Thank You, Maestro

I met Maestro Anthony Frisell in 2000, shortly after I’d moved to New York City to pursue a career as an opera singer, when a well-meaning friend and colleague in the music business brought me to the famed voice teacher’s studio for a lesson. Maestro told me the absolute truth about my voice that day, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. I also thought the old dude was distracted, ornery, and kinda crazy. I ran.

Fourteen years later, long after exchanging my dreams of singing at Lincoln Center for a job as a high school teacher on the Lower East Side, I woke up from an after-school nap with a strange and overwhelming desire to contact him. I dug a pre-iPhone address book out of my closet and called the number I’d written down at the turn of the millennium, wondering, as I did, if he’d still be alive. Maestro answered immediately and in his youthful voice said, “Pleased to meet you, Darren. You must have read one of my books. Why don’t you come in for a lesson?”

I did. His studio was exactly the same: elegant stained-glass lamps, gray, egg-carton soundproofing from the carpeted floor to the dropped Styrofoam ceiling, faded studies of Italian masters in ornate gold-painted frames. But Maestro was different. This time he didn’t seem so ornery and distracted. Now in his late eighties, he looked younger than when we’d first met. The thick, gray pompadour I remembered was dyed a pleasant chestnut brown, and he’d gained a few pounds around the middle.

After I sang for him, he gave the same critique of my technique he’d given me before. “You’ve got too much chest voice all over your range! It’s not your fault. It’s a disease that started in the ’80s, this chest-dominant attitude toward the voice.” Then, excitedly, he began to explain how he planned to teach me. “What we’ve got to do is to get you to trust that the falsetto is stronger than all that solidity you feel!” As he spoke more and more animatedly about teaching what he termed “the mixed voice,” I had the impression that if I were to have screwed a lightbulb into his mouth, it would have lit up with the charge of a thousand lumens. Then he asked me, “Are you ready to start?”

I was.

We started with a ghostly, windy ‘oo’ vowel (u), always favoring the highest, lightest part of the sound. We sang like that for months, beginning in the upper-middle range on sustained notes. “Choose the tone that seems covered in sackcloth,” he said. “It will always save you if you go to it with nothing.”

After some time, he gave me the sounds ooohaweoh on one note, below and around the break between the registers. He made especially sure that I sang the awe sound (ɒ) well. He said that bad training or wrong ideas can change the resonance tract and that it is this unique awe sound (as in the words paw, hawk, talk and caught) that erases these changes. “We’re stripping the resonance tract down and reformatting it,” he said, “bringing falsetto dominance to the entire range, especially the middle.”

Although I’d studied with many big-shot teachers-du-jour on the New York operatic scene, none had managed to elucidate the idea of the “head voice.” Indeed, “falsetto-dominance,” as a technical approach, was nothing new. The practice dates back to the days of Nourrit, a French tenor and librettist in the 1820s. However, there was something novel in the way that Maestro managed to convey this technical concept. He gave it—and each interrelated component of vocal technique—a unique characterization. His technique personified the qualities of tone.

After a few months of “ghostly oo’s,” we learned to stab the oo vowel with a strong ee vowel. “It’s almost sexual,” said Maestro. “You’ve got to know just when to thread the ee into the oo. When you know how to do that, then you can really wail.” He explained, “The ee is the ‘thinning’ vowel. It scrapes down the difference between registers. You sing thin, but it doesn’t sound thin. It feels thin on the inside. On the outside, it sounds like Mario Del Monaco!” It took me a while to understand that the key to a “big” sound was to sing like a boy soprano.

We never sang ascending scales, remaining forever on sustained notes just below the passaggio, the break between the chest and head registers. At times I wanted to give up, but I could feel there was a transformation taking place. After Maestro and I had spent over a year on these basic vowels and phonemes, I confided to a mentor of mine, “How can it be that I’m still learning to sing after all this time?” I had just received my first major “salary bump” from the Department of Education and finally had some extra money I would have been wise to save. I realized I could have bought a house upstate with all the money I’d spent on voice lessons over the years, yet there I was, doing it again.

“Don’t quit before the miracle,” my friend advised, when I informed her that, yet again, I was about to give up. It was then that I noticed a pattern: every time I’d get frustrated to the point of abandoning my studies, I’d have a technical breakthrough.

