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Obituaries

Composer Dominick Argento, celebrated baritone Sanford Sylvan, adventurous mezzo Elaine Bonazzi.

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DOMINICK ARGENTO
YORK, PA, OCTOBER 27, 1927—MINNEAPOLIS, MN, FEBRUARY 20, 2019  

DOMINICK ARGENTO generated a large and varied output of predominantly vocal music during his long creative life. In addition to his fourteen operas, he composed song cycles, choral pieces and musical monodramas, establishing himself as one of the most adept practitioners of text-setting within his generation of American composers. Though his polystylistic idiom ranges from opulent Romanticism to acerbic dissonance, his melodic lines are unfailingly well suited both to the voice and to the straightforward delivery of the words. “The composers I admire, I think, wrote music to touch the listener,” he said. “There’s no other reason for me.”

Born in Pennsylvania to Sicilian immigrant parents, Argento entered the Peabody Conservatory as a piano major but was quickly nudged toward composition by Nicolas Nabokov (cousin to Vladimir), who became Argento’s principal teacher. After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Peabody, Argento completed his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music. While at Peabody, Argento met the gifted young soprano Carolyn Bailey. Although she was from Argento’s hometown of York, Pennsylvania, they didn’t meet until Argento needed a soprano to perform his Songs about Spring, and a mutual friend recommended Bailey. She gave the premiere of the cycle, and the two were married three years later. A Guggenheim fellowship later took Argento to Florence, which became a beloved second home for the couple.

In 1958, Argento and Bailey moved to Minneapolis, where he had accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota. He soon found himself much sought after as a composer in his new home and busy with commissions from the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Guthrie Theatre and the Dale Warland Singers. With writer John Olon-Scrymgeour, a colleague from his Peabody years, Argento founded the Center Opera Company in 1963 and composed the one-act opera The Masque of Angels in honor of the occasion. (“Gloria,” an extract from this work, is popular among choruses.) In 1971, Center Opera commissioned Postcard from Morocco, an absurdist, plotless pastiche that went on to become one of his biggest successes and his most frequently performed opera. Center Opera Company later became Minnesota Opera, home to several subsequent Argento world premieres, including The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976) and Casanova’s Homecoming (1984). The latter, for which Argento wrote his own libretto, received a production at New York City Opera later the same year, a successful outing that was described by Donal Henahan of The New York Times as “a thoroughgoing delight … a witty theater piece that should go on charming audiences for many years.” 

The New York Casanova production was also notable for its use of projected titles—the first time in New York that an opera in English used English captions. Argento found the triumph of Casanova particularly gratifying, because his previous City Opera outing, Miss Havisham’s Fire (1979), had been received poorly. (Certain that the opera contained the best music he’d ever written, he later created a revised and much shorter version of Miss Havisham that was a hit at its Opera Theatre of Saint Louis premiere in 2001.)

In 1988, Dallas Opera gave the world premiere of Argento’s Aspern Papers, based on Henry James’s novella. The premiere, starring Elisabeth Söderström, Frederica von Stade, Neil Rosenshein and Richard Stilwell, was telecast on PBS’s Great Performances

Among Argento’s song cycles, Six Elizabethan Songs and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf have proved especially popular among recitalists, the latter earning him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, for whom he wrote the Virginia Woolf cycle, said of the work, “Dominick’s settings are an absolute gift for the singer who believes words and music are equally important to the whole.” The Woolf cycle is emblematic of Argento’s output in that its texts are dramatic prose passages rather than poetry, and the musical styles vary widely but ultimately stay anchored within tonality. The cycle makes discreet use of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but “bears little resemblance to its inventor’s usage,” as Argento proudly attested in his engaging book, Catalogue Raisonné as Memoir: A Composer’s Life. “Parents,” seventh in the eight-song cycle, is as melodically poignant and lovely as anything in the twentieth-century American art-song repertory.

In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Argento won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Frederica von Stade’s recording of his song cycle Casa Guidi with the Minnesota Orchestra. Argento was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979 and received the George Peabody Medal in 1993.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

SANFORD SYLVAN
NEW YORK, NY, DECEMBER 19, 1953—JANUARY 29, 2019  

ALTHOUGH HE NEVER pursued celebrity, Sanford Sylvan was a singer whose artistry was universally celebrated. His firm, handsome lyric baritone was modest in size but sovereign in expression: the most powerful element of Sylvan’s singular magic was his purity of intention, which allowed him to sing everything with startling, uncompromising clarity. He was the truest singer of his generation. Sylvan’s performances were characterized by unfailing emotional spontaneity and musical accuracy, whether deployed in the service of Mozart, Schubert or John Adams. For more than forty years, Sylvan did important, valuable work in which he was deeply invested: his singing became an expression of his own moral courage, his passion for civility and his profound spirituality.  Sylvan’s excellence never varied, and his values never diminished, making him an abiding inspiration to his colleagues, and to his students.

