"...a real find, an offbeat cross between scholarly tome and lurid supermarket tabloid, filled with rare and unconventional treasures."
It arrived one morning in the mail, a glossy magazine from New York.
The launch of a new classical music magazine, I thought, as I glanced at Dame Joan Sutherland, who beamed placidly out at me from the front cover.
Then, in an incredibly snappy double take worthy of Groucho Marx, I was sucked into the lurid vortex of the magazine’s headlines. They were tantalizing and unusual, I had to admit. You would too, if you’d been there.“
Nude Centerfold!” blared one in red. “Tebaldi Trashes Sutherland, Sills and Cossotto,” hissed another. And at the bottom, incredibly, “For the First Time: Photos of Castrati.”
No stuffy, tiny-type esoterica of Gramophone or Early Music Quarterly here. But rather, as Monty Python and his friends would say, something completely different.It was my introduction to Opera Fanatic, a delightful and awesomely nutty magazine which has been described as a mix of Opera News, The National Enquirer and Rolling Stone.
I devoured the Sutherland issue, ordered two back issues and devoured them too. And I can report that for lovers of charming and eccentric curiosities, Opera Fanatic is a real find, an offbeat cross between scholarly tome and lurid supermarket tabloid, filled with rare and unconventional treasures.
Bizarre and bitchy, trashy and informative, OF features stories ranging from right-wing oddball Lyndon LaRouche’s weird campaign to standardize concert pitch to a profile of Metropolitan Opera soprano Aprile Millo, hyped as: “JFKMillo’s Secret Dad?”
These share space with more conventional, almost academic pieces on vocal technique and great singers of the past. And the magazine’s photo captions are often hilarious and gossipy. . . .
But much of the magazine’s space is devoted to its readers, who, judging from their feedback in the form of letters and critical comments, are a colorful, disparate lot, united only through the bond of opera fanaticism.
It’s not surprising.
The founder, editor, principal writer and mastermind behind Opera Fanatic is likely the most fanatical of them all. He’s Stefan Zucker, holder of the Guinness Book of World Records title of “The World’s Highest Tenor.”
“Guinness reports it as the A above High C, but I have actually sung B-flat in performance,” reports Zucker, a pleasantly articulate and soft-edged voice on the phone from his New York apartment, Opera Fanatic’s headquarters.
A wearer of several professional hats, including singer, writer, broadcaster, producer and subject of the LP recording “Stefan Zucker: the World’s Highest Tenor, ” Zucker explains that he began Opera Fanatic for several burning reasons.
A freelance music critic who contributed to major magazines and newspapers, Zucker found he wanted freedom to produce articles which dealt with “taboo subjects. ” Then, when he began to host an opera programalso called “Opera Fanatic”on New York’s Columbia University radio station, he quickly discovered he wasn’t the only opera fanatic on the planet.
“I understood that for some, opera is life’s principal joy,” says Zucker, whose radio show reaches some 56,000 fanatics in six states on the U.S. east coast. “They’re vastly knowledgeable and some have disc collections of 30,000 or 40,000 recordings. They know more than the critics,“ he continues.
Not only were those fanatics tough to stump when it came to the “Name the Voice” contests that Zucker regularly devises for his radio show (“No singer was too obscure for some of these people!”), but he also found that “They had a good deal to say about opera and its lore, and they needed a forum for multifarious views and debate. No other publication was meaty enough for them. ”
Thus Opera Fanatic, the magazine, was born. And now Zucker has fanatics up to his ears. “One lady called me five times today already; she’s a complete pest,” he confesses.
Opera fanatics can be found across North America, from tiniest hamlet to largest metropolis. More than 5,000 subscribe to OF, with single-copy sales estimated at just under 5,000.
“Our readership includes far-flung fanatics who have no access to many of the things those in major cities take for granted. And many fanatics feel isolated, feel that people misunderstand their love of opera. Perhaps their neighbors don’t like opera,” Zucker says.
Whether from Vancouver, North Dakota, New York City or the Isle of Man, OF readers are a vocal crew. Letters rage with passion for the art form, and the armchair critics obviously relish having a platform for sharing their fervently held opinions.
And they adore and gush about the gossipy tone of the mag. “It was a matter of survival,” Zucker explains of OF’s scandal sheet approach, “With the radio show I can get listeners to tune in for exposés and revelations, and they’ll stay put for archival recordings. ”
It’s the same with the magazine. Entice them with the juicy lowdown on Plácido, and they might end up reading about forgotten composer Saverio Mercadante. . . .