After a while, Maestro introduced the vowel sequence ooeeehohawe, always sung on the same note without a breath, all over the range, never ascending. He’d pause after a low sequence to give his opinions of Trump or Obama—subjects I most certainly didn’t want to hear about—and tell me stories about his long life, often the same stories, over and over: how he’d inherited his rent-controlled apartment from Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, who, Maestro claimed, had been roommates there; how he’d become a medic in the Navy; or how he’d been visited by a “white light” one evening that taught him everything he knew about singing. On those occasions, I reaffirmed my intention to accept everything he said as new, even when I’d already heard it. I reasoned that if I wanted to make the best use of his teaching—to really absorb ideas that were entirely novel and therefore unfamiliar—I had to listen with equal attention to all his words, not just the ones I preferred.

This was, of course, a challenge. Just when I’d reach an almost visceral level of annoyance with Maestro’s political rants (“Your students inherited that fear from their grandparents who weren’t brave enough to stand up to their government!”), out of the blue he’d play a high note and shout, “oo-ee-eh-oh-awe, GO!” and my body would leap into alignment, engaging instinctually to support the tone. I was always surprised at the ease and strength of those notes. It took everything in me to stay in line with the tone, but I could sustain them forever. My voice was getting stronger. “You can’t teach anyone anything,” said Maestro. “You create the muscles to do it, and then the student says, ‘aha!’”

“Will my body get looser as I learn your technique?” I asked.

“No,” answered Maestro. “It’ll get tighter.” Sometimes I’d let out what seemed to me to be a “wild” tone, a kind of yodel or yelp. Immediately I’d attempt to temper it by muscling it into an acceptable sound, but he’d wave off my efforts to tame the note. “Let it wiggle around in there. Where’s it gonna go?” Never once did my throat feel tired after our lessons (which would sometimes last three hours), but my body always did. “Go home and don’t sing for a day,” he’d say. “Let those notes park themselves. They’ll remember.” I’d trudge home from his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen to Brooklyn or Queens or wherever I was living at the time, weary, perplexed—sometimes even angry. Yet, on my way down the harsh streets of midtown Manhattan, it seemed that anyone whose eyes happened to meet mine instantly smiled. It was as if Maestro’s presence had a half-life that granted me the temporary charisma of a minor celebrity. I’d return the next week, and after I sang a note or two, he’d exclaim, “It remembered! Isn’t it nice when it meets you in the street and says hello? The voice will get so it answers all your questions.”

He never allowed me to sing an open ah vowel (a). “Americans have ruined the Italian ah!” he complained. “They’re the ones who made PavarOtti into PavarAHti.’” He said that, for most English speakers, the “open” Italian ah emerges only after all the other vowels. “After the oo learns to be feeble, the ee has scraped down the breaks and the oh (ɔ) and awe (ɒ) have muzzled the chest, the ah is waiting in the wings.”

When I had learned to crescendo an oh vowel into an awe, he gave me sustained, descending awe sounds from above the passaggio on down. He also gave me the syllables uhd (ʌd) and ugh (ʌɠ) sung loudly, and only once, all over the range. These strange phonemes he prescribed like a doctor. “Take a few of these and call me in the morning!” If I ever got locked or tight during his instruction, he’d play a note on the piano and shout, “Sing a lyric uhd!” This uhd sound, sung loudly but with a ringy mix of head and chest, was not only tension-releasing but diagnostic. After it, he’d say, “Good. Now all the notes below middle C are hollow! You’re singing like a ventriloquist in your middle range. It’s hollowed out down there, but it doesn’t sound hollow because what it lost in solidity it gained in color.” After almost two years, when I could do this consistently, he said, “We’re almost ready to begin to put this into your repertoire. The key to all your roles will be knowing when to use oo and when to use awe.”

On Maestro’s piano, in a conspicuous location between several mountains of fraying scores, sat a portrait-sized picture frame. Under its dusty glass were the words Recording of Lessons Is Strictly Prohibited, printed in an early Mac font. This was new to me. Every major teacher in New York allowed students to record their lessons. I have perhaps several hundred hours of lessons recorded on mini disc, the cheapest and highest-fidelity pre-iPhone technology available to my era of aspiring opera singers—although I can’t remember the last time I listened to any of them. Of course, I pined to record just a few of my sessions with Maestro, but an almost superstitious caution kept me from disobeying his missive. Maestro insisted on an intense quality of attention and awareness from his students, so I imagined the motivation for this prohibition was that he wanted his students to be truly present, devoid of even the presumption that we could somehow “tune in” later to what we had missed.

