Carl Grapentine, long-time host of WFMT’s morning program, closed his farewell broadcast July 27, 2018, with opera — the intensely moving trio from Der Rosenkavalier. I suspect WFMT listeners shed some tears, as I did. The program was peppered with heartfelt retirement tributes — many from Lyric Opera orchestra members, as well as from Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines and General Director Anthony Freud.
Carl began his college career as a music education major, with oboe his principal instrument, and possessing a beautiful singing voice. His ambitions shifted from band director, choral conductor, then minister, like his father. In the end, he is fond of saying, “I ran away to be in show business.”
Even in sixth grade, Carl showed a prolific talent for his future career in radio. After the football team he played on was eliminated from the finals, he convinced his elementary school to rig cables from the school to the field, where he and a friend announced the play-by-play of the game. He had to borrow someone’s glasses to see the field, but a teacher told Carl’s mother, a music teacher at the school, “I think your son has found his calling.”
Carl has spent 46 years in radio, 42 of those hosting morning programs (getting up at 4:15 a.m.), and all but a few with WFMT, Chicago’s Fine Arts station, among the best classical radio stations in the country. Along with the finest performances in Chicago, WFMT had broadcast Lyric Opera’s opening nights until they were cancelled this season (and a hiatus from 2001 - 2006.)
Now a seasoned lecturer, Carl remembers his first lecture, given in a high school library in Calumet, MI, before a performance of Madama Butterfly at the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — a festival I founded in 1991 with colleagues from Lyric Opera. He says he was not prepared for the high quality of singing he heard that night in the intimate, century-old Calumet Theater with Gail Dobish, Eric Ashcroft, and Emily Lodine singing the lead roles. When Carl was invited to give talks at Lyric Opera, where he had subscribed for years, he was ready. It’s surprising to realize that Lyric began pre-opera talks relatively recently — in the 2006-07 season — when Roger Pines introduced Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc. The Education Department then added 4-5 lectures per season and has since expanded to every production.
A recent tradition Carl enjoys immensely is the rollout of the new season with General Director Anthony Freud, Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, and Carl. They sit on stage before an audience of patrons and donors to reveal and discuss the new season.
I spoke with Carl by phone last summer while he relaxed by a pool in Santa Fe, NM, where he gave talks before performances of Ariadne auf Naxos, Madama Butterfly, and Candide on Leonard Bernstein’s actual 100th birthday, August 25 — the closing performance of the Santa Fe Opera season.
Several Lyric Opera orchestra members play in the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and count Carl as a personal friend. He said he also loves visiting backstage with orchestra members at Lyric as they arrive for performances — discussing reeds with principal oboist Judy Kulb, laughing with violist Frank Babbitt, and greeting violinist Laura Miller and principal horn, Jon Boen, to name a few.
Carl spoke of the power of radio to bring people together. His voice comes into our homes, and we feel we know him. “Just last night a woman I don’t know asked to have her picture taken with me at the opera, because she’s been a listener for years and felt I was a friend.” Musing on the future of radio, Carl said he thinks the power of live radio is exactly that — a personal connection. In spite of electronic devices and alternatives to radio, we still love the personal relationship radio creates — hearing local weather and news, personal stories, and enjoying personalities. There’s something different about recording for later broadcast, he said, explaining that in the back of his mind he knows it can be re-recorded or edited. “I make more mistakes than when I’m live, something about how the brain works.”
When Carl’s weekend schedule allowed, he participated in Lyric Opera’s Operathon broadcasts. But most Saturdays — for 49 years! — Carl has been the voice of the Michigan Marching Band, and for the last 14 he has been the play-by-play PA announcer for U of M football.
In retirement, Carl has moved closer to Ann Arbor but says he is enjoying returning to Chicago about once a month for lectures with the CSO and Music of the Baroque. In September he hosted Music of the Baroque’s performance from the stage of The Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, and gave pre-concert talks for the CSO. And he was able to attend the U of M/Northwestern game in Evanston and a Bach Cantata at Grace Lutheran Church in Oak Park. He must forego Lyric Opera lectures because performances are spread over several days, and he won’t be able to commute from Michigan.
Since Labor Day, we’ve been getting our “Carl fix” with his new 7:30 a.m. “Carl’s Almanac” on WFMT, a short musical introduction every weekday morning.
The orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago joins scores of listeners in wishing Carl Grapentine a happy and well-deserved retirement, grateful that “Carl’s Almanac” will keep our radio connection with him alive and well.
Carl visiting violinist Katie Brauer and cellist Mark Brandfonbrener
in Santa Fe this summer