Peter Bugel        12 December 1944 — 14 January 2019

Peter as Jupiter

Part 1

Anyone telephoning our Marlborough Street apartment in Boston in the 1970s was invariably blown away if Peter was the one who answered and the caller had not previously heard him speak. The common reaction was always on the order of “Oh, wow, I sure do like his voice!” That voice—deep, warm, mellow, comforting—was the spoken manifestation of a genuine basso cantante, the real, rare thing.

Such a voice was doubtless the genetic bequest of his forebears, White Russians who originated in the area now known as Belarus (formerly Byelorussia, which means White Russia), but who were resident in Austria for some time prior to emigrating to the United States several generations before Peter’s. Along the way the family name (transliterated) may have been Bugelovich or Bugelovsky or Buglaj, any one of them evolved from ancestral identification with and residence by the River Bug, which flows from its source in the Ukraine along a portion of the western frontier of Belarus into Poland, where it joins the great Vistula River and thence moves on to the Baltic Sea. Russians produce two artistic “species” pretty much better than any other ethnic or national group: operatic basses and ballet dancers. Alas, in addition to the voice, Peter inherited another Russian trait from his antecedents: the strong disposition toward despondency. I called it “the melancholìa” or The Tchaikovsky Factor. The great composer and the young bass had more in common than just their mutual given name.

Born in Indianapolis and raised in Nashville, Peter matured physically very early (chest hair at twelve) and was a sensitive, multi-talented, vulnerable adolescent who had already begun exploring all sorts of personal and artistic possibilities when he was sent reeling by the life-altering emotional blow of his mother’s death from cancer when he was fourteen. Family members maintain that he never overcame the impact of this trauma, and that it, more than his ethnic heritage, accounted for his lifelong battle with the “demon sadness.” (Whatever the respective percentages, the confluence proved fateful.) Outwardly he proceeded onward with resolve and determination. His speaking voice not only allowed him to play old men in high school dramatic presentations but landed him the job of moderator of a local radio talk show that won a CBS Network Award. And, exploiting the fact that “I already had my low D when I was fifteen,” he anchored choirs at school and church with his pedal point notes that were lower than any of the other boys or men could reach.

He attended Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, as an English major, one of our many particular compatibilities (my degree in English is from UCLA). French was our mutual second language. Both of us had begun piano lessons in childhood and both studied voice privately while in the groves of academe. Each performed in the opera workshop of his undergraduate alma mater. In fact, on opposite sides of the country in 1965, he was Balthazar and I was Melchior in Yuletide productions of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.

After Wake Forest, Peter enlisted and served in the U. S. Army. For part of his hitch he toured with the 3rd U. S. Army Soldiers Chorus; for the more difficult part, he was an attaché to a high-ranking officer near the front in Vietnam, documenting the events of combat both on film and in writing for the official record. He was injured in a serious accident there, being thrown from a jeep that encountered an obstacle placed on the road by the Viet Cong (fortunately not a land mine). His tour in the war zone was more than long enough to foreordain dire consequences later in his life.

Decompression from the Southeast Asia experience took time, but when he was ready, Peter’s exceptional voice got him accepted to the New England Conservatory, where we met. He became a pupil of “Miss Miller,” the greatly beloved Gladys Childs Miller Zachareff. I first set eyes on him one day during my repertory coaching with the distinguished pianist/conductor John Moriarty. A tall, handsome, dark-haired, blue-eyed bearded fellow appeared at the door to John’s studio (all the studio doors had windows) and was motioned in. They exchanged perhaps a dozen words and a few papers of some kind and the fellow was gone, without vouchsafing a single glance in my direction. “New student of Gladys,” explained John, and we resumed our work.

