adams, Silvio Rodríguez, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Stephen Foster, Violeta Parra, Flaherty and Ahrens, Ary Barroso, and Caiphus Semenya. I address the spectrum of emotions that persons of conscience are experiencing right now, including despair, rage, anger, struggle, ending with faith, hope, and resolve. Don’t miss this episode!

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glory and the power of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 37. No More Slavery Chains



I woke up this morning intending to produce an episode on French Glamour. Because I had been keeping my head in the sand over the past several days, I was not aware how the situation in Minneapolis had escalated since the last time I had checked in. I quickly realized that I could not in good conscience proceed as if this catastrophe wasn’t happening. On the other hand, I defer to those on the front lines to speak of their own experience and truth. I offer solidarity with those who rage and mourn, and a program of protest songs ranging over the course of the early twentieth century to the present day. We hear from a wide range of singers, from Donny Hathaway, Micki Grant, Pete Seeger, Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, to Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Paul Robeson, and Marlene Dietrich. If you don’t want to hear a political program, for goddess’s sake, keep away, but if you do want to be infuriated, engaged, and uplifted, please listen in.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glories of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 36. Glamour



The Oxford English Dictionary defines “glamour” as “magic; enchantment; spell” and “a magical or fictitious beauty attaching to any person or object; a delusive or alluring charm.” Further down in the entry are “charm; attractiveness; physical allure,” certainly the definition we most closely associate with the term. And yet, it’s fascinating to examine the concept of glamour from its spellbinding origins. In the first of my episodes on Glamour, I examine many singers both from the spell-binding sense of the term and the sense of vocal and personal allure. Among others, I examine such varied singers as Alice Faye, Eleanor Steber, Annie Lennox, Carol Neblett, Betty Carter, Diahann Carroll, Teresa Żylis-Gara, Liane Augustin, Dorothy Kirsten, Florence Quartararo, Hana Janků, Helen Traubel, Hilde Güden, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, Lisa Kirk, Lotte Lehmann, Anna Moffo, Maria Nemeth, Montserrat Caballé, Rosa Ponselle, Zarah Leander, and The Incomparable Hildegarde with an eye to what makes their work glamourous in all senses of the term. And the gentlemen are by no means excluded: I spend particular time on the seductive and dulcet tenor tones of Fritz Wunderlich, José Carreras, Karl Friedrich, and Miguel Fleta.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glories of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 35. Charm: A Second Helping



Last week we had such an overflowing of vocal, artistic, and personal charm that I was compelled to produce a second episode on the subject with a fresh batch of charmers. We begin the episode with a tribute to Gabriel Bacquier, the iconic French (bass-)baritone who died this past week just four days short of his 96th birthday. I feature him in three rare selections that represent him in repertoire which is a far cry from his operatic roles. I then resume the survey of charm as demonstrated by artists as varied as Conchita Supervia, Joséphine Baker, Hilde Güden, Ella Fitzgerald, Yvonne Printemps, John McCormack, Lois Marshall, Charles Trenet, Lucrezia Bori, Lily Pons, Hermann Prey, Dusolina Giannini, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Julie Andrews, Julius Patzak, Maria Kurenko, Judith Blegen, Danny Kaye, Marta Eggerth, Elisabeth Schumann, Fritzi Massary, Maxine Sullivan, Magda Kalmár, Ella Logan, Dorothy Warenskjold, Aksel Schiøtz, Erich Kunz, and Lucia Popp. Repertoire ranges from operetta (including Franz Lehár in three different languages), folk song arrangements, musicals, art song, pop music, and children’s songs. Amazingly, opera is nowhere to be seen in this episode, but that will certainly change in the next week, when we take up consideration of Charm’s cousin, Glamour.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glories of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 34. Charm (Artistic Heartbeat I)



I have planned a series on five different artistic traits that guide a singer through their artistic journey. The designations are my own, and as such, purely idiosyncratic. Charm is defined as “the power or quality of giving delight or arousing admiration.” In this episode, we examine singers of many genres singing music from many lands. Featured artists include Bidú Sayão, Carlos Gardel, Mary Martin, Régine Crespin, Richard Lewis, Victoria de los Angeles, Eileen Farrell, Ezio Pinza, Patachou, Judy Holliday, Hugues Cuenod, Elisabeth Welch, Ninon Vallin, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Jorma Hynninen, Susannah McCorkle, Barbara Cook, Ninon Vallin, Teresa Berganza, Yvette Guilbert, and many others. Because there is so much charm and enchantment in the world, the episode threatened to stretch to an untenable length, I will present additional examples of Charm in the next episode. I also pay tribute to the Lebanese-American mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias, who died a week ago at the age of 90.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glories of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 33. Florence Quivar (Mezzo Madness IV)



Today I am thrilled and proud to present the superlative American mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar in a selection from her 1990 recording of spirituals. I am not the only person out there who thinks that her work here represents the pinnacle in the performance of African American spirituals as well as a high point in her singing career. I also feature live recordings of the artist in recital and in opera. And just when you least expect it, a certain gay icon pops in to offer some relevant and valuable musical commentary. Also included are brief tributes to two artists: the pop singer India Adams, who died on 25 April at the age of 93 and who provided the ghost voice for iconic performances by Cyd Charisse and Joan Crawford; and the Greek soprano Jeannette Pilou, who left an indelible mark in the 1970s with her performances around the globe of French opera in particular, and who died on 28 April at the age of 83.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glories of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.


Episode 32. Fedora Barbieri (Mezzo Madness III)



The Italian mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri (1920-2003) was never a great favorite of mine. That is, until I recently came across her rare 1953 recording entitled Fedora Barbieri Sings Old Italian Songs and Airs, accompanied by Dick Marzollo, an assistant of Toscanini’s and one of the principal coaches at the Met in the 1950s. Though possessed of an extraordinary voice, Barbieri’s vocal problems prevented her from making her full mark in much of the dramatic mezzo-soprano repertoire in which her compatriot and arch-rival Giulietta Simionato excelled. However, in this recording of songs by Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Paisiello, Cherubini, Scarlatti, and others, recorded in New York for the Vox label, Barbieri reveals herself as that true rara avis, a classicist with guts. The episode also includes recordings from either end of Barbieri’s five-decade-long career and begins with a tribute to the great American jugendlich dramatisch Sopran Arlene Saunders, who died last week at the age of 89.

Countermelody is a podcast devoted to the glories of the human voice raised in song. Singer and vocal aficionado Daniel Gundlach explores great classical and opera singers of the past and present with the help of guests from the classical music field: singers, conductors, composers, coaches, agents, and voice teachers. Daniel’s lifetime in music as a professional countertenor, pianist, vocal coach, voice teacher, and journalist yields an exciting array of anecdotes, impressions, and “inside stories.” At Countermelody’s core is the interaction between singers of all stripes, their instruments, and the connection they make to the words they sing. Please visit the Countermelody website (www.countermelodypodcast.com) for additional content. And please head to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/countermelody to pledge your monthly support at whatever level you can afford.