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John Ardoin and the Dallas Opera have been locked in a battle for more than 30 years. The critic pushed and prodded. The opera excelled and flourished. Now the company may have outgrown the critic who made it famous.

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE JOHN ArDOIN IS hated Outside Dallas he is considered “a prince of a fellow” (the quote is from the toughest nut in classical music). Inside Dallas-well, that’s another story.

He’s been chief music critic for The Dallas Morning News for 30 years and one of America’s powers in music.

Now Ardoin finds himself in the rear guard as a revolution sweeps through his beloved art form. When he began writing criticism in the late ’50s, opera was internalional. star-driven, and voice-oriented. As an art form, it was to a degree rarefied, even elitist. Today opera has become the growth industry of the serious arts in America. More opera companies have sprung up. budgets have soared, audience attendance has risen, and younger people are Hocking to performances. Far more than in the “old days.” American opera companies emphasize production values, directorial concepts (as tor example Tosca, set in actual locations in Rome and broadcast worldwide on BBC), musical preparation, and singers who-however they) sound to the old-timers like Ardoin-look young, and above all, thin.

The Dallas Opera company is remarkable in having been at different times on both sides on this coin. When Lawrence Kelly and Nicola Rescigno founded it in 1957, Maria Callas put them on the map. It was the charismatic Kelly who drew stars and Rescigno who knew them. He was an international conductor with an ear for promise, the respect of artists and their advisors, and engagements all over the place. Kelly worked magic at negotiations and rehearsals. Together they offered marvels such as Joan Sutherland, Jon Vickers, Teres a Berganza, and Montserrat Caballé in their American stage debuts. In those amazing days, the Dallas company was known as “La Scala West.”

“Larry Kelly was the pied piper. You’d follow him off a cliff,” remembers Ardoin, “certainly to what was then a small city in a faraway plate.”

Nicola Rescigno, who conducted nearly every Dallas Opera performance until 1991, describes himself as “being in exile in Italy today ” A little unwilling to talk about the past Rescigno says, “Larry was admettante in the best sense, a perfectionist who worshiped opera, had a huge imagination, and could charm the birds out of trees and money from God knows where.”

Ardoin arrived in 1966. The company was already famous, but his writing made it world renowned, even legendary.

If it is the first commandment of a serious professional critic that he keep a distance between himself and those he reviews, Ardoin is one of the great sinners. Most of his best friends have been artists. Perhaps two of his very best friends were Larry Kelly and Maria Callas.

Ardoin never had an official position with the Dallas company, but he was a crucial member of a “kitchen cabinet” advising on repertory and casting. “Well, I suppose he did,” agrees Rescigno, “and he did have I think every record ever made. But as artistic director, let’s say I was severe with him.”

Old-timers think the great days of the company died with Larry Kelly in 1974. Others consider it was all over when Rescigno retired or (depending on whom you talk to) was run out of town in 1991.

But there really have been huge changes, not just in opera, but in the world. “We didn’t have fax machines when I started,” laughs Plato Karayanis, who is the power at today ’a Dallas Opera, “let alone the Internet or direct flights to London.”

There are fewer unique opera personalities in the world today- and they are very expensive and hard to pin down. The Concorde pretty much means that sought-after superstars can almost be in two places at once. And their fees are huge. Maybe singers in the old days were generally less greedy. Nowadays even a fat tenor wants to be rewarded like a basketball superstar-and can be.

Dallas native Charlotte Schumacher, 81, was for years the general factotum of the Dallas Opera company. “’John Ardoin kept them honest,” she remembers. “Yes, he was friends with Larry and Maestro, but they knew he’d hit hard if they went wrong. I remember at least one three-month period where Larry didn’t speak to John after a bad review. But of course they made up. We all loved opera too much not to be friends. We were a family here; there was a community that loved the opera. And when Callas came, the other big stars felt at home. They wanted to come back regardless of what they were paid. Larry Kelly-who was a genius-got Sutherland to come for $750 a performance for a two-year commitment. Her fee exploded a few months after her debut, but she loved it here so much, she came back and gave her all for that tiny sum.”

Schumacher has been very sick lately, but even an Easterner like me can recognize the huge laugh that comes only from Texas, ’it’s all money today,” Schumacher says. “You know, I think Larry’s top salary was $11,000, and if he had 20 cents left over, he put it back in the company.”

Opera back then-everywhere-was a cutthroat business. But people hid it better. Callas, for example, thought of herself as an artist first and never as a commodity.

