San Franscisco's Mayor Gives a Day to the Devil - or Rather, the Preeminent Interpreter of Operatic Demons
Material from Classical Music Column in the Oakland Tribune, Costra Costa Times, and Inside Bay Area - November 7. 2008
Subject matter in classical music runs the gamut from saintly to sinful, the sacred to the profane, and all possible gradations between. Examples of this spectrum's extremes will be represented on Bay Area stages during the current fortnight. Subjects sacred will be channeled in several performances of the music of Olivier Messiaen, the deeply spiritual, Catholic composer born in Avignon, France exactly a century ago, while the other extreme will be represented on the San Francisco Opera House stage by the bass, Samuel Ramey.
Ramey, who is in town singing the tormented title role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is arguably the world's greatest operatic interpreter of the Devil himself, as well as a number of the other demonic characters that slink and seethe through the operatic repertory.
My personal encounter with the imposing basso was an interview on Oct. 29, the day decreed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to be "Samuel Ramey Day," in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of his San Francisco debut.
Tall, fit, and leonine-looking with his luxuriant mane of gray hair and red leather jacket, Ramey said, "One of the main things I remember about that debut (as Colline in La Boheme) was a critic's comment about what a pity it was that I had been forced to wear such an 'unfortunate' wig. But of course, it was actually my own hair!"
Since then, Ramey has sung with SFO under five consecutive general directors, won three Grammy Awards, a Grand Prix du Disc, the San Francisco Opera's 2003 Gold Medal, and has become the most-recorded operatic bass in history. He has gleaned fame and acclaim for his best-selling recording and concert series titled "A Date with the Devil" and claims the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust as his favorite.
When I asked him if he was ever bothered by singing so many devilish characters, he flashed a gleeful grin, and replied, "The bad guys have all the fun, you know."
But, while still maintaining his infectious smile, he affirmed that he sang in his local church choir as a boy in Colby, Kansas and in church while attending Kansas State University in Wichita. Then, as though adding a confirming postscript, he noted that he fondly remembered his mother singing hymns as she went about her housecleaning.
"I grew up listening to the voices of Sinatra, Pat Boone, and Elvis and never even saw an opera until I was actually in one," he explained. But, after a couple of experiences singing in opera choruses in Colorado, he was hooked, and headed for New York City for further vocal study and an audition for the New York City Opera after which he was given the role of Zuniga in Carmen and, thenceforward, has made operatic history.
At 66, he is scaling down somewhat from what has customarily been up to 80 performances annually. In his spare time he plays golf, is an avid spectator of basketball and baseball, and enjoys theater, movies, and watching television. He is already on the faculty of Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he plans to spend his eventual retirement years teaching.
As one of his life's happiest occurrences, he lists his marriage to a beautiful blonde soprano named Lindsey, and with her, to have produced a handsome son, now five years old, who looks just like his Papa.