Timothy Nolen looked at the audience in the Bordeaux Opera House and thought, “Sweet Jesus, they are going to kill me.”
Thanks to an orchestra strike, the matinee performance of The Marriage of Figaro was delayed by 40 minutes, and the crowd was expressing its displeasure by hurling objects onto the stage. As the title character in the beloved opera, Nolen now had to quell a room full of savage beasts.
The musicians finally filed into the pit and started the overture. He was up.
“You can’t hear the orchestra, because the crowd is still yelling and screaming and hollering,” says Nolen, a 1963 TCNJ (then Trenton State College) graduate. “And I’m alone on stage when the curtain opens. I walk to the footlights, look down at the orchestra, and I began to count.” The opera begins with Figaro singing out measurements in his bedroom. Dieci. Venti. Trenta.
The crowd fell silent. Then, the noise returned.
“All of a sudden, they jumped to their feet and started bravoing and screaming and hollering and applauding,” says Nolen, 71, in a bright, dusty voice befitting his nickname of Tex. “They saved my bacon.”
Luck, he says, was a theme in his 43-year singing career, one he’s happily left behind for days of golf and nights of movies and spirits with his wife, Kaari, in Santa Fe, NM. Not everyone gets to perform in the world’s opera houses, take the stage in 15 productions of Sweeney Todd, or succeed Michael Crawford in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
Nolen is quick to add that he was good, which is both valid and unnecessary. The last time we checked, a lottery wasn’t held to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
A Long Way from Home
Nolen grew up in Henderson, TX. As a kid, he rode in rodeos until a broken back ended that pursuit. Instead, he sang country tunes. When his sister and her husband, “a genius” who was the head of electrical research at Bell Labs, moved to Cherry Hill, NJ, 15- year-old Tex and his widowed mom moved east and moved in. Necessity led Nolen to then-Trenton State College. Money was tight and the education was free.
Academics were not Nolen’s strength. (“As long as I can count up to four, I’m fine,” he jokes.) Extracurriculars were another matter. “Very quickly,” Nolen says, he discovered one of college’s rarely promoted purposes: to party and have fun. Also, Nolen committed himself to every musical activity TSC offered. Or he created his own: Tex and the Radicals, a jazz band featuring Nolen on trumpet, trombone, and flugelhorn, played the college circuit.
“He just got involved in anything musical where he could shine — and he did,” says Gene Giancamilli ’71, a classmate and bandmate. He remembers Nolen, even as a freshman, having a “gorgeous and professional-sounding” singing voice.
”We knew that he was destined for the big time, “ Giancamilli adds. “Whatever route he wanted to go, he would make it.”
Not everyone agreed. The head of the music department—Nolen has forgotten his name for obvious reasons—was alarmed at the young man’s workload. Nolen was starring in college theater productions. He was conducting carolers and Theta Nu Sigma’s big band. There was Tex and the Radicals. He was writing music. And his brother-in-law had gotten Nolen a job sweeping the floors at Bell Labs. No one could do this much and do it well, the professor said. Nolen disagreed.
“Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of things well.”
“You are not Leonardo da Vinci.”
“How do you know?”
Nolen fulfilled the College’s two-year teaching requirement before getting his master’s degree in opera theatre at Manhattan School of Music. “We were all studying to be teachers,” Giancamilli says, “but Tim would say, ‘I don’t know if I want to teach. I don’t know if I want to get bogged down in a schedule like that.’”
Arthur Smith, Nolen’s college voice professor, steered the brass major toward singing and away from an 8-to-3 lifestyle. A few years after graduation, Smith called his former student. The San Francisco Opera was in New York; did Nolen want to audition? Nolen grabbed the baritone lead in Cosi fan tutte in 1968 and didn’t stop singing until last June. It was just time, he says. Besides, Santa Fe, with its golf and opera scene, is paradise.
The Final Act
Nolen acts occasionally and performs radio scripts with the Santa Fe Light Brigade comedy troupe. Music always seems to find him. He plays banjo and sings in a bluegrass band, Railyard Reunion, that tours throughout New Mexico. The band, consisting of musicians who used to jam together at Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe, is scheduled to make a CD in July.
He writes the songs, of course. Forget about luck. Disregard skill. The lyrics, he says, make their way through the cocoon of sleep.