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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
Leonard Warren: American Baritone
WILLIAM EDWIN FANN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:2105-2106. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.12.2105
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By Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. Portland, Ore., Amadeus Press, 2000, 520 pp., $39.95.

One of the defining dramas of the storied Metropolitan Opera House is the onstage death of one of its greatest stars. In March 1960, while performing Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, the great baritone Leonard Warren completed his Act II aria, O Gioia ("Oh Joy"), and pitched forward dead. That evening, for one of the very few times in its history, the Met’s show did not go on. Warren was the preeminent Verdi baritone (a term explained by Tony Randall in his edifying foreword) of the 20th century. He and tenor Jussi Björling (1) were arguably the finest male operatic voices of the past 100 years. They were born in the same year (1911), and by a tragic coincidence both died suddenly and untimely of heart disease in 1960.

The truly great operatic voice leaves an enduring (and endearing) impression on the listener. The beauty of Björling’s high C in Che gelida manina (from Puccini’s La Boheme) still rang in the ears of New York Times music critic Howard Taubman years later (2). Though I never heard Björling live, I well remember the awe of attending Warren’s performance in Verdi’s Rigoletto. His huge, beautiful voice filled the auditorium "like black smoke" (to borrow Randall’s term). His stage presence, acting, impeccable diction, and ability to convey the range of emotion essential to that role was unrivaled: there could be no doubt when Warren’s Rigoletto was angry, mocking, frightened, frustrated, piteous, or chagrined, as he used the full reach of his artistry to win the adulation of his audience. I was hooked for life.

Phillips-Matz, a musicologist and award-winning biographer of Giuseppe Verdi and other notables of the music world, draws on her own friendship with Warren, multinational archival source materials, and personal interviews with family, friends, and colleagues to paint a three-dimensional portrait of her subject. The effect allows the reader to appreciate Warren as a mostly ordinary young man who struggled to master and perfect his gift. The obstacles were several: ethnic and social prejudice, lack of musical training and musicality, and difficulty learning the material quickly. Inability to read music is not unique among operatic stars (said of basso Ezio Pinza and tenor Luciano Pavarotti), but it added enormously to Warren’s struggles, requiring an extra degree of determination and grit in learning the music and perfecting the roles. Warren’s determination and perseverance won the encouragement of musical authorities and financial support from benefactors who were convinced of the nascent greatness of his gift.

In the first two of 21 chapters Phillips-Matz highlights the European culture of Warren’s ancestors as a contributing factor in arousing his musical and artistic interests. Born Leonard Warenoff in New York City, the son of two Russian Jewish immigrants of solid middle-class heritage and circumstance, he was expected to take over the family furrier business. But Warren was an "indifferent and listless student in the New York public schools," did poorly at any of several early jobs, showed no aptitude for the stage, and played no musical instrument. Even as a child his "major asset was his big voice," which, fortunately for us and posterity, he chose to develop as his life’s vocation. After a sprinkling of voice lessons he began to sing professionally for private parties and at Catskills area resorts. At the age of 23 he was admitted to the Radio City Music Hall Glee Club. Even in this group Warren had to struggle for recognition. He was fired by the director when he asked for time off to prepare for an audition at the Metropolitan Opera.

Warren’s major career turning point came in this audition, when audition master Wilfrid Pellitier, astounded by what he heard, agreed to take Warren under his professional wing. He arranged for voice lessons and recital opportunities, obtained private funding for a summer of study in Italy, and became his life-long friend. On return to the United States, Warren was given roles of gradually increasing importance within the Met company, but again he faced anti-Semitism and the preference of the autocratic director Rudolph Bing for established stars in the high-profile and prestigious opening-night roles. Engagements overseas gained Warren star status in foreign opera companies, very favorable publicity, and elevated status within the Met company. Warren was eventually granted leading and opening-night roles; his consummate artistry, especially in the great Verdi operas, brought him acclaim, recognition as one of the opera world’s premier performers, and Bing’s staunch advocacy. He enjoyed this heady status until his premature death.

Phillips-Matz concentrates a great deal of attention on Warren’s performances, career highlights, many warm relationships, and daily life. Warren fell in love with and married American singer Agatha Leifflen, whom he met in Italy. Marriage required that he convert to Roman Catholicism, which he did with the approval of both families. While the marriage brought Warren a life-long supportive, loving relationship, he found himself ostracized by some of the other Jewish artists. Phillips-Matz rounds out her portrait of the man with some of his more temperamental and less attractive qualities. Having worked very hard to train his own voice and refine his roles, he became an unsparing, self-critical perfectionist. He also required the same flawlessness from fellow artists and could be overbearing and intrusive (even to the orchestra) during rehearsals. There are several illustrations of behavior attendant to such peccadilloes that ranged from mild to outrageous. But the heart of this book is Warren’s virtuosity. The details and vignettes recounting Warren’s performances (his conquests and the occasional failure) at the Met, in world opera companies, and on concert tours will fascinate the opera aficionado. The final chapter painfully details the events and circumstances surrounding his onstage death (including some grisly details of the fatal fall), providing sometimes conflicting eyewitness accounts from members of the audience, orchestra, cast, stage crew, and family.

We cannot know how frequently such an extraordinary vocal endowment arises, but clearly it is rare indeed. We can only be grateful that in this case it was bequeathed to someone who committed to the years of sacrifice, training, and persistent effort needed to present his gift so grandly to his public. Phillips-Matz has conveyed Leonard Warren as a human being with foibles, mastery, weaknesses, and genius, all with the affection and respect that draws our captivated gaze toward a triumphant artist.

Björling AL, Farkas A: Jussi. Portland, Ore, Amadeus Press, 1996
 
Taubman H: The Pleasure of Their Company. Portland, Ore, Amadeus Press, 1994
 
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References

Björling AL, Farkas A: Jussi. Portland, Ore, Amadeus Press, 1996
 
Taubman H: The Pleasure of Their Company. Portland, Ore, Amadeus Press, 1994
 
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