The advent of such a person on campus could not but create a stir. At the beginning, wherever Peter sat in the dormitory cafeteria, hub of Conservatory social life, he tended to be surrounded by hopeful admirers, gay men and straight women trying to attract his specific interest. He was (thought I, observing from a distance) perhaps a tad too confident in the aura of unattainability that his magnificent good looks projected. Despite that, the sensitive onlooker could detect an air of vulnerability emanating from him that belied his studied presentation of aloofness. And though he clearly basked in the attention, behind those blue eyes lurked a perceptible primal concern: while on the receiving end of too much and too-loud laughter at his remarks and too many oh-you’re-so-wonderful squeezes of his arm or hand, he seemed to be asking himself, “Can any of these people be sincere?” I actually thought of the Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo, cursing her beauty in the great aria “O don fatale” (O fatal gift) because it had brought her nothing but unhappiness. In any case, this was a circus I chose not to join.

A tangential observation to the above was that Peter’s speaking voice alone could be discerned through—not over but through—the din of chatter and clink of dishes and utensils in that very resonant space. It was indeed like oil on (or in) turbulent waters. We soon enough learned each other’s identities and could therefore nod cordially and address each other by name when passing in the corridor, which constituted the full extent of our interaction for some time.

Three soprano pals of mine who shared a small apartment on St. Botolph Street—Cheryl, Karen, and Martha—liked to invite Peter for supper. (He conveyed the impression of being a helpless-in-the-kitchen bachelor though he was in fact a great cook). Martha was a fine amateur photographer for whom I had recently posed. She had one of the resulting photos framed and prominently displayed on a bookshelf, not because it was of me but because she felt it conveyed her artistic vision. In it, I am seated by a piano, looking up at the camera, sans glasses, the left side of my face in shadow. According to her report, the picture captured Peter’s immediate attention the first time he came over. He picked it up and stared at it, finally intoning in his profoundest basso, “And who, pray tell, is this?” He was duly informed. “Hmm…” (still intoning) “…obviously there is much more to him than meets the eye.” Over their meal, it was determined that, as a newbie in Boston, Peter felt inadequate to the task of finding the right place to shop for underwear—not just any underwear, mind you, but “snazzy” underwear, and he asked Karen to accompany him on his quest. She consented, but suggested that perhaps he ought to take a male advisor along as well. He thought for a moment and said, “Agreed; why don’t you ask Bruce Burroughs to come with us?”

So, yes, my first “date” with Peter consisted of escorting him to Filene’s to purchase snazzy undies, an event that got extended to include dinner and several more hours of conversation. Venerable clichés apply: “One thing led to another” (but by no means immediately) and “The rest is history.” Some weeks later, when we were walking from my apartment to NEC after having spent the night together for the first time, he confessed that while watching me “so seriously sifting” through the bins of briefs in the store on that initial day of what became our relationship, he had had an “epiphany” (his word). “I suddenly knew that you were going to be the guy who actually saw me wearing them.” I offered a slight emendation: “No, I was the guy who was going to see you not wearing them!” To the amusement of passersby, this earned me a bear hug in the middle of the Huntington Avenue sidewalk, along with the very deep, rather theatrical laugh (a “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to do any department store Santa Claus proud) that was unique to Peter.

He performed small parts in Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and in The New England Chamber Opera Group’s presentations of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Weill’s Down in the Valley, in all three of which I also appeared. Larger roles in which he was most impressive were Candy in the New England Regional Opera’s East Coast professional premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, and the god Jupiter in the Chamber Opera Group’s offering of Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis (sung in English as Gift of the Gods), given in a double bill with Busoni’s Arlecchino, in which I essayed the title role. As the photograph above attests, it required no suspension of disbelief whatever to accept Peter as the head god of Roman mythology. (Except for the golden curls and the faint gold streaks in his beard, all the hair was his and he towered over the rest of the cast because of his six-foot-plus height.) When the director of one of the above-mentioned opera companies (NERO) first laid eyes on Peter, he cast him as the Giant in a Jack and the Beanstalk children’s opera without hearing him sing a note. “Some of our roles have very specific physical requirements” went the explanation. In his season as an Apprentice Artist at the Santa Fe Opera, Peter covered the role of Daland in Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer, a true indication of the quality of his instrument and of his artistic capacity.