As it turns out, his intent was less pedagogical than practical. During the time Maestro lived in Rome, where he had led a successful career as leading tenor and vocal coach, he learned that one of his students had been recording his lessons and selling them in Sicily. He was irate even as he related the story to me, recalling having discovered the betrayal while vacationing on the island. But taking notes was fine with him, and thus I have this record of his words.

Sometimes I’d ask him, “How should I practice at home?”

He’d avoid the question. “Well, if you could get so the head voice grabbed instead of the chest, you could practice. You’ve got to learn to grab the veil, not the thing itself. In one third of your voice, you should put no substance at all, only timbre.” I gleaned that he’d rather have me vocalizing in the studio than undoing his hard work by practicing with my old habits.

Finally, we sang some music—not arias, only songs. “Now we can start doing songs and see how the registers mix,” he said. He’d point to one of about ten dogeared copies of Arie Antiche Italiane on the piano, and I’d choose a song. We sang them in a style more like Cherubini or Mascagni than Handel or Caccini.

It was not until the end of the second year that we sang phrases from operas. I was amazed at how the style seemed to be born of the technique, not the other way around. For every famous phrase (“Come queste parole profumate,” or “De non cessar, de non cessare…”) there were little tricks: portamenti, vowel modifications, aspirated h’s and interjected ahs to loosen the voice. And there were almost imperceptible catch breaths everywhere! At first, these “tricks” seemed like crutches—I had been trained to sing pure vowels and honor the notated phrases exactly—but then I listened with fresh ears to singers old and new and noticed that they all employed such “tricks.”

Maestro remembered every role, every word, every note, every “trick” in the repertoire with encyclopedic precision. Indeed, he had coached Golden Age singers like Sandor Konya, David Poleri and Flaviano Labó in these voice-releasing aids, combing through their repertoire of leading tenor roles again and again. He was a scrappy but effective accompanist as I sang. With his left hand, he would strum a dramatic octave drone to approximate the harmony while his right hand plucked away flat-fingeredly at the melody. In the first few years I studied with him, he could demonstrate anything he’d instruct. If he told me to sing a high B flat or C natural, he’d do it himself. The small man would manage the grandest sounds with a posture and affect I can only describe as quiescent: chest relaxed, head straight, arms at his side.

Sometimes I doubted the veracity of his connection to these artists of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but just as I reached the height of incredulity, irrefutable proof would emerge in the form of an autographed score or picture, like one he treasured from the great tenor Flaviano Labó, who wrote expressing sincere, almost reverent praise for Maestro’s teaching and friendship. Another intimate note was from Louis Danto, the prolific cantor, who was a long-time student. Along with Maestro’s old AGMA card, some reviews of the racy novels he’d published (Maestro was a prolific novelist) and some other precious memorabilia, Maestro preserved two very special photos in an old cardboard box. They were black-and-white originals, somewhat frayed around the edges, of Richard Tucker and Mario del Monaco posing with the young Anthony before performances. In his youth, Maestro had served as stage director for such famed singers as Victoria De Los Angeles, Dorothy Kirstin, Leonard Warren, and Zinka Milanov when they toured America’s regional opera houses during the Met’s off-season, and Tucker and Del Monaco were frequent guest artists at the theater in Maestro’s native New Orleans. In one of the photos, Maestro is gazing at Del Monaco in admiration. In another, Richard Tucker is looking at Maestro in a similar fashion, the great singer’s esteem for the young Anthony plain to see.

Such revelations abounded in my early years in his studio, usually just as I had recommenced my habit of doubting. For instance, Maestro was always talking about his friend, a younger Greek man who, he said, had been a long-term companion—but I never saw him, so I assumed Maestro was making him up! He’d motion to certain things around the apartment and say, “M’s always leaving that around.” I would think, Sure he did. But one day, like most of Maestro’s seemingly spurious pronouncements, M materialized. “Oh, you’re Darren,” he said. “Finally, we meet.” The two spoke to each other exclusively in Greek, which Maestro had learned in Athens, where he kept a winter apartment. “You should see it! It’s a palace. Absolutely gorgeous.” He spoke the language as fluently as his erudite Italian, which, he told me, he had “evolved” over many years from the Sicilian dialect of his illiterate, immigrant parents, who worked through the Great Depression in a New Orleans sugar factory. During his final months, Maestro would speak often of his mother and father, sometimes crying, lamenting that he had been so ashamed of them. “Their job was to take brown sugar and make it white,” he said, his voice reverting to that of a little boy. “I wish I had appreciated them more.”

