Opera’s happy rebel

Canadians couldn’t be dragged to an opera They’d likely change their tune if they were exposed to roly-poly Herman Geiger-Torel. He packs his shows with puns and pratfalls and still rates the bravos of the connoisseurs

David MacDonald October 11 1958

Opera’s happy rebel

Canadians couldn’t be dragged to an opera They’d likely change their tune if they were exposed to roly-poly Herman Geiger-Torel. He packs his shows with puns and pratfalls and still rates the bravos of the connoisseurs

David MacDonald October 11 1958

Opera’s happy rebel

Among the several score sopranos, bassos, tenors and spear carriers who take part in the elaborate productions of the Opera Festival Company of Toronto — the only professional troupe of its kind in Canada — it’s loudly agreed that one of the ablest and most entertaining talents of all is rarely seen and, fortunately, never heard by the paying public.

The object of this heady enthusiasm is a fat and jollv German named Herman Berthold Gustav Geiger-Torel.

It matters little that his voice could never make music lovers forget Fnrico Caruso -— or even Euigi Armstrong — for Torel is a phantom of the opera who lurks backstage and expresses himself in other ways. As artistic director of the Festival company, he selects its works, auditions all singers, coaches the casts and keeps a sharp supervisory eye on sets, costumes, make-up. ticket sales, props and publicity. In short, he calls the tunes.

Torel s standing in the opera business — and his offbeat approach to it — was well demonstrated two years ago when he was invited to become a resident stage director at the New York Metropolitan. He declined the honor — on highly original grounds that association with the great stars and prima donnas of America’s most famous opera house might tend to cramp his

style. “Zey would want me to be so serious,” he told a colleague at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. “But here I have beeg fun.”

Torel’s big fun derives from doing things his own sweet way. In ten years of producing and selling opera in Canada, he has displayed a merry contempt for many of the most venerable conventions of his art form, especially that which holds it to be a heavisome divertissement for long hairs. To Torel. hiding in the wings while an audience weighs his work out front, bravos sound beautiful, but boil's are better still. T am such a ham." he admits with easy candor. "1 loll to make people laugh.”

While his treatment of tragic works is duly serious, usually, most other operas produced and directed by Torel abound with pratfalls, drunk acts and outrageous puns — anything for a gag. Alas, such slapstick often irks the more solemn operagoers and music critics. When Torel's staging of Abduction from the Seraglio last year turned out somewhat like a marriage of Mozart and the Marx Brothers — to the hearty delight of Governor-General Vincent Massey— Hugh 1 homson, of the Toronto Daily Star, protested. " This heavy-footed clowning seems strictly out of place.”

So. in a wav, does its author. Torel resembles some Broadway character from a Damon Run-

yon talc who has bumbled into opera by mistake. He is a round rumpled man of fifty with a large head framed by a mass of greying hair. He chomps cigars, walks with a list to port and talks in a thick accent flecked with siting. "For a goot mezzo all zey pay is a lousy feefty bucks,” he says, criticizing the pay settles of some concert groups.

A gay extrovert. Torel often puts on as good a show for his cast as he does for the cash customers. Even when an opera is in progress he enjoys horsing backstage with his players — "It keeps zem from the trembles” — and he has been known to break up rehearsals by throwing his two hundred and twenty pounds into a howling impersonation of Hansel and Gretcl’s Dew Fairy or by slinking about, eyes and stogie smouldering, as the sexy Carmen. "When Herman is directing,” says Jan Rubes, a basso who has appeared with most of the major U. S. and European opera companies, "w'c all laugh as much as we sing.”

Directing an embrace. Torel commands, “( ranch togezzer.” For a coffee break, "Please to have an intermission.” Elated, he cries. "Hurrah! Hip! Hip!” But if some production does not quite meet his expectations, he slips into a deep Teutonic gloom. At a reception after one uninspired performance,

continued overleaf

Canadians couldn’t be dragged to an opera They’d likely change their tune if they were exposed to roly-poly Herman Geiger-Torel. He packs his shows with puns and pratfalls and still rates the bravos of the connoisseurs

David MacDonald

he cut off a prominent society woman's gush of flattery by observing, “Bah! It steenks!”

