By Jane Scovell
Baskerville Great voices series nr11
278 pp + 1 CD

Mrs. Jane Scovell’s biography of bass Sam Ramey is quite an acceptable introduction to the career of young Ramey (say up to his début at the Met in 1985). Miss Scovell is a highly competent co-author (or ghost-writer) of all purpose biography: Elizabeth Taylor, Ginger Rogers, Maureen Stapleton have received her attentions and she has co-authored a book with Marilyn Horne which means she is not completely new to matters operatic. Therefore the number of actual mistakes is happily small. Thrice we get ‘non pui andrai’ instead of the correct “non piu andrai”. The name of the British baritone is Benjamin Luxon and not Luxor. Calaf’s father in Turandot is Timur and not Timor and “Le Cor” is not a French art song, though Ange Flégier probably meant it as such but it was quickly snapped up by basses in popular recitals together with “L’Angélus de la mer” and “Le credo du paysan”.

So, does this book really stop when Ramey’s great New York Met career starts ? No, it doesn’t but from that moment on the writer leaves behind her a strictly chronological approach, starts talking in generalities and becomes rather fuzzy. Of course as with all singers it is the road to glory, the climbing of the mountains that is the most interesting part. But staying on top of a cut-throat business has many stories too. A weakness of the book is the meagre chronology. Only the name of the role in a given theatre each year is mentioned. No amount or date of performances, no dates for Ramey’s rich concert career. Therefore the chronology is not much of a help for the last 25 years. Nor is there a discussion of the evolution of the bass’ voice. We learn that it is opulent, rich and with a good extension and that ‘s about it. We read of Ramey’s “halcyon” days but never get an inkling when his less good days started. The word “wobble” which is now very much associated with the last ten years of his singing years never makes an appearance. So we will probably have to wait for a more detailed and honest approach the moment (may it take many years to come) the singer disappears as a great singer as Ramey deserves a full and more detailed biography. There is no doubt his name will linger on as one of the best singers of the period 1975 – 2000. I heard him often in his “halcyon” days as due to the neglect of the Met he performed often in Europe (and in New York as well where the less star-centred audiences heard him sing a lot of his best roles at the City between 1973 and 1985). It says a lot about the Met’s management that Ramey was a star at La Scala three years before his Met début. I first heard the bass as Mefistofele in Vienna. The voice had power, cut through the orchestra and chorus, and above all- sang with impeccable legato; no barking here. In short the greatest Mefisto I ever heard, far superior to José van Dam’s and probably the best since Tancredi Pasero (but I was a little cross Ramey didn’t whistle). Of course Ramey was not a Pasero, a Pinza or a De Angelis as his voice is a shade less richly coloured. On the other hand one had to return to Pol Plançon to meet a bass with the same agility, with the same perfect coloratura; an art which everybody thought to be lost in this voice category on such an outstanding level until Ramey came along. Nor has there been a bass in the post world war period who could sing king Philips as easily as lord Sidney in Il viaggio a Reims ( I remember a TV broadcast with the audience literally howling with delight after his aria).

Miss Scovell is at her best when she describes Ramey’s youth in a typical Midwestern hamlet or his high school days when he learned he had a voice and sang Nanki-Poo in The Mikado. Obviously Ramey co-operated a lot with the author but she had the good sense to check the singer’s stories with other people and is not shy to give us an alternative version. Ramey originally didn’t like opera very much. He admired the classical singers on the Ed Sullivan Show but their stuff was not his favourite fair. Slowly he got hooked on and as he had no opportunity of seeing opera live he bought hundreds of LP’s. At 21 he saw his first performances in Colorado when the New York City performed Trovatore and Don Giovanni which was sung by the man he would eclipse. Norman Treigle (with Milnes as Masetto). Five years later Ramey had some experience with university performances and received a diploma as a bachelor of music (one of his teachers calls him a “good singer” but a “lousy musician”). With fifty dollars in his pocket and a divorce behind his back(his first wife left him without a warning when she became aware to be lesbian)  he decided to try his luck at the New York City. He never thought of singing at the Met. The chapters on his slow rise are the most interesting part of the book. Of course he couldn’t avoid comparison with Treigle and he stirred up almost a hornet’s nest when in a small interview with the Times he admitted that the older singer was quite an actor but that he felt he himself to be a better singer. For a time he was treated by some colleagues as being the anti-Christ though on the aural side alone Treigle didn’t even reach upwards to Ramey’s knees. But as an actor Ramey too was no slouch. I was lucky enough to see his Scarpia at Covent Garden and he was tremendously impressive in the role. Miss Scovell clearly explains why it took Ramey with his formidable vocal means and his imposing physique a few years to make his break through. According to the author (and to a lot of his friends) the singer always remained the friendly Midwesterner and not one to throw tantrums. In conflict between casts and “innovative” producers Ramey to my surprise always meekly submitted. After becoming a world star younger colleagues sometimes appealed to him to stop the foolishness of some producers but Ramey preferred shrugging his shoulders, running away to sit quietly in the auditorium till the incidents were over. So he seems to be without a star’s temperament. Still I remember that at Covent Garden he came out after the second act for his solo bow as Scarpia while Shicoff and Behrens took theirs after the last act. By that time Ramey was already in his hotel or on a flight. Even in 1991 it was a custom that one had to wait till the finish of a performance before taking off one’s costume; even when one was not in the last act. (He sang the role splendidly). We learn too that Ramey is one of those singers who rely on their wife or husband to do the dirty laundry (witness Kleinchen for Melchior or Varady for Fischer-Dieskau). It was Ramey’s second wife Carrie who put the fear of the gods into anybody who wanted to engage the bass, who discussed his fee and his repertoire with Sam seemingly obeying. For almost 30 years they played their version of good cop/bad cop with Carrie applying the pressure the bass himself didn’t want to use. Their marriage ended and the story is somewhat unclear as to the exact dates he met his third wife (and the mother of his son) Lindsey Larsen, 23 years his junior. But the ugly and long divorce (his re-marriage ceremony had to be postponed when Carrie refused the final legal step in the divorce proceedings) tells us he and Lindsey probably already had an affair at the time he was still married.

There are some addendums in the book.  Ramey who never spoke out in the theatre admits that he likes traditional productions and that no producer should be allowed to update a performance. The bass himself discusses his most important roles and Miss Scovell is clearly right when she states that the singer is no intellectual. He only succeeds in telling us a few anecdotes,  diving  only skin deep and keeping musical remarks to “brilliant” and that will do. So you can easily skip this part of the book. On the other hand there is a big section of photographs, on stage and off stage which illustrate the story very well and honestly (not all singers will allow photographs of their former wives in a more or less authorized biography). And there is CD with some impressive examples of Ramey’s art included too. How many basses do you know who can sing both Attila’s aria and Ol’Man River perfectly ? All in all, recommended and hopefully Bakerville Publishers will continue their interesting great singers series (this is already number 11 and the Lanza, Stevens, London and Simionato issues are very much worth the purchase).

Jan Neckers