“Larry was an artist in his way just like Maria,” insists Ardoin. “They were like brother and sister. You know she died three years after him to the very day. Maria said Larry’s death affected her more than Onassis’. Larry was perhaps the greatest man I’ve known, and there wasn’t a day we didn’t talk.” As for his friendship with Rescigno, the critic doesn’t hesitate. “When he left, why, I took his side.”

“It was life or death for us,” cries Rescigno. “Nowadays they are…are…”he explodes into colorful Italian. Ardoin agrees. “I think what Nicola wanted to say was today they are bloodless technocrats.”

Ardoin hardly makes a secret of those feelings, and the powers of the Dallas Opera company today, Plato Karayanis and Jonathan Pell, know all about it.

The Pittsburgh-born Karayanis, the genial-sounding general manager, knew about the Dallas Opera company when he was a student baritone at the impossible-to-get-into Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. “The perception of the [Dallas] company was this was an old-fashioned Italian opera company,” Karayanis says. “In reality, it was a cutting-edge Italian opera company. That wasn’t bad when there were only 36 companies in the world. In the meantime, major companies were being founded and were passing us by. Of course there were great nights, but the problem was we were not forward-thinking enough. We were concentrating on an old audience when we had to build on the future. We’re going into a new century after all. We had to think about educational programs, younger people, innovation, while keeping the standards very high. And let’s be fair; people romanticize Larry’s period.” Ardoin and Rescigno sneer when this is repeated.

Pell points out that while the productions by Franco Zeffirelii (before he became a famous movie director) or the choice of Handel’s Alcina were brave and unusual in the old days, he and Karayanis have done new and recent operas by American composers and are choosing more challenging 20th-century works. This season they will mount a highly controversial production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Buddand bring in a rad-ical director for Leos Janacek’s Katya Kabanova. Both have glorious music and can be very moving. Neither is exactly a cornucopia of catchy tunes or big vocal opportunities.

“The irony of John’s having problems with me,” remarks Pell, sadly, “is that he had a lot to do with my coming here. And I worked very closely with Rescigno. He turned on me because I didn’t leave when he did. But this year I got a Christmas card.”

The hints of personal animus lead me to tell Ardoin I don’t want to get into personalities and he interrupts me. “There’s no danger of that here,” Ardoin says. “Plato doesn’t have one-just joking. And I will say, Plato was a big help to me with my foundation grants for Russia.”

Karayanis has to cope with the realities of opera now. “It’s important to have that great legacy,” he muses. “It’s also important to grow beyond it. We do more performances and have bigger seasons. We have a responsibility to the art form to champion new works and living composers. We can’t just be a fossil museum.”

Ardoin demurs. “Taste is tied up with responsibility, and both are in short order over there. They go around saying, ’Mr. Ardoin is just an old windbag,’ but there are solutions out there. They cast from rote. People are on the circuit and they get used. Larry and Nicola were more attuned to what the scores were about. They made their mistakes, but their mistakes were of a different order.” Ardoin isn’t impressed by the added performances. “What difference does it make how many performances they do? Once you have a bad cast and an ugly, anti-musical performance, it doesn’t matter if you do it twice or 10 times. It isn’t going to get better.”

But growth is on Karayanis’ mind. “You never burn the mortgage on a church; once you’ve reached a certain point, you have to push on. One reason Rescigno left was that the Dallas Opera company lost its symphony, and we had to build our own orchestra and develop the chorus. He did not want to, and that was wrong. And we pay attention to interesting designers and directors, and they can make the art form more intelligible to a younger audience.”

Ardoin asks, “If they’re so concerned about the looks and production, why did we have those loathsome productions this season-that moth-eaten Carmen, the Elixir of Love set in a coal mine? That’s going to drive people away. And that’s a castable opera today, yet they brought in non-entities. As to there not being another Callas and Sutherland, that’s true. But there are better people out there than they cast. Pell casts. I presume they’re looking for beauties whether they have ability or not.”

Jonathan Pell, the artistic administrator, bristles at the accusation but doesn’t rise to the bait. “We are still a singer-driven company. Ardoin is wrong about our being uninterested in voices. But take the Rosenkavalier John hated last season. We started out with three different women in the big parts-and for one reason or another they all became unavailable. We have to wrestle with who’s available, who we can afford, who we can rely on, and I think we do very well.”

In recent years, Ardoin has turned his attention to the Dallas Symphony. “The symphony is on top of the heap, and the opera is second-class,” he snaps. Curiously, no one connected with that institution would go on record for this article. However, a source at the symphony remarked many there were tired of Ardoin “pontificating about symphonic music-real music-when all he knows is voices.”