Zucker laments that taste is shaped by “casting and repertoire decisions ” made by too few administrators, that opera is “becoming more homogenized.”
“We live in the age of Barbie Doll operasingers who move well and look good but express little,” he suggests. What gets lost in the process is the singer who doesn’t fit snugly into the system.
“We no longer accommodate the crazy singer, the petulant divathey’re selected out,” declares Zucker, who is of the opinion that “Some of the most interesting performers are more than a little bit crazyI’ve seen more interesting, flamboyant, volatile singers in church basements!” . . .
I asked Zucker why opera stimulates such fanatical responses. You don’t find jazz fans coming to fisticuffs over who’s a better guitarist, Joe Pass or Herb Ellis, for example.
“Catharsis,” is Zucker’s terse reply.
“Most people remain indifferent to or bored by opera unless it has made them weep or given them spinal chills,” he says. “Once that’s happened, one goes back for more. And many will endure hundreds of mediocre performances in the hope of re-experiencing that catharsis.”
Indeed, according to Zucker, those frustrated by their search for cathartic thrill can become “decadent” in their tastes. “This can lead them to give vent to witticisms, or it can lead to booing,” he cautions.
As for booing, it’s a fine operatic tradition, and one which will be the subject of an article (called “Booing: True Confessions”), scheduled to appear in the next issue of Opera Fanatic.
As well, there’ll be a long-awaited story on the late, great Maria Callas, and her notorious tape worm. “She is said to have swallowed one to lose weight....” Zucker trails off, mysteriously.
The magazine appears sporadically, but is well worth the wait. Enjoy! If you don’t enjoy, writeZucker happily prints letters which blast and condemn the magazine.
(And in case you’re curious, the castrati article mentioned above, teasingly entitled “Did the Castrati Have Balls?” reveals the question marks surrounding the thousands of castrated males who dominated European singing centuries ago. Did they have libido, yes or no? And for you voyeurs, the centerfold in question proved to be an ancient photo of long-dead baritone Victor Maurel“immortal creator of Iago and Falstaff”whose private parts, sorry to say, remain discreetly covered, courtesy of an attractive fig leaf.)
One of the undisputed side benefits of this job is the occasional treasure that floats up in an ocean of mail. Well, “treasure” may not be the proper term for what washed in a few weeks ago, but it certainly merits the title of the most interesting publication I’ve seen in a long time.
Imagine, if you will, a combination of Opera News and National Enquirer, livened with a sprinkle of Rolling Stone. If you can do so, you’ve undoubtedly seen what I’m talking about for yourself.
It’s a publication called Opera Fanatic and, believe me, it lives up to its name. This is a magazine for people who really believe in opera, the real devotees who can hurl insults (and maybe a fist or two) at anyone who suggests that their idols have larynxes of clay.
The magazine plays to those hardy and highly vocal fans in the top gallery, and its very cover gives indication that you’re not about to leaf through another polite summation of what’s going on in the white-tie-and-tail set. “Nude Centerfold,” cries a banner across the corner; and sure enough, there’s an ancient print of baritone Victor Maurel, whose modest fig leaf barely escapes the staples. . . .
More typically, one of the “teaser” lines promises “Tebaldi Trashes Sutherland, Sills and Cossotto.” Now that’s what opera fans want to hear, I suspect: a diva getting down and dirty about her rivals. Of course, there’s more. “Bonisolli: a Tenor’s Tantrum” offers another juicy story. . . .
Zucker writes a decent piece on the forgotten composer Mercadante, as well as a surprising article on the oddball backing of right-winger Lyndon LaRouche by several operatic superstars. [In 1989, Tebaldi and Barbieri ran unsuccessfully for the European Parliament on the slate of LaRouche’s Patriots for Italy party; in November 1988, Cappuccilli’s endorsement of LaRouche was shown nationally on a LaRouche-for-President TV commercial; hundreds of singers back a bill LaRouche has had introduced in the Italian Senate to lower the tuning pitch.] . . . Zucker has supplied the only mention of the [LaRouche bill] I’ve seen in print, and very admirably goes on to discuss the history of tuning standards throughout the world. . . .
A good deal of space is devoted to readers’ letters, surveys, transcripts of radio shows, and a few reviews. Whatever value the views expressed may have is very much open to debate; but the presence of real passion is impossible to question. . . . (“Boos, Hisses and Bravos”)