THE TOUGH GUY OF THE OPERA
George Burnstein, of Montreal, a towering two-hundred-pound dumbbell enthusiast, is also George London, the matinee idol of the Met who leavens his repertoire with items like Home on the Range
GEORGE LONDON, the Canadian-born bassbaritone of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, is a large young man with a cheerful air, a robust sense of humor, and the kind of laugh that rattles the crockery. A musical celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, he receives more fan mail than many a movie actor. Both customers and critics are solidly in his corner. A reviewer for the Vienna Tageszeitung once asserted that London’s voice was “capable of restoring one’s health.” A few weeks ago, after London became the first non-Furopean to sing the tremendously difficult title role in Boris Godunov at the Met, Virgil Thomson, of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote that although the voice was still “a bit light” for Mous80rg8ky’s doom-haunted Russian czar, “his vocal line is always of the most distinguished now
GUY OF THE OPERA
available anywhere on the stage, and his dramatic skill and temperament are far above current operatic standards.”
Although he is outwardly serene, London’s personality and career are filled with ironies and contradictions.
He refuses to include in his concert programs hoary encore-type favorites like Trees, The Rosary and Short’nin’ Bread. To him, they represent trashy sentimentality. Yet he admires and often sings the equally familiar Ol’ Man River. In the bathtub and at parties he likes to sing corny cowboy ditties as nasally as any cactus crooner.
Most operatic big-leagpers begin humbly; their conceit, if any, develops later. London, who had a swelled head when he was nobody, got over it and today seems remarkably free of vanity.
His fee for a single concert has risen in five years from three hundred to fifteen hundred dollars and his annual gross income now exceeds forty-five thousand dollars. Yet it’s only a few years since he was singing gooey ballads at ice carnivals, and tap dancing to turn a buck.
London was born George Burnstein in Montreal in 1921 and lived there fourteen years before moving to California. His father came from Lithuania and his mother from Poland, and they now live in Hollywood. The new name, which he bestowed on himself, has a tweedy British flavor but is borrowed from an American —Jack London, his favorite boyhood author. Although he is now a citizen of the United States, his musical fame was first established in Germany, Italy and Scotland. His “home” nowadays, if he has any at all, is in Vienna, which makes him at least partly a European.
Even his appearance is misleading. When he was only twenty-three, in 1944, as the swashbuckling “imported male lead” in Vancouver’s
Theatre Under the Stars operettas, most people thought he was in his thirties. A city-slicker mustache, which he privately thickened and darkened with a charcoal pencil, fostered the illusion. Nowadays, still a bachelor at thirtytwo, he looks like a man in his mid-twenties.
Although he has not yet reached his peak vocally or artistically, London is established as a big name in opera, concerts, radio, and recordings. Yet he still lifts his strong dark-chocolate voice in song in the midst of casual conversations—a traditional mark of the callow amateur. Paradoxically, he has rejected several of the most tempting offers in recent operatic history because he didn’t feel ready to do the roles justice. London’s buoyant manner makes him seem carefree, yet he has planned every step of his career with the canny caution of a bank president mapping a long-range program of investments.
Only Dumbells Could Steal Some
On the concert platform, standing in the curve of his accompanist’s grand piano, he is an impressive figure. His height is six feet, two inches; his weight, two hundred pounds. His thick lips and his large brown eyes are mobile and expressive. His hair is a black mane, although he keeps it neatly barbered in the non-Bohemian mode. His waist is lean, in spite of a sweet tooth for sugar and pastry. His movements are those of a heavyweight athlete in good condition. For this he gives partial credit to the gymnasium weights and dumbbells he takes with him on his travels for regular hotel-room workouts.
His interest in calisthenics dates back to the season of 1947-48 when he toured North America with Hollywood tenor Mario Lanza and Frances Yeend, soprano. London and the plump Lanza
exercised like mad at every opportunity. They carried their equipment in an extra-strength handbag which indignant redcaps and bellhops could hardly lift. The weights were stolen once lietween trains in Chicago, presumably by someone who imagined the satchel contained gold bullion.
