In the mind of every mature artist resides a memory that was the beginning of his art, an inspiration that grew into an all-encompassing passion. The mind of an incipient artist finds a place where it can alight and begin what later flowers into his grateful lifetime’s work.
In 1932, I began seventh grade in a class of 27 at Winter Park High School, which was over on Huntington Avenue. (The small center building of today was once grades seven through 12.)
My family had moved from a little house almost on the Rollins campus to Forest Hills, at that time a sparsely settled, even lonely, part of Winter Park near Lake Sue.
Forest Hills — particularly after dark — had an eerie, wild beauty with its few houses, untended orange groves, and palmetto and pine wildernesses resounding with the cries of Chuck-will’s-widows in the night.
Across Lake Sue was Orlando, another country seldom invaded by us, except for necessary visits to Sears and Roebuck.
Our only neighbors my age were Hope Strong, across Lake Chelton, Peggy Caldwell (later Mrs. Hope Strong), a “next door” neighbor a hundred yards away through the forest, and Bob Pratt, who lived in Yankee splendor in a fine brick house on the shore of Lake Sue.
In our house on Rockwood Road, I found a large, hand-cranked Victrola in the room assigned to me as my bedroom.
This outmoded machine was the last vestige of past tenants.
I found one lone record in the storage compartment at the bottom of the Victrola. Presto change-o! I was the proud owner not only of an enormous Victrola, but also a record to play.
The one-sided, thick but very fragile Victor record was of Enrico Caruso, singing in Italian a song called “Musica Proibita” (Forbidden Music).
Day after day I played that record, to the distraction of my parents, and maybe even the Caldwells, who were within earshot.
Soon I had learned the song in Italian, by rote, though I did not understand a word.
I began singing along with the immortal voice of Caruso.
I felt the power and strength of that incomparable voice, and somehow equated Caruso’s natural manly singing technique with my other interests, such as the Boy Scouts, boxing, tennis and 100-pound football.
I was later the center and captain of the Winter Park High School team, the Wildcats.
I don’t know what my rough and tumble teammates would have thought of my trying to sing in the manner of Caruso. I certainly didn’t tell them; much less try my voice out in the large shower room we all shared.
However, after four years at Harvard College, followed by four years as a naval gunnery officer in World War II, I became an opera and concert star in North America and most of the countries of Europe.
All my concert programs since my debut as soloist with the New York Philharmonic in 1948 included my inspirational song, “Musica Proibita.”
This was a piece I never had to learn — the notes were chiseled in my head and heart for all time.
After I learned Italian, the words spoke to me eloquently.
Eighty years later, that song is still a thrilling challenge, just as it was when it dared me, a kid of 10, to get up on my hind legs and sing to the world!
About Roney: Harvard’42—Distinguished Prof, Em.—UCF 2004 Fla. Alliance for the Arts award (Assisted by beautiful wife Joy Roney)