REMEMBERING PETER G. DAVIS
by Lawrence D. Mass
How many sopranos have had their singing of Dove Sono, the Countess’s great aria in The Marriage of Figaro, described by one of the world’s most discriminating music critics as “note perfect”?
Only a few of my closest gay friends knew of my clandestine career as a Mozart soprano, the successor to Eleanor Steber (at the Continental Baths). My rendition of Dove Sono may have been more notable for its musicianship than tonal allure, but notable as well is that it was executed (cough) while descending the treacherously narrow staircase of Peter G. Davis’s brownstone on Manhattan’s upper west side near Lincoln Center.
A true confession from an enchanted time of coming of age, of opera in one of its heydays, of our lives as music lovers, opera people, as culture vultures, as New Yorkers, of ourselves as gay men coming to grips with our minority identity and sexuality on the cusp of the fledgling gay liberation movement. It was a time when being in the closet was still the norm, especially in the workplace and notably at the New York Times, where Peter was a senior music critic.
The tribute paid to Peter in the Times on his passing was generous, deserved and honoring of his legacy, especially for his commitment to the art of singing and opera. In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, however, the paper was still very conservative around the subject of homosexuality. This was the NYT that Larry Kramer went after for its relegation of the emerging AIDS epidemic in his play The Normal Heart in 1985.
That same year I attended the first international conference on AIDS in Atlanta, where I sought out NYT medical writer Lawrence K. Altman, himself a physician, to ask him why the Times was so lax in its coverage of our “gay men’s health crisis.” Even as it featured a cover story on a flu epidemic in Austria’s Lippizaner stallions (harkening images of the aristocratic Hapsburg empire in the background of the Sulzberger family that founded and ran the NYT), it had yet to have comparably prominent coverage of what was from its inception a four-alarm global pandemic that involved other major risk groups. Altman’s answer: “We’re not an advocacy journal.”
Although I don’t recall him ever publicly lying about his being gay or taking “beards” to events, Peter did struggle to deal with the homophobia of his two bosses, culture and managing editor Arthur Gelb (Met Director Peter Gelb’s father) and executive editor Abe Rosenthal. In terms of their oversight of what could and couldn’t be discussed, Peter described the atmosphere at the Times as being “like the KGB.”
Fortunately, the Rosenthal era (1977–88) is now passed. Apart from his having to deal, as we all did, with ambient homophobia, however, Peter was from an earlier generation when music criticism was characteristically more circumspect around social issues. Neither surprisingly nor atypically, Peter was less interested in advancing the frontiers of social change than in being consistent in his aesthetics and scrupulous about maintaining standards of quality.
If you were to confront Peter as I increasingly did about what seemed his relegation of social and political context in times when social and political concerns were otherwise gathering momentum — sometimes explosively, as with AIDS — he would retreat.
These aesthetics, standard for his time and ilk, were apparent in Peter’s attitude towards trending approaches to opera. Yes, one can do deconstructive stagings, a trademark of the era that continues and that Peter acknowledged with qualified admiration — e.g., Peter Sellars, the Chéreau Ring. But what was crucial for Peter, the goalpost he never lost sight of, was clarity about the essential properties of a piece. It was one thing to click into our time by staging Marriage of Figaro in Trump Tower. But it was another to muddy the human relationships that are the heart and soul of an opera that has earned its time-honored place as one of the great works of western civilization. The Trump Tower Figaro may have been on target in its reverberations for our time, but of any and all such efforts, Peter was consistent in his demand for accountability, for what worked and what didn’t.
It’s the same appreciation Peter applied to singers. Stylistic choices could be unusual and supportable as such, but questionable if they fought what gave the music its life. Peter was especially skilled in measuring the impact of such choices on the greater arc of a career. In assessing a later-years recital by Marilyn Horne, he weighed as if on a justice scale the tonal beauty and agility of her earlier voice against her later interpretive maturity. It was a matter of personal taste, he concluded, indicating his own preference for the latter.
Peter was an inspiration in the development of a community health initiative that never got off the ground but that remains worthy: a study of the health and health care of professional singers in the United States.
