Michael Rhodes – Opera Singer, Vocal Coach to Stars and Music Teacher to American Military Dependents

Michael Rhodes teaching Music to American Military Dependents in Bitburg Germany

March 20, 2013, the Associated Press big story was:

“OPERA SINGER, TEACHER MICHAEL RHODES DIES”[i]

I was surprised but pleased when the obituary of Michael Rhodes was carried in papers across the United States.  Michael Rhodes was truly deserving of this final tribute.  Sadly, most who read the obituary had probably never heard of Michael Rhodes. Permit me to share his story.

Michael Rhodes was born on August 13, 1923 in Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York City.[ii]  Michael Rhodes was an American opera singer and highly sought after vocal coach. He may be best known to American opera fans for being the vocal coach who helped make German tenor Jonas Kaufmann the star he is today. In interviews Kaufmann has credited Rhodes with helping him find his voice.[iii]  Michael began his own singing career singing in a church choir.  In time he would study under Robert Weede and Giuseppe de Luca. Rhodes began his professional singing career in 1947 at New York City Opera playing Jochanaan (John the Baptist) in Salome.  Radio was king in those days and in 1948, NBC gave Michael Rhodes his own show: “Music for an hour.”  From 1948 to 1951 Rhodes worked with musical greats like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.[iv]

Michael Rhodes was on his way to a great career in America, then in 1951 he was invited to visit Trier Germany.  Trier is a relatively small town but it is the oldest city in Germany and is something of a cultural mecca. Trier has a fine opera house and a knowledgeable, appreciative audience. The German people seemed to love Michael Rhodes as much as he loved them. In 1951 Rhodes moved to Trier Germany and later that year became the first American after World War II to sing at Berlin’s Deutsche Opera.  Among the more than 100 major roles that he sang during his 35-year stage career, “Falstaff” from Verdi’s opera of the same name was his favorite role.

While Michael Rhodes was content to focus most of his career on teaching and coaching others he was truly a world class talent and made guest appearances in leading roles with the greatest operas in Europe including Berlin’s Deutsche Opera, Opéra National de Paris and La Scala in Milan.  Peter G. Davis, an American opera critic, scholar and writer for the New York Times and New York magazine, met Rhodes and heard him sing on a visit to Trier in 1962.  Davis wrote, “I can confidently say that Mr. Rhodes might well have pursued a major career had he wanted it.”  Davis described seeing Rhodes in Puccini’s “Tabarro:” “Mr. Rhodes’s cannily manipulated big, burly voice practically blew the audience into the nearby Moselle River.”

I was blessed to have known Michael Rhodes in the 1970s and to have felt the power of his voice on many occasions. My family once shared a memorable Christmas dinner with him and other family and friends at his home in Trier.  I was just a teen at the time and knew him more as a choir director and family friend than as an opera star. On one occasion we were going to see him in an opera in Trier and Michael promised my little sister a special song. She was about nine years old at the time and she asked, “how will I know which song is for me” and he said, “I will just wink at you.” During the opera there was a scene where he was drinking in a tavern and appears to pass out. A second or two later he lifted up his head, looked at the audience and winked. The entire audience cheered as he started to rise from the ground singing a wonderful fun song.  To this day I do not know whether that was a regular part of the opera or something he did just for her. Either way it was another wonderful night with Michael Rhodes.

I don’t know why Michael moved to Germany. I would not be surprised if it was nothing more than his love for Trier. There was no mistaking his love for his adopted hometown. He also loved performing and directing in the wonderful opera halls and cathedrals of Germany.  He loved Germany but he also never stopped being American. He devoted countless hours to working with American service men and women stationed in Germany and their children. I was in choirs and had minor roles in musicals he conducted for American service families at airbases near his home in Trier.  Being directed by Michael Rhodes was a joy. He was never temperamental; he never became frustrated or angry. He gently pushed us to be better than we ever thought we could be.  I and many other American youth not only had the chance to work with Michael Rhodes, we also had the opportunity to perform in historic venues like the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier and the Cologne Cathedral, in Cologne.  Wherever we went with Michael, we were always greeted warmly by the German people.

