by Lou Mancinelli
In 2010, when Paul Sofian retired after working for more than 40 years for the City of Philadelphia, he thought he would finally have the time to pursue his passion for old movies, spending afternoons on the couch, watching a few black and white films on Turner Classic Network (TCN).
Instead, the man who’d never done theater of any kind joined The Amici Opera Company, a local group that has performed 141 different operas since it was founded in 1998. On May 3 and 9, for example, he played in a production of “Carmen” by Bizet at a retirement community in Lansdale and a church in Northeast Philly, respectively.
“I said hey, let’s go try this and see if I can do it,” said Sofian, 68, who lived in West Mt. Airy for 23 years before moving to Roxborough in 2003. He had joined the company in 2007, but after retiring, his interest redoubled.
“I learned to like and love opera before I knew it was opera,” said Sofian, a bass singer. Growing up in the lower Northeast, just off the Boulevard, Sofian’s father used to play “The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At The Met.”
It was a record that went with the animated movie of the same name, produced by Walt Disney, with numerous opera clips on it—like Rossini’s “Battle of Figaro” from “The Barber of Seville.” Sofian listened to the record hundreds of times. In high school, he realized, oh, that’s opera.
At Olney High School in the early ‘60s, he described himself as “an oddball.” He was a liberal who listened to rock and roll but also to jazz and classical music. When he graduated in 1964, he went on to Temple University, graduating four years later with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Sofian taught for two years in Philadelphia public schools, then in 1970, took a job with the city’s health department. For nine years he was responsible for speaking with anyone who came into the health clinic with syphilis or gonorrhea. His job was to learn whom they’d gotten it from and whom they might have possibly given it to. His title: health program representative, HPR.
He interviewed more than 300 men with venereal disease over the years. Many times he’d have to hit the street. A married man might have told Sofian the only person he had sex with was his wife. So when she had blood-work done — a move Sofian might discreetly arrange with her doctor — and it came back clean, Sofian had another call to make. This might lead him to a bar in West Philly looking for a prostitute named Peaches.
In 1979 Paul was laid off due to department cutbacks and four months later joined the city’s water revenue department, where he pursued similar, though less infectious, responsibilities. Every month the Water Department received a pile of “hundreds, sometimes thousands” of undelivered water bills. Sofian’s job was to go and find why they weren’t delivered. He worked in that position until he retired. A divorcee, he married art teacher Alice Farber in 2003.
Now two things occupy much of his time — rehearsing and singing in operas for Amici and giving lectures four times a month at libraries, schools, hospitals and senior homes about movies. He’s done this for 15 years and has three set talks (he has given each one over 800 times), complete with old grainy slides broadcasted with an old-fashioned Kodak Carousel Projection slide projector. One covers Marilyn Monroe; another the great musicals; the third explores 1939: Hollywood’s greatest year, according to Sofian.
That year alone produced “Gone With The Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” (one of his favorites), “Stagecoach”— a film Sofian says transformed John Wayne from an actor into a star; the British film “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Gunga Din,” a film based on a Rudyard Kupling poem that included uncredited contributions by William Faulkner.
“I’m one of the old-fashioned ones who really appreciate black and white, because that’s what I grew up with,” he said. When he worked for 15 years some nights and weekends at Video Library in Mt. Airy, he was the go-to guy for recommendations for old films. The younger guys handled the newer stuff.
Sofian will also be recognized by film buffs who used to go to Tuesday Night at the Movies at the Chestnut Hill Library. He would introduce each movie from 1985 to 2002 with a few minutes of information about it. He was the first person to do so. (Now the movies are screened at Woodmere Art Museum.)
Sofian’s next performance with the Amici Opera Company will be in a performance of “Rigoletto” at the High Note Café, 1549 S. 13th St., on Wednesday, May 20. More details at 215-755-8903.