BWW Interviews: Peter Danish and His Novel Tale of THE TENOR, World War II and Maria Callas
THE TENOR, the new novel by BWW's Classical Music Editor, Peter Danish, was recently published by Pegasus Books and is available on Amazon.com. It's a sweeping tale of a young tenor that extends from pre-war Italy to his coming of age as a soldier in war-torn Greece, and ends in 1965 with Maria Callas' historic final performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Based loosely on stories that Danish gathered from several of Callas' personal friends, it also includes extensive research done in Italy and Greece. I talked with Peter about the novel--how it came about and his own passion for opera.
Richard Sasanow: What prompted you to write this book, Peter?
Peter Danish: A few years ago, I was reading Ariana (Stassinopoulos) Huffington's biography of the great Maria Callas, and I was taken with a very brief but incredible story about an Italian soldier: During the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Athens, despite martial law and a strictly enforced curfew, an Italian soldier crept out of his camp to sit below a window where he knew that a certain young girl would be practicing her singing. It became the most important thing in the soldier's life.
I was quite taken by this incredible story, but wondered if it too incredible, with its ring of romance. It sounded like one of those stories that grows through urban legend. When I read other biographies of Callas, none of them mentioned the incident with the Italian soldier.
I suddenly recalled that a family friend had been a close friend of Callas and I reached out to ask whether the story were true. To my delight, he said it was absolutely true and that Maria had a terrible school girl crush on the soldier. In fact, they would even sing together occasionally--she on the balcony, he down in the alley way. But my elation was short-lived, because I found that there was no evidence that the solider survived when the Allied Forces re-took Athens.
Well, to me, it sounded like a modern day Romeo and Juliet--complete with balcony! I decided that this soldier deserved a life and a story of his own.
RS: What do you love most about opera and the people who sing them?
PD: I was bitten by the opera bug in an odd way. WNEW-FM used to have a wonderful radio show called "Mixed Bag", hosted by Pete Fornatale, featuring off-beat music of all genres. One Saturday, the featured artist was Annie Haslam of the rock band Renaissance, who was also a classically trained opera singer. I was mesmerized when she sang the Schubert Ave Maria and Puccini's "O mio babbino caro." I ran out to Sam Goody record store with my dad to find copies of them, but there were too many choices and I was lost. With his homespun wisdom, Dad told me: "I don't know much about opera, but when in doubt, I'd go with the largest singer you can find!" And so, Monserrat Caballe's Puccini Album became my first operatic LP.
As far as what makes opera singers different and or special, I think it's the level of dedication required (without even the slightest certainty of future success) that they need to invest that makes them different. To spend thousands of hours year after year after year to train a very delicate instrument and then to have to constantly maintain that instrument, requires a mindset all its own.