A Life with Opera

by Barbara Jöstlein Currie, hornist

Aaron Blecker, who also goes by Arthur, was born on July 27, 1911, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He became a CPA - a profession he still practices - and, an astonishing 80 years ago, began a lifelong love affair with opera. Hornist Barbara Jöstlein Currie spent some time earlier this month learning more about Aaron’s passion.

What is your earliest memory of music?

We always had music at home. My parents would play Enrico Caruso. We had to crank up the RCA phonograph by hand to get it to play!

What is your earliest memory of the Met in particular?

Sophie and Aaron

Sophie and Aaron

The first time I went to the Met was in 1936, with my future wife, Sophie Barman. When we were dating, we discovered that we both liked opera, but neither of us could afford to go. I wanted to surprise her, so I bought two tickets. To save up enough money, I sacrificed some lunches and walked with packages instead of taking the subway. We saw Tristan und Isolde. Lauritz Melchior sang, I believe. We sat in the uppermost part of the second balcony at the old Met at 40th and Broadway. Each ticket cost 55 cents.

We loved it. It’s 80 years later and I still remember it. She was happy that I got it and we were both happy that we saw it. To go to the opera was a great treat for us. To be able to see it in person and hear the splendid voices…with the records you had a lot of static, and to hear the voices live was a much more thrilling experience.

How was the experience at the old Met different from today’s house?

The old Met was rather small and crowded. The new Met has a much more luxurious design: better acoustics, more comfortable seats, better lighting - and more beautiful scenic effects!

Do you play an instrument?

I started taking piano lessons at the age of 70, but I didn’t do too well. 

For how many years did you have a subscription to the Met?

If I recall, we got a subscription soon after the War ended. We had seats in the front row of the Dress Circle, which we kept for decades. People around us changed, but we stayed in our seats!

Tell me about your old librettos. Do you have any favorites, any autographs that are particularly meaningful?

When we began subscribing, we starting buying the librettos for every opera we attended. I still have most, if not all, of them. When we would see a new production of an opera we had seen before, we would take the original libretto and staple the new program inside.

For example, in my libretto for Cavalleria Rusticana, I find a program page, dated March 26, 2005 (when I was 94!), which is stapled over one from November 26, 1988, stapled over May 3, 1986, stapled over Jan 24, 1981, stapled over September 29, 1979, stapled over February 3, 1953, stapled over December 14, 1951 (starring Zinka Milanov and Mario Del Monaco), stapled over Jan 19, 1951 (starring Regina Resnik and Richard Tucker).

What are some of your fondest memories from the Met?

In Madama Butterfly, when Cio-Cio-San sits at the window and sees her husband’s ship come in, my wife would cry every time. Another dramatic moment: when Rigoletto is taking a body out of the water, and he finds out it’s his daughter…when he shouts out, “Gilda!” - that’s a heartbreaking scene.

In generally, I was very much impressed by James Levine’s conducting.

Do you have any favorite singers?

Richard Tucker, Licia Albanese, Lily Pons, Renata Tebaldi, Frederica von Stade, Kathleen Battle, Mirella Freni, Yoko Watanabe, Renata Scotto, Samuel Ramey, Fernando Corena, Cesare Siepi, and Placido Domingo all come to mind. They all had magnificent voices.

Is there any opera you have not seen and wish you had?

I think I’ve seen all of them I want to see. Actually, I’ve seen some operas I could have done without! Although I do wish I had heard Caruso perform live.

Who are your favorite opera composers?

Verdi and Puccini. They wrote operas with tunes you can sing when you come out of the opera house. I used to do that.

What are your favorite operas?

Rigoletto, La Bohème, and Madama Butterfly.

Did you ever notice anything in particular about the MET Orchestra?

They were a wonderful accompaniment and brought out the full quality of the voices. Whoever led them, they had a fine reputation, highly regarded among orchestras of the world. Naturally, at different performances, people would criticize different singers and the way they performed particular roles. But I never heard any criticism or complaint about the orchestra. Not once in all these years. We accepted that they would be outstanding and they were.  We never questioned it.