Of course, when that’s repeated, one of the anti-Ardoin opera people says, “Oh, they’re just jealous that at least in the old days we had an Ardoin.”

Clearly John can’t win.

It probably doesn’t help that Ardoin’s influence is international. His name has been indelibly joined to that of Maria Callas. His first book, The Callas Legacy, has gone into four new editions over 20 years and has been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese. There is a second Callas book, Callas at Julliard, which may or may not have inspired Terrence McNally’s hit play, Master Callas. There are other books which will keep Ardoin’s name alive after the thousands of reviews have vanished.

Ardoin’s love for artists as people, his zeal to be active somehow in the process of making music, is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him. “Critics are second-class citizens,” he says impatiently. “We don’t do. I’d love to do.” He took a year’s leave of absence from the newspaper to research a book on the Kirov, the great opera and ballet theater of St. Petersburg.

He didn’t sit getting eyestrain in the archives. From 1993-96 Ardoin had considerable influence on casting and repertory there, and the results were of sufficient international interest that the Met will sponsor a “Kirov” season next year.

“Larry Kelly was almost psychic about talent,” remembers Charlotte Schumacher. “He could be in the back of a crowded room and just feel there was someone special there.”

That rubbed off on Ardoin. He is one of the great discoverers of talent. The Kirov is run by Valéry Gergiev, the one youngish conductor regarded by most music business heavyweights as a “comer.” Ardoin’s was an early lonely voice crying his name in the West. Then there is Cecilia Bartoli. Jack Mastroiani discovered Bartoli and is her manager. “There was a time when Cecilia’s record company wasn’t sending out CDs,” says Mastroiani. “John heard her and started sending them out to other critics, to managers, to orchestras-he did it for free and at his own expense. He is one of the few nowadays who just believes in talent and will do anything to advance it.”

Mastroiani knows a lot about Ardoin because before he became asuperstar manager, he was associate artistic director of the Houston Opera under David Gockley. He knows firsthand the tensions that Ardoin’s sensibility can create. About the Gockley enterprise, Ardoin insists, ’I’m not on the same wave length as Houston. What I see doesn’t reflect the music.”

Mastroiani sighs. “In Houston we were trying to do something different. We called it ’ music theater ’ but those of us who loved voices loved John. And in the great days, Dallas Opera really was ’La Scala West.’ And he always knew who was great but unknown and therefore cheap out there. He was amazing.”

No wonder Ardoin is known to be something of a soothsayer.

But the prophet is without honor in his own town. “It was so much fun the year he was gone,” somebody backstage at the Dallas Opera says. “Finally there were different perspectives; there wasn’t all this Maria Callas stuff.”

Karayanis is more dignified. “I missed John while he was gone. I agree with him the majority of the time. Of course he is the world’s greatest expert on dead and retired singers. He’s doing a disservice to the public and the opera company in approaching things that way. And we had more coverage when John was gone; Lawson Taitte, for example, did fight for some additional space, and we need that.”

Someone at the symphony barks, “John could do a lot more for all of us. His editors are frightened of him. He can get anything in he wants!”

On hearing that. Ardoin hoots. “Terrified of me? I’ve got news for them.” When he calms down, his sigh is that of every arts person in every newspaper in America today.

Karayanis sums up one aspect of the Ardoin problem. “I wish John would be more sensitive to real-world difficulties. Things change.”

True enough, and they may change more. Soon Ardoin will toss his dagger into the company for the last time. Without saying when, Ardoin speaks of retiring. “I’m definitely in the twilight,” he says. “I feel like a relic. Anyway, I want to disprove the adage, ’ Old critics never die, they just type away.”’

ARDOIN’S STORY MAY BE THE MOST remarkable in music criticism in the history of this country. Neither Beverly Sills nor Marilyn Home could think of anybody who had been in the kitchen so much and so importantly, not just reporting on but helping shape music in a major city. “Maybe George Jean Nathan of Boston for the theater,” Sills suggests.

“Face it!” laughs Home, “there’s never been anyone like John.”

I asked several important critics in New York about Ardoin. Now. there’s no hatred like that of music critics for one another. They’d like to bury the hatchet all right- in each other’s skulls. About Ardoin the dreaded Peter G. Davis, powerful music critic of New York magazine, says sincerely, “I go way back with John, I owe him a great deal-he pretty much gave me my first job [in New York in the late ’50s at Musical America, then-influential monthly periodical about serious music]. He was so generous. We both loved opera but he knew a great deal more than me. Everybody would go over to his apartment, his door was always open, and even then that was a risk in New York. There John would be in the middle of chaos-writing, and writing brilliantly!”

