Nov. 22, 1963, lives in infamy as the day John F. Kennedy was shot. But it was also the day that one of America’s best-loved performers nearly poisoned himself to death with his own costumes.
Liberace had been feeling ill all day. He was scheduled to play a concert that night in Hershey, Penn., and was almost relieved when news of the assassination came, because he assumed his appearance would be canceled. To his dismay, however, his fans came out in droves, filling the local Holiday Inn. Liberace forced himself to go on, but halfway through the ill-fated performance he collapsed on stage and was rushed to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed kidney failure. The culprit: carbon tetrachloride. The entertainer had used it regularly to clean his lacy, jewel-encrusted costumes, and when he wore them, the chemical seeped into his pores and poisoned him.
If that weren’t enough for the tabloids, Liberace’s assassination-day story gets even stranger. The hospital was in an uproar, and while doctors and priests raced to and fro, Liberace used what he expected to be his waning moments on earth to indulge in his grandest passion – shopping, in this case by telephone. Later, after his last rites were performed, Liberace had a vision: A nun, shrouded in white, came to him and gave him succor. In the following days, on his way to a miraculous recovery, he interpreted this as a message from God – not to mend his materialistic ways, but to live even more opulently.
This absurd, utterly American episode provides the close to Act 1 of Liberace: The Magic of Believing, a new opera created by Theatre X in Milwaukee, Wisc.
“When people hear |Liberace,’ |opera’ and |Theatre X,’ they assume we’re doing a send-up,” co-artistic director Wesley Savick notes, but that’s not the troupe’s intention. After all, how can you parody someone who spent his life parodying himself?
Not just kitsch
“We also aren’t doing a made-for-TV type of depiction,” Savick asserts. “The fact that the script is primarily sung rather than spoken gives us an opportunity to create something in operatic terms, something more than kitschy impersonation” – something, perhaps, along the lines of Nixon in China, “but without the global political ramifications.”
Getting past the velveteen and sequins of the Liberace myth has been the preoccupation of co-authors Savick (who also directs) and Pamela Woodruff. To that end they’ve conducted extensive research into Liberace’s early days in West Allis, a factory suburb of Milwaukee.
Born Wladziu Valentino Liberace, he grew up in dire poverty, developing early on his “appetite for all things material,” as Savick puts it. Pushed by his mother into attending classical music classes at a conservatory by day, by night he indulged his love for popular music, playing the piano at beer gardens, roadhouses and even, allegedly, brothels. Eventually his two styles merged. In Savick’s words, “He was so completely dependent on the love of an audience that he would play his Liszt or Brahms and then launch into |Roll Out the Barrel.'”
It was a winning combination. As Liberace’s success snowballed, his lifestyle became more and more extravagant. He owned eight houses and was addicted to shopping. “He could not let one day go by without buying something, even if it was just groceries,” Savick comments. “He had two hours a day set aside for shopping, and he wouldn’t schedule any concerts for the eight weeks prior to Christmas.”
Of course every opera has to have a love interest, and in this case it’s provided by Mrs. Liberace – not the pianist’s wife (he never married) but his mother, the strong-willed, ambitious woman to whom Liberace literally owed his life and success. When he was 15, he contracted an infection in his arm which turned gangrenous. His doctors wanted to amputate, but Mrs. Liberace saved the limb (and her son’s future career) by dousing it in boiling water every day for a week. This episode has been captured in a musical number called “Boil the Limb that Offends” in Theatre X’s opera.
Denial to the end
No other love in Liberace’s life was as long-lasting or as public. “He lived in a heavily closeted age,” Savick comments. “Despite his flamboyance on stage and the publicity over his palimony suits, his fans refused to believe that he was gay. Liberace himself denied it to the end. When he died, the Los Angeles County coroner had to stop the burial to determine whether he had died of AIDS, which indeed he had.”
One of Liberace’s more serious romances was with a man who agreed to have his face surgically altered to resemble the entertainer’s. That event is memorialized in Act 2 of Liberace with an aria between two plastic surgeons.
The immensity of Liberace’s eccentricities cried out for operatic treatment, says Savick: “Liberace and opera were the most powerful marriage of content and form we could think of.” The scale of the production will be enhanced by Michael Vitali’s score, which has been orchestrated on a computer/synthesizer to recreate the sound of a 50-piece orchestra. Sets were designed by Ed Paschke, a Chicago imagist painter whose specialty is distortions of pop imagery.
Undertaking the monumental role of Liberace is Richard Brunner, a Chicago-based, classically trained tenor. At 6’4″, Brunner doesn’t look a thing like the diminutive pianist, but he thinks his size works to his advantage. “After all, I’m not trying to impersonate him,” Brunner says. “I’m trying to capture his mythical stature. Liberace, like opera, is bigger than life.”