Oratorio-wise, he was in demand for the bass soli in Haydn’s Creation. No one but no one could intone the hilarious line “…creeps with sinuous trace the worm,” ending on that prized low D, like Peter. It was a bit of excusable exhibitionism, as Papa Haydn had compassionately instructed the bass to rise from the low A to the D above, not go to the one below. When we worked on the score, Peter asked me if it would be alright to descend rather than ascend. I reminded him of the words of the great soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, who, when queried about why she interpolated so many unwritten high notes, replied, “When-a you got-em, you show!” Upshot: that philosophy would do just as well for low notes.

Bruce and Peter on Thanksgiving,1971.

In his twenties, before a lifelong problem with his weight manifested itself, when he was bearded, Peter gave the appearance of being the epitome of machismo, though that was pretty far from his actual nature. When smooth-faced, he was altogether boyish and even had a bit of the imp about him (though he corrected me: “I’m too big for an imp”). One army buddy found the difference so great that he saw a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. That was a ludicrous comparison, though Peter indeed seemed more imperious—and much older—with facial hair than without. Asked about his beard by our landlady, he made the remarkable statement that “In the theater, this is money.”

Bruce and Peter in their Boston apartment, 1971.

Our adventures were many and varied, as were our residences: two lovely apartments in Boston, one in a newly renovated and thus up-to-date former office building, one in an old brownstone (where we occupied the whole second floor); half of an old converted carriage house that he co-owned with his dad’s older sister in Bethany, CT (outside New Haven); an ersatz “Swiss” chalet in Aspen; an adobe guesthouse in Santa Fe; a two-room flat in what was clearly a house of ill repute (not quite “the best little whorehouse in Texas,” but it came close!) in Fort Worth; and stints in the rooms where we grew up in our family homes in Los Angeles and Nashville. Most of the peregrinations required for this gypsy life (movement was always in pursuit of artistic or educational goals) were accomplished in Peter’s rickety, slightly banged up, how-was-it-still-functioning-with-so-much-mileage-on-it old Volkswagen Beetle, no match for the huge semis with which we ran in tandem on the nation’s major highways. If he straightened up completely in the driver’s seat, Peter’s head would touch the roof of the little car. He also had an ancient Buick Skylark that, mechanically, was even less suited to cross-country travel than the Bug (though it was so much roomier!), meaning it stayed parked at the carriage house.

Peter was both tenderhearted and a closet romantic, but he had no interest in his partner (let alone the general population) having sure awareness of these factors. At times he couldn’t down the impulse to feel his feelings, however, and thereby provided cherishable moments and memories. He loved my green eyes, and in gift-giving always challenged himself to “match” them. After being assigned a particular song for an audition, one that clearly got to him in a special way, he decided it was “our song,” and he would sing it to me often in his beautiful sorghum-hued tone. This was “My Cup Runneth Over” from the musical I Do! I Do! and with it he could reduce me to a puddle:

Sometimes in the morning when shadows are deep
I lie here beside you just watching you sleep
And sometimes I whisper what I’m thinking of
My cup runneth over with love

Sometimes in the evening when you do not see
I study the small things you do constantly
I memorize moments that I’m fondest of
My cup runneth over with love

In only a moment we both will be old
We won’t even notice the world turning cold
And so, in these moments with sunlight above
My cup runneth over with love
My cup runneth over with love
With love

In the era being written about here, now verging on nearly a half century ago, there were no particular difficulties in being who we were in the Boston circles in which we moved. There were plenty of “fellow travelers” and lots of support for us all from each other and our straight friends and colleagues. Except for one very trying set of circumstances (see below), we found complete acceptance in the Cradle of Culture. This by no means held true in all areas of the country. The American Psychiatric Association did not remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses until 1973, or after Peter and I had been together for several years. In the summer of 1972, we went to live in Fort Worth in order to study with a voice teacher Peter had met the previous year at the Santa Fe Opera. In the Lone Star State we were considered both mentally ill and criminal. The Texas statute outlawing even private sexual conduct between consenting adults of the same sex on the basis of its being a “perversion” (according to religious beliefs) was rigorously and often viciously enforced and remained on the books until 2003.

