"We are facing a generation of young singers who are much more diminutive in their approach to singing." There was nothing diminutive about the man who said that. Jerome Hines (1921–2003) stood six-feet-six-inches tall, and on stage at La Scala in 1968 as Handel’s Hercules, the hero seemed an eponym for himself. His pinnacle was to sing Boris Godunov in Moscow at the Bolshoi, but his real triumph was mentioning Christ to the Soviet secret police and smuggling Bibles into the Kremlin.
He began as Heinz, but Sol Hurok changed the spelling around the time of his debut in Rigoletto with the San Francisco Opera in 1941, because of the German problem. It did not prevent him from singing as King Mark and Wotan and Gurnemanz at Bayreuth in a happier time in the late 1950s. It was around then that my father took me to hear Lauritz Melchior in New York, not so much for Wagner as for the fact that he looked so much like my Grandpa, who had just died and who had sung as a student in Lyons. The heldentenor Melchior and basso Hines defined opera for me.
The evangelical conversion of Hines was quite a turnaround from his youth, but even his socializing had a theme. Dating Patrice Munsel, "our conversations usually ended up sounding like vocal master-classes." He became a master teacher himself, writing two coaching books, Great Singers on Great Singing and The Four Voices of Man. After his Met debut in 1946, he turned down a ten-year contract there because he thought some of the avant-garde choreography was too suggestive, but in spite of cancer and arthritis he set the all-time record for the Met: 868 performances in 41 seasons.
The same man who was unsurpassed as Mephistopheles, the assassin Sparafucile, and the Grand Inquisitor played Christ in the opera he composed: I Am the Way. On the Met stage he looked like Sallman’s painting of The Head of Christ come to life. Rampant guilelessness moved this singer, who ranged from Verdi to Stravinsky, to name his autobiography This Is My Story, This Is My Song, from the words of the hymn written in 1873 by Fanny Crosby, who probably thought Sir Arthur Sullivan a bit risqué. Without straining convention, I can say I detected in him not the slightest censoriousness of broken virtue. Even once when I egged him on to say something quotable about Gigli’s weepy tremolo, he remarked how devoted Gigli had been to one of his legitimate daughters, the soprano Rina. Gigli’s confessor was Padre Pio, a circumstance the born-again Hines might have found alien to his own instincts but salutary.
My introduction to him was by way of the pro-life movement. He told me that, years before, one of his four sons was expected to be born with Down Syndrome, and he and his wife chose to be stewards of the life the Creator allowed them to procreate. The challenge became a gift. Once when an argument disrupted the family dinner, the young boy, confused by the commotion, got up from the table and kissed his mother and father and brothers and sat down. All fell silent and there was peace. Once we sat together at a fundraiser in New Jersey listening to a valiant young woman sing "God Bless America." She was less than half his great height, as she had been born with multiple birth defects. He whispered with tears that he had never heard such a glorious voice.
Mrs. Hines, aptly named Lucia Evangelista, also sang in the opera. When Lou Gehrig’s disease paralyzed her voice and body, Hines tended her for many years, often bringing guests in to watch a film of her in La Traviata. He promised to follow her soon, hoping to see Jesus, and so he did, not long after singing one last time with the Boston Bel Canto Opera, aged nearly 80.