Thursday, June 20, 2013

Love, war, death and the whole enchilada (and opera, too)

Every ill wind blows someone to a happier place, and the sweep of Nazism across Europe in World War II did the United States a peculiar kind of favor: We inherited a spate of actors, directors, writers, dancers and conductors (Jewish and otherwise) who heard the jackboots of Hitler's troops. Consider the classical composers we took in: Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Sergei Rachmaninov, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and many others.

But what of artistic emigres who suffered just as much, lost jobs and lived in even greater fear because they were too obscure to arouse public outcry on their behalf? Carol Jean Delmar has told the story of one of them -- her father, opera singer Franz Jung -- in a novelized kind of memoir titled "Serenade." (I say "novelized" because she has imagined conversations and assigned names to people who could never be tracked down.)

The book, available from Willow Lane Press for $27.99, works on four levels. It shows what life was like for people who lived comfortably in middle Europe, before their Jewishness made them outcasts in the mid 1930s. It gives a glimpse of the world an aspiring opera singer entered, back when opera was still entertainment for the average citizen. (Delmar, who has written about classical music through much of her life, provides synopses of the operas in which her dad sang.)

It shows the tortuous path fleeing families took to get to America, bouncing around Europe before traveling (in her parents' case) to Panama, then Cuba, then Miami. They didn't stop there: They moved to New York, then to Knoxville, Tenn. -- where Jung briefly gave voice lessons -- then ultimately to Los Angeles. Along the way, they were fleeced, lied to, led on with false hopes and confounded by bureaucracy, but they persevered.

And it's an inspirational story, not just because Franz and Franziska were devoted to each other for nearly seven decades but because he turned failure into success. When he lost his voice in Cuba for reasons he never really understood, his potential career at American opera houses collapsed. After teaching for a bit, he got a job at Western Costume Company in Hollywood, working for 75 cents an hour and keeping track of stock.

By this point, the couple had renamed themselves Frank and Frances Delmar and become American citizens. Over the next 25 years, he rose to become a costume supervisor or costumer on major movies or TV shows ("A Man Called Horse," Cloris Leachman's "Phyllis") and won the 1960 Motion Picture Costumers Award for creative artistry in television costuming for "The Untouchables." (The Emmys didn't give give costume prizes then.)

We're familiar with the stories of immigrants who brought huge talents to America. Many of us, myself included, had European ancestors who came over and worked in obscurity all their lives. But a story of a guy who lost his talent, worked in obscurity and found a creative, fulfilling niche for himself? That's another version of the American Dream.


Carol Jean Delmar said...

I am the author of “Serenade.” Thank you for this beautiful review, Mr. Toppman. But please feel confident that the people were real. I only created names for the few names my father could not remember. I didn’t want to call people Mr. or Mrs. X. And although I was not there, even the conversations are based on the audiotapes that my father left me, and on my subsequent conversations with him for clarification. So the “novelized” feel is more due to the style of writing I chose, which includes creative nonfiction narrative and dialogue in the context of scenes. My illustrations substantiate the truthfulness of the memoir. But, yes, I am a writer, and I used my imagination to create something that I hope my readers will find lyrical, uplifting and beautiful.

Lawrence Toppman said...

Hi, readers. I didn't mean to imply that most or all of the names were invented, just the few she couldn't authenticate. You can tell from reading the book that she did her legwork.