As a singer London is a hard man to pin down with a single label. He is neither a bass nor a baritone, but both rolled into one. In full voice he can sing down to a low D, which is in the basso profundo territory, and up to a high A-flat, which many a tenor doesn’t find too easy. In falsetto, just for the fun of it, he can duplicate the coloratura cadenzas recorded forty years ago by soprano Luisa Tetrazzini in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor; in fact, he once taught them, t rill by trill, to a grateful feminine colleague of the Vienna Opera.
In opera London is aided by a flair for languages. Besides English, he is adept at French, German, and Italian. His knowledge of Russian is meagre, but he sings in that tongue so accurately that he was once embarrassed by a swarm of Slavic congratulators who rushed backstage in Vienna and began chattering at him in the language of Boris Godunov.
His boyish appearance and his still-recent rise to prominence make many people believe success has come easily to him. On the contrary, he is a perfectionist who has toiled like a galley slave, undaunted by reversals and disappointments, ever since he decided at sixteen that he wanted to become an opera star.
His job in opera is one of the most demanding in the world. It requires a combination of voice, musicianship, histrionic skill, imposing appearance, a scholar’s knowledge of languages, a quick and dependable memory, a magnetic personality, and the true trouper’s ability Continued on next page
The Tough Guy of the Opera
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 27
to think rapidly in an emergency. His acting must be an honestly felt and intellectually planned portrayal of a real character, not the arm-waving and eye-rolling that used to pass for acting in opera. All the while, he must integrate every syllable of his acting and singing into the ever-changing mood and tempo of a complex orchestral score. Moreover, he must constantly keep one eye on the guiding hands or baton of the conductor, the active musical boss of the entire production.
London is such a compelling actor that he was invited last year to play Othello, not the lead in the Verdi opera (which is for tenor, not bass or baritone) but the tragic Moor in the original Shakespeare drama, a role containing not a note of music. London, though flattered, declined the offer.
George was the only child of Louis and Bertha Burnstein who owned the Ma Belle Hat Company in Montreal. At the age of two he fell in love with the family phonograph and by the lime he was four or live, his father remembers, the hoy would sit for hours listening to Caruso, Farrar and Scotti. George flopped at his piano lessons, hut became proficient at basketball, skating and swimming.
In 1935 the family moved to California and, at Hollywood High School, future movie queens Lana Turner and Alexis Smith were among George’s fellow students. George was too shy and too broke to run around with dream girls. Besides, he had something else on his mind—his voice, which had exploded overnight into a booming bass.
He auditioned for the male lead in a school production of Sweethearts, the Victor Herbert operetta, but barely qualified for the chorus. “My voice,” London says, “was big but unmanageable, and I was the clumsiest oaf who ever stumbled before the footlights. I had two left legs, and four thumbs on each hand.”
At Los Angeles City College he studied theory and harmony, learned to read music, sweated over several languages, and took a special course in sight singing. Dr. Hugo Strelitzer, chief of the college’s opera workshop, coached him privately.
“George came to me,” Strelitzer said recently, “like a dry sponge, ready to absorb knowledge and inspiration. Nothing on earth could have shaken that boy’s determination.”
At seventeen, he earned his first money as a singer—forty dollars a week. This was a nighttime job in the chorus of an eight-week Los Angeles run of Countess Maritza. Soon afterward, able to afford more tuition, the big skinny Burnstein kid barged in on a concert baritone named Nathan Stewart and pleaded for a few professional pointers.
“The first thing I knew, I was in the teaching business,” says Stewart, who had never taken pupils until then.
George was so hard up that he used to hitchhike across Los Angeles instead of riding on the buses. One day, a few minutes after he had finished his lesson and gone, he staggered back into Stewart’s house, his forehead gashed and bleeding. His explanation: he had started singing on the
sidewalk, closed his eyes in a spasm of operatic fervor, and smacked into a telephone pole.
London made his debut as a soloist on Christmas night in 1939 in a small
role in Rudolf Friml’s The Vagabond King. By this time he had changed his name to Burnson.
“I sang my head off all over town,” London says in describing the next few years. “No place in L. A. was safe from n«r>. I sang at weddings, banquets, smokers, conventions, and as a member of the Hol^wood Bowl chorus. I was one of four professional soloists in the choir of Wilshire Christian Church. They paid me fifteen dollars a sabbath.”
