Barbara Rowes
October 26, 1981 12:00 PM

Except for the fact that she grew up in rustic Missoula, Mont. and he in suburban Hempstead, N.Y., Judith Blegen and Ray Gniewek had strangely parallel childhoods. Both had a parent push them into piano playing early—she at 6, he at 4. But both were outshone by a sibling and so switched to the violin. They won scholarships to conservatories, though they could never please their parents, and subsequently went on to professional success—but failed marriages. Actually, he had two. And then one day (music up)…

If that sounds like the libretto for an opera in which the fated lovers are finally united, that’s how they see it, too. Judith Blegen, 40, and Ray Gniewek, 49, now make beautiful music together, often in their Manhattan apartment. Their more formal performances take place at the Metropolitan Opera House, where Blegen is a crystal-voiced soprano, who perhaps ranks second only to Renata Scotto as a featured singer, and Gniewek (pronounced Gun YAvek) is concertmaster. “I know it’s corny,” Judith says, “but I deeply feel Ray and I were destined to be together.”

Blegen is one of tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s favorite leading ladies. “She is so beautiful,” he rhapsodizes—”and I mean her voice, also.” Because of her growing clout, the Met will star her in the company’s opening night next season—as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, her favorite opera. As for Ray, he jokes that it is his job to shake the conductor’s hand after the performance. But in fact, as concertmaster, he tunes the 90-member Met orchestra and plays all the violin solos. “Ray is a wonderful musician and leader, which is what being a concertmaster means,” says Met conductor James Levine. “He’s exceptional.”

Both Ray and Judith accept the fact that, as she puts it, “We have a lot of role reversal in our marriage—and Ray does most of the reversing.” He explains, “I told Judy from the beginning that even if she became opera’s first Barbra Streisand and made a million [she makes $200,000 to his $60,000], I wasn’t giving up my job. This was going to be a two-career family.”

And it is. In their seven-room apartment overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park, Ray does the decorating (it’s only half finished) and most of the shopping and cooking. If Ray’s schedule of 150 performances per season permits, he’ll fly to Europe whenever Judith is singing there. In turn, she limits out-of-town engagements in deference to him. “We’ve both made sacrifices,” she concedes, “but Ray has made more than I have.” Ah, but it’s been worth it, he contends. For example, there was the morning soon after their 1978 marriage when she woke him by cooing, “Let’s play duets.” As Ray tells it, he opened his eyes, “and there was Judith Blegen kneeling on the bed stark naked playing my violin. I mean Playboy would have given $5 million for that shot.”

Her naturalness also makes a hit with her opera colleagues. Conductor Jorge Mester praises Blegen as “a rare prima donna who is a down-to-earth human being. She’s a natural, milk-fed type.” The oldest of the four children of Halward Blegen, a surgeon, Judith was steered into music by her mother, Dorothy Mae, who had given up the violin to be a nurse. Soon thereafter starting out on the piano, Judith found herself upstaged by her sister Barbara, two years her junior and a truly gifted pianist. “Barbie and I were getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. just to get in our hours of practice before school,” Judith recalls. “Also, I hated playing scales. It proved very convenient that God gave me my voice.”

And what a gift. As a teenager, says Missoula pal Carla Jacobs, Judith was “the loudest cheerleader. That girl could yell.” Barbara, now 38, admits that as kids, “I got the attention. But when Judy started to sing she took it away from me. It was always Judy, Judy, Judy.”

In 1959 the sisters auditioned at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Judy insisted that Barbara go first: “I figured they would take her, and when I came along they’d feel sorry for me.” In any case, both were admitted and soon flourished. Judith won a Fulbright to study in Italy in 1964, then joined the Nuremberg Opera. By the time her three-year contract was up she had offers from houses in Hamburg, Vienna and Munich. Emboldened, she decided to try for the premier U.S. opera, the Met. She went to New York and sang three arias for then general manager Rudolf Bing, who hired her on the spot. “She had a lovely, clear and silvery voice,” says Bing, now 79. “And it didn’t hurt that she was pretty. I thought she had the makings of a leading lady.”

While in West Germany Judith had married Peter Singher, the son of her voice coach at Curtis. But her music and her marriage didn’t mix. Peter took her out to suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., where he ran a hobby shop. In 1974 they split (he has custody of their son, Thomas Christopher, 11). “I was supposed to be Wonder Woman—the terrific career girl and the perfect little wife and mother,” she says, a bit bitterly. “But though I’ve always been considered ‘the girl next door,’ I’m very serious about my career. Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz I’m not.”

Ray’s father was Jacenty Gniewek, a 1912 immigrant from Poland who eventually opened a barbershop in Hempstead, 20 miles from Manhattan. He was a lapsed violinist who was determined his son should master the instrument. After getting outplayed on the piano by an older sister, Ray decided at 5 to take “a sabbatical from music. Later I blew it. I decided to study violin.”

As a teenager he yearned to be a physicist. But when he didn’t win the science scholarship he sought, he recalls, “I walked into my father’s shop and told him, ‘I guess you’ll get your way.’ ” As a student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Ray didn’t think he was very good, “maybe because I could never satisfy my father,” he says. Yet he pleased conductor Erich Leinsdorf, who hired him at 18 in 1949 for the Rochester Philharmonic. But then, abruptly, Gniewek’s hopes of a concert career collapsed: He married a schoolmate and, he says, “Suddenly I found myself with the responsibilities of a family.” The pressure of supporting a wife (they divorced in 1957) and two children forced him into orchestral work. He auditioned for his Met job in 1957 largely because it paid a then princely $187 a week.

By 1960 he had married a Met ballerina; they parted in 1973. Ray encountered Judith later that year. By then, he says, “I had sort of given up on marriage, being a two-time loser. But when I saw Judy singing I fell for her.” When he learned she was separating, he made his move. “One night I saw this cute concertmaster standing by the locker room puffing a cigarette in two fingers,” says Judith. “At that moment I got turned on to him.” (“I was trying to look sexy like Humphrey Bogart,” he admits.) “Maybe one of these nights we ought to have dinner together,” he said, Bogey-like. “If you’re asking me for a date,” she answered, “I accept.”

Full acceptance was gradual. “Whenever I called she had an excuse,” Ray says. “I figured I was just an orchestra musician and she was a prima donna who didn’t want to bother with me.” “I was turned off by men after my separation,” Judith explains. But eventually they moved in together and two years later decided to marry. “I had finally found the man to play in the mud with,” Blegen laughs. “We both grew up feeling we weren’t good enough. Now we’ve given each other a deep sense of security and appreciation. We can come home every night—even if our performances weren’t perfect.”

You May Like