When a reporter knocks on the massive front door of Baltimore Opera Company director Michael Harrison's stately brick colonial residence in Kernewood, it's not Harrison, but Deborah Goetz, the opera's head of marketing, who answers the door. Another publicist, John Yuhanick, sits nearby in the living room on a high-backed Victorian chair. A few minutes later, Harrison, most certainly on cue, saunters down the long, gracious center hall staircase onto the original, wide-planked cherry wood floors of his 1925 home.
After a smile, a simple introduction, and a quick warming of the room with his larger-than-life presence, Harrison, dressed head to toe in black, passes through the graceful fluted archway into the living room and tends to the lighting, illuminating a mid-19th-century copy of an important oil painting of Genoa, Italy, by Claude Lorraine.
If it all seems a tad orchestrated, well, it is.
Harrison can't help but set the stage for a visit. After more than four decades in the performing arts, and a career that covers more than 30 musical theater roles and more than 25 operatic roles, creating visual fantasies is Harrison's life's work-both off the stage and on. He rarely disappoints.
Sitting in his sunny office overlooking the home's elegant backyard gardens, Harrison discusses his five-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath home and the way in which his residence of 14 years-frequented by such luminaries as filmmaker Werner Herzog and legendary Verdi baritone Sherrill Milnes-reflects his life.
"When we bought this house, it required an enormous amount of work," says Harrison, who is divorced and has a 14-year-old son, Graham, and a Scottish wheaton terrier named Monty. "The floors were warped. There was water in the basement. We had to redo the plumbing and completely renovate the kitchen, which was three little rooms. The gold leaf mirrors in the living room were practically destroyed, and we had to pull down the many, many years of wallpaper, fabric, and paint on the walls and ceilings because there was terrible water damage."
But much like the way in which he helped triple the Baltimore Opera Company's budget in 20 years (from $2 million to $6 million), Harrison rose to the challenge of restoring the home to its former grandeur.
"We had a good time doing it," says Harrison in his rich, resonant baritone. "When we were moving in, I would come in after work and do the grunt work because I can't do anything that requires talent, but I could knock down walls with a sledgehammer." (And let us pause to enjoy the fact that even the sophisticated head of an opera company still likes to crush stuff with a sledgehammer.)
"It's still an ongoing process," says Harrison of renovating the home. "You just do it a little at a time."
Harrison has applied the same principles to decorating. He is an inveterate collector who has amassed an amalgam of furniture, artwork, rugs, and bric-a-brac throughout a lifetime of living all over the map-from Georgia (he was born in Augusta) to Ohio (where he served as head of Opera Columbus) to Rhode Island (where he founded the Providence Opera Theatre) and to South Africa (where he played Tony for a year in the premiere of West Side Story- "a story in itself," he says).
And while Harrison has gallivanted around the globe, he is happy to call Charm City his home.
"I like Baltimore very much," he says, citing his favorite restaurants as Charleston and The Spice Company and his favorite local pastimes (other than the opera) as the Baltimore Symphony, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Ladew Topiary Gardens. "I've made a lot of friends here, and I think the city is very beautiful and very eclectic. I know it has its attendant problems, but it also has its charms. Architecturally, I think it is extremely beautiful."
Where his own home was concerned, Harrison didn't shy away from ornate touches. "I'm the head of the opera company so we went towards the operatic side of things in decorating," he says. "My family left me furniture-some of it is antique and some of it is just Victoriana. We kept it in that style. I like antiques, and I like eclectic, unusual things."
Among his favorite pieces: a Meissen porcelain figurine collection; a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph; a collection of hand-painted, antique Spode china; a pair of nine-foot gold leaf mirrors; an American Empire sofa once owned by fellow Augustan, writer Edison Marshall; and a pair of heirloom-quality, Sheffield silver candelabras from the estate of entertainer Fanny Brice. That being said, Harrison is just as happy with an ersatz green glass vase that reminds him of swimming with the dolphins in Mexico or a soapstone bust purchased from a marketplace in Kenya. Anything that reminds him of friends, family, and his many adventures is equally precious to him-a philosophy Harrison was introduced to at an early age.
