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The Last Impresario: A Theatrical Journey from Transylvania to Toscana

The Last Impresario: A Theatrical Journey from Transylvania to Toscana is a remarkable saga of resilience and survival from growing up as a Hungarian Jew in Communist Romania to emigration to Israel prior to forging a career as an Impresario.  This is enthrawling reading for anyone interested in the launching of the American musical and contemporary dance on the world stage in the second half of the 20th century. 

This Memoir is shaped by the dramatic life events of Peter Klein, which capture his backstage experiences in touring dance, opera and musicals with humor, pathos and survival. Self-made and a polyglot, he is sensitive to the cultural challenges of international touring while confronting the ever changing social, political and economic landscape whether in Roma, Beijing or Charleston, South Carolina.  Show business and all its pitfalls and pleasures in settings both exotic and familiar both engage the reader and inspire us to “ride” with him on a worldwide roller coaster ultimately landing him in the idyllic hills of Tuscany, a symbolic return to his pastoral roots.

 

Memoir Excerpt

There would be music...

When I stepped out of the station, I felt as if I had landed on another planet. Although Florence had just begun its recovery from the 1966 flood that had destroyed art and compromised infrastructure, I was awed by the city’s grandeur and overwhelmed by the festive holiday season decorations everywhere. I am not at all religious, but arriving from Israel and experiencing the festivities of Christmas in Italy struck an odd chord. I knew Italy was a Catholic country, but openly celebrating Christmas was hard for me to grasp. There had been churches in Timisoara, but open displays of religion were strongly discouraged so decorations were minimal and only used inside houses of prayer. In addition, electricity was so costly that the streets were always dark. (Even in 1996 when I returned, there were no lights on the road from Hungary.)

The narrow streets were captivating bearing some resemblance to what I recalled in Grandpa Jeno’s art books but I felt lost. It was cold and rainy, and I had little money, no guidebook, and no sense of where to turn. It was hard to tour alone;  I missed my family. I yearned for something familiar. After two days, I was ready to leave. I planned to take a train to Vienna, where I had several relatives who were expecting me, including my Aunt Edith and her family, who had hosted us when we left Romania.

But first, I was determined to visit Milan to see La Scala and the Duomo, which I had admired so many times in my paternal grandfather’s art books. I was enthralled by the scale and grandeur of the cathedral but intimated by the idea of entering. When I finally did, I felt proud to think people were celebrating a Jewish boy who 2,000 years earlier had walked on water in “my” Tiberias where I has worked in two hotels.  It was one thing to know that Italy was a Catholic country, it was another to experience it.

Like Florence, Milan was cheerfully decked with lights and pine wreaths and countless nativity scenes for the holiday. I had never seen such an abundance of decorations or experienced such collective joy. It seemed to permeate the air. Lovers strolled past arm in arm, and small children scampered gaily about while their parents trailed behind carrying packages wrapped in red and green. The tiny shops that lined the streets and the cozy corner restaurants beckoned to passersby.

It was three days before Christmas, and I had spent a frigid winter afternoon drifting around Milan, attempting to navigate the city’s winding strade and impressive piazze, using what limited Italian I knew. I had wandered from the Piazza del Duomo through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a shopping arcade leading to the Piazza della Scala. Entering the square, a jovial couple about to duck into a small bistro approached me speaking rapid Italian. I thought they were attempting to invite me for a drink. But I felt shy and awkward and soI declined. We parted ways, and I continued on as they entered the bar, wishing me “Buon Natale!

With hesitation, I sat down in another small cafe tucked under the columns of Piazza del Duomo and ordered a “coffee with milk” from a waiter clad in a tuxedo, not really sure what would arrive because I had never tasted cappuccino. When he brought it, I looked down at the cup and saw a heart swirling in the foam. I thought I was imagining it. Cappuccinos had not yet come to Israel, and I had spent the majority of my years in a drab, colorless Communist country, so this seemed an almost surreal flourish. Equally bizarre was the waiter’s attire. He was dressed in clothes I had only seen in my parents’ art books and wedding photos. Why should someone who serves cappuccino be outfitted this way? It made no sense.

The cappuccino was delicious. As I savored this strong and rich coffee/milk concoction, watching the comings and goings of others in festive dress, I thought of my father and his determination to maintain his dignity no matter what circumstances he found himself in. Even though I felt entirely out of place, I tried not to show it. Casually, I picked up an Italian newspaper that had been left at the table nearby to see if I could understand it. I remembered my father’s words: “Don’t just look, see! ” He wanted me to be able to describe in detail what I observed, whether it was the petals of a flower or the caryatids of a great church. Milan at Christmas was breathtaking, but I felt I had no part of all that beauty. I didn’t belong here. I reflected on my earlier exposure to this world—Grandpa Jeno’s beautifully bound art books filled with pictures of Italian Renaissance masterpieces, the countless imaginary voyages I had made to the mysterious and faraway West with his books in hand, the world I longed to be a part of. The world beyond the Iron Curtain. But it was one thing to read and pretend; it was quite another to sit here in a cafe alone, surrounded by it. I felt as if I were in a dream. It was hard to believe any of this was real.

It was also hard to take in all the nuances of this world, from the formality of the waiters to the grandeur of the buildings. I was cold and alone, unprepared for the festivities or the weather. I hadn’t even thought to pack a winter coat. I had never felt so lonely.  After savoring the warmth of the cappuccino and the café, I continued brisquly   down a narrow cobble street.

Then, suddenly, I caught sight of what I had come to see. There she stood, directly across from me. La Scala.

The daylight was fading quickly, and as I hurried across the piazza, snowflakes began to fall. I approached the stately opera house eagerly, hoping to go inside, but the doors had closed moments before I’d arrived. With little else to do and nowhere to be, I stood at the entrance, staring at the building’s façade.

Here before me was the stuff of my childhood dreams. I could extend a hand and touch it, could feel the cold, imposing stone of its exterior. But there was no way inside. It seemed a fitting metaphor. I was a foreigner in a strange land, and La Scala was beyond my reach. Standing there shivering in the cold, I felt convinced that the music had eluded me.