by Len Lear
There will most likely be no TV cameras there or reporters from the nation’s major media to record the event, but on Sunday, Nov. 16, 3 p.m., Mt. Airy opera singer and Chestnut Hill College graduate Ralph Tudisco, founder of the Amici Opera Company, will definitely make history. Tudisco, 56, who began singing 41 years ago, will almost certainly set a world record by singing his 200th different operatic role when he performs the role of Orazi in “Orazie e Curiazi” by Mercadante at Redeemer United Methodist Church, 1128 Cottman Ave. in Northeast Philly. (It will be performed again on Saturday, Nov. 22, 4 p.m.)
From what I have been able to find out, there really is no official record in this category, but I don’t think anyone can dispute Tudisco’s claim. I checked with the Guinness Book of World Records website, and they do not have a record of the person who has sung the most different operatic roles. When I put the question to Google, the only name that came up was Placido Domingo, the world-famous 73-year-old Spanish tenor and conductor. “As of the end of 2013,” according to Wikipedia, “he has sung 144 different roles.”
“I am almost 60 roles ahead of him,” said Tudisco last week, “and he is 17 years older than I am. Also, I have sung all 27 Verdi operas plus ‘The Requiem,’ and no one has ever done that before. And I staged them all, and no one has ever done that before, either. (Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901, is generally regarded as the greatest operatic composer who ever lived.) In about three years I hope to be up to 250 different roles. And I never had so much as a sore throat, which is amazing. I still have so much energy until a show is over. Then my legs, arms and chest all hurt. Everything hurts.”
Even more difficult than Broadway musicals, learning and performing new operatic roles is so exhausting physically, mentally and psychologically (not to mention the demands on the memory), it is almost unheard of for opera singers to perform more than 100 different roles in one lifetime. Even most of the world’s greatest opera stars have generally performed in no more than 50 different operas, although they often do the same ones over and over again. Tudisco has performed in “La Boheme” more than 60 times and in “Tosca” and “La Traviata” more than 50 times each.
Even off-stage, Tudisco is no stranger to drama. In October of 2004, he was run off the road by a car near 66th and Ogontz in West Oak Lane. The other driver got out of his car and punched Ralph. When Ralph tried to drive away, the thug pulled out a gun and shot Ralph, with the bullet scraping both of his legs. “The doctors told me if the bullet was a little lower, I would have been paralyzed.” The shooter, who had a long drug history, was found guilty and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
Ralph is normally in his kitchen from 8 a.m. to midnight every day working on operas except for three or four rehearsals during the week, two performances on weekends and teaching as an adjunct professor for Temple U. Even right after a performance, Ralph and his troupe will rehearse for the next opera “simply because the singers are all there.” He advertises for singers in national opera magazines, and they have come from as far away as Colorado, Virginia, Utah and Washington state, even though they receive no pay.
Lynette Owens, a mother of a teenage boy who has performed in at least 10 Amici operas, would fly to Philly each time from her home in Utah and stay in the home of a friend in Philadelphia for two weeks while rehearsing and performing.
But the farthest distance of all was traveled by Gwen Trussler, who lives 3,000 miles away in Washington state. She even flew in to Philly six times — for four rehearsals and two performances of one opera — when she was three months pregnant. “It is harder and harder to get the singers,” Ralph said. “Cell phones have made people lazier, and opera is definitely not for lazy people. I once called 66 voice teachers before I could find a tenor.”
And even though Amici does charge an admission fee 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. In fact, “when someone told me she ‘friended’ me on Facebook, I did not know what that meant. I said, ‘If you want to befriend me, just call me up on the phone.’”) As a result, in order to keep Amici (and himself) alive, Ralph has maintained a teaching schedule of non-credit six-week opera courses at Temple University’s Ambler campus for the past 10 years that usually have 40 or more students per class. He is currently teaching “Six Great Singers from Opera and Movies.”
He also teaches a seven-week course, “Seven of the Greatest Singers of All Time,” at Olli, a Temple U.-affiliated school across the street from City Hall, for 50 students. He has also worked as a home health care worker. “I have built up such stamina,” said the stocky singer, “that despite all that, I have never missed a performance. And when other male singers call in sick, I have to perform their roles as well as my own.”
Tudisco’s biggest fan is undoubtedly Dr. Lewis Snitzer, 67, a retired neurosurgeon from Huntingdon Valley who has gone to dozens of Amici-performed operas over the past few years. “Ralph is the most knowledgeable person on opera that I ever met,” Dr. Snitzer told us last week. “He teaches and is like a walking encyclopedia of opera. He also puts together the best possible performances with the best trained singers that he can get. He works tirelessly at this passion he has for opera at very little (or sometimes no) financial reward.”
Ralph also prides himself on the fact that Amici has performed more than 10 operas that had never previously been performed in the U.S., such as “Saffo” by Puccini, “Virginia” by Mercadante, “Belisario” and “Gemma DiVergy,” both by Donizetti. One opera that they’ve done 10 times, “Cristofaro Colombo” by Franchetti, had last been performed in the U.S. in 1913. “The Jewel of the Madonna,” by Wolf-Ferrari, about a love triangle that even has Mafia involvement in the plot, was one of Amici’s most successful operas, with more than 130 people coming to a venue in South Philly in 2007. It had not been performed in the U.S. before that since the 1920s. “Most singers do not want to be in these,” said Ralph. “They’ll say, ‘I’ll never do that opera again, so why should I learn it?’ They’re also afraid they’ll get a small audience.”
Tudisco, who has traveled all over the world to buy music, has a collection of more than 750 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. Tudisco, who has no children, was married once for three years in the 1990s to a native of Brazil. (You might say he is now married to opera.)
For many years he lived with his mother, Grace, in East Oak Lane, but she died a few years ago at the age of 91. “She was my biggest fan,” said Ralph. “She would come to every performance, even though she did not like to go out of the house. Sometimes I would have to carry her, and every time I came off stage, she would say how much she liked it, even if she slept through most of it.” (Grace is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at Cheltenham Avenue and Mermaid Lane.)
For more information about upcoming operas, call 215-224-0257.