Peter’s heartfelt and thoughtful devotion to singers and singing inspired me in one of my own early public health efforts. Preceding my work on AIDS, gay health, addiction and other enclaves of community medicine (the gay leather and bear subcultures), was an effort I initiated to study the health and health care of professional singers in America. With the help of our mutual friend and colleague, voice connoisseur Conrad L. Osborne, a questionnaire was developed. Alas, in the wake of AIDS, the project was set aside.
It remains worthy. I wonder how often singers today, in the absence of being better informed, and in the absence of health care options better organized to meet their needs, end up being ill-served. A peak personal moment of this endeavor for me came when I met with beautiful Italian soprano Katia Ricciarelli, the Lina Cavalieri of her day, with her partner at that time, handsome divo Jose Carreras, to discuss her sore throat.
What Peter had to say to the public then still holds true. However distracted we might be by historical, social and political insights, whatever the tumult of history and politics and however applicable or trenchant they might seem in time and place, we must not lose our sense of what’s essential to a work’s integrity and appeal, and the original intentions of the composer. To this end, Peter often studied the scores of the works he reviewed.
While these standards and values may not seem particularly remarkable for music criticism of any period, they can seem unfashionable, even pedantic, in today’s maelstroms of life, art and culture. Meanwhile, as an unwitting watchdog for cultural hegemony rather than cultural change, Peter wasn’t notably attuned to life outside these boxes of aesthetics.
What subjects would he have pursued if he’d felt more at liberty and inspired to do so? Alas, apart from not going to great lengths to hide the fact the he was gay and having to deal with homophobia in the workplace and society at large, Peter was reticent and conforming around the challenges of social change. An internet search of music criticism for issues like sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, populism or antisemitism, all of which he shared concerns about, wouldn’t yield many listings for Peter G. Davis.
Importuning him to try to be more in the stream if not the forefront of social change was largely for naught. Eventually, it became a wedge between us. News of the emerging epidemic was terrifying and you couldn’t blame people for trying to eschew discussion of it. It was easier to evade the messenger and thereby the message.
Even so, his reticence seemed disappointing for a person of Peter’s learning and character, and hurtful to me personally, especially in light of what I was doubtless overly invested in seeing as our mentor-mentee relationship. I don’t think Peter ever read any of my pieces in the New York Native about what immediately became, as the CDC designated it from the outset, “the most important new public health problem in the United States.”
For Peter, the gay press where these articles, mostly by me, were exclusively appearing, along with some of my early pieces on “musical closets” (homosexuality, the closet, music and opera), was just too marginal to seek out, or to set aside the time and consideration to actually read and discuss, even amidst the onslaught of AIDS. Consequently, there was no real encouragement from him for my work on these fronts, no sense that what I was trying to do might be of wider interest and value, whether it be activism and fundraising around AIDS and gay rights or opening the closet doors of the worlds of music and opera. Understandably for such a high-profile, professionally closeted figure at that time, such trendings may have been uncomfortable or even threatening personally. Surpassingly, as I sensed it then, they were simply outside the boxes and exigencies of his career interests, responsibilities and priorities.
Eventually, Peter did seem to develop respect for initiatives around gay health and activism, including those shepherded by me. After years of being out of contact, when I reached out to warn him, along with other of my gay friends, about the disturbingly higher rates of anal cancer (what Farrah Fawcett died of) in gay men and the importance of screening for it, something most gay men — and for that matter their doctors, even some who are gay— still know almost nothing about, he was appreciative.
The inhibiting atmosphere at the Times and his own shyness notwithstanding, why not write something modest, if discreetly and only to provide a bit more context, about your own gayness and about the gay themes and subtexts of composers like Britten, Tchaikovsky or some of the dozens of other LGBT figures in music and opera? These were questions I kept asking, to the extent of being pushy and having Peter react defensively. Alas, beyond perfunctory acknowledgement, these were subjects that would not engage him and lines he would not cross.
