These Boots Weren’t Made for Walking

Remembering the height of my career

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As a young man I had good vocal cords and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. Considering my teenage background in the church choir and in Gilbert and Sullivan high school productions, the drama teacher suggested that singing my way into the opera world seemed a possible choice. However, there was one problem. The music teacher told me that operatic heroes shouldn’t be shorter than the soprano they are wooing.

I stand 5’4” in my stocking feet.

True some opera singers, like renowned tenor Joseph Schmidt, coming in at just under five feet and considered too short for live performances in the opera house, reached fame doing recordings.

But I craved the stage, the audience. If opera was out, I’d find another musical forum. So, I plowed on with my dream.

My adventure on the musical yellow brick road began at age 30 when I was hired as a tenor soloist in a Ukrainian-Canadian men’s choir, even though I’m not Ukrainian. When a Ukrainian-speaking colleague asked how I pronounced the words correctly, I replied, “I sing phonetically.” Presumably because of my obvious fervor for the music and excited reaction to the applause, he responded, “No, you sing fanatically.” No height issue here!

During the years I worked with the Ukrainians, I also participated in amateur nights at the 1876-built “Ye Olde Brunswick House” hotel in Toronto. The music wasn’t operatic or even remotely Gilbert and Sullivan, but it provided a further chance to sing and inched me closer towards a music life. Anyone — tall, short, thin, heavyset, could participate if he or she didn’t run afoul of Mickey. Mickey, a wiry 5’5” auto body repairman by day, was the MC and resident bouncer. He could handle any situation — an inebriated dancer, a novice magician dropping his cards, or a senior citizen playing the spoons. In his carnival straw hat and red-striped shirt, Mickey introduced every performer with equal enthusiasm, but was always poised to pounce on troublemakers who needed removing.

One time as I made my way to the stage, I inadvertently stepped between his fist and a miscreant’s face, missing by a second, a vocal career-ending punch to the neck. Safely arrived, mic in hand, accompanied by Miss Olive on the battered, out-of-tune Heintzman piano, I opened with my usual repertoire: A George M. Cohan medley of “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Over There,” and concluded with Paul Anka’s version of “My Way.”

Usually I received a huge ovation, prompting performances two or three evenings a week. One night, at the end of my act, a tipsy middle-aged woman, clutching her booze, careened up to the stage. Smiling, I awaited her adulation. Spilling her 25-cent draft beer, she reached up with her drink-free hand, pushed me backwards and in a loud, cigarette-ravaged voice, gave me my first review.

“You . . . shtink!”

Hubris took its first hit. I was, to say the least, shocked and extremely angry. That didn’t stop me. The show had to go on and fame beckoned.

So, I took a step forward and began my professional career in popular music by trying out for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation jazz program. After the audition, the producer’s reaction was, “Yeah you can sing jazz.” And I did, on a cross-Canada radio show, followed by an appearance in a TV music production.

“With a voice like that you’d think this young man has been singing for centuries,” the host commented.

“He meant you were over the hill,” a friend said.

The latter amused me, but it echoed what I was beginning to sense.

“I’m not a particularly good jazz singer,” I said to my voice teacher at our next session. Nothing to do with my height, I knew. Nobody in the jazz world ever mentioned that. Besides, states Rob Paul in celebheights.com, Frankie Valli, lead singer of the Four Seasons, is 5’4”, as was the late Eddie Fisher. Sinatra was 5’7 1⁄2”. Billy Joel is 5’5”. I just didn’t feel I had the improvisatory chops really good jazz singers need.

“You’re okay,” she nodded, “But I think you have more potential as an opera singer.”

Her remark both surprised and delighted me.

Surprised, because my parents and I were Lawrence Welk people. While I knew what opera was and, as I mentioned earlier, had briefly considered its career possibilities, I had never heard or seen one. My only experience with classical music was listening to a recording of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” purchased on my 16th birthday.

Delighted, because operatic voices, unlike those of jazz and popular music singers, didn’t require amplification. Since opera singers had a more impressive sound, at least in terms of volume and often beauty of tone, these classically-trained vocalists were fewer in number. The opportunity for music fame was greater in opera. I had also heard that opera groups were a great place to meet girls.

