Friday, February 01, 2019

Sanford Sylvan

I'm so sad to read that baritone Sanford Sylvan died earlier this week, much too young at 65. He was, for decades, a significant figure in the Boston, and American, musical scene, singing in Peter Sellars' famous productions of the Mozart-da Ponte operas, singing Lieder and Bach cantatas, creating the roles of Chou En Lai in Nixon in China and Leon Klinghoffer in The Death of Klinghoffer.

I think that I saw him live only once, during my senior year of college. I spent a good part of that year studying Schubert with Joshua Rifkin, first in a class on the song cycles, then in a private study of three unfinished symphonies by the composer. During that snowy winter, Sylvan gave a recital of Die Schöne Müllerin at a church in the Back Bay somewhere. I went to see the performance, which I'm pretty sure was with his long-time collaborator David Breitman.

I remember it as a wonderful recital, and I also remember, vividly, that after the bows Sylvan and some men who were in the audience hugged each other, and he kissed one of them on the lips.

I was a young and barely out queer at the time and it was the first time I'd seen two men kissing. In 1979-80, this was a rare thing. For context, the first gay pride march I went to, that spring, had perhaps 5,000 nervous marchers, carrying handmade signs, versus 125,000 attendees at this past year's, which I assume, like SF's parade, has plenty of social and corporate support. Being gay was way more likely then to get you fired, abused, denied housing or job or medical care than it is today (and discrimination against LGBTIA folk is still a big problem).

Sylvan was so brave to kiss another man in public back then, and he came out publicly as gay in the 1990s, when almost no classical music world figures were out. This week's tributes are rightly remembering the grace of his singing and the beauty of his voice, his kindness to others, and his bravery. He will be very greatly missed as a musician and a human.



Kendra Leonard said...

This is a beautiful tribute.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, Kendra.

Civic Center said...

I've been presuming he was gay, but wasn't quite sure, so thanks for the confirmation which has been lacking in other obits. Was in "Klinghoffer" with him as a super at SFO, and he was a lovely artist. I'm curious, though, why I haven't heard of him for at least 20 years. Did he stop singing altogether, teach, go on a spiritual quest, what?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Read the links - he taught and I think sang on the east coast.

Elaine Fine said...

What a lovely post about Sandy! I too remember him as a young man. I knew him at Tanglewood, and heard him sing often there and in Boston. I haven't seen him since the early 1980s (he was in a Peter Sellers production of "Mother Courage," in Boston, which served as a third date for me and Michael--an evening that will remain fundamentally important for us). I have heard his recordings, of course, but my memory of him will always be as a lovely, sweet, young man. It's hard to even imagine him as a 65-year-old, and so terribly sad to realize that he is no longer alive.

Life is so fleeting.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, you were lucky to have known him offstage; he seems to have been a lovely person. And yes, life is so fleeting.