The first youth musical Michael directed was “Lightshine.” Lightshine was a musical telling of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.  The year was 1974, I was 14 years old and I had a small part in the musical and sang in the chorus. That is me with my arms out below. This picture was taken at a rehearsal for Lightshine. We were working on a lighting effect. The flash photography has ruined the effect but with proper back lighting I appear to be a man seeking Christ and my shadow looks like Christ on the cross.   1975 - Lightshine  Rehearsal 01aIt was a great experience. After “Lightshine” the youth, supported by the adult chapel choir and directed by Michael Rhodes, put on a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

 

Michael Rhodes directing the children’s choir at Bitburg Air Force Base Chapel (1975)

Michael Rhodes with Children’s Choir at Cologne Cathedral, in Cologne Germany

Being a teen I also had the opportunity to sing with adult chapel choirs and a US vocal ensemble. In 1974 the Choral Society of Bitburg and US vocal ensemble presented the “Messiah” by Georg Friedrich Händel under the direction of Michael Rhodes.  The final production of the combined choirs was presented at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Trier.  St. Peter’s is the oldest church in Germany and is known for looking more like a castle than a church.  Football and wrestling practice got in the way of me making all of the rehearsals so I did not sing in the combined choir performance of the Messiah at St. Peter’s Cathedral.  However, I was fortunate enough to be in the cathedral for the combined performance and also to sing an abbreviated version of the Messiah later that month at the airbase chapel.

I have referred to the Messiah as a performance and as a production and in deed it was both but if Michael were here he would remind all of us that it is first and foremost a worship service. Michael loved the Messiah and wrote his doctoral thesis on Georg Friedrich Händel. He reminded all of us repeatedly that the Messiah was the gospel set to music.  It is the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On the night of the combined German-American service, my family wanted to get the best possible seats so we arrived very early only to find hundreds of people already there – so many, we feared we might not get in.  Eventually we got in and got a seat toward the rear of the Cathedral.  The acoustics in the massive stone structure were amazing and we had no trouble hearing.  It was a magnificent night I will never forget.  There are no words that can truly describe what I heard that night. On that evening the audience stood for Hallelujah not out of custom or tradition but because the story and music drove them to their feet.

I have heard portions of the Messiah, often just Hallelujah sung many times since 1974, and when it is over I always think the same thing: that was wonderful, but that was not the Messiah. To sing the Messiah, in my mind, you need an ancient stone cathedral, at least a 150 member choir (300 is better), professional soloists, and most of all, you need Michael Rhodes.

Michael Rhodes deserves to be remembered as an Opera star but more than anything he was a great teacher.  He taught opera stars like Jonas Kaufmann, Katharina Bihler and Joshah Zmarzlik but he also found time to share his love of music with the children of American service men and women. As a former military dependent I want to say: thank you, Michael Rhodes, for the thousands of hours you spent working with the youth of the American Air Force Bases at Spangdahlem and Bitburg Germany.

Michael Rhodes died Sunday, March 20, 2013, in Trier, Germany.

[i] http://bigstory.ap.org/article/opera-singer-teacher-michael-rhodes-dies

[ii] http://magazin.klassik.com/news/teaser.cfm?ID=9940

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/arts/music/jonas-kaufmann-as-siegmund-in-die-walkure.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[iv] http://www.volksfreund.de/nachrichten/region/kultur/Kultur-in-der-Region-Was-bitte-ist-Trier;art764,220680

 

A Zugspitze Adventure

This post card reflects the Zugspitze as it was when I visited in the 1970s.

The Zugspitze is the highest mountain in Germany. The peak sits at 2,962 m (9,718 ft) above sea level. It lies south of the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and the border between Germany and Austria runs over its western summit. You can stand near the peak with one foot in each country. Everything about the Zugspitze is amazing. There is a plateau with several glaciers south of the peak that is perfect for skiing most of the year. My family was blessed to ski the Zugspitze several times in the seventies.

Just getting to the top of the Zugspitze is an adventure. Skiers and sightseers get to the top of the Zugspitze on either a cogwheel train that cuts through a tunnel in the mountain or a massive cable lift. Both of these modes of assent are truly feats of German engineering.

