Leyna Gabriele was the first person to sing Baby Doe’s music. Douglas Moore had her “try out” the arias from his signature opera The Ballad of Baby Doe as he composed them. “He gave me the music, piece by piece, to sing for him,” she wrote. Eventually she became one of two sopranos (along with Dolores Wilson) to play the title role in repertory in its world premiere production at the Central City Opera House in 1956. An even earlier encounter with the composer involved appearing in a private performance of his opera Giants in the Earth in 1949.
But Moore’s music was hardly her only face-to-face experience with opera composers. German pedagogue (and Juilliard faculty member) Sergius Kagen wrote the role of Ophelia in his Hamlet for Leyna. And Jack Beeson chose her for his Hello Out There, a recording of which appeared on Desto on vinyl and has since been reissued on CD on Bay Cities.
Born in West Virginia, and an honored alumnus of Fairmont State University (’44), Leyna has nonetheless spent most of her life in New York. Despite a substantial career as a coloratura lyric soprano, which included a 1950 Fulbright Foundation-supported stint in Italy, an appearance as the Queen of the Night in a 1954 Magic Flute broadcast, and a 1958 Town Hall recital, Leyna is also well-known as the co-proprietor, along with her late husband, Vito Pisa, of Chez Vito. Originally on West 58th and later on East 60th, Chez Vito was an intimate supper club where strolling Hungarian violinists and singers (including Leyna) serenaded diners at candlelit tables. It became a favorite of Met stars Cesare Valletti, Fernando Corena and Cesare Siepi among others. Since Chez Vito’s closing in 1973, Leyna has taught opera workshops for Princeton and SUNY Purchase, and has cultivated a roster of students who are populating opera stages on three continents.
Whether in her own performances, or in her teaching, Leyna places maximum emphasis on the integrity of the libretto and on letting the text imbue the music. Of her, one writer has written, “Leyna’s gift is more than diction: it is…great musical diction. She shapes, displays and enhances the music with the words not by gestures or emotional illustration, but by deliberate choices of syllabic emphasis and length, tiny pauses (not for breathing), vowel position, and color.”
In addition to the excerpts from her 1956 performance of Baby Doe at Central City that are on this website, an animated YouTube recording of the modern-English-language Violetta that she developed along with acting teacher Walt Witcover, and which “was a revelation to audience members and critics alike” is also not to be missed.
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To the benefit of all posterity, Walter Cassel, the man who created the role of Horace Tabor, had the amazing foresight to record performances of The Ballad of Baby Doe at the Central City Opera House during the opera’s premiere production in the summer of 1956. He set up his tape recorder in his dressing room so that it would capture the sound that came over the house public address system, which was the way that performers monitored what was going on on stage. Perhaps driven by some innate sense of the importance of what they were doing that summer, he apparently recorded a number of those performances, with various combinations of singers, so that he could give a memorial copy to each performer.
As this is written, more than fifty years later, a few of those recordings survive, to give us a unique glimpse of the first stirrings of a musical work that has now been enjoyed by millions. Indeed, the Baby Doe that was performed at Central City in 1956, is different than the Baby Doe that made it to network television in 1957 (on Omnibus) or to the definitive MGM recording of the New York City Opera production in 1958. The Cassel/Central City recordings vividly show us the differences: the precursor to Horace’s “Warm as the Autumn Light,” the longer, and less effective political rally scene, and the infamous “Wakes Snakes” aria for Baby Doe among other changes.
Leyna Gabriele, who was Baby Doe in the extant recordings, has graciously provided segments of one of those recordings for our use here.
Here is a recording of Leyna Gabriele's "Gold is a Fine Thing."
ADDENDUM (with help from Robin Rubendunst)
After living for close to seventy years in Manhattan, Leyna moved to Tarrytown, N.Y. in 2016 to be closer to family. She passed away peacefully on October 14th, 2019 after a short illness. She was beloved by her friends, family and students.