It was fall of 1963, and Samuel Ramey was a young music student at the Municipal University of Wichita, soon to become Wichita State University.
He was rummaging through the LP bins at a downtown Wichita music store when he flipped to a recording of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” that featured Ramey’s idol, opera star Jerome Hines, singing the title role. Ramey bought the record and took it back to his little apartment, which was near where the Ulrich Museum of Art is now.
Ramey, with his deep, young bass-baritone voice, had just begun to develop an interest in opera the previous year. He became obsessed with his new record, a one-hour, psychological opera that told the story of poor, lonely Bluebeard and his new bride, Judith, who insists on seeing what hides behind seven locked doors in his castle.
“I took it back to my place and started playing it and thought, ‘Wow. This is fantastic,’” he said. “I wrote off to a music store in New York, and they sent me the score.”
It cost $3.50.
When Ramey heads to rehearsal for “Bluebeard’s Castle” with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra on Monday, he’ll have that score – which still has notes he made to himself in 1963 – with him. He’s saved it for more than 50 years and has used it every time he’s performed the opera, including in 1988 when he sang the title role for a PBS special at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
He likes to show off the price tag, too.
“It was $3.50,” he said, shaking his head full of silver, opera star hair. “You can’t buy anything for $3.50 now, certainly not a ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ score.”
Ramey, the Colby native turned international opera star who moved to Wichita last year to begin working at his alma mater, will star next weekend in the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Bluebeard’s Castle.”
But he won’t be the only heavyweight on the Century II Concert Hall stage.
In addition to mezzo-soprano star Nancy Maultsby, who will play the role of Judith, Ramey will be joined by more than 9,000 pounds of glowing, hand-blown glass sculptures created by Dale Chihuly, the same artist who made the colorful, twisty sculpture that hangs in the Wichita Art Museum’s grand hall. The six pieces in the opera, each weighing at least 1,500 pounds and measuring 14 feet tall, serve as the mysterious doors in Bluebeard’s castle, and each one shows Chihuly’s interpretation of what waits behind them. This is the fifth time the sets have been used in a performance.
“This is going to be a feast for the senses,” said Daniel Hege, the symphony’s musical director and conductor. “This kind of opportunity doesn’t come up very often.”
The unique concert began to take shape last year, when the symphony’s executive director, Don Reinhold, approached Ramey about performing as part of the season. Ramey, whose 50-year career has made him one of the world’s biggest American opera stars, hadn’t appeared on stage with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra since 1989. When Ramey announced he would be moving to Wichita to join the WSU music faculty, Reinhold saw his chance to get him on stage.
Ramey agreed immediately, and the two began discussing ideas. It was Ramey who suggested “Bluebeard’s Castle,” the piece he’d fallen in love with in Wichita as a young man and had later spent excruciating months learning to sing in Hungarian for a 1987 recording.
Intrigued, Reinhold said he’d run the idea past Hege. The conductor, who said he’d idolized Ramey since he was 18, immediately agreed.
“I cannot tell you how excited I was,” Hege said. “‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ by Bartok had been a bucket-list piece for me to conduct for about 25 years. It’s one of those pieces that caught my imagination when I first heard it. I remember getting a videotape of the opera and watching it, then getting a score from the library and going through it. I was just mesmerized by the score.”
Hege and the symphony staff remembered seeing a piece in Symphony magazine about a unique staging of “Bluebeard’s Castle” that the Seattle Symphony had done in 2007. The symphony commissioned Chihuly, a Washington State native, to make the giant set pieces for its staging of the opera, and he delivered six glowing, impressionistic pieces. Each one features a jewel-toned sculpture housed in a black case, and as each door is opened, the sculpture is illuminated. Red reeds depict the bloody torture chamber behind the first door. The lake of tears behind door six is represented by suspended purple droplets falling into a puddle of red.
Since their debut, the pieces have often been borrowed by other symphonies staging “Bluebeard’s Castle.” The Wichita staff learned the sculptures were available in March.
Maultsby, who is now teaching opera at Baldwin Wallace University near Cleveland, performed in the presence of the pieces three years ago in Seattle. They add so much depth to the already arresting drama of the piece, she said.
“They are just exquisite,” she said. “They’re really just amazingly beautiful, as you would imagine from Dale Chihuly.”
Maultsby said that performing opposite Ramey also is a dream. She performed with him once before as a “youngster,” she said. She had a small part in Chicago’s Lyric Opera performance of “Mephistopheles,” where Ramey had the title role.
She remembers being impressed by the fact that Ramey, who was flying back and forth between performances at the Lyric and the Met in New York, would always be at rehearsals on time.
“He was a big star,” Maultsby said. “He wouldn’t necessarily have had to be there at 10 in the morning. But he always was.”
Maultsby was hired to replace the original Judith hired for the Wichita concert, who decided she did not feel comfortable performing the piece in its original Hungarian. The opera will be performed in Hungarian next weekend with English supertitles.
Learning the piece in Hungarian was a difficult process, said Maultsby and Ramey.
Before the 1987 album, which Ramey recorded in Budapest with soprano Eva Marton, he remembers spending months working on the lyrics. Hungarian is a beautiful language, he said, but it’s far more difficult than Italian, French or Spanish to learn. Every vowel, he said, can be pronounced three or four different ways.
Marton, a Hungary native, offered to help.
“She said, ‘Now there is a guy I worked with at the Met. He’s the head of the ushers, and I’ve already told him about you,’” Ramey said. He took Marton’s advice and found the usher, who agreed to help. Ramey would sit in his office for hours each day, just speaking the text.
During the recording process, Ramey remembers with a laugh, a helpful bassoonist would turn around and correct him if he stumbled or give him a thumbs-up if he did well.
“In the end, they said it was the best Hungarian from a non-Hungarian they’d heard,” he said.
It’s the conductor’s call, usually, whether to perform the opera in Hungarian or English, Hege said. But Ramey asked him if he could stick to the original language.
“I said, ‘Well, of course,’” Hege said. “This is the way I see it: English is always a nice thing to do when you can. However, even if you do it in English, you need surtitles up there anyway. When people are singing, it’s very hard to hear what they’re saying, even if they’re singing in their own language. If we need surtitles up there anyway, why not do it in the language Bartok was thinking of? It’s integrally a part of the music. It just made sense from all angles to do it in Hungarian.”
Bartok’s music also plays to the strength of the orchestra, Hege said, and the musicians are eager to start rehearsal.
“The orchestra is chomping at the bit to do this,” he said. “They love this kind of music. We did Bartok’s ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’ about a year and a half ago, and that had a lot of Bela Bartok signature language in it. They just dug right in; they seemed to love it. Bartok’s not easy to do. It has a lot of challenges. Bartok has a unique style of tonality. The harmonic language he uses is extremely rhythmic, and this orchestra can play rhythms very well.”
If you go
What: Wichita Symphony Orchestra performance of the Bela Bartok opera starring Samuel Ramey, Nancy Maultsby and 9,000 pounds of Dale Chihuly glass
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. March 15
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
How much: $30 to $80 at wichitasymphony.org or 316-267-7658
Art Talk : At 2 p.m. March 14, the Wichita Art Museum will have an art talk by Britt Cornett, head of exhibitions at the Seattle-based Chihuly studio. The program, put on in cooperation with the Wichita Symphony, will focus on Chihuly’s background, career and process and will cover the history of his “Bluebeard’s Castle” set pieces. The museum has two Chihuly sculptures: The “Chandelier” in the great hall and the “Persian Seaform Bridge” in the foyer. Admission is free.