by Len Lear
Opera News magazine has often praised famed Spanish operatic tenor Placido Domingo, 77, for allegedly having performed more different operatic roles than any other (famous) opera singer. According to Wikipedia, “Domingo has sung 150 roles in Italian, French, German, English, Spanish and Russian” over 58 years. Certainly an impressive body of work, and the implication is 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, a graduate of Chestnut Hill College, has outperformed the legendary Domingo by far — and probably every other opera singer in the world. At the age of 60, Tudisco has sung 304 different operatic roles since he began singing in operas at age 15, 45 years ago. In some cases his research uncovered operas that had never been performed in the U.S. until his Amici Opera Company did so.
“Placido Domingo should be arrested for noise pollution,” said Ralph, who started singing at age 2 or 3. Ralph was born on Ardleigh Street in Mt. Airy in the house that Connie Mack (owner and manager of the Philadelphia A’s baseball team, which is now the Oakland A’s) had lived in. The family later moved to Rugby Street. “My mom gave me a 45 RPM player. I’d listen to tenor arias and sing opera at the top of my lungs on a rocking horse or on the front steps. People would stop their cars and listen. My dad would make me sing everywhere. I didn’t like it, but people would give me money.
“At Show & Tell in school, other kids would bring in dolls or toy cars. I’d bring in opera records and sing. I’d go home every day and listen to a few operas. My dad would say, ‘Ralphie, go to bed,’ but I always had operatic music running through my head. My dad, also named Ralph, once ran an opera house in Brooklyn with 3500 seats for a few years. In 1966 he sold tickets for $1.50, $2.50 and $3.50. In performances of ‘Aida,’ he had a real camel and horses on stage.”
For many years Tudisco took expensive voice lessons with retired opera singers in New York. Twenty years ago, he founded the Amici Opera Company, which still performs several operas a month at churches, restaurants and other venues, mostly in the Philadelphia area. Obviously, his motive is not money because it’s all he can do just to pay expenses for his obsession. “Money is green. That’s all I know about it,” he said.
“To me opera is like food. It’s on my mind 24 hours a day. I watch opera DVDs when I’m having breakfast. I’m still as excited about it as I ever was, maybe more so. I have 6,500 CDs, 25,000 records, thousands of cassettes, sheet music and signed photos.” The only other thing in life which claims Ralph’s attention and time is cooking Italian food. “I cook every day. Any pasta or soup, gravy, clams, etc. I come up with my own recipes.”
In addition to living on the edge financially, a perennial struggle, Ralph’s biggest obstacle is finding talented singers who show up and actually perform for little or no money since many opera singers rarely get paid. “In March or April each year, I put in the dates for the next year of performances, starting with September. Last March and April I did this. By July and August one tenor had backed out of eight operas, and another one backed out of four.
“Now I had to find tenors quickly for 12 operas. No easy feat. And then in August the owner of a restaurant in South Philly said he would only allow one more opera, although we had seven scheduled there and had put flyers out advertising them. And he later canceled the one he said he’d allow. Then our main pianist, Gloria, who is 92 years old, called and said she had fallen and broken her elbow. I spent five hours making phone calls and finally came up with a new pianist,” said Ralph, who has also taught many classes on opera at Temple University’s Ambler campus.
“We had an opera in October. A soprano who had been with me for 10 years was scheduled to perform. I called her way in advance to remind her. She did not return any calls or emails. So I got another soprano who had a good voice but had a complete meltdown while rehearsing. She was crying. Could not take the pressure. I never saw anything like it. So we put on a concert of arias instead. It was at Dock Woods (a senior citizen residential facility in Lansdale). Last October we were also doing a double bill by Bartok and Leoncavallo, but four sopranos backed out. The fifth one finally did it.
“I’d rather have an OK singer who knows the music rather than a great voice who doesn’t know the music. We have young singers who don’t know anything about any opera singer before Maria Callas. I used to search out every singer of Verdi opera, but today they don’t listen to the old singers. In those days they didn’t just have big voices; they had big personalities. You knew in two notes it was Caruso or Ezio Pinza or Delmonico. Now all of the Academy of Vocal Arts grads sound alike … A lot of phenomenal singers were not household names. A lot of great sopranos died destitute.
“In the old days you would learn five to 10 operas, but now they are so unprepared. I’m lucky if they have learned one opera. All you do most of your life as a singer is memorize. Today they don’t have the discipline. The technology has ruined it. Smart phones have made them lazy. They will go to Germany for a master class with a has-been but won’t go a half-hour to learn an opera that could really help them in the future.”
This month, Amici has staged seven performances of four operas — “La Traviata,” “I Rantzau” (first time ever), “Tales of Hoffman” (Ralph sings four roles) and “La Boheme.” In March they will stage five different ones. Ralph has sung in “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata” and “La Boheme” more than 100 times each. He has sung in “Tosca” about 90 times, 40 of which were in New York. He was the first singer ever to sing in and stage all 27 operas by Verdi (by 2008).
Since he could not afford to advertise and has no website, to get the word out about upcoming operas, Ralph would distribute countless flyers in the city and mail about 800 flyers, putting stamps on each one and writing out every name and address by hand.
Amici’s newest venue for operas is Sicilian Trattoria, a restaurant in Elkins Park. “Every one sells out,” said Ralph. “I don’t have to put out any flyers because every opera sells out anyway. We are there once a month now, but in March, April and May we will do two a month.”
For more information about upcoming operas, call 215-224-0257.