When was the last time you listened to opera?
I pointed out in a recent book review that it was a champagne commercial back in the eighties that got me hooked.

Then, I started listening during football games.

My review of Adventures in the Scream Trade got such favorable attention and widespread interest, it seemed like a good time to interview the author, Charles Long. It turned out to be a great idea.

Long, now retired, is not one to be tied down by a house. He’s now a “Snow Bird,” migrating from the Sonoran Desert in the winter to the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest in the summer. His possessions are limited, lightweight and portable, but he doesn’t compromise on priorities.
Long hasn’t owned a television in more than a decade.
He keeps a thousand rounds of ammunition for each caliber he uses.

We caught up with him last week near Scottsdale, Az, via Skype and had an enlightening chat with him.

We found him to be gregarious, friendly, and animated.

He’s outspoken, clear, and committed to his principles.Image

What prompted you to write “Scream Trade” and what inspired the title?

I began writing “Scream Trade” under another title seventeen years before it was published. What began as a quasi-academic dissection of classical music transmogrified into a therapeutic catharsis that helped me cope with the sudden end of my career. I wanted to discuss the inner workings of the art form as well as share anecdotes from my years on the stage. But I soon realized that it was impossible to create a rigid timeline, so I used the personal stories as hinge-pins, writing the chapters as a series of short vignettes – like scenes from a movie – and tied them together with a thin autobiographical thread. Thus the subtitle, “Scenes from and Operatic Life.”

I realized I had an opportunity to reveal facets of the business that were rarely, if ever, discussed. I was determined not to write another dreary, sycophantic epic glamorizing the classical music industry. There are enough of those. Rather, I wanted to write a book that revealed the gritty underbelly of the business. “Scream Trade” is my “Pulp Fiction” realization of the opera world.

While writing one of the early drafts I was in the midst of reading William Goldman’s, “Adventures in the Screen Trade” – a wonderful book about his years as a screen writer. Since I had always described opera as “controlled screaming,” I decided “Adventures in the Scream Trade” would make a clever and compelling title.

You sang a wide variety of operatic roles. Which were your favorites and why?

Although I was sometimes considered too slim and handsome to play villains, I relished performing the Verdi and Puccini antagonists – the marvelously dark, brooding characters. Skeptics would said, “Why would Tosca choose Cavaradossi when instead she could choose a Scarpia who looked like you?” But this contradiction made the characterization all the more interesting.

One of the most chilling bad guys ever portrayed on the screen was Burt Lancaster in the 1954 movie Vera Cruz. You don’t get better looking than Burt in his prime, and he used this to wonderful advantage. He would flash a dazzling smile one minute, and do something monstrous the next. It was extremely effective. In fact, I based my characterization of Jack Rance in La Fanciulla Del West – sometimes called the “Cowboy Opera’” – on Lancaster’s portrayal of Joe Erin.

Certainly my favorite acting roles were Scarpia, Jack Rance, Rigoletto, Tonio and Don Giovanni. But as far as singing goes nothing compares with the Verdi roles, especially Macbeth, Ezio in Attila, Count Di Luna in Trovatore, Don Carlo in Forza.

What advice do you have for the “opera novice?” Someone interested in finding out more about opera?

It’s easier today. So many cuts are available on YouTube — start there. Listen to excerpts, maybe a few arias, and see what appeals to you. Then experiment with a CD of a complete opera, preferably a one act opera. Get comfortable with it before going to the theatre. Once you get past the one act operas, consider La Boheme. You’ll find out more about it and other operas in the back of my book.

You’re very hard on critics, among others, in your book. How have reviewers and former colleagues responded to your unabashed opinions?

I’m finding that the critics who like my book tend to share my political and philosophical views. They appreciate the candidness and my willingness to be provocative. But those who bow to the gods of political correctness generally find the book unsettling. As one reviewer said, “Long is willing to write what others think, but dare not say.” I like that. You have to be courageous to be a good writer. If you get caught up in second-guessing which word or thought might offend someone, you’ll never complete a book. And if you do, it’s likely to be dull.

