During the 30-some years that I sang at the Hebrew Tabernacle Synagogue in New York City, organists came and went.
Gerald Morton was one such organist who, incidentally, happened to love opera.
To those of you who were not part of the New York City church music scene of the 60s, 70s and 80s, the fact that Gerry happened to like opera might strike you as a particularly unremarkable remark. Now understand, there were organists who were also aspiring opera coaches and conductors, but Gerald was not one of them. So far as I know he was not trained in opera; rather, he was self-taught.
Gerald was a graduate of the Oberlin College of Music and was very well trained and gifted for the religious field of music. Indeed, one of the reasons our Cantor at the Hebrew Tabernacle hired him was that he was also the organist at Holy Trinity Church in Newark, NJ, a large and prestigious Episcopal cathedral. For Cantor Herman, anybody who played a major pipe organ in a major Episcopal Church could do no wrong!
To many in that very German Jewish Congregation, Gerald became known as Der schwarze Organiste (“the black organist”). I suppose in their very European minds, Blacks were not supposed to accomplish such things. Gerald was tall with skin the color of walnut. He was very laid-back, knowledgeable about seemingly everything, and a lot of fun to be with. He knew his opera, and he believed in me and encouraged me.
Usually when I met a new keyboard person, I immediately enlisted them for accompanying me in my various singing pursuits of the time: opera auditions, concerts, recitals, etc. Gerald very enthusiastically accompanied me in opera, but the rest he shied away from. He once told me that I should be a dramatic tenor because of my face structure (very round, he said). Eventually he introduced us (Joan and me) to his roommate, Rick (his partner, actually, although at that time that word was shunned).
Rick Schuller was also a tenor, 20 years my junior, but whose singing career was starting to take hold, unlike mine. Both he and Gerald convinced me to study with Rick’s voice teacher, a woman by the name of Ellen Rulau. She was convinced I should be a Wagnerian tenor. But that’s another long story. So as not to digress from Gerald’s story, let me fast forward to say that I had about six months of lessons with Ellen when she became very ill and suddenly died.
Apparently she had had a particularly virulent, but undiagnosed strain of cancer which claimed her young life. Consequently, I began to study with Rick who knew her technique. In the meantime I was coaching opera with Gerald. As it happened, Rick and I were selected for the two tenor roles in the Bronx Opera’s 1982 production of Mozart’s opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. Rick sang the romantic lead role of Belmonte, while I sang his comic side-kick, Pedrillo.
We had a blast together until one rehearsal I shall never forget. We were working on a scene with the entire company, and Rick was blowing line after line, totally unlike his usual professional self. He was growing more and more agitated. Finally he cracked.
”I can’t do this anymore!” he shouted and fled from the stage. We all just stood there looking helplessly at one another. Finally I went after him. He was standing outside the building sobbing hysterically.
“Rick, what in the world is the matter?” I asked as gingerly as I could.
“It’s Gerry!” he sobbed. “He’s so sick, and I just don’t know what to do for him.” I took him in my arms and he cried uncontrollably on my shoulder. Of course, I did not know what to do either. Gerry had been sick with shingles for quite some time, and those of us in his circle would speak in hushed tones about the dreaded A-word, which no one dared to utter aloud.
We were so naïve at the time! I remember the alto in the synagogue quartet, a self-proclaimed expert on most things, once answered my innocent question about what AIDS is and how one contracts it, by saying that all we know about it is that it is sexually transmitted among homosexuals probably by ingesting fecal material. But no one really knows. My goodness, how ignorant we were! No one knew much about AIDS at that time, and we lived in terror of it.
To get to the scene that I really want to share with you, I will again fast forward a couple of years. Gerry indeed had been diagnosed with AIDS, and at that time such a diagnosis was a certain death warrant. Yet Gerry battled back. He was in and out of the hospital. But eventually he became too weak to continue as organist at the synagogue or his church.
In the meantime, we were visited with yet another staggering blow. Rick also contracted AIDS and died within months of his diagnosis. He suffered horribly. And for me the crush of it was that we did not know he had died until long after his funeral. I do not remember how that happened, but since we were out of contact with Gerald, and I was no longer studying with either of them, Joan and I were simply out of their loop. Yet the worst was still to come!
Gerald hung in there for another year or two after Rick’s death. The last time I saw him was on a visit shortly before he died.
I came to his apartment in the upper reaches of Manhattan. I knocked on the door. There was no answer but it was slightly ajar. Having been a frequent guest there both as a student and friend, I pushed my way in and called for Gerald. I heard an unrecognizable voice say, “In here.”
What I beheld was the grey shadow of a man about whom I cared deeply, sitting in diapers, the room reeking of excrement. He was too weak to get up, and struggling to maintain his dignity he apologized profusely, explaining that his nurse was a bit late and that she would be there shortly to clean him up. I did not know what to say to him, nor he to me.
Finally, I blurted out, “Gerry, I just want you to know that Jesus loves you.”
He lifted his head as high as he could. “I know, Bob. I am a Christian.” And he proceeded to explain how he had grown up with his sainted grandmother in Connecticut and how she had introduced him to the Lord from a very early age.
I was absolutely and quite literally dumbfounded. Not knowing what else to do, I crossed over to him and gave him as warm a hug as I thought his frail frame could tolerate, trying to hide my tears. I said something like, I’ll come again and I expect to see some improvement, trying to put on a brave face for his benefit. He smiled sympathetically at me as I backed out of the room.
I never saw him again. We missed his funeral in the same way we missed Rick’s – we were out of the loop and were never informed about his passing until weeks later…Alas!
Who am I to judge another’s relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.