After I’d studied with him for about a year and a half, Maestro introduced ascending triads to our warm-ups. Over and over, we practiced thirds to the octave on oh-oh-oh-AH, finally attempting the Italian ah on the top a. However, every time we began this exercise, he cautioned, “Never ascend ah-ah-ah-OH (aaa)! This is how they’re ruining singing—carrying the chest up to the top!” He went on, “Once you’ve muzzled the chest voice, the head voice learns to grab what little chest it needs.” Cryptically, he’d add, “The energy is transferred up and over the fulcrum, like two kids on a seesaw. The registers fit together like locks in the Panama Canal!”

The only other ascending exercise he gave me was the Great Scale. He’d play an F major scale quickly and say, “Sing ah!” (a) If all the notes were mixed, he’d be pleased. If not, we’d go back to oo, awe (ɒ) or ee descending. “Don’t you see?” he asked. “When you go up, you sing in a line. When I go up, I curve around. You have to learn to tilt your voice to climb the ladder!” He decried many established ideas of style and technique: “They have ruined the idea of legato! It’s not chaining one note to the other, it’s leaving every note behind when it’s done. You give up the singing you’re doing while you’re on the note!”

I’d try and fail, try and succeed. He was always encouraging and would go from one exercise to another until I got the “mixed voice” back. “Your launchpad is overdone. Your attitude is all ‘shoot!’ ‘Fire!’ We need to strengthen your RECEPTORS,” he’d shout. “There are muscles that go up and muscles that go down. You’ve got to make the little muscles in the head strong. They’re almost imaginary, they’re so small.” When I returned to his studio after a particularly exacting lesson the week before, he’d remember exactly what we’d done the previous lesson and it was clear he had been thinking of the next step. “How does it feel?” he’d ask. “You can tell you’re winning when you’re not singing. The voice feels higher and lower and hollower when you talk. Now look what I’ve cooked up for you this time…”

There were days when he’d come to the door disheveled, his thick white hair shaped by lying on his pillow, giving him the appearance of a mad scientist. Other times he’d come to the door spruced up. “I see it in your face. You think I look like my son!” When he’d get his hair cut and dyed, he’d change drastically. “I’m a Scorpio like you,” he’d say. “We rise like the Phoenix again and again.” Maestro had learned astrology from his illiterate Sicilian nonnas, whose knowledge of the planets’ unique personalities, interactions, and attributes came exclusively from the island’s oral tradition, and he’d published a book on it, Astrology and Sexual Compatibility, that used to be available in many New Age bookshops. “When I clean myself up, I stop cars in the street—even at this age!” Maestro managed this perpetual Scorpionic metamorphosis until around the fall of 2018, just after he’d moved to the nursing home where he would spend his last days. There, he found it harder to maintain his appearance; but even in that decrepit facility in the Rockaways, he could charm all the patients and nurses with that mystical, energetic gathering, that charismatic brightening of himself from the inside. On his good days, he might be found wheeling around the grounds at the head of a gang of toothless male and female convalescents.

Right up to the end, he could summon the aura, if not the appearance, of his youthful figure in those old black-and-white photos in the cardboard box on 45th Street. His companion M and I rescued the box just before all of Maestro’s belongings—lamps, paintings, piano—were carted away to the dump when he moved permanently to the nursing home. I am perhaps the sole custodian of Maestro’s manuscripts, about thirty in all. There are novels, singing manuals, astrology books, and scores for the two operas he wrote, Dorian Gray and Rasputin. I’m presently working on a way to ensure their preservation via the New York Public Library and The Library of Congress.

In our first few years of study, Maestro could still demonstrate any phrase in key. He loved “Celeste Aida,” “O paradiso,” and the beginning of “Che gelida manina.” He could always belt out incredible high Cs to demonstrate the final product. “See? It’s like the Blue Mosque—you can’t see the top until you’re in it. You’re up there, and THEN you go! The voice threatens you that it has to come with something, but it doesn’t! People say the high voice is an extension. It’s not! It’s going out into the atmosphere… It’s nothing until you dare! You can’t take anything with you, not even a handkerchief.”

