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Celebrity Death Watch: Sanford Sylvan


Sanford Sylvan was a wonderful American baritone, he died on Tuesday at the age of 65. I first heard him as Chou En-Lai in John Adams's opera *Nixon in China,* on television sometime around 1988. He came to Madison in 1993 to do a recital at the Union Theater and a performance of Adams's *The Wound Dresser,* a piece he wrote for baritone and orchestra on a text by Walt Whitman about serving as a wound dresser during the Civil War. He preceded both of those performances with a master class.

I went to the master class and remember exactly what I was wearing: a black turtleneck, a dark green wool Nehru jacket (handed down from my Uncle John, still my favorite garment of all time), tan slacks, black shoes, and a dark grey rayon trenchcoat by Willi Smith (handed down from my brother Patrick, the only thing in the ensemble I still have). I was looking GOOD.

I waited after the master class for everyone else to finish their business with him. I noticed him looking at me with what I thought was interest. My moment came and I said:

ME: Nice to meet you, my name is Chris Ryan. I'm turning pages for your recital tomorrow night.

HIM: Oh how wonderful! Nice to meet you.

ME: I'm really looking forward to it, I'm sure it's going to be beautiful.

HIM: That's very kind of you, thank you.

ME: Could I ask you to sign my *Nixon in China* libretto booklet?

HIM: Of course. [opens it] Carolann! When did you meet Carolann?

Carolann Page had played Pat Nixon in the premiere and had signed the libretto booklet a few months before.

ME: She was here doing a new opera at Madison Opera. *Shining Brow,* about Frank Lloyd Wright.

HIM: Oh yes, I think I heard about that. And was it good?

ME: Yes, I liked it a lot. And she was wonderful.

HIM: Of course she was. [looks at her signature] Oh dear, she said what I was going to say. Now I have no idea what I'M supposed to say.

ME: I'm sure you'll come up with something suitable.

HIM: [grins at me, signs it, gives it back to me]

I was tempted, especially with this slightly flirty interaction, to ask him out to dinner or similar. The guy would be in town for five or six days, I assumed he knew no one in Madison, wouldn't he enjoy spending more time with me? But I was less bold then than I later became...

His recital was glorious: *The Hermit Songs,* a few songs from the *AIDS Quilt Songbook,* some other things I don't remember. Perhaps a piece of Mahler? *The Wound Dresser* was also wonderful, heartbreaking.

The next time I heard him was in 2004, here in New York, in a performance by the EOS Chamber Orchestra. They did a three-hour chamber version of *Die Walküre,* which cut 75 minutes of music and scaled the orchestra down to a mere 15 players. It was also in English on a rather small stage, the Skirball Center at NYU. It was fascinating, revelatory. The best thing is they were able to cast singers who would never go anywhere near Wagner, including Sylvan as Wotan. He gave a rich, brooding, intense performance, full of all the shadings and attention to text that one would expect from him.

Here's a live performance of Sylvan singing Ravel. He had a peculiar voice, but was such an intelligent artist.


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