by Len Lear
Raffaele (Ralph) Tudisco of Mt. Airy, a graduate of Chestnut Hill College, has to be the nation’s number one opera buff. He literally breathes, eats and sleeps opera. Every waking minute of every day (and probably every dream) is consumed by opera. Tudisco, who has traveled all over the world to buy music, has a collection of more than 700 vocal scores, 25,000 records, 5,000 CDs and countless books about opera. “The UPS guy and the mailman are my best friends,” he said.
Ralph, 54, is the founder of the Amici Opera Company, which opens its 14th season on Saturday, Sept. 15, with an opera that almost no one in the U.S. has ever heard of (more on that later).
The opera will be the 106th different opera performed by Amici, and it will be Ralph’s 157th different role, which is probably more than any other operatic performer in the U.S. if not the world. Ralph, who began singing opera 39 years ago, has performed 19 more roles than the legendary Placido Domingo, for example, even though Domingo is 19 years older. Ralph has performed in all 26 of Verdi’s operas, and there is no record of any other singer, past or present, matching that accomplishment.
The 14th season opener will be “King Lear,” by Antonio Cagnoni (1828 – 1896), who is almost completely unknown in the U.S., even among most opera buffs and even though he was very well known in his lifetime in Italy. Cagnoni wrote 20 operas, the last of which was “King Lear.” (The greatest operatic composer of all, Giuseppe Verdi, worked on and off for years on an opera about King Lear, but he never finished it.)
Cagnoni did finish his “King Lear” in 1896, but tragically he died soon afterwards. As a result, it was not published until 1900 but quickly faded into oblivion, where it stayed for more than 100 years. In 2009 it was discovered by an Italian opera troupe, which proceeded to perform it on July 19, 2009, at the Festival della Valle d’Itria, a summer opera held in the southeastern Italian town of Martina Franca in the Apulia region.
The Festival was founded in 1975, and performances are given in July and August each summer on a specially constructed stage in an outdoor courtyard. Up until today, this was the one and only performance in the world of this 116-year-old opera based on Shakespeare’s four-hour tragedy.
A CD recording was made of that one performance, and that CD was sent to Tudisco by an opera store owner in Vermont, from whom Ralph has been buying merchandise for 20 years. “I listened to it,” said Ralph, “and I thought that the singers were not that great, but the music was very beautiful and very melodic. It’s just a shame that Cagnoni never lived to see it performed.”
Anxious to perform the opera for the first time ever in the U.S., Tudisco tried to find out where in the U.S. he could obtain the score of Cagnoni’s “King Lear.” (Even his sources in Italy did not have the score.) He discovered that only two places in the country had it — the libraries at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard University.
Ralph called the Harvard Library in June of this year and found out that they would charge him $300 to copy the score and send it to him. The Amici Opera Company could not afford the $300, but if Ralph (or a friend) went to Harvard in person, he would be allowed to copy the score on a library copying machine for a small fraction of the quoted price. (Although Amici does charge an admission fee to their operas of about $25, they usually just break even after paying rent to the church or other facility where they rehearse and perform, as well as the cost of publicity, mailings, etc. Ralph still does not own a computer, believe it or not.)
As a result, Ralph’s friend, Steve Geraci, a mail carrier from Olney who comes to many of Amici’s performances, traveled to Harvard as a favor the day after Ralph’s phone call. Steve arrived at the Harvard Library just after it opened at 9 a.m. and copied page after page for five hours until just before 2 p.m., when the library closed its doors for the day. (It was a Saturday.) The cost for copying was $29, less than 10 percent of the price quoted on the phone.
The Amici Opera Company began rehearsals of “King Lear” on Aug. 20. “Everyone in the cast loves the music,” said Ralph, a baritone who will be performing the title role. “It is so beautiful. It’s just a shame that out of Cagnoni’s 20 operas, only two have ever been recorded.”
The best compliment Ralph ever received was from an 80-year-old woman in Upper Dublin after a performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart. She said, “You are the best Figaro I have ever seen, and I have seen Robert Merrill, Frank Guarrera, John Charles Thomas and Carlo Morelli all do it in person.”
“King Lear” will be performed Saturday, Sept. 15, and Friday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m. both times, at the Holmesburg United Methodist Church, 8118 Frankford Ave. (at Welsh Road) in Northeast Philly. There are two adjacent parking lots, and the church is wheelchair-accessible. Tickets are $25 at the door; $22 for seniors and advance purchases; $15 for students and $10 for children 12 and under. For more information, call 215-224-0257.