An homage to artists we lost in 2019

Nearing the end of this eventful 2019 it is now time to pay homage to several artists who passed on during the past twelve months.

This selection is very subjective and tied to personal connections, many of them emotional. No, I did not know any one of these men and women personally, but in one way or another they made an impact on me ever since I started going to the theatre and to concerts in the Havana of the 1950’s.

Before moving to the United States I took my first steps as a budding actor on the stages of Cuban theatre and there I fell under the spell of actress Maria Antonia Rey, then a beautiful woman in her twenties whose looks were outshined by her larger than life acting style. She transitioned into a fine English-speaking stage, film, and television character actress when she fled communist Cuba in 1961 and came to this country.

Also from those days I cherish the memory of Alicia Alonso, a Cuban world-class prima ballerina whose tragic Giselle and playful Coppélia and her double tour de force performances as Odile/Odette in Swan Lake were proof that classical ballet can be great drama as well.

Many of us started collecting long playing records back in the day, and later still cassettes from all of which we derived enormous pleasure, especially listening to the Italian baritone Rolando Panerai.

Although I can only appreciate the singing of German soprano Hilde Zadek and the English soprano Heather Harper from their recordings, I remember seeing many live performances of soprano Jessye Norman and tenor Marcello Giordani, which I rate among the greatest memories of my opera-going life.

When it comes to instrumentalists, composers and conductors, where the visual is not essential to the performance, the recordings of pianists Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda, the songs of Michel Legrand and João Gilberto, and the conducting of Mariss Janson, André Previn, and Raymond Leppard remains as memorable as the music they conducted.

Much later, I came to admire the more-is-more work of Franco Zeffirelli, the intellectually rigorous style of Jonathan Miller, and the enormous creativity of Harold Prince. All three of these giants passed this year, but many of their productions are preserved on video, and the ones I saw live are still alive in my memory.

Not all memories are sweet and pleasant. Among those not so nice is that of that most vitriolic of critics, John Simon whose poisoned pen targeted many victims, among them my mentor Joe Papp, who once grabbed Simon by the collar in the lobby of the Public Theatre and threatened to evict him for life from any further performances at Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. I can’t recall what ensued, but I think of Papp grabbing Simon and nearly strangling him as a real cathartic moment. May Joe rest in peace. May Simon be forever consigned to the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno.

The passing of all these greats reminds us of the fragility and brevity of life, but their art, ephemeral as all performing arts are, reminds one that life in the arts continues past mortality .

Rafael de Acha