Local Pianist-Author Brings Divas to Life

Traditionally, operatic stories are filled with melodrama, romance, and adventure. Chaim Freiberg’s latest book, Lily Flowers Finds Love (and Other Tales of Passion), published by St. Petersburg Press last yearhas all those qualities, but with a twist: these opera fantasy stories all take place in now-shuttered opera houses.

“The stories are all inspired by real people, real places, and real opera houses that are no more,” said Freiberg, who has given several talks on his book at Studio@620 as well as Barnes and Noble. At these events he invokes some of the mysterious people, places, and opera houses that stirred him to divine these legends. “I also bring in music,” says Freiberg, “to share the emotion and passion behind the stories.”

Freiberg knows what he is talking about, as music has been the driving force in his life. Born in 1948 in Israel, the year that it became a country, Freiberg loved classical music and playing piano from an early age. He graduated from the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel Aviv, and then from the Julliard School of Music in New York City.

Chaim Freiberg performing with Elisabeth Berkowitz at Merkin Hall in 2002 at a faculty concert of the Kaufman Music Center

“At the same time, I applied at Julliard [in 1973], I auditioned and was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I thought I might end up in London, but decided to accept the offer at Julliard instead,” says Freiberg. “I had a tuition scholarship at Julliard and taught piano to sustain myself.”

Another bonus of the Julliard connection was being taught by international celebrity pianists. “My three teachers were very well-known pianists: Nadia Reisenberg, Felicia Blumenthal, and Eugene List. I played the opening concert to celebrate the opening at the Tel Aviv Museum of the impressive Felicia Bluementhal art collection.”

Serendipity continuously underscored Freiberg’s growth as a musician. A voice teacher bartered singing lessons in exchange for Freiberg to play piano as her accompanist. The bartering arrangement gave him the opportunity to develop his vocal skills while at the same time fine-tuning his talents as an accompanist.

Freiberg taught piano and voice for 42 years at the Kaufman Music Center in New York City, living in an apartment near Lincoln Center throughout his tenure in the Big Apple. “I was twice officially honored in 1997 and 2003 by the Kaufman Music Center in recognition of my work as a teacher of piano and voice,” said Freiberg, “but when I taught piano, I always had stories in my head.”

Freiberg draws from his many years as a professional pianist for his stories

While based in NYC, Freiberg played at Carnegie Recital Hall and Merkin Hall. He also appeared in recitals in many colleges and universities and performed worldwide.

“I was closely associated as a pianist with world-renowned dancer and choreographer Anna Sokolow with whom I performed in Poland, Israel, and South America,” says Freiberg. 

Frequently speaking wistfully about the past, Freiberg looks off as if apparitions of these once vibrant virtuosi are floating nearby. “[Sokolow] always wore black. I am mentioned in the book about her life.”

 Rubbing elbows with the musically famous gave him a special appreciation for divas that is reflected in his book. All the protagonists in his stories are female opera singers with soaring voices. The passion each story’s diva experiences on stage playing a particular leading opera role is directly paralleled by the character’s life off-stage.

Why divas as the central figure in each story? “Women are more complex and nuanced, more interesting,” says Freiberg. “I just don’t see a tenor being that fascinating.”

Freiberg with his dog friend, Jesse James, enjoying downtown St. Pete

As it does for many, the mystery of women begins for Freiberg with his mother. In the late 1930s, Freiberg’s teenage mother emigrated from Poland to Palestine, before it became Israel, to escape the Nazis. She fled with a group of teens, and no adults. The rest of her family stayed in Poland and ultimately perished. Later she met and married a Romanian émigré and the couple had Freiberg along with his three brothers. 

The trauma and loss Freiberg’s mother experienced in her youth haunted her, making her emotionally distant and inscrutable to him. “I could never understand her, but she was beautiful and smart.”

Freiberg’s heroines have brighter outcomes. Spoiler alert: whatever ghosts these protagonists struggle against, the beautiful and talented divas of Lily Flowers Finds Love (and Other Tales of Passion) make it through to find happiness.

In a book, it can be difficult to translate the sound of the music that underscores the story. Freiberg has the music take visual shape with illustrations by artist Saylor Pascoe. There is a vibrant yet dreamlike feel to Pascoe’s interpretations of Freiberg’s stories that almost seem to transform the music into physicality – like the manifestation of an apparition. 

In 2019 just before the pandemic began, Freiberg retired to downtown St. Petersburg.  Shortly thereafter, “A new friend who taught writing locally here in St. Pete convinced me to write my stories and see about getting them published.”

Lily Flowers Finds Love (and Other Tales of Passion) is Freiberg’s third book, and the second published by St. Petersburg Press. His first book was Ms. Adelaide’s Piano (and Other Tales of Music and Love) followed by his second, Ms. Flora and the Squirrel (and Other Tales of Friendship and Gratitude). At the end of 2023, Freiberg’s fourth book, a trilogy, Quasi Una Fantasia: “Moonlight Sonata” (and Other Tales of Endless Love) is due to be published – also by St. Petersburg Press.

Like Freiberg playing his fabulous Baldwin grand piano, his words flow like the notes that echo even after the sound vanishes, as in this excerpt from his forthcoming Quasi Una Fantasia:

Called the “sustain pedal,” it was described by Chopin as “the soul of the piano” for keeping the strings open, free to vibrate like a singing voice. Pulling her back straight to sit upright, her fingers found their way to the opening chord of the Nocturne in C Sharp Minor. Like a medieval hymn, the overtones of the painfully out of tune piano hovered above her in the air of the cold room, wailing like distant voices from the past, calling her back. . .