Tamino From The Past Recalls A Magical Trek Across Stages Of Opera

Baritone Hakan Hakegaard as Papageno and tenor Gran Wilson as Tamino in the Australian Opera production of ‘The Magic Flute’ in 1986.

PERSPECTIVE — Gran Wilson is not in Oz anymore, or in his native Bessemer, Ala., for that matter.

Google measures 9,761 miles from College Park, Md., where Wilson today serves as professor and division coordinator of voice and opera at the University of Maryland School of Music, to the Sydney Opera House, where cameras captured his Tamino in a live, English-language telecast of The Magic Flute with Opera Australia in Sydney on Aug. 21, 1986 — as it happens, Wilson’s first engagement beyond the borders of the U.S. For the record, that’s four years shy of four decades ago and 2,689½ miles shy of half the length of the Equator, the greatest distance between any two points on Earth.

Just now, Wilson’s time and energy are devoted to New Colors for the Canon: A Celebration of African American and Hispanic Song Composers, three recitals involving 12 African American, Latino, and Filipino alumni of the University of Maryland on the rise, singing largely ignored or underappreciated art songs and arias that are part of their heritage (Feb. 7-9).

“That in itself is not different from the type of presentations going on in many universities throughout the country now that social awareness has become a priority,” Wilson, 68, volunteered in a recent email. Not so different, possibly, yet for those who catch it potentially life-changing. “It will be inspiring to our students of color,” Wilson writes, “to see and hear singers who look like them who are flourishing in a previously extremely conservative part of the art-music world in the United States.”

Gran Wilson soars as Alfredo in a Baltimore Opera production of ‘Die Fledermaus’ in 2002. (Photos courtesy of Gran Wilson)

For the most part, what happens in academia stays in academia, yet it was his gifts as a teacher that brought Wilson back to this civilian’s notice last fall after a long, long spell. After catching Heartbeat Opera’s Fidelio — Beethoven retooled for a seven-piece instrumental ensemble in the age of Black Lives Matter — I was asking the Florestan character (called Stan), Curtis Bannister, about his training as a classical singer. He said he had been a freshman or sophomore majoring in theater at Towson University, Baltimore, when another teacher sent him to Gran Wilson. The name rang a bell for me from the New York City Opera back when Beverly Sills was general manager. “Gran Wilson!” I said. “Gran Wilson. Not Grant. A tenor.”

Gran Wilson,” Bannister confirmed. “A capital G great tenor! He was the one who convinced me to do classical vocal performance full time. He was the one who put me on the track for what an operatic tenor is supposed to sound like. He also helped me transition from baritone to tenor. A very genuinely remarkable person.”

Gran Wilson as Edgardo in an Indianapolis Opera production of Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’

That would have been going on two decades ago, and Bannister hadn’t stuck around long or stayed in touch. Yet Wilson, too, remembered. Students by the hundreds have passed through his studio since 1976, when he graduated from Samford University, Birmingham, with a bachelor’s degree in voice. Even so, when I reached out, he had specific, generous impressions of Bannister to share. And he was glad of the update.

My most recent memories of Wilson onstage go back to 1993, when he took the title role in Massenet’s Werther at the Glimmerglass Opera, to wrenching effect. He was born in 1954 in Birmingham and grew up in nearby Bessemer. His first role in opera was the Messenger in Aida with the Birmingham Civic Opera (now Opera Birmingham) in the mid-1970s; his last was Werther with the Mobile Opera in 2014. His engagements over the intervening four decades took him to four continents. He stills sings recitals and oratorios. “Trust me,” he said, “the trip from the Messenger to Werther is longer than the years, and wider than the miles.”

Gran Wilson as Wilhelm in a production of Thomas’ ‘Mignon’ in Nantes, France.

His digital footprint doesn’t do him justice. There’s the most perfunctory of bios on Wikipedia. The New York Times archives yield coverage of his company debut with New York City Opera as Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment in spring 1985. “A good tenor in a testing role,” wrote Will Crutchfield, not the easiest critic to please, checking off his plentiful high C’s “(and for good measure a high C sharp”), his “confidence of experience,” and “sense of style.” Reviewing Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 1986, Crutchfield singled Wilson out in a large cast as “a funny actor and sensitive musician.” Per Bernard Holland, Wilson “worked honorably” in the Glimmerglass Werther, “although his tenor voice was not quite ripe enough for the music’s demands.” In 1995, Anthony Tommasini listed him as one of the three “capable” vocalists in a performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella — as it happens, one of just two titles to be found on Wilson’s commercial discography (the other being John Eaton’s Danton and Robespierre, an opera overdue for a revival).

Wilson’s videography is equally concise. On YouTube, there’s an ardent account of the hero’s aria “Ah, lève-toi, soleil” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, provenance and date unspecified, and Britten’s orchestral song cycle Les Illuminations, set to verse of Rimbaud, staged by Doug Fitch for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra on March 9, 2013. An obsessive can also find glimpses of Wilson as Hervey in the PBS “Live from Lincoln Center” telecast of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in the dazzling company of Joan Sutherland, Gregory Yurisich, Jerry Hadley, and Judith Forst, conducted by the bel canto specialist Richard Bonynge, Sutherland’s husband. There’s also a blurry snippet from the Central City, Colo., American premiere of Britten’s Gloriana, in 2001; rocking a knockout period costume as Essex, boytoy to the aging Elizabeth I, Wilson cuts a vivid and intriguing figure. The character is skating on thin ice here, but it’s an ensemble moment, and the voice that dominates is the queen’s.