In 1940 he landed an obscure part in Meet the People, a touring revue. Soon he was not only singing but performing in skits and sketches, and doing occasional tap dances in the ensemble. His weekly salary climbed to sixty dollars and he sent money home every week. When he was suddenly dropped from the show because the company had a “prior commitment” with another baritone, he invaded New York alone. “After knocking on agents’ doors for a few weeks,” he says, “I glumly returned to L. A., a failure at nineteen.”
He started in again with the American Music ^Theatre of Los Angeles, which presented operas in English. London learned a lot from the late George Houston, a leading spirit in the group. Houston taught him how to jump up on a table gracefully, how to wear a cape, how to handle a sword without looking too stupid, how to sing properly while sitting or lying down or even running, how to watch the conductor’s beat while appearing to be gazing spellbound into the eyes of a soprano who is also pretending to he consumed with passion. Most important of all, Houston forced him to “get the words across” with maximum clarity.
Smiles for a “Silly Ass”
London was pocketing an occasional twenty dollars for a day’s work on the Hollywood movie lots, where he recorded “dub-ins” for actors who couldn’t sing.
In 1942 he toured in a quartet with the Ice Follies. “We were so cold while working,” London remembers, “that we had to sing in our overcoats.”
All the while, his voice was developing in range, color and flexibility. In 1943 he sang one of the lesser roles in Verdi’s Rigoletto with the San Francisco Opera Company. This was the beginning of his friendship with tenor Jan Peerce. “George impressed me as being a very gifted, very solid young fellow,” Peerce said recently. “I remember thinking, ‘They won’t ever turn this boy’s head with a lot of flattery.’ ”
Ironically, the modest bass-baritone soon afterward surrendered briefly to what he himself now calls “a siege of silly-ass vanity.” He was engaged for the summer of 1944 to play leading roles in three operettas at Theatre Under the Stars, Vancouver’s popular open-air bowl in Stanley Park. His name glittered on the billboards. He dwelt in comparative splendor in Hotel Vancouver, and the elevator girls gave him their most dazzling smiles.
“I’m afraid I took myself pretty seriously that summer,” London acknowledges wryly. “When I went out walking around English Bay on a Sunday afternoon I must have presented quite a picture. I wore a singlebreasted navy-blue suit with vest, Oxford-grey herringbone tweed coat, two-tone imported English shirt, a sincere conservative tie, kid gloves, royal-blue homburg, and black shoes you could see your face in at fifteen paces. I was the star of the operetta, and 1 wanted everybody to know it.”
Some of his Vancouver colleagues in
those days considered his acting too flamboyant but liked him personally and admired him as a resourceful trouper. Comedian Barney Potts tells of the night in New Moon when a rain-warped stage door refused to open for London, an impatient lover carrying his bride into their honeymoon cottage. While the audience tittered nervously, the ardent hero stepped back and kicked the door. It still wouldn’t budge. Then he took a firmer grasp of his delicate swooning sweetheart and briskly used her hips as a battering ram to open the stubborn portal.
After the Vancouver experience, the tempo of his career quickened. A 1945 cross-country tour in The Desert Song led to an audition with Columbia Artists Management Inc., who signed him up as a concert attraction. He was twenty-five when he gave his first ' solo concert, in the Iowa town of Estherville (population, four thousand). Soon he changed his name again after “George London” popped into his head one day while walking in New York with Mario Lanza. Then Columbia sent him and Lanza and soprano Frances Yeend on tour as the Bel Canto Trio.
Even in those happy-go-lucky days Lanza showed flashes of the temperament that later embroiled him with his studio bosses in Hollywood. He refused to enter an airplane, for example; and when London and Miss Yeend told him the trio would have to fly to keep their engagements in Newfoundland Lanza vanished. London and Frances Yeend went to the island without him.
London never ceased studying—polishing his languages, learning whole I operas and hundreds of separate songs and arias, boning up on general musical knowledge. For a while he coached j with Enrico Rosati, an Italian who j had numbered tenor Beniamino Gigli j among his pupils. Later he switched j to his present teacher, Russian-born : Mme. Paola Novikova. He absorbed
j further practical operatic experience in j local productions from New Orleans to I California.