But while Torel may not look nor always act the part of an impresario, he assuredly is one. Before coming to Canada in 1948, to teach acting and stage direction at the Royal Conservatory’s new opera school, he’d already spent more than twenty years working in some of the finest theatres of Europe and South America with many of the brightest stars of the operatic firmament.

By contrast, most of Torel’s pupils in Toronto had never sung in an opera and few had even seen one. Yet from an assortment of able unknowns — including teen-agers, housewives, clerks and banquet-circuit singers — he has created an ensemble that now rates among the best of its kind on this continent. Professional in the sense that its members are paid for a month of rehearsals and anywhere from two to seven weeks of actual performances each year, the Opera Festival Company has staged seventeen grand operas, two operettas and one musical comedy in the last eight years, and it now draws large crowds to Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre and on tours through Canada.

Along with an uncommon flair for fun, Torcl’s productions are generally marked by their vitality, good acting, striking sets, lavish costumes and regrettable losses ranging as high as fifty-five thousand dollars per year. Happily, the deficits are made up by a group of gilt-edged patrons, both individual and corporate, who like to feel that Canada is at last beginning to make her own mark in opera.

If so, in large measure it would seem to be Torel’s doing, for he has received many of the largest bouquets — and also the biggest brickbats — ever tossed at Canadian opera. When Torel presented the Rape of Lucretia at the Stratford Music Festival in 1956, the New York Times enthused, “It would be hard to imagine a better production of the work.” Indeed, Dr. Edward Johnson, former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company, once praised Torel’s staging of Cosi Fan Tutte as being even more effective than the Met’s.

Another time, however, the same eminent authority condemned a Toronto production of Madame Butterfly as the worst he’d ever seen in opera and he called the director “an incorrigible man.” What pained him in this instance were changes that Geiger-Torel had made in several parts of the classic. ”1 turn everyzing downside up to make it better,” says Torel.

Refusing to abide by the book is wholly typical of Torel’s approach to his trade. He is a rebel who believes that nothing else has harmed opera at the box-office so much as — lo! — its own most cherished traditions. “Many old customs are so musty, so foolish,” he says. “I laugh at zem.”

In 1950, not long after setting out to help develop opera in Canada, he actually wrote and staged an unabashed burlesque of the medium. Among other things, Opera Backstage poked fun at all the exaggerated stage mannerisms, wooden acting and unlikely dramatic turns that, to Torel’s mind, often make opera look ridiculous beside modern theatre. The show opened at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium, became the first televised operatic program on Toronto's CBLT, visited several Ontario cities and then made a ttvo-week tour of the west. Though it shocked a good many traditionalists, the spoof did generate the kind of guffaws Torel loves so dearly, plus profits he seldom gets by playing it straight.

Since opera is both his love and livelihood, when Torel spots flaws in it he does not hesitate to correct them. While his company was rehearsing Tosca, early last year, he resolved to alter one of the most sacred of all operatic scenes, the candelabra sequence ending Act II, on the grounds that it didn’t ring true.

“Tosca stabs Scarpia,” he explained the customary libretto to his cast, “and soon are coming the police. So what does the lady do? She walks around and collects candles to put down beside the ogly corpse. Nonsense! Fah! We have her blow zem out — poof! da-da-de-dum poof! — und zen scram.”

In spite of such overpowering logic, the change did not sit well with Toronto’s professional critics — though their reviews were otherwise laudatory — and it set some of the audience to clucking with disapproval.

Next to implausible staging, the worst sins in Torel’s book are bad casting and poor emoting. While many European directors put such store in voice quality as to cast a greying two-hundred-pound diva as a femme fatale, he insists that his players both look and act their parts with conviction.

Not long ago, while directing a TV rehearsal of a scene from Madame Butterfly (Torel doubles as operatic consultant to the CBC in Toronto), he grew impatient with a tenor who kept throwing his arms about to dramatize a tender aria. When all pleading failed, he waved the singer aside and took his place. “Hoy!" he cried. “Zat camera sees you like so.”

