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Monday, September 15, 2008

Father Bordi

We had some interesting people hanging around our house in the 60’s and 70’s. My mom was a social animal, and she made new friends and connections wherever she went, especially if they were involved with music.

Consequently the house was full of music of different types. One time folk singer Pete Seeger dropped by. Somewhere I still have some photograph records of authentic Sicilian folk music that he lent us (sorry Pete, I’ll return them someday!).

We also had a small but dedicated enclave of opera enthusiasts, some of which had secret ambitions to be on the stage. Our friend Jon Nielson was a self-employed visual artist by trade, but knew the Italian operatic repertory well. Without any formal musical training (and virtually unable to read music) he was able to sing an operatic duet from La Traviata at a house concert with my mom.

As a kid, I remember taking a ride in Jon’s Volkswagen bus and listening to his FM radio (which was not standard in American cars) to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon live broadcasts (which were sponsored by the Texaco Oil Company. They began broadcasts in 1940 and it continued for 63 years).

And then there was Father Bordi, the singing Priest...

Although we were less than devout Roman Catholics, my family attended a small Italian church named Our Lady of Pompeii intermittently. Mass was conducted in Latin, but this Diocese also catered to the Italian community in the village by making all announcements in their mother tongue. Father Anthony, a Roman from birth, put on a very good show every Sunday, with plenty of incense and loud organ music supplied by Father Bordi.

Father Bordi had a flair for the dramatic. He was a high-strung Italian, who’s hands and arms would gesture to add meaning to the few words in English knew. Bordi was an assistant to Father Anthony, who micro-managed every aspect of the church with a stern and unforgiving authority. (I know well, since he gave me a long and brutal penance after confession).

But Father Bordi was not of that mold. He was an artist. He played the organ, painted, drank wine, and secretly aspired to be an opera singer. He and my mom got along just swell, and they talked about the opera, music, art, and life in general. My mom was a small town celebrity of sorts, and she sang every October in the church basement for the annual “Spaghetti Dinner” - the big church fund-raising event. Father Anthony’s brother-in-law would accompany my mom on the accordion, as they strolled from table to table performing the standard Italian classics.

Father Anthony (standing on the left) at the Spaghetti Dinner with his brother-in-law who played the accordion.

My mom also organized a lot of outdoor concerts, and she would call upon the talent she could find to perform pro bono. These concerts took place at the new riverside park and at outdoor Italian street festivals in the center of town. Acts might include a mandolin orchestra (made up of US Post Office employees), herself, and a group of children in traditional Italian costume dancing the Tarantella while vendors nearby sold their sausages, Italian slush, and pizza.

The variety shows occasionally included some big names too, such as Eddie Layton who was the house organist for the NY Yankees for three decades. When he was not playing the the 50,000-watt Hammond organ at Yankee Stadium, he could be found on his miniature replica tugboat on the Hudson River with my little brother Ricky helping out as chief engineer, and unlicensed psychologist.

But the performer who made everyone look and take notice was Father Bordi.

Bordi’s personality changed when he got on the stage and had the mike in his hands. He would sing his arias without accompaniment, but had a large and commanding voice. Sure, it was a little out of the ordinary to see a Catholic Priest on the stage singing operatic love songs, but what the heck, this was the 70’s and anything was possible. His superior, Father Anthony, seemed to tolerate Bordi’s musical indulgence as long as it didn’t turn into a real career. He kept Father Bordi on a short ecclesiastical leash, so to speak.

One day, when I was in the beginning of a long transition from being a rock guitarist to a classical musician, Father Bordi came by our house. He brought with him the piano-vocal score of the Verdi Requiem, which he immediately put on the piano stand in front of me. It was a hot summer day, and he stripped off his priest’s collar and black shirt. As I looked at him in his white undershirt, and he said “let's make music.” The rehearsal didn’t go very well. I was not familiar with the Requiem, and he was singing at triple fortissimo (as he always did) in our living room. His voice could fill Carnegie Hall.

Although nothing came of our collaboration, it was clear that his vision of Heaven involved himself performing the tenor solo of Verdi's great masterpiece for a large audience. For Father Bordi, the Verdi Requiem was a devine synthesis of religious and artistic expression.