So, I took the plunge, auditioned for a professional opera company in Toronto, and was accepted as a chorus tenor. Even though I was just a chorister, being on the same stage with some of the great singers of the day added fuel to my operatic fire. A few solo roles with another opera group and performing arias on New York City’s Public Broadcasting radio station further whetted my operatic appetite. I wanted to be the star — Rodolfo in Puccini’s famous opera, La Bohème or, if you will, the Brad Pitt film character, not a chorister or a supporting actor.

I continued studying, but with a new teacher — Ernesto Barbini, the music director of the Canadian Opera Company. The lessons paid off. He offered me my first professional part on an opera stage: the role of Parpignol, the toy vendor, in La Bohème. Unfortunately, before the season began, he lost his position as music director. Too bad. That killed working as an operatic Toys “R” Us sales clerk.

At the same time, I enrolled in opera summer camps. One was at West Liberty University in West Virginia. In 1976, the director was Boris Goldovsky, celebrated conductor and teacher of many Metropolitan Opera stars. He was an excellent instructor. Many young singers, including me, silently counted the beats to make sure they didn’t come in at the wrong moment. Goldovsky sensed our anxiety. In his Russian-accented English, sounding a bit like Count Dracula, he calmly announced, “Don’t count. Counting is for accountants.”

However, he had one piece of advice, only for my ears. It wasn’t what I expected. After conducting one scene in which I played the romantic lead, he said, “Your voice is too big for your body. You should learn all the secondary tenor roles you can and audition for the New York City Opera.”

So, was it to be, “Bye Brad? See you later Rodolfo?”

Nope! I wasn’t ready to be the second banana. I continued working on the lead roles. Besides, I wondered, what’s size got to do with it? Where did that height thing come from anyway? One possibility, the movies.

In the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, 6’2” Clark Gable looked down at 5’3” Vivien Leigh, and snarled his response to her character’s question, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” this way: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” After that, the male lead in films would usually be the taller, dominant partner in the relationship.

In 1955, says Rob Paul, Gable laid out the résumé for the leading man: “When I came to town 25 years ago my six feet, two inches were considered pretty high up. But year by year they keep coming in — taller and taller. Today, it would appear than any actor under six feet is virtually a runt.”

The runts had to adapt. According to imdb.com, Humphrey Bogart, at about 5’8” sat on cushions in couch scenes with the taller Ingrid Bergman. Declares Rob Paul, Alan Ladd, 5’6”, stood on a box to appear taller than his leading ladies.

Over the next decades, opera would also become obsessed with appearance, not just height, but weight and good looks as well.

In E.H.B’s story, “Who Will Sing Aida?” published October 21, 2013 in The Economist, Fabio Luisi shed some light on the situation.

“The difference between now and 50 years ago is that . . . directors weren’t as fixated on appearance,” the former principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera stated.

So why the change?

Andrew Moravcsik, in a 2016 Princeton University study, maintains that today, stage directors, not conductors or music directors, often have the last word when it comes to casting. They select singers according to their looks and not their voices, “Knowing they may be filmed, artists now aim to become ‘HD ready.’”

And writing in Gramophone on March 13, 2012 in a blog titled, “In opera, does size matter?” deputy editor Sarah Kirkup summarized the attitude of many professional reviewers: “Yes, in opera, the voice is paramount and nothing must get in the way of that . . . But the ability to convince the audience by embodying a role comes a close second. And if I’m not convinced, then I’d rather not bother. Go on, shoot me.”

In a WQXR blog in 2010, audience members agree. “In a concert performance the size of the singer is insignificant and the voice is the only thing that matters. However, in a staged opera the appearance of the singer is a contributing factor to the storyline, the fantasy, the complete performance . . . the visual should complement the performance and not detract from it. Opera needs to attract the largest audience it possibly can.”

“Where tenors were concerned,” continues a ’70s era soprano, “there were many who were short and a few who were tall (in big demand, of course). Some were big and some were small. As I think about it, the visual mosaic that happened on stage as a result could be as dramatically incorrect as it gets.”

How else to explain this operatic obsession with appearance other than the influence of movies and television?