Patrick J. Smith is an influential writer as well as the editor-in-chief of Opera News. Ardoin used to be a regular contributor but isn’t anymore. (The reasons appear to be of a migraine-inducing complexity and obscurity.) Still, Smith is emphatic about Ardoin’s abilities, “He is a fine critic. He is large in American music and has been for years. We have very few major critics in this country anywhere, so he is an influence for the best-and his is a lonely voice.”

People active in the arts also admire John, including those who have nothing to gain by praising him in public. David Morgan is from Dallas and now is a busy voice teacher and coach in New York. He met Ardoin in 1965 when he was a student at SMU. “When I knew him he’d go out of his way to help people, professionally and privately,” Morgan says. “He goes to everything no matter how small, and he’d get everybody to go. The best times were when his two old aunts would come over and make gumbo, and we’d sit and listen to old records; he must have millions. I was one of a number of people who was surprised he wanted to live and write in Dallas. But then I understood, he had a mission to Dallas, like Saint Paul’s to Corinth. He knew he could make a difference and really wanted to. That’s impossible in New York; critics get swallowed up here.”

That probably explains the local love-hate for Ardoin. As Peter Davis says, “John has to see the people he writes about all the time. The irony is he’s such a nice person and wouldn’t hurt anybody, but my perception is a lot of the local music people regard him as the enemy.”

JOHN ARDOIN IS A LARGE MAN WHO shines in public. You can’t miss him. Sometimes you’ll see this gray lighthouse blinking amidst the waves of people crashing against the shores of Manhattan. It’s John beckoning-his light has found you. “Come on,” he’ll be crying, “come on, let’s go to Mother Church!” That’s his name for Tower Records, where he’s spent so much time and money. He usually gets free coffee, dessert, and an entourage to accompany him the second he walks in the door. Unlike every critic and music writer I know- including me-John refuses to hustle CD distributors for free products. “It’s not honest,” he says simply.

After Mother Church, as he’s getting muscle strain from the pounds of CDs, he insists on taking everyone for vats of ice cream. His New York agent, the formidable and frightening Helen Merrill-who died suddenly in August-dubbed him “Beloved Overfat.” (Merrill was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and though a tiny 80-year-old, once cowed a street gang bent on robbing her by snarling at them-softly.)

Merrill met Ardoin “when he was 23 and conquering New York” back in the late ’50s. Naturally she took credit for the Callas books. Stopping her lunch of red wine and unfiltered Camels, she coughed and said, “I said to him one day, ’Shut up about Maria this and Maria that and write about her!” Of course I said to him, ’As your agent I am duly bound to assure you the books won’t sell.’ And he said, ’I don’t care, I must write what I love.”’

She punched in five numbers on her cellular phone and growled, “The one thing you must know about John is he is an unbelievably hard worker.” Before she stomped out of the cafe, looking around hopefully for another gang to scare, she allowed, “I cried when he left for Dallas. But I understood. Good Texans have a need to go home.”

John Ardoin was born in Louisiana but settled in Port Arthur. Texas with his family when he was 3. John became an opera addict early. “My mother said as a child the only time I was quiet was when there was music on the radio. I grew up with the Met broadcasts. I’ve been collecting records since I was 12 years old. Across the street from my junior high school was the Port Arthur public library, and there 1 discovered writing about music. I remember the day I found the Metropolitan Opera Annals-what that was doing in Port Arthur, I’ve never known. I checked it out and kept it. I don’t think anyone else ever got near that book. I read every one of those casts.”

Ardoin’s mother died last year and he remembers her not only with love but gratitude. “I was very lucky. Mother saw to it I had piano lessons, and when I said I wanted to compose saw that I had composition lessons. And she drove me all over-bless her. Port Arthur had four community concerts a year. Orange had more, and we went to them all.”

Ardoin first attended North Texas State University and after two years switched to the University of Texas. In that orbit he met Ivan Davis, who was raised in Dallas. Davis is a virtuoso pianist of international standing, artist-in-residence at the University of Miami, and an opera obsessive. He’s Ardoin’s oldest friend-they’ve known each other for 45 years.

“When I met John he was 17, an overweight bull in a china shop,” says Davis. “He’d wear shirts his mother made out of flour sacks. He was just a big awkward innocent-in some ways he still is. John would put his foot in his mouth at every opportunity. I ruled the roost. I treated him so terribly, you cannot believe it. I just laughed at him. He was a composition major, and I had to play his music.”