An excellent mimic, Torel then delivered the solo in a raspy falsetto. He mugged, rolled his eyes and threatened to upset scenery and audio booms with wild gestures. The tenor, who took the ribbing in good grace and later did the scene Torel’s way, was Richard Tucker of the Metropolitan.

How Torel cures jitters

When the Opera Festival is in progress, Torel prowls about backstage, alternately wringing his hands and kibitzing with his cast. In the best theatrical tradition he tears at his hair and mutters dark oaths when something goes wrong, beams and blows kisses for a good performance. Often given to nervousness himself, he is quick to spot it in others.

During the long overture on an opening night of Hansel and Gretel, Torel noticed that the two title players were beginning to fidget at their places on stage. He distracted them by staggering out behind the curtain like a drunk, hair awry, grinning crazily, keeping time to the music with a long white handkerchief. The girls began to giggle. Just as the curtain was rising, Torel lurched back to the wings. “All of a sudden,” recalls Angela Antonelli, who played Gretel, “we forgot our jitters and started having fun.”

While there is method to many of Torel’s madcap antics, others are staged for the sheer hell of it. Consider the only {ime .he has appeared in one of his own productions, when he filled in for an ailing bit-player in the non-singing role of a waiter in La Bohème. The script called for him simply to serve the roistering Bohemians and then present them with a bill, but Torel livened the part with scene-stealing gambits that soon had the audience howling. (“I flirt wiz Musetta, behind the back of her sugar daddy.”)

When Torel finally handed the hill to tenor Jimmy Shields, as scheduled, Shields backed away and refused to take it. So, in turn, did Jan Rubes, Edmund

Says Johnny Wayne: “Torel stole so many laughs from us I’ll be surprised if he appears again”

Hockeridge and Andrew MacMillan, who kept the director stumbling about in impromptu circles. At length Torel’s ample stomach began heaving and he roared with laughter. Only then did Shields grab the bill as Torel staggered off, and carry on with the scene.

"Zat was a goot joke,” Torel admitted later. "Who plans it?” Rubes owned up. Next night, while singing an aria on stage, Rubes picked up a hand mirror to admire himself. What he saw almost caused him to choke on his solo. Pasted over me glass was a leering photograph of Torel.

As an admitted ham, Torel takes his yuks wherever he can. He once essayed the role of himself in a comedy skit about opera on the Wayne and Shuster TV show. "Torel’s a born comic,” says Johnny Wayne. "He stole so many laughs from us that if he ever appears on our show again I'll be very surprised.”

If Torel’s behavior is sometimes more suggestive of Minsky’s than the Met, in actual fact he has been occupied with grand opera for most of his life. As a boy in Frankfurt, he learned piano, composition, harmony and theory from Frau Rosy Geiger-Kullmann, his mother, a well-known composer and concert pianist. A precocious student, he was scarcely out of lederhosen when he first conducted the Frankfurt Philharmonia orchestra. Young Geiger had no voice for singing, so when he enrolled at the local opera school he was advised to take up acting and stage direction. His teacher there was Dr. Lothar Wallerstein, later stage director at La Scala and the Met. At nineteen, Geiger became Wallerstein’s assistant at the Frankfurt opera and later took charge of three productions at the famous Salzberg Festival in Austria.

When Hitler’s rise brought on the persecution of Germany’s Jews, Geiger left his homeland to freelance about other parts of Europe. In Czechoslovakia he worked with a lanky young conductor named Nicholas Goldschmidt in a theatre that had a revolving stage. "Herman was like a boy with a new toy,” Goldschmidt says today. “He thought most of the great operas dragged on too slowly and he loved to speed them up on his merry-go-round.” In France he also took a whirl at directing films that were, by his own admission, third-rate. The French found it hard to pronounce Geiger, so he lifted the name Torel from a branch of his family tree and tacked it on.

