January 11, 1988 12:00 PM

Until last month, the name wasn’t exactly a household word in little Pittsburgh, N.Y. “Rockwell Blake?” asked a kindly local waitress last fall. “You say he’s an opera singer? And his name is Rockwell? Are you sure he’s from Plattsburgh? People here don’t go in for names fancier than Charlie.” Venture a few hundred miles away, though—to New York City, say, or Chicago or maybe Genoa, Italy—and the reaction has been different. “Rockwell Blake!” exclaims Manhattan impresario Matthew Epstein. “He’s virtually a necessity in opera houses around the world.” “Rockwell Blake!” says Chicago Lyric Opera director Ardis Krainik. “He’s one of America’s most wonderful musical products. He’s prized everywhere.” “Rockwell Blake!” cries voice coach Larry Woodard. “He takes your breath away. He can sing faster than any tenor in the world!”

No doubt about it—to music devotees, the man is a somebody. At 37, he has sung in most of the great opera houses of the U.S. and Europe. In October he won bravos at the Chicago Lyric Opera, last month French fans cheered his Paris concert debut, and this year he will return to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in The Barber of Seville. A few weeks ago he finally even made it in Plattsburgh: Blake’s first-ever concert in his hometown was sold out, and Mayor Carlton Rennell proclaimed “Rockwell Blake Day.”

Enthusiastic as that recognition was, there are still many people outside Plattsburgh who have never heard the music that Blake sings so spectacularly. He is not a stentorian tenor like Pavarotti or Domingo, and he doesn’t do your old favorites like Carmen or Rigoletto. Blake’s specialty is the murderously difficult bel canto music of such early-19th-century composers as Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini (whose Barber of Seville is probably bel canto’s most famous work). The genre has only recently begun to regain the popularity it enjoyed 150 years ago, and its revival is due largely to such divas as Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, who have excelled in it, and to Rockwell Blake. He is the leading light of the very small band of American tenors who are able to sing such works well—or, for that matter, at all.

One secret of Blake’s success is that he simply can sing faster, higher and with more agility than most tenors. His 2½-octave range reaches to F above high C. He can negotiate 14-note leaps and two-octave runs as casually as if he were trilling in the shower; in the intricate passages for which he is best known, he can seem superhuman. “People accuse Rocky of taking one breath at the beginning of an opera and not needing another until the end,” says his wife, Debbie.

Well, maybe he takes two or three, but the fact is that Blake has been training to handle bel canto for years. “A long time ago, in my teens, I set out to increase my lung capacity,” he says. “I’d lie on the floor, reach back and lift a bowling ball that was behind my head. I gradually increased my chest size from 38 to 44. I was a real hayseed,” he adds. “I didn’t know what all the music conservatories were teaching—I just knew the way I wanted to sing.”

The son of a mink-farm worker, Blake grew up on the family homestead. He was named Rockwell, he says, “because my mother wanted a son called Rocky but my father thought that wasn’t dignified enough.” Blake discovered the joys of music when he soloed in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in fourth grade. “I think I shortened it to 10 days,” he says, “but I decided this was a lot of fun.” By the time he was in high school, a teacher had told him he should go on the stage, “but I still had no idea I’d become an opera singer. I was playing defensive tackle on the football team, and I was excited about making the varsity.” Then one day a new music teacher arrived at his school. An Italian singer, Renata Booth, had come to Plattsburgh with her American husband, who was assigned to the Air Force base there, and she was about to resume teaching voice. She also was about to change the life of the defensive tackle.

“Renata heard me sing and said, ‘You must have voice lessons,’ ” Blake recalls. “No one had ever told a Blake they should take voice lessons. My father was making about $3,500 a year as a farm laborer then, and Renata told him, ‘You will bring your son to my house once a week.’ She never charged us.” Now 76, Booth says people used to ask why she was teaching the kid so intensively. “They would say, ‘He’s just a small-town boy.’ I told them that if small-town boys could become President, why couldn’t they become opera singers?”

Blake has never studied seriously with anyone else. Although he won a full music scholarship to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., “things never really clicked,” he says. “I was a pretty rebellious student—I felt I was doing better on my own.” He quit college after two years, joined the Navy and spent three years singing with the Sea Chanters, then an all-male Navy chorus. By 1974, when he was discharged, he was married to an ebullient, one-woman cheering squad named Debbie Bourlier, whom he had met on trips home to Plattsburgh. A fellow voice student, she abandoned her own career to help support his because, she says, “I always knew Rocky was more talented than I was.”

Since bel canto demands both speed and flexibility, casting directors had been hard-pressed to find male singers who could handle the music when Blake first arrived on the opera scene 12 years ago. So unique were his talents that he went from a $100-a-week apprenticeship with the Wolf Trap Opera Company in 1974 to his debut in Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers with the Washington Opera in 1976. Washington Post critic Paul Hume later called his performance “a demonstration of the art of singing that is simply astounding.”

It is the kind of praise Blake hears almost everywhere he goes, including Plattsburgh now. He and Debbie own a small house there, and it is their refuge between his performances. “I play farmer and push around some silage and milk a cow,” says Blake. “That’s about all I have time for nowadays, but it’s good to come to a fresh, clean, unpretentious place like Plattsburgh and be reminded that what you do isn’t all that important in the great scheme of things.” An admirable sentiment, though Rossini just might take exception.

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