Dominick Argento doesn't like Rudolph Valentino movies. In fact, he's never been able to watch one all the way through.
"He wasn't a very good actor and he worked with uninteresting directors who used mediocre scripts," Argento says. "His films just don't hold up."
Most, if not all, film historians would agree with these opinions. What makes them strange coming from Argento is that the 66-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer is about to see and hear the world premiere of his 12th opera Saturday at the Kennedy Center.
"The Dream of Valentino."
Valentino may not have been a good actor; in fact, the silent films in which he starred may today make us giggle. And his physical features -- slicked-back hair, eyes set closely together, and puffy cheeks -- make it hard to understand what made him the embodiment of sex appeal to millions of women in the 1920s. But the actor, who died in 1926 of a perforated ulcer at age 31, remains one of the giant icons of American life.
Almost all Americans recognize the name: Valentino is the embodiment of the Latin lover, linked forever with the sultry Argentine tango, whose popularity he helped establish. His portrayals of dark-skinned heros who have their way with fair-skinned, blue-eyed and blond heroines brought the tortured subtext of America's fascination with miscegenation to the surface. Valentino's funeral in New York attracted one of the largest crowds in the city's history and caused the worst rioting since the Civil War.
But it wasn't simply the actor's success that made him an attractive subject for operatic treatment; it was his sorrow.
After meeting Valentino shortly before his death, Baltimore's H. L. Mencken wrote: "Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other young men. Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy."
Says Argento: "Even though his films were silent, I heard Rudolph Valentino singing."
Opera has always been about heroes. It began in Italy around the turn of the 17th century as an attempt to resuscitate ancient Greek tragedy, with its narratives of god-like heroes whose personal aspirations for happiness are crushed by more-than-human forces.
Many recent operas -- including Ezra Laderman's "Marilyn," introduced earlier this season by the New York City Opera -- take their inspiration from the self-destructive lives of popular icons. These figures seem to have replaced the gods and goddesses that populated operas of earlier times.
"Like Marilyn Monroe, Valentino had a persona thrust upon him, accepted it and lost his soul," Argento says. "He had a dream of achieving greatness as a serious actor and finally realized that he became famous only as a persona manufactured by others. That his personal dreams were imprisoned by his public persona must have really hurt -- that is what I heard when I heard Valentino singing."
Born Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Philibert Guglielmi, Valentino landed in New York as an 18-year-old emigrant from Italy in 1913.
"His life is a metaphor for all immigrant experiences," says Argento, the son of Sicilian immigrants who grew up in York, Pa., and was later educated at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory. "They all talked about America as a place where the streets were paved with gold. And they all ended up as strangers."
Although American women adored him, he was detested by American men. Valentino was the victim of anti-Italian prejudice -- there were regular references to him in the press as a "dago" and "wop" -- and of homophobia, although he wasn't gay.
Like popular figures before and since, Valentino earned money endorsing products. One of them was Valvoline Face Cream and Powder. Because the powder was pink, it became the occasion for a hate-filled editorial in the Chicago Tribune:
"It's time for a matriarchy if the male of the species allows such things to persist," read the unsigned editorial. "Better a rule by masculine women than effeminate men. Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener's boy, is the prototype of the American male. Homo Americanus! Why didn't someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic], alias Valentino, years ago? Hell's bells. Oh, sugar."
It was Valentino's response to that editorial that fired Argento's imagination. The actor, whose Italian sense of honor had been wounded, challenged the writer to a fist fight. When no one came forward, Valentino sought out Mencken, whose work he admired, for advice.
"He began talking of his home, his people, his early youth,"
Mencken wrote. "His words were simple and yet somehow very eloquent."
Says Argento: "Mencken's description only made me think of my father, his contemporaries and the disillusionment they felt after coming to America."
After he arrived in America, Valentino worked as a gardener, a waiter, a dishwasher, a dancer, and as a gigolo. The last occupation reportedly landed him in jail several times on morals charges. But it also introduced him to such women as the powerful screenwriter Jean Mathis and the famed actress Alla Nazimova, both of whom believed he had a future in Hollywood.
Valentino may have been the first sex symbol manufactured for women by women. Though his most famous movies cast him in the roles of men whose sex appeal made women swoon, in real life he was attracted to strong women such as Mathis, Nazimova and his second wife, the designer Natacha Rambova.
Valentino's loyalty to Rambova -- whose artistic ambitions for him were at odds with Hollywood's less lofty ones -- led to his being blacklisted by the studios for almost three years. He was only permitted to return to work in 1925 when he agreed to distance himself professionally from Rambova. Betrayed, she sued for divorce.
While he was never more popular than in his two final movies, the actor's health fell apart after his wife's departure. He collapsed during a promotional tour for "Son of the Sheik."
Valentino's death was an early harbinger of the death of the '20s, Argento says.
"That decade was the end of our national adolescence -- there was a happiness and a carefree quality about America before the Depression threw cold water on it," the composer says. "The genesis of the opera may have been a story I'd heard about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Early in his marriage to Zelda, they were driving around St. Paul, drinking champagne, when he turned to her and said 'We'll never be as happy again as we are right now.' "
20 minutes of tangos
But the '20s were also the first great decade for American popular music.
"I'm sure that at least half of the reason I wrote 'Valentino' was for the sheer joy of using these wonderful musical styles," he says.
"The Dream of Valentino" contains more than 20 minutes of tangos, as well as several Gershwin-like numbers (including an extended fox trot). It opens with a male chorus chanting the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead, which is affectingly contrasted to a parody of the song sung by Rudy Vallee upon the news that Valentino had died.
"The cheapness of the words of the song, saying 'We will never forget you,' assures that the person will always be forgotten," Argento says. "The persona -- never."