Thus, two guys with beards and long hair from the Northeast who were seeking a place to live together were simply not going to find a “normal” one at that time in that place. The designation “fag(s)” was heard with alarming frequency, sometimes sotto voce behind our backs as we walked away from being rejected as tenants, sometimes forcefully right to our faces.

We had in fact heard the epithet before—from a red-nosed Irish Boston police sergeant, when the BPD was using our apartment (and half destroying it in the process) as temporary headquarters for its investigation of the murder of our good friend and next-door neighbor. Yes, even in enlightened Boston, though there it was not indicative of the prevalent attitude, the word could be heard. (When the Robert Stack look-alike chief detective in his elegant camel hair coat asked if either of us had ever dated Ellen, the deceased, Red-Nose said, with impunity in our home in our presence, “Aw, boss, they’re a coupla faggots, they ain’t never dated no goils.”)

In Fort Worth, we felt the sting of intense prejudice, even hatred, and worked hard to keep from being unnerved. We were at last deemed acceptable at a building in which the majority of the residents turned out to be ladies of the evening. These “professional” ladies and the rather sleazy “building manager” and his wife were blessedly ecumenical in their acceptance of others. In fact, neither Peter nor I being terribly hard to look at, several of the ladies, not entirely in jest, continually offered us “substantial discounts” on their services. The fee would be “slashed to the bone,” said one, wryly, “no pun intended.” The non-judgmental atmosphere at Hemphill House provoked a coterie of our fellow tenants to troop out to the dinner theater at The Inn of the Six Flags in Arlington (halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas) one night to catch the show in which we were appearing. Peter was musical director and I a singer-dancer. We had managed to audition and get hired during the time of apartment-hunting, while crashing on the sofa bed of friends at night.

In the show, from his seat at the piano, Peter sang “My Cup Runneth Over” at every performance, looking at one of the beautiful young women onstage. One night she stepped aside, revealing me standing at my assigned place just behind her, and he sang it to me.  The cast was very moved by this and thought it was truly meet, right, and salutary, but the management and the Texans in the audience were not exactly overwhelmed with delight. Although Janet, the young lady who had moved out of the way, tried very hard to convince the powers that be that the idea was entirely hers and that we had known nothing about it, we were the ones called on the carpet, insulted, castigated, and threatened with termination. The last alternative wasn’t possible only because we were, thank goodness, irreplaceable. Still, such hurtful events stay with one for a lifetime. We promised each other that no matter what happened, we would always be “out and proud” and not cower before anyone’s bias or condescension (or legal authority). No matter how many agreements Peter made with himself and others that went unfulfilled, this one he kept, emphatically, to his last day.

Peter loved the music of Debussy, the voice of Leontyne Price, velour pullovers, elegant home furnishings and accessories (which always gave the impression of far greater resources for such acquisitions than actually existed), dogs and cats, exotic miniature fresh water fish, and talking about singers and singing. This last we could do for hours at a stretch, days in a row, and never weary of it. Aside from several wonderful teachers, in my lifetime I have never known anyone who “got it” as completely as Peter. We never had to explain anything to each other, not once.  

Listening to singers who were active all the way back to the dawn of recording in the first decade of the twentieth century was a joy when done together. During one period, we were so fascinated with the alto voice that we made tape anthologies (reel-to-reel then) of the great lady singers in history who could be classified as alto or contralto, absolutely eschewing mezzo-sopranos. The tapes were utilized in the vocal pedagogy class of the great Lav Vrbanić at the Conservatory. They were so helpful to his work that he asked us to make more, and specified what he wanted. This we loved doing.