Gran Wilson as Werther in Liege, Belgium.

That Lincoln Center Anna Bolena, performed in concert, was what paved the way to the Sydney Magic Flute, directed by Göran Järvefelt of Sweden, again with Bonynge on the podium. And it’s the video of the telecast that constitutes far and away the most robust souvenir of Wilson in action.

Happily, it’s a keeper, remarkable for the lovely, effortless vocal line, but equally for the guileless, heart-on-sleeve personality he projects, the transparency of his facial expressions, and his youthful sense of wonder. The staging calls for him to run a lot, each time taking off like a shot. Is he playing the flute himself or just miming when Yvonne Kenny’s Pamina comes to find him? Hard to tell. It’s painful to watch him keep his silence through her aria and heart-broken exit, but then it gets worse. He drops to the floor, sobbing, and your heart skips a beat.

“I can’t believe that production of Magic Flute was 36 years ago,” he said. “That was five years before my daughter, who is about to make me a grandfather, was even born. I sang the role of Tamino over a hundred times, but that Australian Opera production was unquestionably my favorite.”

Wilson went on to comment, rightly, that the A/V quality left a lot to be desired. “The Kultur DVD video didn’t capture how beautiful and powerful the set was, nor did they employ all the tracks AO recorded,” he continued. “So, it is really a faded impression of what the sound and mise en scène actually presented to the audience. When Sarastro put his arm on Tamino’s shoulder and led him up that huge rake into the Temple of Wisdom, the light shining out of Wisdom toward the audience grew in brightness with every step until it was practically blinding as the AO men’s chorus, who were sensational, sang that glorious piece of music. When Donald Shanks and I reached the top of the portal we could actually hear weeping in the audience. It was that emotionally powerful and moving.”

Järvefelt died in 1989 at the young age of 42, already an internationally recognized shaman of the theater. “Göran was just fabulous,” Wilson recalled. “He would speak almost in a whisper letting you know what he was going for in each scene. He always let me follow my instincts and encouraged me to remember always that Tamino is still a boy, one with a good and strong heart, but not fully developed.

“He is learning throughout what the essence of a leader requires. Göran helped me have the courage to play him as someone who would be totally crushed when he could not turn and tell Pamina how much he loved her. I adored him for that, and it broke my heart when I heard not long after that he was dead. I had done straight theater in college, but it was he who fostered my conviction that it was possible to bring that intensity to operatic repertoire in a manner that could be read all the way to the balcony.”

Gran Wilson and Katherine Gamberoni in ‘Don Pasquale’ at Glimmerglass Opera.

The physical production was likewise first-rate. “The AO costume shop built everything on us, and the clothes were beautiful,” Wilson continued. “At the first dress parade when I walked on stage, Göran said to the costume director in the sweetest voice, ‘Beautiful. Now take the clothes and boots out in the parking lot and beat them up. Tamino just barely survived a dragon!’ That’s when it began to feel as if we were in a movie.”

I’d asked if the show was for the most part cast with giants; next to the Sarastro of Donald Shanks, Wilson’s Tamino looks barely half-grown. Wilson’s reply: “I’m average height, but our Sarastro and Queen of the Night were pretty tall. I don’t remember everyone else being so tall, but I never thought much about that anyway. I had grown up in Alabama and was a halfback on my high school football team. Everybody was bigger than me! I played with guys who ended up in the NFL. I ended up on the stage. Our Sarastro was a wonderful colleague, a real gem of a guy. One day he took me out on his boat to an island miles offshore from Sydney. We took a picnic lunch and shared it with a kookaburra who flew in for a handout. They are not small birds.”

Are you sensing that Wilson is a born storyteller? “One last impression of that whole wonderful experience,” he added then. “My wife had to get back to Baltimore for a dance concert her company was giving before we opened the show. She had loved Australia as much as I and had been welcomed by all with open arms. So, the opening went very well, and the crowd loved it. Afterwards, I crossed backstage to my dressing room, and when I entered there stood Dame Joan Sutherland! I thought for a moment she was visiting one of her Aussie friends and I had entered the wrong room. I must have looked bewildered because she laughed and called out, ‘Gran, come in, love! I know Kimberly had to fly back to the States, and you had no one to give you a hug and tell you how wonderful you were.’

Gran Wilson with his grandson, Jaxson Myles Manzari, born Oct. 2022.

“I was nobody, and here was the most famous Australian woman in history taking the time to be a supportive colleague and gracious hostess. I never forgot it and was determined for the rest of my career to treat all involved in this business in the same manner. In that moment I felt as if I really were Tamino, learning what true royalty is.”

Never to forget. That may be the greatest lesson.

“Sometimes those years seem as if they were another life, or a long dream I can barely remember,” Wilson reflected. “So much has changed from that ‘once upon a time.’ There were no personal computers, no internet, no cell phones. My contract for the Australian Opera was negotiated by my New York agent through international cable. I have now spent almost as many years teaching as being solely an operatic tenor.

“I no longer miss the applause or notoriety and most assuredly do not miss the monastic life of airplanes and hotel rooms or apartments surrounded by strangers or the constant pressure of having to worry about gigs two years out. If you’re at home, you ain’t makin’ money! And I adore teaching young people. I only miss the singers, and their intensity and bravery. And I try with all I have every day to instill that in every kid who comes through my studio door. Because that is the one thing that cannot be taught.”