There were so many strange aspects of his missives that have taken years to understand, but, as with his stories and anecdotes, there’s always a payoff, even if it comes much later. Once he gave me the exercise yee-yee-yee on one note, all over the range, never ascending and rarely in succession. “You’re learning the ‘lift-up-and-back!’” He’d smile ghoulishly and demonstrate, “Look! The cheeks go up so high they close the eyes!”

I asked him, “Should I loosen the jaw?”

“NO!” he shouted, “You TIGHTEN the lower jaw so the upper jaw can be loose!”

“That’s so strange,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It is strange. It’s a strangeness that’s been lost. You could be right there in front of it and never know it. There’s so much wrongness out there, how could you know you’re right?”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get it,” I’d confide.

“It’s not your fault no one ever taught you this. These days they only want to teach the ones who can do it already.”

Maestro had so many things to say about capitalism and socialism that I could write a book. “The corporate state has taken everything,” he lamented. “It was thwarted in the ’40s, but it rebounded. The only power we have left now is the power of not spending money.” He admonished his students for working at their day jobs and then blowing their savings on “sunny vacations.” “There’s no such thing as rest,” he said. “It’s a mad march to the end!”

Perhaps it was then that I realized he was sometimes desperate for cash. He had two small studio apartments he rented separately that were connected by way of a slightly misshapen, interpolated doorway. One was rent controlled, the other rent stabilized. He kept his rent receipts and budget out where everyone could see them, perhaps so that he, himself, could keep track. I marveled at how he’d kept afloat all those years, living hand to mouth, walking to the bank to pay everything in cash with the help of one trusted Chase teller he’d known for decades. In one of the rooms, the toilet was off the kitchen, which bled into a cozy bedroom painted in a multi-colored, pastel palette. The living room/studio had a tiny half-bath. When I’d excuse myself to the bathroom he’d say, “If you’ve got something serious to do, use the other one.”

During our third (and final) year, Maestro used the previous vowels and sounds we’d mastered doing descending exercises and incorporated them into ascending exercises and arpeggios. He’d give me 1-3-5-8 on an ee vowel: “Lift up and above! Always sing thin! You’ll thin all that out, but it won’t sound thin.” He also gave me 1-3-5-8-5-3-1 on oh (ɔ), awe (ɒ), and finally, the elusive ah (a): “When you catch on to the high ee, the Italian ah is watching. Let it observe. You can’t do it all at once. Little by little is how the voice learns.”

Then we’d go back to uhd and ugh, sung as both ascending arpeggios and descending scales: “Hollow the middle! Muzzle the chest! Sing en sourdine!” We also sang open eh and ih vowels (ɛ and ɪ). He’d tell me to sing a high falsetto eh as loud as I could, then breathe and sing the word egg lyrically, in full voice.

We sang the words it and id in descending three-note groups, all over the range, following a mysterious logic having to do with where the registers overlapped. Once I came in and there were initials written in dark ink on the ivory keys of his grand piano. “Look, I’ve marked all my students’ registers,” he beamed. “Everyone is different!” He had so many students then, always one before and one after me, and he had pet nicknames for all of them (I never learned mine). “Oh, the Burgermeister came right before you,” he’d say. “He’s improved a lot over the years.” It was true! I finally heard the sixty-year-old student to whom he referred, a long-time fixture in his studio who worked as a lawyer and accountant, when I came early one day. I was amazed at his gorgeous, strong, free sound! “You should have heard him twenty years ago,” said Maestro. “He got it late.” Another student buzzed before the end of my lesson, and Maestro sighed, “That must be our Boulevardier, fresh from dancing for coin on the streets. If he’d say no to a few jobs, he’d learn how to get rid of all that chest voice.”

We’d sing loud, sustained falsetto ee and eh vowels (i and ɛ,) then return to full-voiced ee and ah (i and a) in descending scales and ascending arpeggios: “This will strengthen the falsetto so it can sustain all the power of the full voice.” After all these exercises he’d give me messa di voce to see if I could swell and diminuendo the notes in my mid-range and above the passaggio. “You can start the note and swell it to forte now. Good. When you can bring it back down to nothing, we’ll know we’ve won.”

We’d finish the lesson by singing arpeggios into the extreme high range, continuing higher and higher until I began to push, or lock, and lose the alignment. “The strength is in the winds, not the solid thing. Don’t you hear how I sing? When I go up, I’m bringing nothing but wind. Back to falsetto now. Softly, softly it builds a barracks there.”

