New York opera expert Paul Padillo shares memories of a great soprano who died 29 years ago, aged just 54:
One of the greatest concert performances of my life was a Giulio Cesare with Tatiana Troyanos partnered by the young June Anderson as Cleopatra. The audience response was near bedlam. If not the only singer to do so, Troyanos certainly must be one of the few who have sung both Cesare AND Cleopatra. I always felt there was nothing she could not sing: Handel, Purcell, Berlioz, Wagner, Rossini, Mozart . . . put it in front of her and she could most likely do it. And better than most.
Troyanos had a difficult childhood which appear to have plagued her with insecurities for much of her life, most of the time seeming to overcome them with something resembling superpowers. Home life was not good and very unstable in the tenements where West Side Story took place (and now Lincoln Center sits). At 7 or 8 she was placed in The Brooklyn Home for Children, which she would later describe as a “bleak but marvelous” place. It was there she began piano studies with Louis Petrini, principal bassoonist for the Met who recognized early on the girl’s gifts.
As a teenager she was moved to the Girls Service League, a home for “disturbed girls” on E. 19th Street. This whole chapter of life sounds like one of those Dickensian horror stories of misplaced children slipping through the cracks. She described her experience in her own words “[being there] I got disturbed. I felt there must be something wrong with me, too.”
Troyanos said she had always found comfort in music and here while at the Girls Service League she became obsessed with singing “I was attracted to the voice of Maria Callas and played her records all the time in my room. It was hypnotic . . . I always felt drawn, extremely drawn to music, and it has held me together. It spoke to my soul and spirit, the communication I had with it. I felt I was another person when involved with music. I didn’t know who I was . . . so I found identification in music, but there was difficulty in identification – my intensity comes from this. I figured if I worked hard and followed advice, it would work. It did, and it does.”
Her piano teacher, Petrini was eventually able to arrange for a piano scholarship to the Brooklyn Music School. Where she worked herself into a frenzy. “I put all my energies into music, which was healthy and positive. We also put on plays and I acted, danced and worked with costumes . . . took everything seriously, even ballet. I always won the prize for trying the hardest.”
Hers was a remarkable life. Even her death has something very special about it.
On the afternoon of her passing, Tatiana, in great pain, rose from her bed at Lennox Hospital, dressed, put on her make-up, and rolled – along with her I.V. pole – into the Cancer Ward’s waiting room. There, for about half an hour, sang an impromptu recital, cheering her fellow patients and their visitors with her gift and charm. One patient remarked it was the only time in three years she’d forgotten about her pain. Quietly, she returned to her room and shortly thereafter passed away.
The tale of her last day always gives me chills – and tears. What an amazing gift Tatiana Troyanos was to the world . . . right up until the very end, filling it with the joy and beauty of music.