As a child in Memphis, Carl Ratner liked to to sing along with records, but not the Elvis Presley discs that were the rage among his peers. Belting out arias and lieder, he dreamed of growing up to be a classical performer. This Sunday he'll give his professional solo recital debut at the age of 46. It's a late start, but he's not complaining: there was a time he doubted he'd live to see middle age.
Ratner pursued vocal training while studying music history at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the late 70s but couldn't find a mentor. "I failed to wow the powers that be with my vocal gifts," he says. "They allowed me to study with undergraduate students, but I could never get lessons with faculty. I sort of went, 'Ach, forget about it.'"
Denied the limelight, Ratner managed and directed school productions. After graduating, he worked behind the scenes at the Munich Opera, the Spoleto Festival, and the San Francisco Opera, among other places. He moved to Chicago in 1982, and was working as artistic director at the Chamber Opera Chicago in '87 when, in the course of a routine medical checkup, his doctor told him, "You're in pretty good shape for someone who's HIV-positive."
The diagnosis was news to Ratner, who asked the doctor when he'd ordered the test. The doctor answered that he was basing the diagnosis on other aspects of his blood work.
Ratner opted not to get a proper HIV test. "At that time there was no treatment, and they were talking about a law to quarantine HIV-positive people in Illinois," he says. "I contented myself to assume that I was positive, but not to be officially informed." While avoiding a formal diagnosis, he had regular blood work done to monitor his cell counts. Ratner didn't know that the lab was routinely testing his blood for HIV. In January '94 he called the clinic from his office at Chicago Opera Theater. "The person on the phone said, 'You're still HIV-negative.' I just sat there for a moment, stunned, and then I said, 'That surprises me.'" Ratner asked if he could get that in writing. "He said 'Yes,' and I said, 'I'll be right over.'"
Before he could leave, Ratner was called into a conference room by then chairman of the board Charles Angell, who put him in charge of the COT's artistic direction. "So it was this bizarre day," he says.
Ratner's duties included sitting in on singers' auditions, which rekindled his own ambitions to sing. "It seemed like the level of singing was going down, and it reached my level one day," he says. In '96 Ratner went back to school, earning a master's in vocal pedagogy at Northeastern University. In '99 he left Chicago Opera Theater to pursue a doctorate in vocal performance at Northwestern, which he's about to complete. In 2001 he joined the faculty at Western Michigan University, where he tells his students, "I didn't get a voice lesson until I was 39 years old, so you're OK."
On Sunday, March 28, Ratner, cellist Matthew Agnew, and pianist Jane Kenas-Heller will perform works by Handel, Tchaikovsky, and Faure in the living room of Ratner's Lakeview apartment, as part of Northeastern's Mostly Music concert series. Though it's not unusual for Mostly Music programs to take place in private homes, series director Christie Vohs says it's unusual for the soloist to host the concert. "It's important for a performer to feel comfortable in a venue," says Ratner. "I know this one pretty well."
Tickets are $20, $15 for students. Call 773-442-4978 for tickets and location.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Brayne.