His preparations were typically thorough. In learning the part of Escamillo, the toreador in Carmen, London took j lessons from a Spanish ballet-master so
that he would know how to handle himself like a real bullfighter. The average Escamillo, a Mexican friend had once sardonically informed him, “would be gored to death in a few minutes if he ever stepped into the arena ”
By now London was hungrily eyeing the Metropolitan. The Met, however, usually imposes a ~::d obscure
apprenticeship on home-grown talent. London decided he would try to make the Met come to him by going to Europe and building a reputation there.
A New York accompanist named Leo Taubman, who admired his singing, helped him on his way. Taubman’s brother, Martin, was an artists’ manager in Vienna. Letters and telegrams between the Taubmans crisscrossed the Atlantic and, in 1949, London sailed from New York to seek his operatic fortune. Martin Taubman met him in Paris, heard him sing, and suggested a short train trip to Brussels where the great Vienna State Opera would be on tour a day or two later.
In the Belgian capital, conductor Karl Böhm paused wearily after a day of rehearsals and granted London an audition. The visitor sang, in Russian, I have Attained the Highest Power, the obsessed czar’s famous monologue from Boris Godunov a role London had coveted ever since his college days in Hollywood. Soon after he started to sing the artists of the Vienna Opera trooped silently back into the hall and listened, and cheered and clapped when the great aria was over. London doesn’t expect he’ll ever receive a finer compliment.
By noon next day he had a Vienna contract in his pocket. Three months later, after triumphs in Aida, Prince Igor, Tales of Hoffmann, and Boris Godunov, London was mentioned in a dispatch to the New York Times as “the darling of the Viennese bobbysoxers.” Even his private life contributed to his artistic development: he fell in love with an Austrian soprano — who helped him complete his mastery of conversational German. His first solo concert in Vienna was sold out even before the placards were posted.
Since then he has triumphed at Munich and Milan, at the Edinburgh Festival in Britain, the Salzburg Festival in Austria, and at Bayreuth,
the Bavarian shrine dedicated to the memory of Richard Wagner. Wieland Wagner, one of the composer’s grandsons, offered London the majestic role of Wotan, the chief of the gods in the four-opera Ring cycle. London turned it down. He preferred to wait—wisely, he still believes—until he felt able to cope with Wotan’s massive challenge.
It wasn’t long before the Met beckoned. General manager Rudolf Bing heard George in Vienna, and London made his Met debut in November, 1951, as Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, in Aida.
The former Montreal schoolboy has gone a long way since he was the dude of the Vancouver operettas. Opera houses all over Europe want his services. This year’s spring road-tour by the Met, which includes performances in Toronto and Montreal, should further establish his renown.
On the day of a concert London stays in bed until almost noon. In the early afternoon he visits the auditorium with his accompanist. Methodically, he checks the lighting setup, the dressing-room facilities, and the stage arrangements, especially the position of the piano. Then he tests the hall’s
I rationalize to myself to disguise My failings, so they won’t disgust me; But I’ve gotten so glib with each subjective fib
That I’m no longer able to trust me!
acoustics and warms up his voice by vocalizing for about fifteen minutes. The presence of janitors and the slamming of doors never bother him.
After the workout he returns to his hotel and does some reading, or writes a few letters. Around three o’clock he goes to bed again and sleeps soundly for a couple of hours. Taking his time about getting up, he orders dinner —steak, big salad, perhaps a baked potato, and clear tea with lemon. He eats this alone in his room: he doesn’t want to talk with anyone until later. Because haste and anxiety at such a time are upsetting to him, he makes a point of reaching the hall at least thirty minutes before the concert. A bit more vocalizing in his dressing room, and George London is ready for public duty.
A vehement man in an argument, London jumps up and strides and bellows when he talks about the “criminals” and “charlatans” who, he says, often masquerade as singing teachers. He believes incompetent teachers are destroying thousands of promising voices and should be required by law to prove their professional competence to the satisfaction of a board of experts.
London is sulphuric in his scorn for certain types of old-fashioned opera stars who “sing like a pig all evening, pull the house down with a high C at the finish, pick up their pay-cheques, and go home to bask in the flattery of their cronies.” He feels that an opera singer worthy of the name should be preoccupied with “practically everything”—not classical music alone, but healthy jazz and folk ballads and popular songs, along with religion, literature, painting, the stage, history, geography, science, sports, good food, and the news of the day.
“I am convinced,” he says, “that the only way to become a first-class singer is to become a first-class member of the human race.” it