But some shorter men with outstanding voices could still get lead roles in the first half of the 20th century, even when they were paired with taller sopranos. American tenor Richard Tucker, who started his career in 1945, stood around 5’7” and often sang with 5’10” Renata Tebaldi. In 1954, Tebaldi, singing a love duet with another great tenor, Jussi Bjoerling, briefly rested her head on his shoulder to distract from the fact he was several inches shorter than her. Spanish tenor José Carreras, 5’6”, was one of the few who defied the odds and sang lead roles into the 1980s.

However, when at age 34 I met Goldovsky, short lead tenors would soon be old news. It had become an unwritten tradition. The age of the tall, handsome cinematic superhero had arrived. Opera to stay credible had to fall in line and with televised Met broadcasts beginning in 1977, it did. I would have to find another way.

In the late 1970s, I traveled to New York City to take some voice lessons with Enrico Di Giuseppe, the famous Metropolitan Opera tenor who, in live broadcast performances, could sing high notes that only a dog could hear. He, too, was an inspiring teacher but vocal technique was not all I learned. He wasn’t much taller than me and he seemed like an easy-going guy. With Goldovsky’s comment in mind, I took a chance and asked Enrico how he put his voice and his body in sync.

“Boots,” he replied matter-of-factly, “I wear boots with elevated heels.”

Why hadn’t I considered that? I asked him where in New York he bought them.

“I didn’t buy them in New York. I got them in Toronto at Bolubash’s store on College St.”

Back in Toronto, I visited Mr. Bolubash. For $321, or $64.20 for each new, always uncomfortable inch, he made me 5’9”. A lot of money then. But for stardom? Priceless!

In 1980, despite my concern that becoming an opera singer could mean separation from my family, I embarked on a European audition tour. I travelled to Germany and Austria which contained more opera houses and agents than anywhere else.

Of course, my new boots came with me. I didn’t dare leave anything to chance. It was imperative to project both the look and sound of a lead tenor. Clark Kent-like, I transformed myself before auditions and re-booted, but not in a phone booth. Deserted hallways, behind a tree, wherever I could rise to the occasion unobserved, did the trick. Once, after changing my altitude, I stepped into an agent’s office in Munich and joined a score of other hopefuls. A young soprano gave me the eye, or so I thought. My audition over, I went into the washroom to de-boot. As I emerged, my “Mimi” peered at me with uncertainty in her eyes. The Incredible Hulk had shrunk. I enjoyed the moment immensely.

In the end, I decided to scrap any lead operatic tenor ambitions. It wasn’t only the tight-fitting boots, but mainly because a Viennese agent said my operatic future would likely be confined to a regional theater in a smaller city. I could barely speak German. I knew that wouldn’t be the life for me. When my European auditions finished, the boots took up residence in my basement, since they were useless for everyday walking. Thinking of Maestro Goldovsky’s West Virginia comment, perhaps I should have done it his way rather than mine and tried out for the New York City Opera in character roles. Nevertheless, I had fun and did meet a girl. We’ve been married for 39 years.

Although I had given opera the boot, I couldn’t follow the advice of Ruth Lowe and her colleagues in their 1943 song, “Put Your Dreams Away.” So I switched to oratorios such as Handel’s Messiah. These works are regularly performed without staging or costumes and height doesn’t matter. Performing boot-free, I sang leading tenor roles in London, England — the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall, in St Martin-in-the-Fields, and in Canadian and U.S. venues.

After ten years on the road, in 1992 at the age of 50, I retired. I had a new interest then, a ten year old and a seven year old. And a full-time teaching position.

My music career was over.

Maybe.

Meantime, I have a few words for a few people.

Nancy Sinatra: thanks for your hit song which inspired my inverted essay title.

Mr. Bolubash: To paraphrase 1950s television icon Jimmy Durante, “Goodnight, wherever you are.”

And readers: Anybody interested in a pair of boots? •

These Boots are Made for Walkin’ – composed by Lee Hazlewood, recorded by Nancy Sinatra for Western Recorders, 1966.

Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.

Thomas Laver is a former singer and teacher. He was a writer for the education division of TVO, the Public Television Network of the Province of Ontario, Canada. His writing has also appeared in the Journal of the American Heart Association, Heart Insight Magazine, Canadian Teacher Magazine, and Our Canada, a Reader’s Digest publication.

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