Eventually, he married his devoted partner of many years, Scott Parris. In coming of age and taking such a great life step, Peter had finally come into his own as an openly gay man. As a music critic, meanwhile, he remained tethered to the old aesthetics. Generations hence people may still want to listen to Britten or Tchaikovsky, but will anyone care if they were “gay,” a nomenclature and understanding that may well have changed altogether by then? What will still be there, on the other hand, is their music.
In those days, critics commonly hid their own reticence and timidity within these aesthetics that eschewed anything “external” or “extraneous.” If Tchaikovsky was gay, so the thinking and rationalizations went, that’s not something that can be extrapolated with certainty from his music or otherwise appropriate for music criticism. If Wagner’s antisemitism was serious, that’s likewise not something unequivocally discernible or extrapolatable from his music and art and therefore not the province of objective music criticism.
This generation-gap dialectic is explored, and with it my relationships with Peter and others, in my memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite, and its sequel, On The Future of Wagnerism.
As my interest in Wagner and antisemitism escalated, and I probed the reticence around it for its similarities to that which surrounded homosexuality, I remember asking Peter about Wagner in Russia. In response to my questioning why they would choose to do Wagner in patriotic Russia, where Wagner would be appreciated as a totem of the German aggression that resulted in the greatest war and loss of life in Russian history, Peter sarcastically suggested that maybe they were motivated to do an announced new production of Lohengrin there “because the music is pretty.” (A generation later, following earlier reflections on Russians and Wagner by Richard Taruskin, and with reference to Wagner and Russia by Rosamund Bartlett, there would be more perspective on Russia, Wagner and Wagnerism in Alex Ross’s Wagnerism.)
I was already well on my way to becoming a “noodge” of Wagnerism, as Taruskin now describes me. In those days I was clearly and likewise a noodge of gayness and music. Peter, meanwhile, became evermore entrenched in the status quos of his life experience, education and profession. He was not only not at the forefront of any kind of social consciousness or change, he could be impatient with those who were.
It was never entirely fair to indict these critics for not doing more around social issues. Although they continued to occasionally write more expansive “think” pieces, they were increasingly marginalized by their publications to doing performance reviews. Like Andrew Porter at the New Yorker, however, when Peter became music critic of New York Magazine, he had a regular column. Though also devoted primarily to the performance reviews that became droning as such, the opportunity was there nonetheless to say and do more. As with Andrew Porter’s New Yorker column, however, reticence and “discretion” were too often discernible and overriding in what was discussed and what wasn’t, a reticence that was no longer an editorial imperative.
This is in some contrast to Ross at the New Yorker today, and as well to Anthony Tommasini at the Times. Whatever the proscriptions of the older order that Peter and Andrew had to deal with, Ross, Tommasini and others seem more attuned to social and political change and controversy, and supported in that by their publications. Whatever my issues with Ross around Wagnerism, his openness to such discussion, however selective, can seem refreshing.
Peter reminded me of Claudius, the Roman emperor. Just as Claudius was afflicted with a stammer that made him seem vulnerable, so Peter’s lispy soft-spokenness and passive demeanor could suggest weakness. But Peter was not weak. Like many artists, Peter had learned to fashion what might have been personal liabilities into strengths. In this, he was inspiring.
Peter was a role model, as a gay man making his way in the world with purpose, aplomb and grit, as a professional committed to principles of objectivity and fairness, and in the wisdom and spirituality of his appreciation of music and opera. In having this special friendship I was truly fortunate. Less so Peter, as the avuncular doyen of a gaggle of opinionated young opera queens, often demanding attention, and in my own case increasingly outspoken, undisciplined, sometimes inebriated and overbearing in challenging his authority.
The other de facto leader and figurehead of this extended family was Richard Dyer, music critic of the Boston Globe. Dick was our close mutual friend during the 1970’s, my years of medical training in Boston-Cambridge, and coincidentally the period of Beverly Sills’s memorable collaborations with Boston opera wizard Sarah Caldwell.