In 1938 Geiger-Torel moved to Argentina and spent the next ten years roving

about South America as a sort of musical mercenary. In Buenos Aires he served as director of the splendid Teatro Colón. He established a national opera company in Uruguay in 1943, then moved on to Brazil as director of Rio de Janeiro's municipal opera house.

It was in Rio that the most crushing episode in Torel’s career occurred. There, during a gala season of classic operas featuring famous European singers, he kind.y inserted an opera written and performed wholly by local talents. Unhappily, the leading soprano’s voice cracked in the first act and the audience chased her off stage with catcalls. At this, the orchestra shouted back at the audience. Fights broke out in the galleries and Torel finally rang down the curtain to end the fiasco.

Besides tyros, Torel had his troubles with the acknowledged stars of opera. While most directors were content to follow the traditional staging of traditional works, thus enabling imported “name” singers to step into familiar roles without the bother of rehearsals, Torel was constantly making changes to put new oomph into old operas. The great Gigli once declined to attend even a dress rehearsal of Pagliacci in Montevideo, made two wrong exits in Torcl’s strange version, accused the director of deliberate trickery and refused to speak to him for ten days.

Torel's removal to Canada in 1948 came about through Goldschmidt, his friend from the old days in Czechoslovakia, who'd since become musical director of a new opera school at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. When the school’s founder, Dr. Arnold Walter, was casting about for a stage director, Goldschmidt suggested sending for Geiger-Torel.

On his arrival, Torel told reporters that he had learned their language by reading one book. “Dr. Walter has the trembles over my Eenglish,” he said, "but I have courage. Ja?”

Within three months, working chiefly with eager young students whose only knowledge of operatic acting and staging was what he could communicate to them, Torel produced a program of excerpts from La Traviata, Pagliacci and the like—standards he irreverently terms “ham-und-egg stoff” — at the University of Toronto’s campus theatre. The paying public liked the dish and, after Torel spent a summer season in Cuba, his threemonth contract with the Conservatory was extended indefinitely and he was

asked to turn out full-blown opera there.

From then until 1954, when he settled down in Toronto. Torel commuted between North and South America. In December of 1948 he produced the Marriage of Figaro at Eaton Auditorium, followed a year later by La Bohème. The public and critical reception proved so heartening that Conservatory officials decided to hire a bigger theatre, the Royal Alexandra, for a series of yearly opera festivals. The first was a glittering artistic and social success, if no smashing financial triumph. By late 1950. however, the Conservatory’s governors decided that they had no business in show business. If the opera festival was to go on it would have to be under other auspices.

At this point Torel and musical director Goldschmidt got busy. They rounded up a group of Toronto's best-heeled businessmen, including a few who didn l know a basso from first base, and invited them to become patrons of the arts. "Some of zem were afraid it would look bad to be in anyzing /.at lose money,” Torel recalls. “We tell zem in zis case is a beeg honor." Within forty-eight hours Torel and Goldschmidt had eighteen thousand dollars and an executive slate for an independent opera company.

The annual festivals have gone on ever since, providing an outlet tor students from the Royal Conservatory—now completely divorced from Torel’s group, but on mutually happy terms—and for others who have graduated to professional ranks. The Toronto company draws its singers from almost every Canadian province, several parts of the U. S. and many European countries. Included among them are such outstanding performers as Pierrette Alarie, a Montreal girl who had appeared with the Met. and her husband Leopold Simoneau, who is accounted one of the world’s best Mozart singers; Ilona Kombrink, a beauteous American soprano who moved to

Toronto from the St. Louis Municipal Opera: and Czech-born Jan Rubes, a frequent star of the New York City Opera who is best known in Canada for his CBC radio show. Songs of My People: Lois Marshall and Edmund

Hockeridge. now a star of London musicals.

To fill special roles, Torel sometimes hires leading singers from the Metropolitan and other opera companies. When he does, mindful of earlier troubles with celebrated temperaments, he insists that they spend at least a week rehearsing under his inimitable direction, or stay at home.

