William Warfield: Still a star at 81

William Warfield: Still a star at 81

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

Some of us harbor the dream that life should be a continuous learning process. Sunday afternoon, Aug. 26, 81-year-old William Warfield helped us live that dream by offering us two major lessons in a program presented by the Rockford Chapter of Lyric Opera of Chicago. First, he told us stories of how he succeeded through the good fortune of repeatedly having good teachers throughout his life; Second, he demonstrated through performance how much a good technique adds to the richness of a naturally fine voice. And, of course, the lesson that came throughout the whole performance—that advanced age need not hold us back.

William Warfield’s father, the son of sharecroppers in the South, felt a strong call into the ministry and moved his family to Rochester, New York, to get the training, and eventually the parish, to answer that call. Son William, one of five sons, absorbed from him the concept that he should recognize and pursue a calling, to fulfill his life’s plan. He was drawn to music at an early age, singing spirituals in his father’s church. A woman at the church, aware of William’s interest, gave him piano lessons without his father’s knowledge—and then presented him in a recital program, where his father was amazed at his son’s achievement.

Young William Warfield continued on in the local public schools where a high school teacher noted his voice and told him that he should learn the proper way to use it. She volunteered to give him singing lessons after school. As part of those lessons, she stressed the importance of understanding the text when singing in a foreign language—so, still in the local public high school, he immersed himself in French, Italian and German to such a degree that later when he went into the army in World War II, he was diverted immediately into military intelligence.

While still in high school, he entered into some singing competitions, which resulted in competing at a national level and winning a full scholarship to music school. He studied at the Eastman School, which was not only one of the country’s leading academies for musical training but also was right there at home in Rochester. His plan at that time was to become a voice teacher.

Here, in his narrative, he paused to reassure us that his musical development was not all classical art songs but rather sprung from a childhood of hearing—and singing—the traditional spirituals. He turned to the piano to accompany himself, as he launched into his first vocal demonstration of the afternoon, “Every Time I Hear the Spirit.” While there is an edge to the voice that has been worn off by the years, the richness and control are still there to wow an audience, leaving us awestruck. The technique and mastery showed in the shaping of the musical phrase, the expressive use of the full dynamic range, and the heartfelt passion that came through that musical skill as the voice rang out.

Then, explaining that not all spirituals were serious, but some were equally playful, he sang a less familiar one, called “I Met My Sister” that lightened up the room with its humor, leading his story forward to his stint after the army, traveling with the national company of the show Call Me Mister, in which he worked with a bunch of other then-unknown future stars—Carl Reiner, Buddy Hackett and Bob Fosse! Explaining his theory that everything we learn in life comes in handy later on, he said he had learned some tap-dancing moves as a boy, so he both sang and danced in this first professional show. To our amazement, he was up on his feet, singing along to a tap-dancing routine that was completely unexpected. Returning to the piano afterward, he echoed the comment that was on all of our minds, “Not bad for 81, eh?” No, not bad at all.

While on tour, fellow members of the company said he could probably get good jobs singing and playing in supper clubs. He went that route until a fan heard him in Canada and volunteered to finance his New York Town Hall debut (Do we wonder why such benefactors are still termed “angels”?). The recognition gained in this debut led to concert work throughout the world and to major roles in Show Boat and Porgy and Bess and a well-deserved lifelong career among the stars. His program included a sample of his nightclub repertoire along with a few of what might be termed encore-type numbers. He told of his friendship with what he termed “The Mount Kisco Gang” (Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and Giancarlo Menotti) and ended up with describing a performance of Show Boat in Vienna. It was in German, of course, so he closed with “Old Man River” in German, where it comes through as “Der Alte Strom” (“fliegende vorbei”—rolling along).

He is many years away from the rigors of a concert tour, but he continues to teach on the faculty at Northwestern, sharing his expertise as well as his life skills, and he conducts workshops at the Lyric Opera as well. An unassuming personality, he does not strive for the charisma that is so often touted as essential today for a professional career. He just lets his ringing voice do it all for him.

I couldn’t help but feel that those of us who were there will look back on the afternoon for years to come, remembering it as a chance to witness a rare talent and to savor a bit of living history.

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