They became very close in New York, where Ivan was an early precocious success. Ardoin moved in celebrity circles but was lonely for home. “John used to quote Van Cliburn, ’No matter where you go when you leave Texas, you miss it so much you just have to kiss the ground when you come back,’” Davis says.

Ardoin was still composing, so Davis introduced him to the famous Samuel Barber, composer of the familiar “Adagio for Strings.” “Sam was really brutal,” remembers Ivan. “After he looked at John’s music, he said, ’Dear boy, it’s very simple, you have no future.’ John was devastated but said to me, ’Well, Ivan, I guess if I can’t write music, I better write about it.’ He almost meant il as a joke, but the second he said it, we both knew he was right. And I think after 30 years, the proof is there.”

Ivan Davis loves to muse on Texas, especially the Texas of his youth. “Texas makes bigger-than-life talents. There’s never been anyone in the arts like our Texas women. They made our lives and changed our lives. Take Mildred Foster; she collected pianists. Without her we wouldn’t have Cliburn. She used to pick the conductor of the symphony. She rejected Eugene Ormandy (who achieved great fame as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra). She said, ’We can’t have that Ormandy here; he’s too short.’ She gravitated to great people, and she spotted John.”

Of course, even though they were close friends, Ardoin had to review Ivan Davis, concert pianist. Ivan moans when I mention this. “Oh, John is ruthless. He would enrage me. There’ve been times when I was staying in his house and he’d give me this terrible review-and you know he’s published everywhere. But I just couldn’t hate him. He was usually right. He’d say, ’When I’m there as the critic, I think of you as the artist, not my friend. I have a duty to be honest.’”

Curiously, Ardoin’s ability to separate friendship from what he sees as his obligation to tell the truth has only cost him one friend-perhaps the closest he has had in his life. But that’s a story for later.

The Dallas Opera was born of the Civil War, the one in Chicago between two tough Irish-Americans, Carol Fox and Larry Kelly. The Italian-American Nicola Rescigno sided with Kelly. All three had revived the stagnant Chicago Opera. Maria Callas made her American debut with them; most of the great European artists of the mid-’50s sang under their management, including many who rarely or never went to the Metropolitan Opera.

“Well, we came to a parting of the ways in Chicago,” says Rescigno, describing a mid-air collision between two 747s the Italian way. “Naturally, Maria chose to come with us.”

Maybe. But it did help that Miss Fox screamed, “Get out of my theater, you dirty Greek bitch!”

Robert Weiss, for years a lawyer and fund-raiser for the arts, worked with a much older Fox and heard that story from her lips and those of about 100 eyewitnesses.

“I’m not at all surprised Kelly could attract artists,” he says. “Miss Fox loved who she loved, but she was a menace, even when I was there, and she was old and sick with a cane. There was a day when I was helping Luciano Pavarotti through a photo shoot. We heard the cane swishing out in the hallway. We both ran. There was Miss Fox thrashing a poor young woman-for wearing pants. The girl was hysterical. Luciano took her into an empty dressing room to calm her down. ’Don’t take her too seriously,’ he said. ’After all, last week when I said I didn’t like the costume for The Duke in Rigoletto,’ she screamed, ’Then get out of my theater, you fat ugly whale, and take your piggy family with you!”’

Miss Fox knew no fear, and it wasn’t long before she had Kelly and Rescigno on the run.

How did they end up in Dallas? “Larry took the map and decided this was the place,” says Rescigno.

“I believe at one point Henry and Juanita Miller went to Chicago and persuaded them to come here,” remembers Charlotte Schumacher.

Rita Mamel, a Dallas matron, agrees. Mamel is known to have maps leading to where all the bodies are buried from the earliest days of the Dallas Opera. “I may or I may not,” she says, “but I’m not going to tell you. ’ Somewhat reluctantly, she expands on those early days. “It wasn ’t only the Millers, lames Bond [evidently a local arts patron] would bail Larry out when the checks woul d bounce. Larry was no good with money. Now Karayanis is good with money and the corporate people who think the opera is an entrée. The old money is unhappy. Just by being himself, Larry made it the thing to do. He created that, and the money would follow-most of the time. Larry and Rescigno really ran a Mom and Pop operation, but it was a privilege to be here and see what they did. And I think it was Kelly’s knowing there was so much love here-as welt as money-that drew him.”