Interestingly, feedback from my former colleagues has been almost unanimously spectacular. Sometimes they’ll say, “Wow – I can’t believe you wrote that!” Then they usually follow it by saying, “I applaud your courage.” I didn’t go out of my way to be caustic – I simply called it like it was and described circumstances as they happened, but I never minced my words when doing so.

You write exceptionally well, but you were trained as a musician, not a writer. Where did you acquire those exceptional skills?

I’ve always written – letters to the editor, articles about things that interested me, or essays on topics of the day. I’ve always found it easier to express myself by way of the written word. Only after I’ve written my thoughts on the page can I fully articulate them. Associates sometimes become frustrated because I prefer communicating via email rather than by phone. There’s something about the impromptu nature of a phone conversation that unsettles me. I can’t always find precisely the right words. For me, it’s all about finding the right word.

I’m also fascinated by the music within language. My partner and I often read to each other and marvel at the immaculate symmetry of a perfect sentence. She’s a writer as well, and sometimes we find the rhythm of a great paragraph so thrilling that we’ll read it a dozen times. Good writing is like music to my ears. Through fastidious self-education and a love of words I have been able to substitute music with writing as my creative outlet.

I went about learning how to write in the same way I mastered singing, conducting, and orchestration. I used the disciplined curiosity of a classical musician to study examples of artists I admired. I’d find the essence of each and consolidate them into an ideal, synthesizing and infusing it with my own gifts to create something unique. Somehow I have always been able to break the fundamentals of a discipline into its smallest common denominator, reassemble it, and make it my own. I discovered that I could do this with almost anything I set my mind to – including writing. A bit of talent helps, too.

Because “Scream Trade” was seventeen years in the writing, I had a long time to create a style. But what really honed my writing skills was two years in south Florida working as a sports writer covering boxing. It forced me to embrace the old actor’s axiom that “less is more,” and I developed a terse, crisp style that melded nicely with my lofty, sardonic prose.

You were trained as a musician and an instrumentalist before you turned to singing. Has that training helped you? Would you recommend such training for singers?

Absolutely! Nothing can substitute for a solid musical background and attaining some level of excellence with another instrument, especially piano. Singers are often the least skilled within the musical world. I would urge young singers to help break that stereotype and make the serious study of music their priority. As I said before, the regimented discipline of a classical musician can be applied to many things in life. Time spent in the pursuit of excellence is never wasted.

Opera fans usually have their favorite works and a list of operas they can’t stand. Which operas do you put into those two categories and why?

One can find some redeeming tune or moment in most operas, but works like Alban Berg’s “Lulu” and some of the other twelve–tone abominations move quickly to top of my Hate List. It’s not a prejudice against modern opera – I like the twentieth century works of Hansen, Bernstein, Menotti, Flloyd and Ward, among others, and I absolutely adore transitional works like Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” But the painful, atonal drek of the Germans from the last century makes me want put a 45-caliber slug through my speakers. Lock n’ Load, Baby!

You seem to have very eclectic interests. It’s not every day that one encounters an opera singer who’s also a boxing fan. How did that happen?

I was raised in rural western Pennsylvania where my grandfather was Chief of County Detectives, a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a wire editor for the Butler Eagle, and had his own talk radio show about hunting and fishing long before shows of that type were prevalent. Writing and eclecticism runs in my line, I suppose.

My father and I had “Father & Son” boxing gloves, and I was awakened to the world of pugilism before I could ride a bicycle. A great love for the sport of boxing grew out of these early experiences. There are many Darwinian lessons to be learned from boxing and other sports that can help you succeed in a competitive world. I would sometimes stop rehearsal to watch an important fight on a tiny “Watchman” that traveled with me wherever I went. I would throw gigantic boxing parties where my guests could watch pay-per-view fights on three different televisions located around the house. After my retirement, while living in Miami, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and became a sports writer covering boxing in South Florida.