We always returned to oo and oh and awe and ah: “Learn to prefer the tone that seems veiled,” he said. “It’s like a moss that hangs. It’s not clear, it’s muted. Only grab what’s cloudy! Always go back to oo, but remember, the weak oo is the one. It could pick your pocket! The falsetto will give you what you want, but you have to come to it with nothing.”

After the Amato Opera closed, I rarely sang operatic roles and instead focused on giving concerts of French and German art songs. By the time Maestro became too sick to teach, I was singing several such song cycles a year, basically little one-man operas in themselves. I did my best to incorporate what I had learned, but often I was full of doubt. Had I really absorbed his technique? I had only studied with him for three years before he got sick. Several times, after having sung a long concert, I was sure I had failed miserably, that I had screamed or whispered the entire night, left blood on the stage. But then I’d listen to the recording or video and be pleasantly surprised! Invariably, I was singing better than ever. I just wasn’t used to the feeling.

Once, during a particularly busy year of singing and teaching, I went to an otolaryngologist because I couldn’t figure out what was happening to my voice. It wasn’t hoarse, just different, and I was afraid I had nodes. Of course, my cords were fine. I recounted this to Maestro when I visited him in the nursing home, and he laughed uproariously, as if he’d experienced this scenario a hundred times. “It feels like you’re losing your voice,” he said. “It’s like you’re watching outside the jewelry store. The cases break and everything falls to the floor. You want to go to the cemetery, but you should go to the church! Be glad! A new voice is emerging. This is the mixed voice!”

One morning in the summer of 2018, a student arrived for a lesson and Maestro didn’t answer the door. The student rang the buzzer repeatedly and then called me. We wasted no time calling 911 for what is termed “a wellness check,” a quaint euphemism for having an emergency worker break into an apartment to see if someone is alive. This was easily accomplished; after all, the lock on Maestro’s door was merely decorative. With a lift, a twist, and a push, his faithful super opened the apartment. We all braced ourselves for what we might find, but when we got in, Maestro wasn’t there.

A frantic calling of hospital emergency rooms commenced, delegated between several students, but we were unable to locate anyone with his name having been admitted. The next morning, another student called to say Maestro had been admitted to Bellevue. I arrived at the famous hospital on 1st Avenue to find him dressed in a blue hospital gown, perched on a raised gurney like a gargoyle. He was beaming and holding court as the crew of five or six doctors and residents milled about him. The pose struck me as endearingly youthful. The first thought that came to mind was that with his knees drawn up against his chest his pose was that of a little girl. He was unaware that his nakedness was exposed for all to see. Someone pulled his gown down between his legs.

He had been entertaining the staff and patients with his stories about being a leading tenor, director to the stars, novelist, navy corpsman, and astrologist. When more of his students showed up and confirmed his stories, the hospital staff was surprised. Clearly, they thought he had made it all up, that he was, like so many others there, alone in the world. When M showed up with his son and another friend, they were further taken aback. The patients were likewise dumbfounded, but to Maestro it was nothing out of the ordinary. “Well, I love people and they love me,” he told them.

“Do you know where you are, sweetheart?” cooed a young female doctor.

“You keep asking me that!” he shouted. He looked at us and cracked a mischievous smile. “They think I’m batty, don’t they? I know the name of this hospital!” He began to think. “It’s something like a beautiful view…una bella vista,” he mused, his polyglot synapses firing down new paths to rise to the challenge. “Une belle view. A bell view. Bellevue. That’s it! Right?”

The doctors couldn’t tell me anything about his case until I had become his official health proxy, but an elderly man in the cot next to him reported what he had overheard. “They told her she had a stroke, but hopefully it wasn’t too bad. She’s pretty strong for a girl her age.” I wondered if Maestro would be bothered by the female pronouns—we had never, in three years, explicitly discussed our sexualities—but he seemed tickled by the man. “The last time I was in a hospital, there was a wonderful transexual with a glorious voice,” he said, drawing his knees back up, “I gave her voice lessons. They thought I was batty then too! Well, I am, but not like that! I go right to crazy, but I don’t go over.” His gown rose again. “They’re afraid I’ll try to leave.” He gestured to where he had been flashing us intermittently. “How can I run with my ass hanging out?”

