Abraham D. Sofaer
George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow
The Hoover Institution • Stanford University • Stanford, California 94305-6010
I have loved music all my life, especially singing. My earliest memories are of sitting in a circle with other little kids (around 4 years old) in the public garden adjacent to the Band Stand across the street from our home (Firuz Ara) in the Fort area of Bombay (now Mumbai). Each kid was called on to say or sing something every time we gathered together (with our nannies). Most of us would describe a movie we had attended. Some of us sang a song. When I was sent to boarding school in England (age 7, right after WWII), a place called Hillsea College in Basingstoke, I remember making a very good impression on the ladies who ran the school by singing "Paper Doll," a recording by the Ink Spots that we had at home in India. My parents loved American music, and my favorites were Fats Waller, Bing Crosby, and Al Jolson. I was punished a lot at Hillsea College, because I did not follow orders well. But they liked my singing, which softened the experience, and I enjoyed doing it.
After a year in England, and eighteen months in the US, we returned to India for four years. During that time I sang in community choirs, and school productions. I was asked to take some lead roles, and remember singing at some weddings. The two highlights of my singing experience in those days were being asked to perform in a Young People's Concert at Cowasji Jehangir Hall in Bombay, and singing in – and winning – the “Western Singing” contest for all of India that was part of MGM's Gene Kelly Festival in 1951. On both occasions my accompanist was Daisy Shabathai, a neighbor, a very nice person and friend, from another Iraqi Jewish family that had settled in Bombay. I remember singing one song, though I am sure I sang more than one, “Return to Sorrento”, the Neapolitan song “Torna a Surriento,” by Ernesto De Curtis (words by G.B. De Curtis). I sang the song in English, sad to say, as I now realize the song is far more beautiful in Italian in that the vowels allow for lovely legato singing.
My performance at the Young People’s concert went well. I remember an encounter in the hallway afterwards when an elderly gentleman stopped my father as we were leaving and said: "This boy can sing. He must be trained. You should send him to Italy to study." I was surprised, and thrilled, at the thought of going to Italy to learn to sing. My father, apparently reacting positively to the comment, said: "Yes, yes, we realize that." The gentleman nodded, shook my hand, and went off. I turned to Dad and asked: "Am I going to Italy to learn to sing?" "Of course not,” he said. “You are coming to America with us." I was stunned and disappointed. But I had been sent off to boarding schools so much as a young child that I appreciated that my father wanted me with him and the family. So, I said nothing, and have regretted ever since not having become part of the Italian musical culture I now so much admire.
On the way to the US we stopped for about three months in London. It was 1952 and I was fortunate as a 14-year old to see Mary Martin perform in South Pacific. She was spirited and lovable. I especially admired Ezio Pinza, who knew the secret of beautiful singing, maintaining full support and focus so that one heard the continuity of tone without any strain; bel canto at its best.
I went on singing at Halsey Junior High School in Queens, and for the three years thereafter at the Roosevelt School in Stamford, Connecticut where I finished high school in 1956. At Halsey I sang in the school choir, lots of Christmas stuff, and in two leading roles in Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pinafore" (Dick Deadeye and Ralph Rackstraw). I was also chosen (on the basis of City-wide auditions) to sing in the All-City Students Chorus and remember a performance in Central Park at which the star performer was Shirley Jones, who was at the time a sensation for her singing in the musical "Oklahoma". I loved that musical and thought that Ms. Jones was the most beautiful woman in the world. I went on singing in student musicals at Roosevelt, as well as informally performing for the other kids, especially rhythm and blues stuff. I remember winning a school prize of some sort that was a trip to a show in New York City, "Pajama Game", which was great fun.
After high school I enlisted in the US Air Force. The only singing during basic training was the marching songs, which I sang so well our Training Instructor often called on me to lead. When I got sent to Libya, though, for 18 months, we Airmen were lonely on Wheelus Air Base and lots of us turned to music. I entered a competition and sang "I Only Have Eyes for You", "Angel Eyes" and other jazz standards. I won, and was approached by some guys who I knew had the best rhythm and blues group on the base. Would I join? You bet, I said. We entered Tops in Blue, and made it to the Middle East finals. We sang, not only on the airbase, but also at the British base and officer clubs. It helped us stay sane at a very lonely time.
When I completed active duty in late 1959 I had the choice of going to college or to the American National Theatrical Academy, where I had auditioned successfully. My mother, Mozelle, favored ANTA over Yeshiva College. I opted for what turned out to be a very good education, and a much more predictable and stable career. But who knows? Maybe Mom was right.
I did not sing much during college and law school, but kept learning more about music. When I clerked for Justice Brennan in DC he often gave me the free tickets he received to the wonderful concerts at the National Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Library of Congress. Delicious experiences, some of which I still remember.