"I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house, where things were passed down," says Harrison, "and they were treasured because 'so and so' had made it or owned it. I put the emphasis on the people and not on the things. Things are just things-they are to be appreciated and taken care of, but what's important is that when you say 'Aunt Blanche's portrait' or 'Aunt Marion's silver,' you remember them fondly."
As the only child and grandchild in the family, Harrison grew up surrounded by adults. "Everyone around me was considerably older, and, consequently, they are all gone so I don't have any immediate family, and these things remind me of all the good times we had-it's just nice to be surrounded by it."
Other than family, Harrison's greatest passion, of course, is the opera. "My mother told me when I was two, they could find me sitting in front of the Texaco Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons," he says. "I would sit and just listen to it, which some of my family thought was peculiar, although my mother had a beautiful soprano voice and my father was always singing."
Though he is now in the director's chair, Harrison has played some fairly colorful characters in his time, from Carmen's murderous Don Jose to La Traviata's Alfredo, a poet in love with a tuberculosis-ridden courtesan. "What have I learned from these stories?" he ponders with a laugh. "I've learned not to poison people, not to stab people, and not to imprison them forever-many times the stories are violent in opera, but you shouldn't take them too seriously."
The same can be said about Harrison's mix-and-match approach to home design, which is seriously beautiful but never too formal. Case in point: A dining room table set lavishly with Buccellati silver chargers, red and gold Murano white wine glasses, and Italian crystal and gold red wine goblets, also features ersatz champagne flutes, which, he explains, are "mid-Pier 1" until Goetz corrects him. "They are mid-Crate & Barrel!" she laughs.
Harrison also has a fondness for adopting what other people have left behind or long forgotten. "When I moved into my New York apartment, there was this rug rolled up in the garden that had been rained on, and sleeted on, and it had been out there for years. One day, my landlady said, 'You know that's an oriental rug out there.' I had lived there for two or three years before I finally dragged it in. Now I keep it in my study," says Harrison, pointing to the worn but beautiful rug beneath his black leather loafers. "Some people are very particular about what they get, but this is the way I am. My stuff is stuff that I've picked up along the road."
Many of those items include pieces from operas he's staged such as a sculptural glass chandelier made by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly (then a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design) for the Providence Opera Theatre that now hangs from the ceiling in the corner of his study. "I keep it not for its value," says Harrison, "but because it has meaning for me."
As someone whose memory is well trained from years of memorizing dialogue, Harrison has an uncanny recall for names, dates, and places. He can tell a story about almost every piece of furniture, artwork, and object in the house, and takes great pride in sharing his home with visitors and frequent dinner guests. "The most important thing about a house is its ambiance," says this true Son of the South, "and its friendliness, and that the people who visit have a good time. People like the house. They enjoy coming here, and they seem to respond to it. I love showing them around."
His convivial dinner parties-often used for opera events, fundraising, and holiday entertainment-are unique around town. "I named the house 'Gleniffer' because I used to spend my summers with my aunt and uncle in Jacksonville, Florida, and my uncle was from Scotland. His family built this wonderful house, which they called 'Gleniffer.' It was a house where people used to come and have a wonderful time. They would have dinner parties and after dinner everyone had to do something-you had to tell a story, sing a song, do a dance, or recite a poem, and I have carried on that tradition here."
Several times a year, Harrison also holds an evening prayer service followed by Scottish high tea in his picturesque, flower-filled gardens, where a piece of a set from the opera Eugene Onegin-a convincing, life-sized replica of Bernini's frolicking Daphne and Apollo statue from Rome's famed Galleria Borghese-is on prominent display.
"The set for Eugene Onegin was made for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 60's," recalls Harrison. "I saw it some 20 years later and was struck by the beauty of that statue."
When the Baltimore Opera Company decided to do Onegin 10 years ago, they tracked down the statue to a Chicago warehouse, where it had been nearly destroyed. "They sold it to us for a dollar," recounts Harrison, "and we put some money in to revive it. When we were done with it, the stage hands winterized it and gave it to me for Christmas. One of the Opera's board chairs who saw it asked if it was the real thing, and I replied that I wasn't paid enough to afford the original."
"That's me," sums up Harrison with a laugh. "Part fake. Part real. The theater."