He told us that the last and only time he had been admitted to a hospital, they’d committed him to the psych ward. Maestro maintained that the doctors had only let him go after he sang for them. (A student confirmed this story: the psychiatrists had challenged him to confirm his identity, so he belted out a section of Manon Lescaut.) He was particularly concerned this time because the strokes had affected his voice. He worried he couldn’t count on it to save him.

Maestro stayed in the hospital for a few weeks, recovering from another series of strokes that further paralyzed parts of his face. During the process, he was diagnosed with other long-untreated maladies: prostate cancer, stomach problems, tooth infections. From the get-go, the goal was to get him well enough to return home, but gradually it became obvious that this was an impossibility and that he would not be able to live independently without a full-time assistant. We coordinated with social workers and hospital staff to sign him up for Medicaid and Medicare (“Why should I pay for health insurance when I’ve never been sick?”) and another student went to the VA to investigate his veteran benefits, but paying for at-home nursing as well as the rent on his apartment was impossible.

M and I returned many times to his apartment to retrieve more documents from his files for the hospital bureaucrats, who valiantly struggled to confirm his eligibility for several different programs. Although M had lived in Astoria for over forty years, he had never learned much English, and thus we communicated through a combination of one-word infinitives, Greek cognates, and charades to indicate to each other where some document or other was hidden and what to do about Anthony’s most important possessions.

I took nothing from the apartment except his manuscripts. In retrospect, I wish I had gathered some of his scores and saved his stained-glass lamps. A long-term student, Vincent, came with us to take Maestro’s desktop computer, on which he had written the final draft for his last book on vocal technique, one he and Vincent had been working on for years, a thick and enigmatic tome entitled Verismo! It was finally published in January of 2018, several months after Maestro had moved to the nursing home permanently. Also on the computer’s hard drive was Maestro’s last novel, The Life in My Dreams, a work of autobiographical fiction about an opera singer who visits a New Age bookstore and finds an advertisement for a meeting of an occult group in Greenwich Village. The protagonist attends the meeting and joins its members in practicing past-life regression, learning how to travel not only back in time, but also to heaven, where, among other personalities, he meets with Ozymandias and finally even God himself. During the last months before Maestro’s last stroke, he told me, “I’ve talked to everyone but the Big Boss. I’ve never been able to get through.” Vincent, another devoted student named Dimitri, and I have the only electronic copies of this work.

There were tough times during this post-45th street period. At some point, it wasn’t clear whether we could find a nursing home that would take him. He had never claimed social security or health insurance and had no assets. We tried in vain to locate his family home in New Orleans and his apartment in Greece and were finally able to discover the whereabouts of his one remaining family member, his only brother, who had been living in a nursing home near the French Quarter; however, he had passed away just a few months before Maestro went to the hospital. His brother, too, had been a writer. Maestro’s verdict on his literary prowess was, “He wasn’t a success because he thought he had to describe everything in the room.”

It was the Burgermeister, Maestro’s long-term lawyer/accountant student, who came through in securing a “bed” for Maestro at a nursing home in Far Rockaway, just a few blocks from the 68th Street Beach. The facility somehow reserved places for people without families, assets, or social security histories.

Maestro had a hard time acclimating to his new environment. He would call from the one landline on his floor, often crying, begging for me to help him get out and back to his apartment. Mostly, though, he’d complain about the other residents. “These people are just not on my level.”

After a time, he adjusted. We’d visit him in a sort of caravan on weekends. Those of his students who had cars would gather the rest of us, and we’d make our way down the BQE to Far Rockaway. On the way, we’d talk about him, comparing versions of the stories he’d told us and marveling at how we all came to be studying with him. Invariably, each of us had heard one of his students at an audition or in a concert, singing with that “old-style sound you only hear on records,” had asked the singer where she’d learned it, and followed the trail. We also discussed our frustrations with his method, his difficult personality, and the many times we’d found him alone, prone, and in various states of disrepair in his apartment.

On Maestro’s ninetieth birthday, we brought him presents and cake, and Vincent presented him with the print version of his last self-published book, Verismo!, which his faithful student had labored to proofread, persevering through Maestro’s exacting and harrowing editorial process. Maestro signed an illegible inscription inside the thin cardboard cover for me. “To Gavin,” it said. He had never remembered my real name and had settled on this uber-Gaelic alternative to “Darren” when he finally accepted that I was Irish, not Italian like him.