As for those fish, our aquarium in Boston, stocked with gorgeous lyretail cobra guppies we found during our months in Texas and carted in a cooler all the way back across the country in that noisy old VW, was an admired showpiece. Friends could sit interminably watching in amazement the miracle of guppy live birth in a beautiful aquatic environment where said guppies lived with neon tetras, catfish, mollies, swordtails, and nearly spectacular live plants – nothing plastic or kitschy was ever placed in a Peter Bugel aquarium. Both of us being animal lovers, our conversation had often turned to the desire for a “furry friend” or friends, a dog or cat (or both). Such an indulgence continually turned out to be impracticable in the face of the standard “no pets allowed” policy that prevailed with landlords at this time, and though fish were hardly a substitute, they were indeed gorgeous and an interesting and fulfilling hobby. “Besides,” said Peter, “You already have a furry friend. Me!”

The last of the lyretail cobras lived in the set-up he created for me in my Manhattan apartment just before departing for Aspen, Colorado, the moment when ours became truly a long-distance relationship. He had elected not to take up residence in New York City when I felt it necessary to depart Boston for headier musical waters, but spent a year at the Connecticut house instead, commuting into the city for lessons and coachings. Subsequently, he accepted the invitation of an army buddy to be musical director (and, incidentally, wine steward) of Le Cabaret, a dinner theater the buddy was opening in Aspen. Peter was to audition and then train the performers engaged for the show during the time the theater was under construction. I was to come along at the end of the New York season to stage and choreograph the grand finale of the show (a wonderful and very funny, if I do say so myself, take-off on Bizet’s Carmen). During the time we lived in ski country together, both of our families came to spend their vacations there with us. (In Aspen, by the way, we had more than our share of furry friends: Peter’s cat, Tulip, bore a litter of nine, all healthy, all strikingly good-looking, in the summer of 1975, and I had traveled with my six-month-old puppy, Beppe—“Bruce’s Westside Arlecchino”—who enjoyed his feline playmates so much that when we returned to New York City there was nothing to do but find just the right kitty to come live with us: rescued from the Bide-a-Wee animal shelter, “P. T.” filled the bill and provided joy and solace for the next sixteen years.)

After that sojourn in Pitkin County paradise, Peter was poised to come back to the Big Apple and follow in earnest his voice’s seeming destiny onto the operatic stage. He had actually taken a leave from the dinner theater in the middle of its second year and come to “try out” New York, discovering that he liked the Upper Westside well enough and that the living situation was quite as suitable for us as the ones in Boston had been. However, as fate would have it, at the very last performance of the Aspen show (one with all-new material was in preparation as the successor and was almost “ready to go”), an entrepreneur visiting from Las Vegas witnessed Peter’s work and assured him that he could be a fabulous success onstage in the desert oasis and into the bargain become quasi-rich. Once again opera was put on the back burner; he heeded the siren call of Las Vegas, joining the Lido de Paris show in the Stardust Hotel as lead singer. This was just a temporary side trip, he insisted, undertaken to make large sums of money to subsidize the “at long last” move to New York City and into my apartment at Broadway and West Seventy-first Street.

Peter was the one with the daily job to show up for, and therefore had no freedom of movement beyond home to work to home. Though it had become increasingly difficult for me to take long periods of time away from my studio, I commenced commuting to Las Vegas; but the trips had to be short and the intervals between ever longer. Then I, too, became tied down, as Distinguished Visiting Specialist in Voice at Montclair State College (now University) in New Jersey. My commutes then were bus roundtrips between Port Authority in Midtown Manhattan and Upper Montclair in the Garden State, not most of the way across the country and back.

In any case, the atmosphere of Las Vegas and the acceptance Peter found there were too enticing to be forsworn for heavier dreams. Those who heard him sing wanted him to teach them, those who witnessed him at the piano wanted him to accompany them, and producers wanted his expertise as a musical director. He would not be absorbed quietly into the artistic life of the city but would stand out as one of its leading lights.

 

         [Part Two coming very soon; please return to finish reading the remembrance]

© Bruce Burroughs 2019