A son of South Philly
who stayed true to his musical roots
Frank Guarrera, the Metropolitan Opera baritone who died November 23 at the age of 83, was a quintessential South Philadelphian. As a voice student at Curtis Institute in the 1940s, he enjoyed standing up and singing along with old 78 RPM records at Victor’s Café on Dickinson Street, the former record store that was turned into a restaurant.
"I was full of talent in those days, and I had a fire in my belly,” he once told me. “My career was just meant to be. That doesn’t sound right coming from my lips, but it’s true. It just came naturally.”
He won a Met audition in 1948 in the days when the Met picked only two winners a year. Then Toscanini phoned him. “Imagine, I was a 24-year-old kid and I made debuts at La Scala and the Met as the toreador in Carmen.” A 29-year career at the Met followed.
Replacing Leonard Warren
The highlight of his career, Guarrera said, occurred in 1960, when he was picked to replace Leonard Warren in the title role of Simon Boccanegra. “Rudolph Bing [the Met’s general manager] called me on Friday night and told me that Warren had just collapsed and died on stage. He told me I’d have to take over the part at the next performance, which was on Tuesday. Emotionally it was like a tornado. I had just three days to prepare. It was to be in Philadelphia on the Met’s monthly road trip, so I had the added pleasure and pressure of doing it in my hometown in front of the people who taught me.
"I wasn’t covering Boccanegra but I had started to work on it. I rehearsed my scenes with my colleagues on the train coming down from New York, sitting around a table in the club car that afternoon. Then I went on stage in Warren’s costumes, pinned in to fit me because I was thinner."
Stokowski in a wheelchair
Another highlight was the new production of Turandot at the Met that same year. "Being a native Philadelphian, I always respected and admired Leopold Stokowski when he was with the Philadelphia Orchestra,” he said, “so you can imagine how thrilled I was to know that I was going to be in a production conducted by him. But a very unfortunate thing happened about ten days prior to his first rehearsal. He fell down and broke his hip. So we all thought that he would cancel and said, oh, there goes this marvelous opportunity."
But Stoky did not cancel. "The very first time we saw him, he was in a wheelchair, and all the first week of rehearsals in a wheelchair, and then he came to the first performance on crutches. Everyone is quite aware that Maestro Stokowski was quite a glamorous and outstanding personality. Well, he became even more glamorous and outstanding that night. He got to the podium, laid aside the two crutches and he sat in a specially built high stool, and believe me it was a very thrilling and exciting evening in the theater.
"He used to make these long phrases. When the chorus would finish the first act he would carry it to a bigger crescendo. You would think you had heard it all and then a little more came and a little more came until the whole theater was shaking with this magnificent sound. And this was his magic touch."
A huge mural of Guarrera, 40 feet high, dominates the view on Broad Street at Tasker, near his childhood home. Only four other singers are honored with murals of similar size in South Philly: Mario Lanza, Marian Anderson, Frank Sinatra and Grover Washington, Junior.
While other singers moved to New York, Hollywood or Rome (like his one-time neighbor, Lanza), Guarrera remained in the Philadelphia area. He spent his last years in Bellmawr, just across the Delaware River.