Sylvan studied at the Juilliard School’s pre-college program, at Tanglewood and at Manhattan School of Music. In 1977, he moved from New York City to Boston, which then had one of the liveliest music scenes in North America. There Sylvan became part of the ensemble Emmanuel Music, which brought him into professional contact with conductor Craig Smith and director Peter Sellars, who cast Sylvan in the title role of Handel’s Orlando at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 1981. It was a life-altering production for all of the artists involved. Sylvan worked with Sellars on internationally celebrated stagings of Così Fan Tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro, as well as two world premieres by John Adams. In Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), Sylvan created the role of the wily, manipulative Chou En-lai. In The Death of Klinghoffer (1981), Sylvan was Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jew murdered at sea by members of the Palestine Liberation Front; Sylvan’s searing performance of Klinghoffer’s final monologue was the musical and emotional climax of the opera. In 1989, Sylvan sang the premiere of Adams’s Wound-Dresser, a setting of a Walt Whitman poem. In 2009, Sylvan was the Storyteller in the New York premiere of the Adams–Sellars opera A Flowering Tree, offering a performance of disarming simplicity and acute impact.

Sylvan made a number of perfectly judged recital discs, many of them in collaboration with David Breitman, his frequent partner in stage recitals. He was also active as a teacher, with faculty appointments at McGill University and Bard. In 2012, he joined the faculty at the Juilliard School, where he was chair of the voice department at the time of his death.

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Elaine Bonazzi as Mary Todd Lincoln
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ELAINE BONAZZI
ENDICOTT, NY, AUGUST 28, 1929—ELIZAVILLE, NY, JANUARY 29, 2019   

A BRIGHT, VITAL FORCE in American opera for more than thirty years, the mezzo created roles in new works by Ned Rorem, Thomas Pasatieri, Dominick Argento, Gian Carlo Menotti and David Carlson. Bonazzi was a surpassingly elegant and charismatic artist, as compelling in recital as she was in opera, where her responsive musicianship and gift for characterization extended her personal repertoire from Monteverdi and Purcell to Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim. She studied at the Eastman School, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1951, as well as at the Juilliard School and Hunter College. 

In 1958, Bonazzi made her Santa Fe Opera debut, as Meg Page in Falstaff, and she continued her association with the company for the rest of her career. Among her notable Santa Fe roles were Mrs. Linton in the world premiere of Floyd’s Wuthering Heights (1958), Baba the Turk, Countess Geschwitz and the title roles in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Carmen and Regina. At Washington National Opera, where she made her debut in 1960, as Tchaikovsky’s Old Countess, Bonazzi was a regular presence for the better part of thirty years, taking on Death in Stravinsky’s Rossignol, with the composer conducting, and the Old Baroness in Vanessa, among other roles. She also sang the Old Baroness at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where her other assignments included Lady Neville in the world premiere of Carlson’s Midnight Angel (1993).  

Bonazzi made her New York City Opera debut in 1965, as Christine in the world premiere of Ned Rorem’s Miss Julie. Other notable NYCO assignments included Grace-Helen Broome in the world premiere of Dominick Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire (1979); Frau von Luber in the NYCO premiere of Der Silbersee (1980); and Marie in The Most Happy Fella (1991). Bonazzi’s only performances for the Metropolitan Opera were as the Sorceress in the company premiere of Dido and Aeneas, offered in a thirteen-show run at the short-lived “Mini Met” at Lincoln Center in 1973.

In 1972, Bonazzi created the title role in Pasatieri’s Trial of Mary Lincoln, which was given its world premiere in an NET network television broadcast. In 1976, she was Aunt Lavinia Davenport in the world premiere of Pasatieri’s Washington Square at Michigan Opera Theatre.

A compassionate, supportive voice teacher, Bonazzi was a member of the faculty at SUNY Stonybrook from 1987 until her retirement, in 2012. Prior to Stonybrook, Bonazzi taught at Peabody Institute of Music. spacer 



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