Like Peter, Dick was passionate about singers and singing, and he was a precious and endless font of information, intelligence and lore about singers and opera. He nurtured chummy friendships with the likes of Marilyn Horne and Astrid Varnay, and generously appreciated lesser-light but surprisingly colorful (as he specialized in helping us see) figures like Nadine Connor and Dorothy Kirsten, American beauty-pageant contestant “Debbie” (Deborah) O’Brien who sang with the Boston Pops, and cabaret luminary Greta Keller. Dick was an equal-opportunity fan. You needn’t be the most famous or best to garner his devotion. An apostle of nostalgia, he was a largely unwitting standard bearer of gay sensibility.
It was Dick who invited me to accompany him on one of the most treasured experiences of my life, to see the greatest operatic artist of our lives and times, however past her prime (or anything close to it) — Maria Callas on her farewell tour in Boston. However vulnerable in the twilight of her great love affair with the world of opera, magic was still there. I really did think I’d died and gone to heaven. And it was Dick with whom I shared another unforgettable evening — the Boston Symphony premiere of Final Alice by David del Tredici, who would continue to figure in my life as a composer and friend.
Recently, Dick annotated a collection of the recordings of the beloved American Wagner soprano, Helen Traubel.
For the record, Dick and Peter dubbed me “Mavis,” after Maeve, the legendary and ultimate diva of James McCourt’s satirical novel of opera queenery, Mawrdew Czgowchwz. Climactically, the literally possessed “ultrano” transcends life and art with a Liebestod in ancient Gaelic.
Priceless memories of opera and gayness. Of our gay-vernacular pastime of dishing everyone and everything. Of La Gran Scena and a solo evening in his living room with Ira Siff, master opera comedien(ne) and scholar of singing whose unexpectedly personal and heartrending “Remember Me But Forget My Fate” (which I kept hearing — mistakenly? — as “Forget My Face”) from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas concluded the offerings of otherwise side-splittingly funny opera parody. Of a late night trek to see cabaret diva Frances (“Caught in the Act”) Faye with Peter’s culture buddy and fellow camp enthusiast Henry Edwards. Of Olive Middleton and Florence Foster Jenkins, beloved doyennes of opera wit and satire. Of Dick taking Peter and me to Boston’s Copley Plaza to hear legendary Mabel Mercer, then in her 80’s, and Peter’s observing, in his own Truman-Capote-esque croak of a voice, that her singing sounded like the elderly Eleanor Roosevelt speaking. A later night stopover at the Napoleon Club, America’s oldest gay piano bar, even then a relic of régimes anciens. Of verismo icon Magda Olivero. Of Peter’s sometimes heated disputes with megastar Sills, whose anger at some of Peter’s more challenging criticism could turn homophobic, and of whose efforts to wield the business of opera Peter mused: “You can’t run an opera company like a delicatessen!” Of Philip Glass, who Peter kept pushing to be more musically inventive. Of Leontyne Price, who he once contrasted with Leonie Rysanek in a tough-love encouragement of Price to broaden her repertory. Of many nights at the opera and concert halls. Of famed opera personality Matthew Epstein’s star-studded New Years Eve soirees at the Ansonia. Of late night dinners at nearby Cafe Lux. Of meeting the incomparable Donald Gramm on a fabulous junket to Santa Fe, where we mingled with L.A.Times music critic Martin Bernheimer (who secretly offered me a Maalox under the table during a raucous group lunch), arts patron Robert Tobin and raconteur and emerging publishing eminence Stephen Rubin, partner of Peter’s close friend and Sills’s agent Cynthia Robbins. It’s Rubin who commissioned Peter’s book, The American Opera Singer.
Peter was never mean-spirited. On the contrary, however preoccupied, he was good-natured and kind-hearted. His wisdom and decency were uncommon. The same is true of Dick Dyer. For a profession whose practitioners could sometimes seem like ax murderers in rendering their verdicts, Peter and Dick, in the heyday of my intimate friendships with them, were gentlemen. They were persons of character, humanity, sensibility, wit, spirit and courage who I was privileged to get to know, and love.
Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., a specialist in addiction medicine, was the first to write about AIDS in the press and is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He is the author of We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer and is completing On The Future of Wagnerism, the sequel to his memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. He lives in New York City with his life-partner, gay activist and writer Arnie Kantrowitz.