After four decades as voice teacher, he’s ready for a move

09/14/2014 8:00 AM |
Arthur Swan in his living room in Greenport. At age 89, he'll be leaving his longtime home next week, for a new adventure. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Arthur Swan in his living room in Greenport. At age 89, he’ll be leaving his longtime home next week for a new adventure. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

One could use the most glowing adjectives to describe Arthur Swan’s personality and none of them would seem effusive.

That’s because they’re well deserved: The 89-year-old tenor and voice coach from Greenport is among the world’s rare examples of people who are as smart as they are charming. 

Those traits were on full display last week during a visit to Mr. Swan’s Fifth Street home, which he and his wife, Gulo Tsirekidze, are in the midst of packing up. The two married last year and are preparing for a life-altering move to Ms. Tsirekidze’s native Georgia, in the Caucasus region of Eurasia.

It’s a daring step for anyone, let alone an octogenarian. But to anyone who knows Mr. Swan, the decision probably isn’t surprising.

After all, as his wife pointed out, “He’s a very interesting man.”

Mr. Swan converses with some young students in an undated photo. (Credit: courtesy photo)

Mr. Swan instructs a young student in an undated photo. (Credit: courtesy photo)

The fourth of six children, Mr. Swan was born near Sioux City, Iowa, to Wilbur and Enid Swan in 1925. His parents met while both were studying English literature at Oberlin College in Ohio and they moved to Iowa during the Great Depression to help his paternal grandfather run his dry goods store. The family settled in Neola, a place Mr. Swan referred to as a “grubby little hard-weather town,” in the northern portion of the Dust Bowl.

After graduating from high school, Mr. Swan followed in his parents’ footsteps at Oberlin, even pursuing the same major.

“But what I wanted to do was sing,” he explained. “I was singing well enough in college that they allowed me to give a senior recital in the conservatory. After that, I went to New York to become wonderful,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle.

In Manhattan, Mr. Swan began studying with Edyth Walker, an internationally famous opera singer and voice coach, and then Else Seyfert. His voice became so seasoned he was given the opportunity to sing a 15-minute piece from the Wagner opera “Lohengrin” with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

“That was probably the best thing I ever did,” he said.

Around 1950, Mr. Swan began singing and dancing with a theater troupe that performed summer stage productions in different parts of the country. He also became a professional flute player.

“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “On the other hand, it made me an eternal gypsy. I just loved the life. We didn’t last long in any one spot. Every summer I was in a different venue.”

Mr. Swan eventually decided to move to Germany, as he had an interest in German-language songs. But before he was able to land a job there, doctors discovered he had developed a node on his vocal cord, a potentially ruinous prospect for any singer.

“I was forbidden to sing for a while,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’m penniless now. I’ve got to make a new start.’ ”

He returned to New York City and went to an employment office in search of something, anything.

“And a very insightful lady interviewed me and she said, ‘What can you do?’ ” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Nothing.’ ”