Over the next year, we continued to visit, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or, when we could manage, in our faithful SUV caravan. Memories of these trips are immortalized in photos of our little group posing outside the nursing home. I love those photos. We’re all so different: diverse ages, colors, cultures. A famous opera singer once gave me some helpful advice about choosing a voice teacher. He told me, “Make sure you see a teacher’s students sing before you take a lesson. If they look different and they sing well, but in different ways, that means they have a good teacher.”

We all hoped that he would be able to teach again. There was an old children’s electronic keyboard in the home’s rec room, near the smoking porch where he’d sit with his nursing-home cronies, and we’d wheel him down there in the hope that he’d give us a pointer or two. Alas, one day he declared, “I can’t teach anymore,” and never tried again.

Sometimes he’d sing himself, his voice faltering and cracking, but its beauty unchanged, just to show us he still could. “See what I did there? Look how I blended the middle and the high! That’s how you thread the needle!” He’d demonstrate some phlegmy but resonant high notes that rang through the linoleum-floored lobby like bells. “You see? There’s a tiny thread hanging over that precipice, but it’s a steel thread. You can jump on it and swing over, but you’ve got to leave everything behind. You fill your cup when you get there.”

My favorite photo, of all those tagged with the location “Arverne” in my iPhone, is the one I took of the view from Maestro’s nursing home window. Winter was merciless in Far Rockaway—the onslaught of icy ocean wind began as soon as the subway doors opened at the Beach 67 stop. Once inside the nursing home, though, it was warm, and—if you ignored the stench of hospital food, urine, and feces—even cozy. I would arrive to find Maestro in his room, which he called his “apartment,” seated and looking pensively out the window. If his roommate wasn’t maniacally cooing or grunting, there would be an air of peace and contemplation in the tiny cell. The dark faux-wood paneling, striped curtains, and pink porcelain sink created a pleasant effect when bathed in the clear golden light of an impending sunset. Unobscured by the low buildings and bare trees of the neighborhood, the sun seemed to gather light from both the snowy streets and the shimmering tones of the ocean. “The light they have in this place. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he marveled, again and again. One day Maestro told me it was there that he had finally been able to talk to God.

I wish I could say that we were with him right up to the end, but we learned of his death almost a full week after he died on February 27, 2019. Some miscommunication between the nursing home and the hospital where he was sent with what would be a fatal case of pneumonia resulted in the delay. Maestro died alone, in a hospital none of us had ever visited during our many excursions to see him at different institutions on his journey from 45th street to his room in Far Rockaway.

His memorial service was held at Yeoryia Studios, a setting that will be familiar to any opera singer, from the jet-setting famous to the obstinately obscure. Yeoryia Megremis, the late Greek-American mezzo soprano, ran a room-renting business out of her apartment in the Ansonia building, officiating over an empire of studio spaces in the Ansonia and the nearby Epic Security Building, each named after operas like Traviata, Tosca, and La Bohème.

We rented the largest room, “Otello,” for the memorial. The turnout was extraordinary. So many students, from so many places, came to pay their respects and, of course, sing. There was more singing than talking, mostly, but among the singers was one woman who prefaced her aria with the statement, “The measure of a great man is being able to speak about all aspects of his personality at his wake—both the light and the dark.” She went on to say how hard Anthony had been on her and how, sometimes, he could be very mean. She said, “As hard as he was on me, I know he was harder on himself. I hope he’s found peace. I hope he’s in a place where he’s as great as he thinks he is.”

And then she sang. She had chosen an ambitious, dramatic aria. Her technique was not perfect, and though her voice was beautiful and unique, it was not in tip-top shape. There were moments when we wondered if she’d have to stop and start again. But she persevered, her skilled singer’s mind gauging and adjusting, endeavoring to mix the qualities of light and dark, head and chest, her body and breath sometimes engaging, sometimes faltering. As she took us through this gamut of trying, we could hear—especially in those places where she most struggled—evidence of her having been touched and transformed by Maestro Anthony Frisell.

Darren Chase teaches English at New Design High, a public school in New York City. He studied voice with Anthony Frisell from 2014-2018. Since 2019, he’s been a member of Bruce Benderson’s writing workshop. Darren’s essays and stories have appeared in Sisyphus, Humans of the World, Pangyrus, eMerge Magazine and On the Run. He’s released three albums of classical songs, The Young Debussy, Robert Schumann Liederkreis, and The Winter Journey.

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Issue 19

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