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Brief Candles – Ruby Elzy, Salvatore Licitra, Eleana Suliotis & Alfredo Coccoza

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both it’s ends
It will not last the night
But ah my foes, and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.

I’d like to examine the legacies of a few of those singers whose candles did not last the full night. Those who the fates decreed careers in opera far shorter than their talents deserved.

Ruby Elzy (1908 – 1943)

Ruby Elzy graduated from Ohio State University in 1930, first in her class in the music department and received a fellowship to the Julliard School in New York, graduating in 1934. And she was black. While she was still a student at Julliard, she appeared with Paul Robeson, singing in the chorus in the musical film version of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” She was hand picked by George Gershwin to create the role of Serena in “Porgy and Bess,” introducing the song “My Man’s Gone Now” and Gershwin was the accompanist for her New York concert debut. She sang for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House and appeared in four films, including Birth of the Blues with Bing Crosby in which she sang St. Louis Blues.

Ruby was rehearsing for her operatic debut as the lead in “Aida” but a few months before that she went in to the hospital for routine removal of a benign cyst. She died unexpectedly on the operating table. She was 35 years old.

Ruby Elzy never made a commercial recording, but in this radio broadcast of My Man’s Gone she is introduced by George Gershwin, who also conducts the orchestra.

Salvatore Licitra (1968 – 2010)

The Swiss tenor, Salvatore Licitra made his operatic debut in 1998 at the age of thirty. A year later he was singing in Tosca at La Scala. Recording contracts followed and he had a major triumph when he substituted for Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera. He had everything going for him – a beautiful voice, critical acclaim, and contracts with every major opera house.

And then one day he was riding his motor scooter in Sicily and crashed into a wall. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died after 9 days in a coma. He was 43 years old.

Eleana Suliotis (1943 – 2004)
Eleana Suliotis was born in Greece but moved with her family to Argentina at an early age. She had a rich, thrillingly beautiful, voice and great dramatic instincts. She was often referred to as the “New Callas” because she sang much of Maria Callas’ demanding repertoire, including including “Norma” and Verdi’s Nabucco and Macbeth but almost from the beginning critics noticed signs of stress in her voice and within only five years, it had deteriorated noticeably. Whether this was due to imperfect training, a basic flaw in the voice, or simply choosing roles she should not have been singing, was and is an open question.

She always had vocal power, but her control of pitch and tone became highly uncertain and Suliotis withdrew from the opera stage after only ten years. She returned in 1974 to sing smaller, less demanding supporting roles and continued to do so until shortly before her death in 2004. Her light was brief, but it was lovely, indeed.

And then there’s Alfredo Cocozza who in all his life, sang only two performances on an opera stage.
As a teenager, he sang in local opera productions for the YMCA. The famous conductor Serge Koussevitsky heard him and arranged for a full student scholarship at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. He studied there with Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. When he was not yet 21 years old, he sang two concert performances of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Act III of “La Boheme” at the Berkshire Music Festival which earned him a great review in the New York Times, but his career was interrupted by World War II and he spent the next three years in the Army Air Corps, singing in shows for Special Services.

Shortly before joining the Air Corps, Alfredo entered a local recording studio and made four records as a gift for his parents 20th wedding anniversary.

His talent was recognized early and between 1945 and 1946 he appeared six times on nationwide radio broadcasts of the ABC network, singing popular songs as well as operatic selections.

Freddy, as he was known in his youth, made friends easily, including two rising young singers, soprano Beverly Sills and bass George London. After the war he sang in several radio broadcasts and began a concert tour of the United States and Canada as part of The Bel Canto Trio with George London and soprano Frances Yeend. The tour climaxed with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Critics raved about the size and beauty of his voice, but commented on many musical faults which they assumed would be corrected with experience and further training. He finally appeared for the only time on a professional opera stage, singing two performances of ”Madama Butterfly” in New Orleans, again to wonderful reviews.

But Alfredo preferred chasing girls and drinking with his friends to the discipline of the musical studies he badly needed to refine his talent, so he never became the great operatic star that he surely could have been. Instead, that performance at the Hollywood Bowl had been seen by Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM studios who signed him to a contract. Of course, by that time Alfredo had already changed his name. His mother’s maiden name was Maria Lanza, so Alfredo Coccoza became Mario Lanza.

Your comments or questions are welcome.