Charles Anthony, No Unsung Hero

by James Conlon

On February 15, one of the great men of opera passed away. Charles Anthony will be long remembered for the stunning statistics of his career at the Metropolitan Opera: 2,928 performances of 111 roles in 69 operas in 57 years. He appeared there more than any other artist in the Met’s history. For those who love facts and figures, his accomplishments are staggering. They can earn him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records or Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But for those of us who knew him, worked with him, and loved him, however extraordinary the numerical data, it only tells part of the story.

Charlie, as he was almost universally called, brought sunshine into the theater and the lives of his colleagues every day he went to work. He loved opera, he loved his work, and he loved his colleagues. This coming June would have marked 40 years since I first worked with him. I met him the first day of rehearsals for a production of Falstaff, which was in fact my first professional engagement to conduct an opera.

Any singing artist who holds the stage for over a half century into an advanced age is noteworthy. But it is not the quantity of performances but the quality of his shining gifts that is the essence of Charlie’s greatness. His devotion to a single institution belongs to the values another era. It is almost unheard of today among opera singers. He could have had a career singing leading roles all over the world, but chose not to. He incarnated the ideal of an ensemble singer, whose loyalty was to the team as much as, or more than, to himself.

We live in an increasingly celebrity-obsessed culture. Evolving technologies have vastly multiplied the means of distribution that promote latter-day stars. It is increasingly difficult for the public, given these means, to differentiate between notoriety and quality. At the altar of personality, we celebrate superstar singers, instrumentalists, directors, and conductors. As it is easy to overlook the fact that symphonic orchestras are made up of very accomplished individual musicians who are not in the limelight, we must remind ourselves that the core of an opera house is to be found in its orchestra, chorus, resident singers, stage and technical staff, and in the countless individuals who work behind the scenes, literally and figuratively. “Star” singers, guest soloists and conductors are rented for the duration of their visit to an institution, but do not represent its spirit. The true spirit a musical ensemble is defined by its permanent members and constituent parts.

There are many persons, not celebrities, who have devoted their lives to music and the performing arts. Their role needs to be brought back to our attention, lest we forget how essential they are. Just as it easy to overlook the importance of general practitioners, schoolteachers and team players, it is tempting to be distracted by the glamor and glitter “at the top.”

Those of us who are able to practice our art, and earn a living thereby, are among the most privileged eople on this earth. I think Charlie knew that in a very special way, and he communicated it to all around him on daily basis for over half a century. The radiance and warmth he brought to work with him every day won him universal admiration and a special place in the hearts of all of his colleagues. I never heard a bad word spoken by him, nor about him. He reminded all of us how lucky we are.

There are many others in our symphony orchestras and opera houses around the country who, like him, deserve our admiration. But for those of us who knew him, we recognize that there was only one Charles Anthony, and he is irreplaceable.

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