Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tales of Tessi Tura

For 25 years of my life, opera was an obsession. I was one of the lucky people who managed to turn my obsession into a professional lifestyle. After years of experiencing opera from the standing room sections of Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House and New York State Theater, I was handed the golden opportunity to write an opera column in San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter (a local gay newspaper whose writers included a rising politician named Harvey Milk).

The editor at that time (1977) was a charming man named Paul Lorch, who admitted to knowing absolutely nothing about opera. But as someone tuned in to the pulse of the gay community, he knew that the two most popular topics of conversation in San Francisco's leather bars were an expensive new kitchen gadget called a Cuisinart and, of course, opera. Paul's roommate, Kristin Robert Bjornfeldt, was an aspiring tenor who sang in the San Francisco Opera chorus. When Bobby recommended me to Paul, he offered the following caveat: "All you need to know about George is that he travels all over the place to catch Beverly Sills in performance."

Since the B.A.R. offered no pay to arts writers at the time, I knew I would have to make do with whatever press seats I could scrounge from opera companies. Of greater value was the fact that I had the chance to experiment with an artistic soapbox. Writing a column is very different from merely reviewing performances. In launching Tales of Tessi Tura my gimmick was simple. I was the first music critic in the nation to write about opera from an openly gay standpoint. My goal was to try to reach gay readers who (a) knew nothing about opera, (b) were much more tuned into disco music, but (c) could pick up on the sense that the columnist really, really loved this bizarre 400-year-old art form. The fact that I had a fairly strong knowledge of the subject meant that I could include lots of "in" jokes for dedicated opera queens.

My hunch paid off in spades. Tales of Tessi Tura ran for 15 years and I acquired a reputation for saying -- in print -- some of the things that a lot of people in the opera world wished they had the courage to say out loud. Using street vernacular I managed to get away with murder in the stuffy world of classical music. I once titled a piece about the Houston Grand Opera's full-length revival of Gershwin's Porgy & Bess as "Big, Black and Uncut."

One afternoon, while enjoying lunch with two renowned music critics from Southern California, I was surprised to hear them express envy for the raunchy language I used so freely in my column. "With the strict editorial standards here at the Los Angeles Times, we could never get away with that," one of them sighed.

"Well, that's one of the perks of writing for a small gay newspaper," I chuckled. "We don't have any standards at all!"

My original attempt to name the column Tales of Tessitura was quickly sabotaged by the newspaper's publisher, a vicious opera queen who was also a key member of San Francisco's Imperial Court. Determined to give me a proper drag name, Bob Ross split the word "tessitura" into two words: "Tessi" and "Tura" (in its intended usage, tessitura is a musical term).

However, for those of you who don't know, Tessi Tura ("That's Ms. Tura to you!") is the name of the the lead stripper in the musical Gypsy. Attempting to combine her limited knowledge of classical ballet technique with the standard bumps and grinds of burlesque, Tessi Tura made Broadway history in 1959 when she introduced the song "You Gotta Have A Gimmick."

I still cherish the memory of Beverly Sills cheerfully introducing me to a colleague as "This is Tessi Tura!"

Over the years, numerous friends and fans have asked if I couldn't publish a book containing the infamous tales of Ms. Tura's operatic adventures. I have usually tried to explain how the economics of publishing in hard copy made it almost impossible. However, electronic publishing is quite another story, so in the next year I plan to be putting as many old columns as I can into this blog for the enjoyment of opera queens all over the planet!

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1977

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1978

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1979

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1980

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1981

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1982

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1983

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1984

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1985

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1986

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1987

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1988

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1989

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1990

Tales of Tessi Tura: Columns from 1991

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