At rehearsals, which arc usually held in rented church halls. Torel sits before a rickety wooden music stand, waves his cigar like a baton and issues stage directions that come from no book but his own. Once, for example, he outlined a scene in Tosca thusly: "Scarpia says, ‘O.K., lady, I will bomp him off.' Und she says, ‘Well, for goot ness sake!' " Again, for La Bohème: "Mimi sings in a beeg hosky voice und zen she falls back und dies of TB—too bad.”

His position as a teacher, as well as a postgraduate ham, permits Torel to act out any role in any opera. He struts, weeps, leers and otherwise tries to put his ideas across with feeling. "When Mr. Torel plays the hero," says Angela Antonelli, a vivacious young soprano, “you'd think he was ten feet tall." At other times the effect is merely funny, as when Torel gave a lusty demonstration of how Regina Resnick's bed should be besieged for the Rape of Lucretia. The Metropolitan diva was so winded trom a fit of laughter that the rehearsal had to be cut short.

While an angered Torel is capable of warlike tantrums—a singer once dubbed him the Ogre of the Opera—he is extremely popular with most of his performers. One reason is that, unlike many

directors, he works as hard and patiently with young singers as any hockey coach does with a promising rookie. He treats the anonymous members of a chorus with the same deference normally reserved for stars, makes them feel they're more than just part of the scenery and often singles out a fledgling bit player for praise in front of the whole company. In doing so. Torel is being more than merely kindly: he knows that today’s nervous newcomer may be tomorrow's prima donna.

Among Torel’s staunchest boosters is Richard Cassilly, star of The Saint of Bleecker Street on Broadway, who sang the male lead in Torel’s production of Tosca last year. “As stage directors go." says Cassilly, “Torel's a pretty rare type —a double-threat man who knows and respects the music of opera but isn’t afraid to jazz up the dramatic end of it. You learn a lot working with him —and you get a kick out of it, too."

Alas, you don't get rich. Leading roles with the Toronto company pay from eighty to one hundred and twenty-five dollars for each performance, thirty-five to sixty-five dollars for supporting parts and eighty dollars a week for chorus members, plus lesser sums for rehearsals and expenses. “For a few weeks," says Torel, “our people do okay. But the rest of the year, unless zey have husbands or wives or ozzer jops to support zem, zey must work at concerts, conventions und sing terrible jinkles about soap."

Though Torel himself is making a good living from opera—-earnings from the Festival company, the CBC and the Royal Conservatory now enable him and his striking blond wife Eleonore to live in stylish comfort — he maintains that the medium can flourish in Canada only with governmental subsidies. Last year his company received a total of eighteen thousand dollars in grants from the Canada Council and the Metropolitan Toronto council, but the bulk of its capital aid still comes from its patrons. Because many of these wealthy supporters spend the late winter in Florida, the Festival openings have recently been switched from February to October.

Last fall, as a breather between seasons of grand opera, Torel produced two operettas, The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus, and the musical-comedy hit Carousel. They drew good crowds in Toronto-—but not as large as heavier works usually do—then played London, Ottawa and Montreal. In time Torel hopes to take his company barnstorming all across the country. Meanwhile, he's now adding the final touches to another Opera Festival — Oct. 13-25 — that will present A Masked Ball by Verdi, Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann and La Bohème. Guest stars will include Giuseppe Campora, of the Met and La Scala; Canadian soprano Marguerite Gignac; and James Hawthorne, from the New York City Opera Company.

At the same time, in his continuing attempt to sell opera to a larger slice of the masses, Torel is busily searching for suitable translations of the more famous Italian. French and German works. “Many people stay away from opera only because zey can not onderstand what is all the singing about,” he claims. “Perhaps I feex that."

He would also dearly love to fix those arty types who merely pretend to like and understand opera on the purely snobbish suspicion that it is the oh-so intellectual thing to do. “Phooey!" says Torel. "In the world is no form of art so anti-intellectual as opera. Is all tor the emotions. W'hen 1 do more of the great operas in Eenglish—ho! ho!—zen 1 will shave a lot of zose long hairs.” ★