June 14, 2015

The Eileen Farrell I knew: personal memories of an outrageous original

Eileen Farrell. I owned this album.
Those of us in that considerable group of musicians who studied at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music had interaction with a lot of famous musicians, thanks to the starry faculty roster they've always boasted.

I was there in what now seems like the heyday of the school: the Seventies. Consider a piano faculty with Menahem Pressler, Gyorgi Sebok, Jorge Bolet, Abbey Simon and others; an instrumental faculty with such luminaries as the cellist Janos Starker, flute guru James Pellerite, the distinguished violist William Primrose, and so on.

But with an opera program second to none, the voice faculty was as brilliant as you might expect. Virginia Zeani, Martha Lipton and Margaret Harshaw (among others) launched many important careers.

And then there was Eileen Farrell.

Here was an artist I'd listened to all during my opera-crazy teen-aged years, as soon as I'd discovered opera. To meet her and watch her in action as a teacher while accompanying several of her students, was like a baseball fan getting to meet Hank Aaron.

For those of you who admire her but never had the chance to know her a little as I did, I thought you might be interested in a few of my memories of a truly distinguished American artist.

To say that she was down-to-earth is to say that Rush Limbaugh is conservative. What can we say about a woman who had an oversized bumper sticker plastered to the wall of her studio bearing the words HELP STAMP OUT OPERA.

She was not given to flowery language, oh no. One of the students I accompanied was a scruffy young tenor named Ron (last name withheld). One day in the practice room Ron was vocalizing to warm up. He turned to me with a smile and said "Hey, listen to this." He then began singing a series of 5-note ascending & descending scales rising ever higher. This display climaxed with a final vocalise beginning on a high A flat and ending up on the E flat above high C.

At his next lesson, he was nervously excited:

"Um, Miss Farrell?"

"Yes, Ron?"

"Um I have something I want you to hear."

"Go ahead."

He duplicated the same vocalise he'd done for me, going higher and higher until that E flat of which he was so very proud buzzed off the studio walls.  There was a silence of a few beats. Farrell gazed at him impassively, her chin resting on one hand.

"So......  what did you think?" The answer came immediately.

"It sounded like you stuck a hot rod up your ass."

She was also a bit irreverent in her own performances. There was the time that several of us students made the short trip to Indianapolis to hear her in concert with the Indianapolis Symphony. It was at some gigantic church large enough to accomodate a crowd of hundreds. First on the program was the stirring aria "Divinités du Styx" from Gluck's Alceste.

Like many arias from that period, there is a lengthy orchestral introduction, during which Ms. Farrell stood motionless, projecting immense dignity, with a facial expression capturing all the character's intense emotional state, her brow furrowed as if burdened with the cares of the cosmos.  The moment of her entrance came at last.

She didn't sing - just kept standing there in immense dignity.

The orchestra kept playing as the conductor shot her a look. Within ten seconds the band scraped and tooted to an uncertain halt.

Farrell suddenly gave a double take and burst into laughter. I wish I could remember her exact words, but it's been about 40 years. It was something along the lines of "Well, that was dumb - I can't believe I did that! Let's try that again, Maestro!"  So they started again from the beginning, she came in, and sang like a goddess.

She had a sense of humor like a longshoreman, with a repertoire of adults-only jokes. If you promise to send your underage children from the room while you read this, I'll share three obscene riddles with you that I learned from her. Kids gone? Good.

Q: What's the difference between a woman in a bathtub and a woman in church?
A: One of them has hope in her soul.

Q: What's the difference between a band of pygmies and a women's track team?
A: One of them is a bunch of cunning little runts.

Q: What's the difference between a whore with diarrhea and an epileptic corn-husker?
A: One of them has fits while he shucks.

I can tell you're traumatized. Just breathe deeply; you're going to be okay. Promise.

If you wanted to see her in her element, you'd have had to observe a special class she taught in vocal jazz styles. I wasn't the only music student to audit that class, dropping in on several sessions as she took uptight young classical singers and attempted to pass on the tradition of American popular song that was mother's milk to her. There was a time when American opera singers enjoyed being crossover artists before crossover was a "thing". Farrell and Helen Traubel could both let their vocal hair down and belt torch songs like "Ten cents a dance" like a real "chan-toozie".

We got along fine, Ms. Farrell and I, because I truly liked her and she knew it. She treated me like the adorable young undergrad pianist I was and was kind enough to give me a recommendation when I asked her for one upon graduating. She wasn't, however, above giving me a hard time about the beard I wore for about a year.

A girl I was dating remarked casually that she thought I'd look good with a beard. Being easily manipulated by attractive women, I immediately began letting my beard grow in. It was reddish, in contrast to the sandy-colored hair on my head, and curly. After a while, two things happened: 1) the girl broke up with me. (We're Facebook friends today.) And 2) I grew tired of playing with it; pulling on it, twisting it in nervous moments, and scratching my itchy chin. I shaved it.

On my first day at school in this newly-clean-shaven state, I was sitting on a bench near the Dean's office when Ms. Farrell walked by. She stopped, took me in at a glance, and said "Well, thank goodness. You know that beard looked like pubic hair, right?"

Oh, Ms. Farrell, Ms. Farrell, Ms. Farrell ----  I miss you!


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