Loud as the rolling sea

Robert Honeysucker died, suddenly, last week. If you passed through Boston at some point in the past 40 years with even a passing interest in classical music and opera, you probably heard Robert Honeysucker sing. He did it all: art song, oratorio, pops concerts, church music. Amidst the tidal crests and troughs of opera in the city, he was a constant, ballasting presence. In big concerts and small, in big parts and small, if you saw his name in the program, you knew that portion of the show, at least, was going to be excellent.

I played piano for Bob’s voice studio at Boston Conservatory from 2002 to 2008. My God, it was fun. There was a ton of sight-reading: Bob was forever having his students try out repertoire, and some of it was pretty esoteric, songs, arias, oratorio excerpts that he had encountered in his singing career and filed away, waiting for the ideal opportunity. Late Amy Beach songs, the likes of Celius Dougherty, the parts of the Henry Purcell book that usually got skipped over in favor of “Music For a While”—he was always hoping to find them a home in some student’s consciousness. If a student had even a hint of a chance of handling Charles Ives, out came the 114 Songs. Willis Patterson’s Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers—populated by composers who, for the most part, Bob knew personally—was a world unto itself in this regard: few of them ever made it as far as juries and recitals, but not for lack of trying. (That book and those lessons got me interested in a lot of those composers. My fascination with Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, for instance, sprang from the occasional airing of Perkinson’s “Melancholy,” a twisty, tricky John Fletcher setting from the Patterson anthology—tryouts that invariably ended with Bob’s sonorous verdict: “No, you’re not ready for Perk.”)

It was indicative of his idea of what singing ought to be. I never really thought of him as a new-music singer, but, on the other hand, he sang plenty of premieres, and was always learning some new piece of rep. The only thing that got him noticeably angry in lessons was if students hadn’t learned their music. Technique was a lifelong project; the voice was a protean thing. But preparation—that was on you. If the music was there to be sung, you learned it and sang it. That’s the job. Still, even his disapproval was, more often than not, avuncular. (He was an imposing guy with a big voice—he probably figured that was intimidation enough for undergrads.) His quintessential operatic-baritone bearing—serious, dignified, composed—was softened by how obvious it was that, most of the time, he really enjoyed what he did.

By the time I knew him, he was a Boston institution. More than once, I found myself running through some inspirational number with him, in preparation for some civic commemoration or other that required his presence. He still sang opera, but usually either smaller parts or in concert settings. (The only major role I ever heard him do on stage was Zurga in Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles in 2007; the production was of variable, but Bob sounded great, as he always did.) He could summon oratorio gravity at will; hearing him sing Verdi was like seeing planets align.

Because of parenting, and moving, and life, I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I had been meaning to send him a note thanking him for planting the Perkinson seed I was able to harvest a couple weeks ago, and then the news spread through the Boston-singer grapevine over the weekend, and I profoundly regretted my procrastination. He was gracious and generous, sharp and affable. And he made the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time he sang. Rise and fly, sir.