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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar

 

An Advocate for the Arts

Profile of Pomona alumnus Earl Fisher '57

“I have a somewhat complicated mind,” admits Earl Fisher ’57. It’s a mind that has allowed him to take on a variety of wide-ranging and seemingly disparate roles in life: scholar in international relations, European opera singer, investment counsel, fund-raiser, political activist and patron of arts education. But in Fisher’s mind, everything in life is connected, and one of the themes that connects things is art.

Americans, Fisher remarks, have a tendency to minimize the importance of art. “In our way of thinking, ‘culture’ is a frivolity for the rich. It’s really entertainment, so therefore it’s got to go into the world of the commercial.” California, in particular, has shamefully neglected public arts education, he says: “After Proposition 13, education in this city [Los Angeles] just dropped. The first thing they were cutting was that superfluous thing called art.”

Luckily, such thinking was not the rule during Fisher’s childhood growing up in Hollywood and North Hollywood. His father was a partner in an investment firm, and his mother, who was from Nicaragua, played the harp and piano. “It was because of her that my interest in art developed,” Fisher says.

When he was about 13, he started singing Gregorian chants at St. Charles Catholic Church in North Hollywood under the direction of Paul Salamunovich, who was later the music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “Gregorian will vibrate in your head and in your body. I became enchanted with the sound,” Fisher recalls.

He cites other early musical influences as well—listening to recordings of Enrico Caruso and Al Jolson. The performance bug had bitten: “I would sing in the shower, I would sing in the den, I would get on an ottoman and sing.” In high school, he performed his first musical role as the bridegroom Charlie Dalrymple in “Brigadoon.”

Music continued to be a strong interest of Fisher’s during his time at Pomona, but by no means his only one. In addition to singing with the Glee Club under the direction of William Russell, Fisher majored in international relations and even found the time to play some ball. He recalls telling his music director, who was understandably irate, of his plans to travel junior year with the Glee Club but to reserve senior year for the College’s baseball team.

At Pomona, Fisher says, he began to understand the relationships among music and history and the other humanities. “I learned how to learn, and I met some very intelligent, brilliant people. They inspired me and gave me support to go into the arts.”

One of those who influenced him in his pursuit of an arts career was his future wife, Carol Radcliffe, whom he met at an English class at Scripps. She was majoring in art. “Carol had a tremendous influence on me to take the risk to become a singer. She liked my singing.”

At first, however, Fisher tried studying international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But the pull of a musical career proved overwhelming. “When I missed a lecture by Hans Morgenthau, I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not even going to class because I want to sing.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to come back.’”

He began singing and studying opera at UCLA. He and Carol married in 1959, and in 1961 he applied for and won a Fulbright scholarship to study opera in Germany. The Fulbright was pivotal, he recalls: “It catapulted me into performing in Europe.”

“Everyone knew back then that if you wanted to be an opera singer, you didn’t sing in the United States,” Fisher explains. “They just don’t have many opera companies. Germany has about 60 or 70, all doing full-time opera and paying full-time salaries.”

The local opera company and theatre played a major role in the community’s cultural life, and received strong public support. Europeans, Fisher says, “look upon their opera, their music and their plays as their heritage. They were very proud of their opera.”

In Germany, Fisher found success as a lyric tenor, first in the town of Coburg, in central Germany, and later in the city of Heidelberg. “I used to get flowers on stage, or even schinken, or hams. They would bring them out on stage. You had your groupies and people who wanted to stay around and shake your hand and get your autograph.”

His favorite role was that of Prince Tamino in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” “It’s a wonderful role, it’s a great aria, and it’s a very, very popular opera.”

Fisher sang in Germany until 1968, when management troubles at his new company in Muenster, as well as a desire to raise his daughter Audrey in the United States, compelled the family to return to the West Coast. He knew that in America, he wouldn’t be returning to opera.

“In the United States, it’s all ‘gigs.’ It’s not a career; there’s no contract,” Fisher says. “You’re employed for little bits. It’s really sad.”

Instead, Fisher devoted himself to a new career as an investment counsel. He eventually started his own firm, now known as Stern Fisher Edwards. And in the meantime, he renewed his commitment to Pomona. “I strongly believe in giving back to Pomona that which they gave to me. That’s why I went to Pomona and asked, ‘What can I do for you?’”

The answer was to help with fund-raising and organization, which he did, serving as alumni fund-raising chairman for several years and the 25th reunion fund-raising chairman for the Class of 1957. He also helped organize the first sessions of Pomona’s Alumni College.

Pomona wasn’t the only educational institution to benefit from Fisher’s organizational and fund-raising skills. In 1980, he became involved with Idyllwild Arts, which had been an adjunct summer program of the University of Southern California. USC was withdrawing its funding, and the program’s organizers approached the Fishers, who had a vacation home in Idyllwild, for help getting the program back on firm financial footing.

The Fishers and others helped transform the summer program into a year-round art school. “We created this phenomenal residential arts high school which is getting great students from all over the world,” he says proudly. He serves as the president of the board of governors for the Idyllwild Arts Foundation, which runs the academy and the summer program.

Fisher has also been active in political causes, among them trying to put an end to the Reagan administration’s “dirty war” against the Sandinistas in his mother’s native Nicaragua. “Our country was sponsoring this illegal war,” Fisher says. “Some of the things I saw that really tore me apart were the out-and-out lies.”

He made several trips to Nicaragua during the ’80s, visiting his cousin, Miguel d’Escoto, a Maryknoll priest who was the foreign minister of Nicaragua at the time. “I was going down there a lot trying to stop this thing.” Others who were involved in the effort were fellow Pomona alum Kris Kristofferson ’58 and actor Martin Sheen. Upon his return from Nicaragua, Fisher fired off a report to all his clients, regardless of their political persuasions, on his perceptions of the U.S. government’s actions.

Throughout all of this, Fisher has never stopped singing. In some ways, he has come full circle: “I started singing Gregorian Mass at St. Charles when I was 13, and now I’m singing there again at the age of 67.” Fisher also sang with the St. Charles Choir and the L.A. Philharmonic in October at the opening of the new Los Angeles cathedral.

For Fisher, music has, and will always continue to be, the underlying theme in his life. One of his colleagues at the investment firm, when asked once to come up with something provocative and interesting to say about the people he worked with, said, “Oh, I work with a tenor. He’s great.”

—Lorraine Wang

Photo by Bruce McMehamin, Idyllwild Arts staff photographer