The Romany Singers - A Story of Enduring Friendship

Feb 27, 2009

Gloria Rodriguez Kappel celebrated her 94th birthday earlier this month. The Milwaukee native was a vocal instructor at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for decades. In the 1940s and 50s, teenage girls and young women from diverse backgrounds were Gloria’s students. Many still get together regularly. WUWM’s Susan Bence joined them to learn the secret of their lifelong bond.

Gloria Rodriquez Kappel and her girls, as she calls them, just finished sharing lunch. It’s a monthly date and they keep it religiously. Now, they’ve settled in the cozy lounge in Gloria’s retirement community, sipping tea and chatting. The nonagenarian is going strong and seems to have cast a perpetual spell over these women.

“Her life everything, it seemed so glamorous. We all , I think, wanted to be like her and aspired to be like her.” “I am in awe of her. I think she’s just a wonderful, wonderful lady.”

I want is to get to Gloria to figure out what’s so magical about her, but I’m surrounded by a swarm of her former students eager to share memories. I won’t confuse you with their names right now, but there’s a common thread among these women. They all sang as kids and somebody, a friend or a relative said, you ought to take voice lessons.

“I didn’t know who to go to or where to go, so I went down to the conservatory and they gave me Gloria.”

But finding Gloria brought something unexpected to their lives, something that stuck.

“I remember when I first started, I thought oh, I’m never going to be good enough. Because anyone who made a mistake, she could hear it.”

“I lived in Cudahy and I had to ride the buses all the time to downtown Milwaukee to Prospect Avenue, all the time back and forth.”

Not only did they work with Gloria one-on-one, she invited them, a select few, to join her chorus. At first they were called the Victory Singers. Gloria thought that was a fitting choice during World War II. Later, they became the Romany Singers, a name pulled from an old operetta tune, Romany Life, a gypsy’s life. Gloria just liked the sound of it. No matter when you joined, you were expected to know your piece of the three-part harmony when you walked through the rehearsal door. But measuring up to Gloria’s standards took more than staying on pitch.

“If we were tardy three times it counted as an absence.”

The discipline paid off. The Romany Singers were asked to perform a lot, almost every weekend, in fact.

“And our boyfriends would always be waiting for us after each job because we’d never sing when they told us we would. They could tell you stories I think about how that was.”

“We sang all over. We sang for the governor’s ball in Madison.”

“And I’ll never forget my very first, we called them jobs, not gigs, was in Chicago at the Palmer House.”

This is the group’s accompanist. She was very young at the time, just 14.

“I had to walk out ahead of the whole group across this big ballroom and sit down at the piano and then they would come out singing. But, it changed my life,” she says.

For several years the Romany Singers performed on television. Those were the early days of live TV variety shows.

“You gave up every Sunday, you know, and we’d rehearse all afternoon. I don’t think anybody regretted any part of it. I loved it.”

“And she instilled a love for all of us, in us, that we have for each other to, well, to this day.”

On this day, the singers treat me to a tune. A perfectly coiffed Gloria Rodriguez Kappel stands erectly before them. Wearing a velour pantsuit set off with an elegant scarf, she lifts her arms to direct her singers and their eyes are riveted on her. Gloria still has high standards.

“Don’t bob up and down,” Gloria says.

She signals them to try again. Here’s how the Romany Singers sounded fifty years ago. I finally get my moment with Gloria, when she ushers me into her apartment to see photographs of the girls dressed in beautiful gown she designed herself. “I’d look at them and their faces, and they reminded me of a garden of flowers. They just looked so lovely,” Gloria says.

How to sum up these unique women? Maybe with this anecdote from the very young accompanist. During her 10 years with the group, she only missed one rehearsal, the day her father died.

WUWM’s Susan Bence talked with some of the Romany Singers: Arla Liebsch, Audrey Sorensen, Estella Anderson, Mary Ann Beaumount and their director, 94-year-old Gloria Rodriguez Kappel.