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Classical 101

A Peek Inside Linda Esther Gray's Memoir

ONE AUDIO PIECE AT THE END   Opera singer's memoirs can be pretty tedious. The titles alone can send you hurling.

  • Maria Jertiza, the most sensational diva out of Vienna between the two world wars, called hers Sunshine and Song.
  • Dame Nellie Melba signed a ghost-written volume called Melodies and Memories.
  • Marilyn Horne did us all a favor and wrote an exceptionally sharp book called My Life.

But with a few exceptions, its all about the first person pronoun, I sang this, I sang that, I screamed at this conductor, I married this idiot, und so weiter. The exceptions include Galina Vishnevskaya's memoir of living through the siege of Leningrad and the cold war, and Robert Merrill's warm and hysterical book about his childhood in Brooklyn, complete with the stage mother from hell, ("Breathe in singer mine!," she would yell. "In! Out!") called Once More From the Beginning. And then there's Linda Ester Gray. Who, you might ask, is Linda Esther Gray? She's a Scotswoman, born in 1948. Her career as a soprano began while she was still student in the early 1970s, and ended ingloriously with a public vocal breakdown at a concert in Wigmore Hall in London, in 1985. Even by today's standards, it was a short career of barely ten years. Along the way, she was conductor Reginald Goodall's Isolde of choice in performances and recordings of Tristan und Isolde throughout the UK. She sang Kundry in Parsifal, also with Goodall, and Aida, Tosca and Brunnhilde in Die Walkure with the English National Opera. She sang in Dallas and Los Angeles, in France, Mexico and Holland. Goodall coached her enthusiastically for a return to Isolde in London in 1983. He then fired her behind her back. He told the management of the Royal Opera that Linda was finished and they believed him. Future dates with the Met and La Scala were also canceled. The story of this "betrayal" is written clearly in all its horror. As far as I know she has not sung a note in public in almost twenty five years. Linda's recent memoir is called A Life Behind Curtains: A Singer's Silent Sounds. This is no prima donna memoir. There's a happy marriage, motherhood, family life and the great figure of British soprano Dame Eva Turner hovering over the pages.  There's a sexy, smart and emotional heroine devoted to music and to singing. And there's that horrible vocal breakdown. Linda became seriously ill and underwent extensive abdominal surgery in the early 1980s. That might have caused the problem. She sang the big Wagner roles thrillingly when she was barely in her thirties - that couldn't have helped. Linda went from a young, strong confident singer to a sorrowful wreck who couldn't even phonate over two years time. Even her speaking voice was diminished. She never pinpoints the exact reason why this happened to her. She does write in harrowing detail of her despair, her feverish attempts to recover her voice, (or at least to understand what has happened) her acceptance and her ability to resume a productive and happy life. Linda Esther Gray lived through a harrowing journey and has all the writing chops to share it with readers, with no trace of self pity. The lesson learned is that one really can reinvent oneself completely, and go on. Linda did! So forget Melba and Jertiza and Domingo and Pavarotti-even Dame Joan Sutherland's autobiography is a dud, God forgive me. Go find Linda Esther Gray's A Life Behind Curtains: A Singer's Silent Sounds. Here's a bit of Linda's Isolde, from Act  I of Tristan und Isolde, broadcast from the English National Opera on August 23, 1981. The conductor is Reginald Goodall. More on him anon. [audio:linda-esther-gray]