Once I began teaching at Columbia Law School in 1969 I decided to start taking voice lessons. I was fortunate to study with Madame Julia Drobner, who trained many successful opera singers. She was a great character, with a heavy Russian accent. Many years later David Gockley, who served brilliantly as Director of the Houston and San Francisco Opera companies, told me he too had been a student of Madame Drobner. I became a member of the Desoff Chorus, and we performed several times at the State Theater in Lincoln Center. They were a superb group, and it was a privilege to sing with such talented people.
Toward the end of my ten years at Columbia, the law students started having what they called "The Rights of Spring." Students and faculty performed in musical productions that in general were fun-loving efforts for students to tease the faculty and vice versa. But some of the performances were straightforward efforts by amateurs to make music. Some of the Black students in the law school heard I had sung rhythm and blues stuff in the Air Force and asked me to join their group. We had great fun and did pretty well considering how little time we had to practice. Richard (“Rick”) Scheuer, who later became my brother-in-law, played piano and guitar. Otherwise the group consisted for three Black law students who could sing! Ralph Dawson was the main lead; he had a beautiful, high voice and created a sensation with his renditions of “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk”. Donald Gadsden sang bass. Elliot Moorman (Melba Moore’s brother) rounded out the group. (Rick died tragically at 48; Donald also died very young.) Ralph and Elliot became successful attorneys. They gave me have the lead on one song, "In the Still of the Night." I have a picture of us, enjoying ourselves, which I am posting here. I also have a tape recording of the group, which I will post when I find it. The guys insisted that we call ourselves "Sofaer and the Not So Fairs."
The closest I came at that time to singing seriously was when I tried out for and made the chorus at the Amato Opera Company, located for many years at 319 Bowery Street in Manhattan. It was a tiny place, owned and run by Tony Amato and his wife, Sally, warm and generous people who somehow made a living putting on the main scenes from great operas, with tiny orchestras, in a room that fit at most 50 people. The Company lasted over 60 years and helped start many careers. Tony Amato describes what he and Sally achieved in his book with Rochelle Mancini, “The Smallest Grand Opera in the World.”
After a year or so of singing in the chorus, Tony asked me to sing a couple of supporting roles, notably Gaston in La Traviata. I did well. He said I should sing Alfred in the Amato production of Die Fledermause. I doubted that I could sing it. He said I would do fine, so I began learning the role, terrified but excited that he thought I could sing such a difficult part. It was 1979, however, and while I was working on the music Senator Moynihan’s judicial selection committee called and advised me that the Senator was prepared to give my name to President Carter to be submitted to the Senate for confirmation as a District Judge. I accepted the appointment and withdrew from the Amato Company. I felt my relationship with the singers and people at Amato would inevitably be affected by my new position. I was also committed to doing a job that friends told me would take every bit of my time and energy. Still, I regret not having tried to continue with Tony and Sally, such dedicated and generous people, and the group of singers and supporters they attracted.
I did no singing while in government service (1979 to 1990). When I got to Stanford in 1994 I joined the Stanford Chorus. Steve Sano, Chair of the Music Department, directed the chorus very effectively, and we sang several concerts, mostly at Memorial Church. My favorite was Brahms’ German Requiem.
My kids gently teased me for not trying to sing more often and more publicly. In 2008, when I hit 70 years, I had the good fortune to sing a song at my home with Loren Schoenberg, who was idly playing the piano. He said: “You can sing.” He offered to help me record a CD. He put together a group with some of the best Jazz musicians in America. In addition to Loren on tenor sax, we were joined by Steve Ash (piano), Yasushi Nakamura (bass), Quincy Davis (drums), Dominick Farinacci (trumpet), and Gene Bertoncini & Randy Napoleon (guitars). Loren made the whole thing happen and was very supportive. I sang fairly well, though not as well as I have learned to sing since then. Some of the songs are included on this website. It was a privilege to sing with such outstanding musicians.
On January 8, 2015, my wife Marian and I were honored by the American Numismatic Society at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. (We gave the ANS our collection of ancient Jewish coins.) Ute Wartenberg-Kagan, Director of the ANS, had heard me sing on our summer trip to ancient sites in Turkey in 2014. She asked me to do a song with the band I had recommended, led by none other than Dominick Farinacci, who had played beautifully on my CD and is world class. We had one practice session the night before the event, and our performance of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” went well. [Connect to the performance.] Several of my old friends were in the room and told me they had no idea I had any real talent. The Wall Street Journal did a nice piece on the event, including the singing. [Connect to the article.]
After making the CD, I decided to go on taking individual lessons to develop my voice. That process continues. My teacher is the superb soprano Ronit Widmann-Levy, and my accompanist is a vibrant, demanding, and accomplished musician, Efrat Levy. I hope to get good enough to sing publicly in roles other than as a chorus member. No matter what happens, I enjoy the process of learning to sing, which increases my appreciation of great singers and music in general.