Madame Says Farewell

She said
it again twice more that week, in the same venue; no doubt other such occasions
will occur. (In any case, there are several CDs and DVDs available. Check her
Web site,

It is easy for anyone to make jokes about opera — everyone already
has. Most of them aren’t funny, never mind witty, never mind as delicious
as the real thing — but that never stops the jokers. What is rare,
besides jokes about opera that are actually funny, witty, and delicious, is
someone who can make a joke about opera last (before a pretty knowledgeable
audience, too) for three hours at a stretch, without deadening out. Anna
Russell managed it — but opera, though her best-known target, was not the
only string to her bow. (I’m not mixing metaphors; I’m setting them
on PUREE.) Gerard Hoffnung managed it, but died too tragically young. Vera
Galupe-Borszkh can still clock it in at three hours after 28 years in the
saddle, which is nothing short of extraordinary — sometimes she has even
been known to resort to new material! No doubt she owes some of her creativity
to a long and suspiciously well-guarded but indescribably relationship with the
vastly knowledgeable Ira Siff, who co-announces Metropolitan Opera

But how she manages to get her magnificent mane of red hair (natural, she
swears by the Virgin of Kiev) out of its scruffy featherduster · la nature into
a taut geisha coiffure during one swift scene change (you never saw a redheaded
Butterfly? This must be the place) and then formed into a trillion sausage
curls for the dying Violetta in another — that calls for skill, technique
and effrontery, which have been (along with a haphazard, not to say biohazard,
shtetl Bessarabian accent) the hallmarks of her career.

Born Vera Vsyevelodovna Borszkh on the outskirts, or fringes, or gym socks
of Odessa, more years ago than Madame can be relied upon to count, she fled
Soviet Russia “when I got tired of singing Aida in languages which got no
wowels.” Later she became the last pupil and ultimately the bride of the
last bel canto castrato, Manuel Galupe (“for a diva, marrying a man
already a castrato is good thing — it save so much time”). Vera
Galupe-Borszkh is not only a living legend (they’re common enough), she
is a voice from the golden age when such things were preserved only by memory
and by the rare and often unconvincing magic of scratchy shellac at 78
revolutions per minute. When you hear G-B, you not only hear the technique, the
talent, the dedication of a bygone golden era, you seem always to hear in her
very throat the echo of scratchy shellac. Perhaps she is one of those who has
used her throat not wisely but too well — the Muse is a harsh mistress,
and G-B has never been one to hold back. Fake it, yes — hold back,

Only a cad — or a critic — to make a distinction without
difference — would point out that Madame’s sustenance of tone has
begun to waver, like the breeze flitting over the Ukrainian wheat fields at
noon. To put it crudely, you could drive a tractor through that tremolo. Yet,
properly warmed up, she can still exquisitely float the opening tone of the
opening “Pace” in Leonora’s aria from Forza del
so that it seems to last longer than the entire opera usually
does. (Just as well she omits the rest of the aria.) Her pitch in the Philip
Glass takeoff is no longer machinelike — and Glass’s music, even in
sendup, does not take kindly to human performance. And was I really the only
member of the audience so moved by her singing of the Sleepwalking Scene from
Bellini’s La Sonnambula that I could not resist shouting:
“Jump! Jump! Jump!” (A friend said he was saving the comment for
Mary Zimmerman’s next curtain call.)

More grateful for her instrument in its present vocal estate (or tenement,
as she has been a New Yorker for years), were five “Rossyan fok
songs,” in which the audience was invited to join her. (“You are
good! You must all be Juilliard drop-outs!”) Lieder, too — her
signposted “Erlkˆnig” is justly famous, her “Morgen”
sublime — were rather easier on voice and ear than the full-scale arias.
Let lesser singers take note: Madame never sings with surtitles or subtitles or
translations — the voice and the gestures (and the costumes) give us
every drainable drop of meaning, and you’re lucky to get it.

It was a great event in the present — but it was, still more, as
Madame put it herself, an evening of extraordinary mammaries. So much of the
style — and the singing — and the shtick — and the annotation
— seemed uncannily to recall occasions long, long ago. But it was
delicious to hear her shtick it to the Met, with all the fervor of someone who
might have been tactfully repressing her real opinions during a season of
broadcast commentary. (“I love the Salome — where she take off
everything! Even some of the high notes!”)

She was ably assisted by Maestro Sergio Zawa, engulfing the piano, and
Carmelita della Vaca-Browne stealing the crumbs of the scenes Madame was
chewing. Della Vaca-Browne lovingly recreated a moment I’ve never
forgotten, from the very first season of La Gran Scena Opera Company di New
York in 1981, when Annina beheld the gasping Violetta on her deathbed and
tossed confetti in her face, then responded to her furious glare with the
explanation, from the libretto: “E carnevale.” In Vera’s
vocal presence, when is it not Carnival?

Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say is (to echo Tosca, one of Madame’s
great roles): “Ecco un artista!”

John Yohalem

image_description=Vera Galupe-Borszkh [Photo by Robert Milazzo]
product_title=Madame Says Farewell
product_by=Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh Back By Personal Whim (and popular demand).
Conceived, written and performed by Ira Siff. Music director: Lucy Arner. Stage
director: Peter Schlosser. Guest Artist: Johnny Maldonado. Leonard Nimoy Thalia
Theater, New York City. Performance of May 27.
product_id=Above: Vera Galupe-Borszkh [Photo by Robert Milazzo]