by Edith Gladstone
A week ago, Jason Victor Serinus and I sat in his living room-lined with records, CDs, and DVDs. As we faced his audiophile sound system, Jason spoke about his background as a musician and music critic. Adding to the lively atmosphere was his half-Jack Russell terrier, Daisy Mae Doven, whom he and his husband affectionately refer to as their daughter. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
Edith Gladstone (EG): Did you choose the Puccini aria you whistled in the Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon, She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown?
Jason Victor Serinus (JVS): No, I didn't. After an open audition for a TV show, an acquaintance who taught drama classes for kids suggested I contact producer Lee Mendelson. She thought he could use my whistling in a children's cartoon.
Months later, I phoned him in Burlingame. I had no idea who he was at the time. He was very polite, but I heard nothing more. I later learned he thought I might be nuts.
Some months later, I came home to discover the little red light on my answering machine flashing. The voice on the phone said, "Hello, Jason Serinus? This is Lee Mendelson. Look, Charles Schulz and I were thinking of using you as the voice of Woodstock in a Peanuts cartoon. Do you know the aria 'O mio babbino caro'? If you do, could you send us a tape?"
Charles Schulz? Of Peanuts fame? "O mio babbino caro"? I'd been whistling it for years. Excited, I hung the microphone over a hot water pipe in the front room of my two-room hovel, played the accompaniment in the background, and whistled my heart out. They hired me right away.
EG: That is the loveliest moment in the cartoon. And the many interviews you've done with artists show great technical understanding of vocal artistry involved. Do you sing? Or did you?
JVS: I did sing, but you wouldn't pay me to do it! I used to be a first tenor. Then sometime in college, my voice tightened up, and whistling became my medium.
When I attended Amherst College many many many years ago, I studied with a voice teacher voice for about a year. Every time I started to sing in the little practice room, I'd break into a cold sweat because I was afraid someone would hear me doing scales. I went from being terrified of someone hearing me through insulated walls to whistling Puccini on national television. I can't explain that.
EG: How did you go from whistling to writing music criticism?
JVS: That's another one of those only in California leaps. I used to stay up until one thirty in the morning listening to LP recordings of different singers performing art song. I recall that I once bought the LP, The Art of Gerald Moore. Looking at some of the selections, I realized that my collection contained other versions of the songs sung by Lotte Lehmann, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Aksel Schiøtz, Kathleen Ferrier, Christa Ludwig, Hans Hotter, Elisabeth Schumann, and other greats.
I'd listen to everyone's version of the same song, paying special attention to what each singer was doing. What mattered most to me was whose interpretation touched my heart on the deepest levels. In the process, almost unconsciously, I began to develop my own criteria for what constitutes great vocal artistry.
Skipping ahead a mere thirty years or so, when pianist and radio host Sarah Cahill called to say that the East Bay Express was looking for a classical CD reviewer and would I be interested, I leapt at the opportunity. As I was writing my first review, I suddenly realized I'd been training for my new career as a music critic for many decades.
I'd always go to the new and used record stores and look through all the vocal LPs. (I was weaned on acoustic recordings of Caruso, Tetrazzini, and Galli-Curci). I discovered Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lotte Lehmann that way - I was intrigued by their photos on the covers, and befriended clerks who always gave me starving artist discounts. I learned a lot of my whistling repertoire from the vocal recordings I bought at Moe's and Tower in Berkeley.
I recall bringing my first Lehmann LP home and playing her recording of "Dich, teure Halle" ['Dear hall, I greet thee) from Wagner's Tannhãuser. I was astounded. It was some of the most thrilling singing I'd ever heard.
EG: Was that the first time you heard Wagner?
JVS: No. But Lehmann's "Dich, teure Halle" was the first Wagner that excited me. It shattered my conceptions of Wagner as heavy, dull, and ponderous.
It is true that there's a lot of dark stuff in Wagner. There are long sections where men do "men's things": scheme, plot, murder, and manipulate women, among other acts, all for the sake of money, power, and lust. It's ugly, albeit no different than what happens behind the closed doors of today's multi-national corporations and government headquarters. Men playing men's games, much to the detriment of those around them.
Wagner and Verdi both nail the dark atmosphere of men really well-Wagner perhaps even more because he doesn't try to make it sound pretty or give them melodies. He's very, very good as a dramatist. But we'll probably spend more time listening to the rapturous, lyrical parts of The Ring in the places, and focus on the places where gods and humans either express their deepest feelings of love or give voice to their emotional conflicts.
EG: You'll include the Lehmann arias?
JVS: Her recordings from The Ring? Oh, will I ever! That includes two or three versions of "Hinweg! Hinweg!" ['Away! Away!], from the second act of Die Walküre, when Sieglinde and Siegmund are fleeing Hunding and she's hysterical. The live version from San Francisco Opera, 1936, has to be heard to be believed.
EG: What about orchestral passages?
JVS: From the first act of Gõtterdämmerung, after Siegfried and Brünnhilde say good-bye, I'll probably play Siegried's Rhine Journey in the Furtwängler recording. There's so much great music that it will difficult to choose.
Ultimately, what I want to help develop in the class is a set of critical standards. I plan to have a contest: If you were to risk your life trying to go through a ring of fire to rescue a maiden who's been asleep for twenty year, and you've never even seen a woman before, which soprano would you risk your life for? Of course the contest will be based on the sound of voices alone, because you can't do it based on looks. But voices, certainly great voices, say so much about the soul of the person producing them.
EG: Fascinating prospect! One last question: if you could sing any role in the Ring, male or female, what would it be?
JVS: For depth of humanity, it'd have to be Wotan. The second choice would be Sieglinde, because she also is so human and so moving. To go from her plight as a captive woman of this awful man to a state of utter rapture when she falls in love with a man who just happens to be her brother, all in the course of one phenomenal act, is an enormous transition.
Brünnhilde is the third, of course: she's a god who becomes mortal. The curious thing about Wagner's gods is that they have human emotions. How do you sound like a god and express the heart, the emotions of a human being? That's a question I plan to ask San Francisco Opera's forthcoming Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme, when I interview her for the UK's Opera Now.
Jason Victor Serinus's "Voices that Touch the Heart: The Ring and Beyond" will be meeting on Wednesdays from 1:00-3:00 pm starting April 6.