Dear Mr. Rosen,
I am in the process of writing a memoir about my life as an opera singer. I studied for a while at Mansfield State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, and for a time studied violin under Harold Brown. The following is my account of that experience, which has not yet gone to my editor, so please forgive any mistakes or gafs:
I also continued my violin studies from my high school days, now with Mr. Harold Brown, who conducted and taught the MSTC orchestra. Mr. Brown was a violinist himself and given to spur-of-the-moment lectures that rambled on and on. (In that he reminded me of my father.) Other students either dismissed him or made fun of him. But I loved him. I felt a simpatico for him because we both had a passion for the arts, philosophy, and the venerable things in life. I loved the violin as well. He once told me that had my right elbow not been broken as a child, and if I had had the right teacher, and if I had dedicated myself, there’s no question in his mind that I would have been a violin virtuoso, perhaps world renowned, who knows? My hands, my fingers, my coordination, and my superb musicianship (he said) were absolutely perfect for the violin. [Both my sons are talented violinist, more credit to their mother than I, however.] Mr. Brown introduced me to Renaissance motet singing by means of a choral group he directed in NYC, called, “the Renaissance Chorus of NY.” Every weekend he would drive to NYC, a 6-hour trip in those days. Interstates 80 and 84 had yet to be built. He invited me to join him on these weekly excursions. I was more than happy to do so because I wanted to become involved in any way possible with the New York City musical scene. There is now a web site for the Renaissance Chorus with a long, detailed biography of Mr. Brown. His total background is amazing and impressive – the more so because I had no idea of it during the time I worked with him. The following excerpt speaks of his MSTC experience:
While teaching theory at The New York High School of Music and Art in the fifties, Harold developed a performance grade chorus from an after-school group of interested students. A midnight performance of Bach at Carnegie Hall (December 25, 1954) in direct opposition to his Principal¹s injunction, cost Harold his teaching job. Undaunted, the after school singing group followed their teacher to other rehearsal venues. Harold was subsequently hired as Associate Professor of Music (1957-61) at Mansfield State College, Pennsylvania, where he taught composition and orchestration and conducted the orchestra, making the long weekly commute to Manhattan to rehearse the chorus. Now, completely involved in music from the Renaissance, Harold cultivated in the singers the low vibrato and accurate pitch he felt the music demanded, and trained their voices exclusively for a cappella singing.That last sentence was a source of contention between us. He wanted no or low vibrato from his singers; I felt that approach to singing artificial and damaging to natural singing. We had many a serious discussion on the subject, but we never quarreled. That was not in Mr. Brown’s nature. I must say, after reading his entire web bio, I am humbled to have been so close to such a distinguished artist. I am in awe of his humility, that he never dropped names, nor used his background to impress me, or, as some people I have worked with have done, used their professional backgrounds to oppress me. The Renaissance Chorus sang almost exclusively Renaissance motet music. Frankly, I was of two minds about singing this music. On the one hand, it was beautiful, rich music, lovely to hear and lovely to sing. But it was difficult and I feared for my voice because I had to hold back and sing in line with the other singers. Sometimes I had to force myself to sing without vibrato. This went against all my operatic teaching and instincts for singing. Choral music has always been a vocal problem for me. I felt it stymied my voice. On the other hand, it was very interesting musically, stylistically, harmonically, and taught me about that period of musical history.
There were several memorable stories from those trips. The first was coming back in a severe snow storm. It was a Sunday night as usual. I had a psychology test the following morning with the dreaded Dr. Seibert, my psychology professor, so Mr. Brown was desperate to get me back for it. He did not want any criticism from the college administration about driving me into NYC on weekends. At one point he swerved to miss something (probably a deer) and the car spun out of control off the road. He had insisted, for safety’s sake, that I sit in the back seat. (This was before seat belts.) When the car started to swerve I grabbed both violins, his and mine, and slid with them to the floor, protecting them with my body. When we stopped, God certainly had spared us. Nobody was hurt, and the car was unscathed. It was in a ditch and we had to get it pulled out. He scolded me for thinking of the violins first, rather than of my own safety. That was Mr. Brown.
The trip back to Mansfield literally took all night because of the accident. The test was scheduled for 8:30 AM. We arrived in just time for the class. Mr. Brown gave me some pills to stay awake for the test. I remember feeling groggy and foggy for the test, but then unable to sleep for two days afterwards! I think I bombed the test, but somehow managed to pass the course. I probably wrote a good paper – that was my strong suit.
On another trip through a friend I had made in the Renaissance Chorus, I had asked him to get me tickets for the Metropolitan Opera as I had never seen an opera. I did not choose the opera – I chose the night that I could go. I told my friend, “I don’t care what the opera is. I just want to see an opera!” The opera turned out to be Wagner’s Tristan und Isolda of all things, rather a heavy opera for a first one! But as it happened Swedish Soprano, Birgit Nilsson, made her much heralded Metropolitan Opera debut that night, December 18, 1959. Of course all of that was lost on me at the time. I had a seat in one of the balconies where my view of the stage was partially blocked by a pillar. I found it very annoying. However, I noticed an empty seat in the first row, right on the railing. I kept watching to see if anyone would occupy it. When no one had by the end of the first act, I quickly made my way to that seat and sat down as if it were mine, neatly folding my coat in my lap. No one came to claim it, so I enjoyed the rest of the opera from this wonderful vantage point! I’ll never forget Nilsson’s soaring, trumpet-like voice soaring through the house. After the Liebestod at the end I thought I had died and gone to heaven with her! The ovation went on and on, but I had to get back to the apartment where I was a guest before they locked me out. The next performance, which I did not see but read about, was the night that it took three tenors to sing Tristan. All in all, it became one of those fabled happenings in the annals of Met history. And this was my first opera as an opera goer!
My association with the young people in Mr. Brown’s NYC chorus was an early introduction to NYC Jewish culture. My new friends all had names like Levin, or Moshe or David or Naomi. Hanging out with them seemed like coming home to me. I felt an immediate identification with them that has lasted the rest of my life. It was another impetus towards a life-long interest in and study of Judaism that continues to this day. The only other memory I have of those trips was listening to raconteur Jean Shepard on WABC Radio on the way back to Mansfield – to keep us awake.
Rev. Robert P. Mitchell, Pastor
St. Peter's Lutheran Church
100 Rock Street
Hughestown, PA 18640
Author of OPERA INSIDE OUT
143 Pocono Mountain Lake Estates
Bushkill, PA 18324-9005