Friday, April 8, 2011

Opera and Ghosts of the Past at the Ansonia in New York City

Freeman Gunther being very continental at home. (Photo: Andrew Hetherington/New York Magazine)
The April issue of New York magazine focuses on apartment living in the Big Apple. One of the residents profiled is Freeman Gunther, a retired editor of gay porn magazines, who lives in apartment 3-92 at the famed Ansonia at Broadway and 74th street. What makes his domicile so unique? Perhaps it was one of the reasons he moved into the building in the first place: "A 1974 photograph in Gunter’s bedroom shows Sarah Vaughan performing for a crowd of shiny men in towels. The picture was taken four
Opera Ghost: Maria Malibran
floors beneath his apartment, at what was then the Continental Baths and is now a parking lot. The baths were what first got Gunter to the Ansonia and eventually prompted him to move in; they were opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow, a businessman and opera singer, and they were decadent and clean, with fresh flowers, orgy rooms, a hamburger stand, and a mirrored sex maze." And yes, that included a dalliance with ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev. But there is also a secondary explanation why Mr. Gunther decided this dwelling was the perfect place to call home: "The Ansonia is known for its uncommonly thick walls, which allow Gunter to listen to his Carlos Gardel records at concert volume whenever he pleases...He purchased his phonograph—a 1909 Victor Talking Machine with a quarter-sawn oak escutcheon and horn—from a collector for $4,000 last year...Gunter’s collection of portraits are a certain kind of company. The faces are chaperones and emissaries...with greater frequency than any other face, a nineteenth-century Spanish mezzo-soprano named Maria Malibran. Gunter furls and unfurls his hands when he thinks about the opera star. She came to him as a ghost, he says, in 1985, about 150 years after she died in Manchester. Gunter was startled. 'Why did you come?' he asked. 'I like the music here,' said Malibran. She visited a few more times to say hello or to evaluate Gunter’s records, including one by Cecilia Bartoli (Ghost, 2007: 'She sounds like a chicken'). A few years ago, he bought a copy of Malibran’s death mask, which he stores beneath a stack of DVDs. 'Like any sculpture, so much depends upon the light,' he says, lifting the lid from the mask.
'Sometimes it looks like a loaf of bread.'" Other famous musicians that lived at the Ansonia (but whose ghosts do not visit Freeman Gunther) include Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini, Gustav Mahler, Yehudi Menuhin, Lily Pons and Ezio Pinza. Although Mr. Gunther saw the likes of Barry Manilow, Bette Midler and Sarah Vaughan as entertainment at the Continental Baths, no word on whether he was present for the famous concert by soprano Eleanor Steber.

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