In the early 1980s the cog train route was changed so that it now goes directly on to the plateau where the skiers ski but when we skied the Zugspitze in the 1970s both the cog train and primary cable lift loaded and unloaded in a station near the peak. Skiers then took smaller lifts down to the ski area on the plateau. The plateau and the other surrounding peaks formed a bowl in which several thousand skiers could ski on glaciers when there was no snow on the hills below. When the sun was shining the Zugspitze was a beautiful place to visit but when the weather turned bad it could quickly become a forbidden and desolate place.

One day we were skiing in beautiful sunshiny weather when a little gray cloud appeared right at the peak of the mountain and begin to grow. Within fifteen minutes it covered the entire bowl and temperatures dropped dramatically. Then it began to rain, not snow or sleet, it rained and it rained hard. This rain would have of course frozen long before it reached the tree line but we were way above the tree line only a few feet from the highest point in Germany. The rain would hit your ski suit, run two or three inches, and freeze into a sheet of ice. Every time you moved large sheets of ice broke off your clothes and fell on the ground around you. It was a very strange and scary situation.

The people running the mountain immediately began an emergency evacuation. We all followed instructions and rushed to get in line for the lifts up to the main complex where you could catch the cog trains and primary lifts off the mountain. At this point many people started to become alarmed. The lifts to the top were small and could only carry about 10 people at a time. It was immediately apparent that it was going to take at least a couple of hours to evacuate the mountain. There were only a handful of small wooden structures in the bowl itself and there was only one way out and that was to wait your turn for the lift.

My father, brother and I carefully assessed this very dangerous situation and made a decision, we kept skiing. That’s right; with all those wimpy people standing in line the ski lifts were wide open. The T-bar lifts were eventually so coated with ice they would not stay behind you but since we were the only people skiing we road them as singles by just hooking both arms over the bar. For the next two hours we skied our butts off until we were physically exhausted. I remember I fell and I was so tired I just laid there for a few minutes. A U.S. Army ski patrol guy came along clearing the mountain and said the lines were getting down and we had to go.

Other than people who worked there we were some of the last people off the mountain. Workers were cramming as many people on each lift as they could and as we loaded the small lift up to the station I was crushed into the corner. I was nauseous and I think I probably passed out then but we were packed in so tight that there was no way for me to fall. A lady that was pressed against me asked if I was okay and then cracked a small window for me to get some air. I was feeling better before we got to the top but I still couldn’t wait to get out of that car.

When the door open and a blast of cold air came in I thought I’m going to be okay. Now in between the cable car and the station there is a grilled steel floor that is porous and you can see straight down to the mountain below. This is they are so the snow kicked off of peoples boats will not build up and become a safety hazard. The grill is also designed in a way that will keep it from being slick. I had never really paid a lot of attention to this grilled floor before that day but as we began to get off the left the last thing I remember was this grilled floor moving toward my face.

When I woke up I was lying on a bench with people trying to ask me questions in German. They had taken a lot of my clothes off and there was a man with my feet against his belly trying to warm my feet. I was told later that these people were members of the German mountain team. Then one of them offered me a cup and motioned for me to drink it. I’m not sure what was in that cup but I am pretty sure that two or three cups of whatever it was would make you intoxicated. I don’t know if I passed out again, fell asleep or what but the next thing I knew I was in an infirmary or medic station of some kind. I was on an army style stretcher and wrapped in an army blanket. Several young American soldiers were taking care of me. They picked me up and put the stretcher on the cog train for the ride down and encourage me to go back to sleep.

One of the soldiers was a cute young female and just a few years older than me. I talked to her on the train ride down. My mom teased me later in the car that she knew I was going to be okay when I started trying to fix my hair and talk to that girl. When we got to the train station we all got a lecture from the head of the ski team about the dangers of hypothermia and how easy it can be to freeze to death. I still had the Army blanket wrapped around me and I started to give it back to them but all my clothes were wet and they insisted I keep it. I still have that blanket and I plan to keep it as long as it makes me smile when I pick it up.