There’s no question Kelly was selfless, and while the first years in Dallas were hard-not even Callas sold out-his nature attracted support. “You know, when Larry knew he was dying-liver cancer-he didn’t tell anyone,” said Helen Merrill, who knew the value of money. “He just set about arranging for a memorial concert that would benefit the company. Imagine that!”

Rescigno’s departure snapped what many people view as the fraying thread of the great days. He won’t go into detail. It’s fair to say that there was a power struggle between Rescigno and Karayanis, perhaps an inevitable conflict between the old and the new order. For better or worse, the old eventually gave way.

“Rescigno wasn’t perfect, let’s leave it there,” says Rita Mamel, “but things aren’t better since he left.”

Marilyn Home is still angry on Rescigno’s behalf, “though I blame Rescigno because he didn’t keep total hands-on after Larry died. But Rescigno was a giver I sent a young tenor to him for coaching. He let the man stay with his family on his property and at his expense an entire summer and didn’t charge him one cent. I offered to pay him and you know what he said? ’I’ve made my money. It’s time to give it back.’ I think he was owed more respect.”

Rescigno, though, is philosophical about the old days in Dallas. “I’ll be 80 in June,” he confides. “I’m born under the sign of the Twins.” He laughs. “We Geminis are all mad! And look, please tell John to come see me. Tell him I have all this ice cream just for him.”

The Dallas Opera company is still alive and kicking-and growing. Karayanis denies much of the criticism, for example that Kelly dreamed ambitious dreams then killed himself making them happen while Karayanis plays it safe and takes it easy. “We not only do what Kelly did-I’m still fighting to fund next season-we do it three and four years in advance. That’s how you have to do it now. Nicola and Larry would go to Italy in the spring and cast for the next fall. We have to sign people at least three years before the production we plan.”

JOHN ARDOIN KEPT HIS POST AND HIS power in Dallas. But the passing of one particular person changed bis life. “That Callas!” Helen Merrill fairly barked. “She turned on John. She said he was making money off of her. He has not! And now there is this play, Master Callas. John has a claim against them, you know, but gets no royalty. Not even a penny!”

Ardoin denies that he is owed anything. “Everything in the play is either public record or McNally’s fiction.”

Still, some report seeing an unhappy Ardoin running away from fans at the play’s first night in Dallas. The Callas story is the saddest in John’s life.

“Callas turned on John for writing the truth about her.” Ivan Davis, who adored her, too, is suddenly tough. “You know, Maria was going around being just awful in those late concerts. No, not awful, pathetic. Half the time she was so scared she’d forget the words and she had no voice. ’You always wanted me to tell the truth about you,’ John said to her-I’ll never forget it-and she snapped, ’Yes, but not in public! ’And that was that. In all the years of his career, she is the only artist John befriended who turned on him. And it almost killed him.”

Ardoin talks about this reluctantly, and the sting of her refusing to even look at his first book on her still sounds in his voice.

“I have a letter from Maria that should have been written on asbestos,” Ardoin says sadly. “She condemned me to all the fires of hell. She has this thing about me. She’d say, ’You don’t need a tape machine with me; you understand me.’ She knew what 1 wrote [after those late concerts] was true, and that really scared her. She was doing everything, desperate to regain an identity. She was too great an artist for that, and she knew it. I understood what was at stake, and Zeffirelli said we should have supported her no matter what-she was that great. I’ve had sleepless nights over that because maybe he was right. But you know, I don’t think you just support someone of that caliber blindly. She’s one of those people where the talent is more important than the person. What she is, is more important than who she is. I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering. I wanted to believe before that concert-I desperately wanted to believe-but that night broke my heart. 1 could forgive the sour notes, a hundred sour notes, but that astounding musicality had vanished.”

Today Ardoin looks forward to retiring to Costa Rica to write books. The final words on him ought to be given to Beverly Sills-known to many as Bubbles. She was a great star and was subject to several pans from John Ardoin. “I love John so much I can’t remember not knowing him,” says Sills. “He has enormous importance for opera in America, not Dallas alone. He helped the people in Texas to set an example. It’s possible to create great art out of nothing, to make a legacy that will last somehow. And you know how we really got to be friends? After my first Lucia in Fort Worth, he said to me out of the blue, ’I bet you love Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy.’ I screamed, ’I am Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy! ’ I think we spent the next 48 hours talking through every single movie they made and singing their songs! And listen, you tell him, if he’s got enemies in Dallas, he should come to Bubbles. I know just where to hide him-just tel! him to bring those five million records!”