I’m sad about the way boxing has changed. I once wrote an essay called, “Where Has All the Boxing Gone, Long Time Passing?,” mourning the circumstances that have transformed it from a sport for the common man – once covered extensively on network television – to a high stakes game found almost exclusively in the realm of pay-per-view.

In your book you mention “the Desert Classic Action Shooting Competition,” and searching “for ammo brass, like a leprechaun struggling to remember where he stashed his pot of gold.” You refer to your Irish descent more than once, but are you also a shooter?

Indeed, I am both. Although I’m officially Irish-German – and a little something as yet undefined – I’ve always felt that the Muse who speaks to me from the repository of my genetic memory probably speaks Gaelic. And the stereotype of the scrappy, hardheaded Irishman who likes to occasionally tilt the bottle certainly fits me to a T.

I got my first NRA marksmanship certificate when I was about ten years old and I’ve been an avid shooter ever since. One of my earliest memories is of fondling the double-barreled shotgun hidden in my Grandfather’s bedroom closet. It was one of the most fascinating things I’d ever seen. Giggling, I would drag it into the living room as everybody ducked for cover. Many fond hours of my childhood were spent shooting tin cans and strolling through the Pennsylvania countryside with a gun on my hip, or over my shoulder. In those days gun ownership was a common, nearly ubiquitous circumstance in American life and it was accepted with ease. Sadly, attitudes toward firearms have changed, but I still do my part to preserve this essential liberty with a Life Membership in the National Rifle Association and by writing for various firearms publications. I’ve done some competitive shooting over the years, mostly IPSC, IDPA and Three-Gun competitions, and I hold concealed pistol licenses in multiple states. I take my right of self-defense and my Second Amendment responsibilities very seriously.

I’m also a computer geek and feel as though I have single-handedly kept Apple in business for decades with my recommendations and purchases. None of the writing I’ve done would have ever have been completed if I’d had to contend with pen and paper. As far as I’m concerned, the world would come to an end without my beloved MacBook and iPhone.
My other hobbies include hiking, rock-climbing, canoeing, kayaking and anything with an element of danger. I’ve even jumped out of a plane at 13,000 feet!

Considering the diversity of your interests, especially guns and shooting, it only stands to reason that you might be a bit conservative in your beliefs. Would you care to comment on your political position?
Sure! I don’t mind talking politics at all.
I’m to the right of Thomas Jefferson, over there with Patrick Henry.
My mother is a leftist and my father, a World War II vet, leaned left, but often voted Republican. My grandfather was very pro-gun and did a radio talk show back in the 50’s. In fact, some of my earliest memories involve going shooting with him.
Viet Nam was raging when I was in college. I didn’t agree with the war but still, I was a patriot. The biggest change for me, politically, happened when I moved to New York City, that bastion of political progressivism.
It’s ironic. Living in New York actually re-enforced and solidified my commitment to conservative thinking. In fact, I voted for the first Libertarian candidate for mayor of New York City.  I observed the failure of progressivism. I saw people paralyzed by fear. They didn’t want to get involved. It was too easy just to let the government do everything for them.
Most artists I was around had lived in big cities or had been seduced by progressivism. They had idealistic, cloistered lives. Many of their beliefs came from the notion that everyone had similar life experiences.

Did your political position cause you any problems with your career?
No. I have no perception that it did, because politics was rarely discussed. Being outspoken caused me problems and that most likely was an outgrowth of my politics. Some consider me a renegade.

One last question. What are you listening to these days and on what type player/device?
My iPhone earbuds are just fine with me. I have no elevated listening requirements. Mostly I listen to orchestral music. The mornings, I like Baroque concertos. When I have to get something done, I play Beethoven. And when I’m whimsical, it’s Debussy.
I rarely listen to opera anymore, and I haven’t set foot in an opera house since I walked off the stage in 1987. The past is the past, and this is now.

Adventures in the Scream Trade — Scenes from an Operatic Life by Charles Long (Mountain Lake Press) is available on Amazon in a variety of formats: hard copy, e-book and audiobook (read by Mr. Long himself).