Late bloomer

We had Erika Sunnegårdh‘s big, belated Met debut on the radio yesterday. I don’t know Fidelio well enough to tell whether she did a good job—plus, I was playing a lot of dinosaur bingo, which made it hard to focus on the opera—but she certainly didn’t embarrass herself. The Times review this morning said “she is especially comfortable in her upper range and has strong, clear top notes. Her midrange singing, though, sounded patchy yesterday.”

Sunnegårdh’s story, told on the front page of the Times yesterday, is that at age 40 she has suddenly become a big-time opera singer. Here’s how the article, by Daniel J. Wakin, begins:

Until 18 months ago, Erika Sunnegardh, a soprano, had never sung an opera role on stage.

For nearly 20 years she toiled as a waitress, caterer and tour guide in New York. Sure, there was singing: a few recitals and plenty of funerals as a church cantor in the Bronx. Often the choice boiled down to rent or voice lessons.

When you read further the tale turns out not to be quite as improbable as all that. Sunnegårdh didn’t come out of nowhere: Her dad was Birgit Nilsson‘s voice teacher and Jussi Bjoerling‘s accompanist. But then, like a lot of us, she spent the first 15-20 years of her adulthood not really getting anywhere.

I have this very vivid memory of, when I was working as a newspaper reporter in Alabama, reading a Times article about Jeff Zucker in which Bryant Gumbel made some stupid comment about really successful people always making their mark while still young. Thanks to the magic of the internets, I can now look it up. (You can too, but only if you have TimesSelect.) It ran on a December Monday in 1991, and it was about Zucker taking over, at age 26, as executive producer of the Today show. Here’s the money quote, which came after some gushing comments by Katie Couric:

Mr. Gumbel is equally supportive. “When people were surprised at how old he is I just reminded some of them how old they were when they got their first significant job,” he said. “Really good people tend to get good jobs when they’re young.”

So I was 27, living in $400-a-month (that’s a guess) apartment in Montgomery, Alabama, and covering state politics for The Birmingham News. Which certainly wasn’t a horrible predicament, but I’m sure it wasn’t what Bryant Gumbel would have called a “significant job.” I remember thinking, “%$&^ing Bryant Gumbel, what the &*^%# does he know!” (This is a family blog.) Now I don’t know that I’ve really proved him wrong in the intervening years, but at least Erika Sunnegårdh has. And besides, with 42 being the new 25, I’ve still got lots of time.