A Pianist's Life at the Keyboard

An American performer takes on the flamboyant persona of Venezuela's Teresa Carreno

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Carreno One-woman show starring Pamela Ross. Directed by Gene Frankel. At the Intar Theatre.

A CLASSICAL musical?

Yes, it is possible, when the subject of the musical is Teresa Carreno - the fiery turn-of-the-century Venezuelan pianist/composer who managed to charm Europe and the United States with her talent.

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Carreno lived a life that was nothing less than scandalous in her day: four husbands (two of them brothers), seven children (one given up for adoption without Carreno's knowledge), and a never-ending schedule of continent hopping and concert tours.

American pianist/actress Pamela Ross stars as Teresa Carreno in a one-woman show here at the Intar Theater off-Broadway.

It's a genuine tour de force in which Ms. Ross tackles acting, piano playing, and performing in both Spanish and English. Does Ross pull it off?

You bet she does. She spins out the fascinating and often tragic story of Carreno's life as she sits at the piano, interspersing her monologues with brilliantly executed interpretations of Chopin, Liszt, Bach, Mendelssohn and others.

One of the most amazing things about the play is that Ross doesn't actually speak Spanish - and yet her delivery at the Spanish-language performances is practically flawless.

In a telephone interview, I asked her to explain this mystery to me.

She told me that when she was performing the play in English during the spring last year, ``A little gentleman came up from Venezuela to visit New York City and he looked up the theater directory of The New York Times and he saw ``Carreno'' and he said, oh my, our national musical heroine, it's got to be about her! So he called the Venezuelan Consulate who called me and said show up with your press kit, there's a guy here who wants to produce it in Caracas.''

SO Ross went to meet him, and he told her that his people would love to have her do the play in Venezuela - in Spanish, of course.

```Oh,' I said in my best English, `of course!''' said Ross.

Her run in New York would be finished in October, and they wanted the play to start in November in Caracas.

All the arrangements were made, and meanwhile, Ross says, ``I was in a state of purple panic. I said to myself, you're either very stupid, or you're very smart and you're going to do this.''

Ross quickly arranged for four different tutors to teach her to pronounce Spanish. Then she found someone to translate the play. When all the wrinkles were ironed out ``... I memorized it. I spent eight hours a day for six weeks, listening to myself on tapes, drilling with other people, and I did it!''

But this was only the beginning.

Off she went to Venezuela, where she was met at the airport by people from the Caracas public television, who were thrilled that a norteamericana was coming down to do a play about Teresa Carreno in their language. They stuck a microphone in her face and said, how does it feel to be here? - in Spanish, of course.

She got someone to translate for her, leaving the Venezuelans a bit puzzled by the American woman who could do the play in Spanish but couldn't speak Spanish. Then came opening night.

``I was terrified,'' says Ross. ``I was afraid that they would laugh and say, are you kidding? Yankee, go home!''

But her fears were unfounded.

``When they came backstage and started speaking to me in Spanish, I assumed I had passed the acid test.''

Ross has always been fascinated by the lives of women musicians.

Her other one-woman show, ``I, Clara,'' about the life of Clara Schumann, written with and directed by Viveca Lindfors, tours nationally, and she is currently planning her next show, based on the life of Argentine pianist Arminda Canteros.

``Carreno'' will soon be the subject of a film - an expanded version of the play.

Ross's research on Teresa Carreno began in 1987 with the help of an enthusiastic researcher at the Library of Congress. Ross plowed through everything available on the pianist - letters by her and to her, clips, and even a biography written by one of her students.

``Carreno'' revolves around the adoption of Teresa's daughter, Emilita, the child she gave birth to at age 17.

While Teresa was on tour, her husband (a musician himself), jealous of his wife's success, turned the child over to an adoption agency, and Carreno never found the girl until she was practically grown up.

By then it was too late, and Emilita rejected her.

The play opens with Carreno, at age 42, reading a letter from the girl, spurning her mother's offer of tickets to her concert. Ross admits that although the letter was a fabrication to add dramatic impact to the story, the events of Carreno's life are accurate.

Now that Ross has proved she can act in Spanish, she's decided to learn to speak it ``... so that I can go on Spanish talk shows.''

``Carreno'' runs in New York until the end of May. Thursday evening performances are in Spanish. Plans are also under way for performances in Florida, California, and Mexico.

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