by Len Lear
The back inside cover of the February issue of Opera News magazine this year had a full-page tribute to famed opera singer Placido Domingo, 71, for having performed “nearly 130 roles in 50 years.” Certainly an impressive body of work, and the implication was that since learning and performing new operatic roles is so exhausting physically, mentally and psychologically (not to mention the demands on the memory), few if any other opera singers could match Domingo’s record for sheer numbers. (Even most of the world’s greatest opera stars have generally performed in no more than 50 different operas.)
Well, he will almost certainly never get a full-page tribute in Opera News magazine, but in terms of sheer numbers, Mt. Airy native Ralph Tudisco has outperformed the legendary Domingo — and possibly every other opera singer in the world. At just 53, Tudisco has sung 140 different operatic roles since he began singing opera at age 15, 38 years ago.
In April of 2008, Tudisco performed his 100th different operatic role in Verdi’s “Falstaff” at The Garden Church in Lansdowne. It also marked the fact that Ralph has performed in all 26 of Verdi’s operas, and there is no record of any other singer, past or present, matching that record. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is generally regarded as the greatest operatic composer who ever lived.
And unlike the multi-million dollar stars at the Metropolitan Opera Company, New York City Opera or La Scala in Milan, Tudisco does a lot more than just sing. As founder of the East Oak Lane-based Amici Opera Company, Ralph has staged 92 different operas in the 13 years since he started Amici. 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.)
As a result, in order to keep Amici (and himself) alive, Ralph maintains a teaching schedule of non-credit opera courses, “Opera from the Beginning,” at Temple University’s Ambler campus (a six-week course begins in October) that usually have 40 or more students per class, and he also has a full-time job 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.”
One of the remarkable things about the Amici Opera Company is that even though the singers do not get paid, many of them come from hundreds or even thousands of miles, all at their own expense, to audition, rehearse and perform in the Philadelphia area. (If you think it is sad that they are not paid or reimbursed for their expenses, some small opera companies actually require their singers to pay the company for the privilege of performing.) Tudisco advertises for singers in a national trade publication called “Classical Singer” that usually brings in resumes from all over the country. For example, John Carpenter, 65, who previously sang with the Metropolitan Opera and who won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, answered Ralph’s ad and flew in from his home in Colorado to audition. “He was in ‘Trovatore’ in March at St. Nicholas Hall in South Philly, and he was great,” said Ralph. “Next October I’m flying out to Colorado to sing ‘Otello’ with him, and then he’s coming here in October of next year to sing with us again.”
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.
“We give opportunities to singers, regardless of age or looks or how much they weigh,” said Ralph. “I just want good singers. I prefer the older ones because of their experience, but I have given a chance to many young kids with no experience.”
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. Even the Metropolitan Opera does not do these little-known operas unless they have a really big name in the lead. It’s really a shame that most opera singers have no curiosity about these rarely performed operas because many of them are wonderful. I have never had anyone come up to me after performing one of these little-known works and say, ‘It was no good.’ It’s just the opposite. People come up afterwards and say, ‘Why isn’t it done more often.’”
But 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.”
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.
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.)
If you want to see one of Amici’s operas, they will be performing a concert of Italian and Spanish arias, duets and songs on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2:30 p.m., at Dockwoods Community, 275 Dock Drive in Lansdale (inside the chapel); and Puccini’s “La Boheme,” one of the most popular operas of all time and the basis for the Broadway hit musical, “Rent,” 0n Sunday, Oct. 2, 3 p.m., at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church, 411 Susquehanna Rd. in Ambler. Tickets for both are $25 at the door, $22 for seniors and advance purchases, and $15 for students. For more information, call 215-224-0257.