Met baritone Gordon Hawkins debuts here Saturday


FOR TWO WEEKS this summer, baritone Gordon Hawkins had it made. Each morning he'd drink espresso at his hotel in Pesaro, Italy, "eat a roll so hard you could throw it through most walls" and then go to Luciano Pavarotti's house.

"I'd be there at 10:30 and we'd work until noon," Hawkins said. "Imagine. He has a month or less vacation a year, he doesn't get to see his family much, has little time to prepare his own music or to relax and he spends 12 days with a person he's just met whose voice he likes."

Hawkins sang and went over vocal nuances with the world's most famous opera singer and, for Hawkins and millions of others, the world's best.

"Then we'd have lunch on his patio overlooking the Adriatic and just talk. I'd leave at 4:30."

The talk was as good as the work. "For instance, he told me what roles I should start with first -- Georgio Germont of 'Traviata,' lighter Puccini, Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, the Italian bel canto. The later roles should be heavier Verdi, like 'Rigoletto.' "

The hunchback Rigoletto is an ultimate Hawkins' goal. "He's got the greatest vocal, dynamic, emotional range. [I'd like to] do it, and do it well and on a consistent basis," he said.

Hawkins sings at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he met Pavarotti. He's had the thrill of doing Puccini's "La Boheme" with other superstars, Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo. But for a 36-year-old sore-armed ex-baseball pitcher turned opera singer from Clinton, Md., in St. Mary's County, those two weeks with Pavarotti in Pesaro are so far the tops.

"He has a big heart, he's a very warm, giving person," Hawkins said.

Pavarotti tips he learned in Pesaro may be in evidence in Baltimore at 8:15 p.m. Saturday when Hawkins makes his Baltimore recital debut. He sings in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary American baritone John Charles Thomas in a concert at the Friedberg Concert Hall at Peabody Institute.

A double dose of excitement is in the works since Hajime Teri Murai makes his debut as the new conductor of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. Call 659-8124 for tickets.

Hawkins sings arias associated with Thomas (1891-1960), a one-time Peabody student and Eastern Shoresman. For decades was one of America's most popular singers in concerts and on radio in "The Westinghouse Hour." Hawkins will sing "Songs of a Wayfarer" by Mahler and arias by Wagner and Verdi. The orchestra will also play Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 and Weber's "Oberon Overture."

"We don't have anyone like him today," Hawkins said of Thomas, whose forum for a range from operatic arias to "Boots and Saddles" was concerts and radio rather than operas and TV. "He had a wealth of musical imagination and colorings of the voice. He was constantly exploring shadings in a tremendous amount of music."

Thomas was also known as a zesty, colorful character. He lived with his wife, Dorothy, on a 101-foot yacht, rode around in a private railroad car, had farms in Maryland and California, raised champion hogs and chickens, loved hydroplane racing, expensive cars and clothes, helped young singers and became more and more conservative politically. So much so that he and his liberal accompanist, Carroll Hollister, had a blowout, split and remained apart.

Hawkins lives in Washington and has taught part-time for two years at Peabody ("a wonderful environment"). He's eager to sing with Murai. "I'm very glad he's there. He has high standards. He's fair. He's a human being. He's normal."

The baritone picked a singing career after he had to give up a possible pro baseball career because of a rotator cuff injury. He sings an hour a day but also packs in much study: new roles, foreign languages and his art. This season he sings various roles at the Met, Marcello in "La Boheme" at the New York City Opera and Amonasro in "Aida" for the Seattle Opera and Austin Lyric Opera.

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