Opera Doc: An Interview with Allan Edmiston
By Tom Lady
“Although I was musical and played the piano since third grade, I didn’t see my first two operas until I was a sophomore in high school. When I was a small child, my great aunt introduced me to opera stories and recordings with the likes of Caruso, Galli-Curci and McCormick. The first opera I saw was Karl Böhm conducting Elizabet Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig in The Marriage of Figaro. And then I saw Fedora with Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi. I got to meet and talk to these singers while I was in high school and college. They got to know me as a regular at Lyric Opera….By the way, if anyone needs the CDs of those two operas, live or commercially recorded, I’ve got them.”
Most Opera Leaguers only know Allan Edmiston as the moderator of the seminars we put on four times a year, but of course this Evanston, Illinois native is so much more than that.
I meet him in one of the reading rooms of the California Club on the rainy Sunday of March 1. The Hemmings gala champagne reception is starting in fifteen minutes. A damp Allan arrives straight from the final performance of The Ghosts of Versailles, where he was the onsite Opera Doc (more on that in a sec). I spend the fifteen minutes (plus a few more) getting to know the man behind the moderator.
For starters, did you know your friendly neighborhood moderator is also a practicing cardiologist? After getting his undergrad and medical degrees from Northwestern, Allan came out to USC for his residency and stayed on as a member of their faculty. He has now been at Huntington Memorial in Pasadena for over thirty years and was previously chair of their Cardiology Department. He is also past president of the American Heart Association Los Angeles. “I’m very active in the cardiology community,” he says. No kidding!
Now remember when I said Allan was the Opera Doc for the final performance of The Ghosts of Versailles? Allan heads up a team of six volunteer doctors for LA Opera. “We call ourselves Opera Docs,” he says. At each and every performance, Allan or one of his fellow Opera Docs will be sitting close to the side of the orchestra section, just in case. “We actually had six or seven calls during the run of Ghosts,” Allan says. “I obviously can’t tell you what they were about, but it wasn’t anything serious.” And here is a fun fact about Opera Docs: Allan pitched this idea to LA Opera through the Opera League. “I started this because most opera companies have doctors on hand. I even performed CPR at the Met during a performance of Die Walküre.”
The seminars were started by Sherwin Sloan, also a doctor. Allan succeeded him about 15 years ago. We would be selling Allan short by referring to him simply as the moderator. Indeed, it is Allan himself who books all of the speakers, many of whom travel great distances just for that Saturday or Sunday. Barbara Heyman (author of Samuel Barber), Susan Vandiver Nicassio (author of Tosca's Rome), Patrick Smith from Opera News, Philip Gossett (author of Divas and Scholars), composer Daniel Catán, Andrea Puente Catán, Desiree Mays of Santa Fe Opera, and the relatively local trio of Simon Williams, Michael Hackett, and Mitchell Morris… These are but a selection of folks Allan has convinced to share their intellectual opera prowess with us. As soon as next season is announced, Allan syncs up with the Opera League board to map out the next quartet of seminars.
Allan is not just another opera fan. This Opera Doc is about as fully immersed into opera as any single person could be. Not only has he been an LAO subscriber since day one and a Met patron for thirty years, he has literally thousands of opera CDs and DVDs weighing down his shelves. Pointing to the wall of our California Club reading room, he says he has the equivalent of three such walls crammed with opera. And he has it all sorted in his head. Ask Allan anything about any performance recording going back to the dawn of the recording medium itself, he will have an answer.
And then you have the Opera Posse. That is Allan’s name for the six or so people with whom he travels the world to see operas. They have been to Bayreuth, San Francisco, Chicago, Santa Fe, Milan, Vienna and the Met, among others. When in Milan for the Ring Cycle, they visited Casa di Riposo, Verdi’s storied retirement home for opera singers and what Verdi himself called his greatest opera. So what is on the Opera Posse’s docket for 2015? “The Ring Cycle in Budapest, San Francisco and the Met,” Allan says very casually, like it’s just another day in the office for the Posse.
Allan is also a classical pianist who studied even through medical school at the Chicago Conservatory. “I was too busy with my career as a cardiologist and raising a family to keep it up. It has been a recent goal to get the fingers moving again, and I have started studying again with Lisa Edwards of the Master Chorale.”
When the interview is over, the Opera Doc and I head off to the champagne reception to reward ourselves for perhaps the most productive fifteen minutes ever. On our way over, he says, “Let me introduce you to the Opera Posse.”