[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
Everyone has – or ought to have – an Uncle Sam. Not the red, white and blue cardboard cutout with the beard and top hat. I mean a real Uncle Sam like my mother’s older brother who lived with us when I was a boy and gave me three of the most important things in my life, the greatest of which was my love of opera.
Sam worked in the New York garment industry, selling things like trim and buttons to manufacturers of women’s clothes. And the family told the story of how Sam, when he was a young man, came home with his arms bandaged because he helped pull people out of the flames that killed 146 immigrant women who were trapped in the sweatshop of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.
Until he explained, the family laughed at Sam’s bandaged arms, because he was always getting into trouble.
But that was because my Uncle Sam, who had been an immigrant, cared deeply about the important things, like injustice and the exploitation of workers. He was a fellow traveler, but he wouldn’t join the party (Communist, of course) because he feared deportation and he loved America. He broke with the party after Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler.
Sam also was an avid and knowledgeable New York Yankees fan, who corresponded with Casey Stengel about the fine points of the game. And he was adamant that Enrico Caruso was a greater tenor than the upstart Swede, Jussi Bjorling.
So these were the gifts Sam left me: my liberal left politics and a skepticism that has served me well as a writer. I often accompanied Sam on sunny Saturday and Sunday afternoons to the boardwalk near Brighton Beach where we joined the men gathered in knots arguing politics, philosophy, current affairs and the culpability of God for not striking Hitler dead.
Secondly, I have remained loyal to the Yankees despite George Steinbrenner for after all, Sam and I sat in the centerfield bleachers to see the likes of Gehrig, DiMaggio, Dickey, Keller, Gordon, Rizzuto and even Ruth when he made a guest appearance in a reunion with the 1927 team. One cannot do any better than that in baseball.
Sam made me understand why baseball was the greatest sport; it made a virtue of imperfection, for hitting safely just one out of three times could make you a star.
Finally, there was – and is – an appreciation – no, a love - of great music, but especially grand opera, which, as my wife says, combines all the arts – theater, acting, stage design, story, costumes, music and, of course, the glory of the human voice.
Sam introduced me to Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s symphonies on 12-inch, 78rpm, RCA records. But mostly, we listened to the greatest voices on the family Victrola: Caruso’s la Donna e Mobile, Una Furtiva Lagrima and my favorite e Lucevan la Stelle, which Cavaradossi sings to Tosca when he is about to die.
Enrico Caruso - la Donna e Mobile [2:18 minutes]
After Sam left our home and got married and I was old enough to go to work, I had his record collection. Even better, I had money enough to indulge in my two luxuries: suring the seasons, I went to an opera on Saturday night sitting up in the cheap seats, and a ball game at Yankee Stadium on a Friday night sitting in the bleachers. I went to ball games mostly alone, but I measured the worth of my girl friends by whether they enjoyed good music and opera.
On my last night in New York before I entered the army in 1950, my then lady friend, Judy, and I went to a New York City opera performance of Madame Butterfly. Now who could not like Butterfly when she sang, One Fine Day or when she killed herself for the love of Pinkerton and their child. Judy was unmoved and bored. And I never saw her again.
Renata Tebaldi - Un Bel Di [4:20 minutes]
Fast forward two years. I was married to Evelyn who played a lovely classical piano and shared my view that Mozart and Beethoven were direct descendants of God. On our first date we listened to classical music in the record library of the local USO. On our second, we saw the musical, Song of Norway, based on the music of Edward Grieg.
On our first trip to New York, after I left the army, we went to the old Met for a performance of Tosca with Dorothy Kirsten in the title role. When the tenor, Feruccio Tagliavini, sang Lucevan le Stelle in the final act, Evelyn saw her new husband crying with happiness - from being out of the army at last, back in New York and at the Met (not the cheap seats) with my new wife who loved opera.
Feruccio Tagliavini - Lucevan le Stelle [2:56 minutes]
May I say here that we are not musical snobs, although we do not consider rap and much of the most raucous crap music. We’re fans of Holiday, Fitzgerald and Brubeck. I played a folk guitar for a while and introduced my kids to Guthrie, Josh White and Seeger. And I brought home from my travels the earliest 45rpms of this new group of kids called the Beatles.
Since then, Evelyn and I have seen dozens of opera performances all over the world, some great, some not. I’ve even reviewed a few and we’ve lectured on opera. Happily, we share the same politics I inherited from my Uncle Sam. And while my passion for baseball has faded in the steroid era, opera, among many other things, has kept Evelyn and me together and listening for 57 years.
Thanks, Sam, wherever you are.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, wisewebwoman writes of A Wasted Brain in Oz.]