My First Opera: Eve Queler
I started playing the Mason and Hamlin baby grand piano in the living room of our Bronx apartment as soon as my arms were long enough to reach the keyboard. My father would play the Chinese Dance from The Nutcracker, and I would sit next to him and do the two-note figure in the bass line. Eventually, I moved on to Beethoven sonatas and Chopin nocturnes. My father had a Caruso record, but opera wasn’t really a part of our lives.
Still, I fell in love with the singing voice early on. At a school assembly when I was in the fifth grade, a girl from the class ahead of me sang a song called “Waiting.” I was thunderstruck: This was a voice! Her name was Roberta Peterman, and I brought her home to sing for my mother, accompanying her myself. My mother started to cry, and told her, “Someday you’ll sing at the Metropolitan Opera!” She was right: My schoolmate dropped the “man” from her last name and, as Roberta Peters, made her Met debut just 10 years later. She already had her grown-up voice when she was 10.
When I was 12, I auditioned for the great piano teacher Isabelle Vengerova. She agreed to take me as a student, but only if I moved to Philadelphia and studied with her at the Curtis Institute. My mother wouldn’t let me go, which is why I ended up attending the High School of Music and Art — now LaGuardia High School — in Manhattan. I was bitterly disappointed, but I can see now that it was a blessing in disguise. I would not have followed my path to conducting if I had trained with Madame Vengerova; instead, I would have ended up teaching piano somewhere.
All the pianists at Music and Art had to learn how to play an orchestral instrument, and I chose the French horn. I learned so much from that. A note on a piano, no matter what you do, will fade after you hit it. The horn is more like the human voice: You can sustain a note and change its color. I was third horn in the school orchestra, which gave me a real sense of what playing in an orchestra is like. When I conduct, I probably favor the horn section: I give them a lot of love.
We were a Wagner and Brahms school. Our school song was set to Brahms’ first symphony; our graduation march was the Meistersinger overture. That’s why I chose Tristan und Isolde as my first opera, with Melchior and Traubel at the Met. I became hooked, sometimes watching from standing room, and sometimes listening from a score desk, which Music and Art students could do for free. You couldn’t see the stage, but you could see the conductor and follow along with the score. We had been taught to look down on Italian opera as just so much oom-pah-pah, but when I first heard La traviata, I realized, “This is also beautiful.” I ended up making bel canto one of my specialties as a conductor.
I started listening to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts religiously. One afternoon my high school boyfriend came by to listen to Carmen with me, but he didn’t understand that “listen,” not talk, was what I intended to do. He stormed out of the apartment, shouting, “Give this up and marry me!” Needless to say, I decided otherwise. I eventually went to City College of New York, where I met Stanley Queler the very first day of freshman year. I married him in 1951 and for six wonderful decades he gave me love and supported my career, every step of the way.
Throughout everything, I’ve retained my passion for the singing voice. In the first years of Opera Orchestra of New York, I worked with Nicolai Gedda, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé — all of them, voices. I had the same reaction when I first heard Renée Fleming and Aprile Millo and, more recently, the young Serbian bass Sava Vemic. Listening to Sava, I had the same sensation I had with Roberta Peterman 75 years before. I know when I’m hearing a voice¸ and every time, I just go ape.
Eve Queler is the founder and artistic director of Opera Orchestra of New York. She has just published her memoir A View from the Podium.