Aberbach shares opera passion

July 08, 2004, vol. 30, no. 6
By Roberta Staley

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Alan Aberbach was in his last year of high school when he travelled to New York City from Florida for Christmas in the Big Apple.

Tripping past the Metropolitan Opera house one chilly afternoon, Aberbach was riveted by a poster featuring the beautiful, blond, blue-eyed soprano Dorothy Kirsten, who was singing in Gounod's Faust.

Aberbach fell head over heels with the soprano's picture and immediately bought a $7 ticket - a lot of money in 1948, especially for a 16-year-old - thus beginning a life-long love affair with opera. Aberbach has attended more than 1,000 performances in Europe and North America and even took singing lessons. However, he is a tentative tenor at best.

Aberbach, who retired as a SFU history professor in 1997 and has been director of the seniors program at Harbour Centre since 2000, has shared his passion and encyclopedic knowledge of opera with Vancouver for 30 years. He also wrote three books on German composer Richard Wagner.

Aberbach reluctantly retired as an opera instructor in June, although he plans to continue his 20-year gig with CBC radio as an opera commentator. Due to mushrooming growth of the seniors program - an intellectually rigorous series of credit and non-credit courses that has tripled in size in the past few years - Aberbach found he was working crushing hours.

Teaching American foreign policy and American presidency classes to university students was less taxing, says the 72-year-old. (In a metaphorical marriage of the two disciplines, Aberbach comments that America's four-year affair with George W. Bush has proven a Faustian bargain.)

Aberbach's opera classes were among the very first continuing education courses offered by SFU. While a board member with Vancouver Opera, Aberbach started an opera club in 1974, which blossomed into the biggest in North America with 1,000 members. Jack Blaney, the head of continuing education at the time, urged Aberbach to teach opera to the masses. Aberbach's classes have been consistently full. “Opera integrates virtually all the arts, singing, dramaturgy, the orchestra, the scenery. That's what makes it exciting,” says Aberbach.

It was also exciting for amateur opera buffs to learn how to tell a great singing voice from a good or mediocre one and what to look for and listen for in an opera. Also discussed was how much stress should be placed upon a singer's appearance. “People react negatively to the old adage, ‘it ain't over ‘til the fat lady sings.' I have a certain sympathy for that. Opera isn't simply singing,” Aberbach says.

Fortunately, even though Aberbach is gone, Henry Ewart, one of the founders of the opera club, will be teaching the occasional class with, or without, singing fat ladies.

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