Paul Frey dropped out of school at 14 and eventually took over his father’s trucking business, not an unusual path for someone born almost 80 years ago into a Mennonite family in Heidelberg. What was unusual was that he would become an internationally celebrated opera singer.
More unusual still was the fact he didn’t start singing opera until the age of 29, taking the plunge two years later when he sold the trucking business to attend the University of Toronto Opera School.
His life’s story is full of such twists, which is exactly what captivated New Hamburg writer Nancy Silcox, whose latest work is Paul Frey: A Story Never Predicted, from Trucking to the World Opera Stage.
It was while penning a book in 2017 about Elmira District Secondary School alumni called Legendary Lancers – featuring the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Roger Martin and Ken Seiling – that Silcox came across Frey’s story, though she never imagined that it would spawn a project that would take up the better part of the next two years. But she dove right in.
“I did my research before I went to interview him, and I read his CV – it just astounded me,” said Silcox, who is known for her biographies of local people.
For the Legendary Lancers project, Frey shared tales of his Mennonite upbringing, dropping out of high school in the 9th Grade, taking over his father’s trucking business and then selling it to head over to opera stardom after attending the opera school. Then there was the move to Switzerland in 1978 to advance his career.
Listening to that underdog tale, Silcox knew she needed to go deeper than a few pages in an EDSS anniversary publication.
In addition to interviewing Frey, Silcox caught up with some notable figures along the way, adding more sources for the bio.
“Perhaps the most famous in Canada would be the former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson,” she said.
Also on the list was world-renowned film director Werner Herzog, who had directed an opera Frey starred in back in 1987. Silcox reflects on the conversation and phoning Herzog in Los Angeles.
“My heart was pounding; this is when I heard some really nice guy, very funny guy. And I can remember talking to him and he was in no rush – he had Paul Frey stories coming out of his ears. He had been hired to direct a Richard Wagner opera called Lohengrin that Paul was starring in. He heard about this Canadian guy, kind of this ‘farm boy’ who was taking the lead role, and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, what have I inherited?’ And so he wanted to sit down and get to know this Paul Frey guy. And he said he got the feeling that anybody that could drive pigs to market and could run a farm was OK with him and they were going to get along just fine. And that’s exactly what happened.”
The eventual title of the book came early on as Silcox was contemplating the project and reached out to a friend at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“I was getting ready to make a decision: am I going to write this guy’s biography or not, because I knew it was going to be a big-time commitment? A friend of mine at Laurier, Professor Daniel Lichti, knew Paul very well. And I called Dan, and I said, ‘I’m thinking of writing Paul’s biography. Do you think it’s a good idea?’
“’Well, Nancy’, he said, ‘it’s a story that could never have been predicted.’”
After getting permission from Frey, Silcox, would enjoy the drive from New Hamburg to St. Clements every week for two years. Silcox estimates that there were at least 200 hours of interviews that took place before she edited down the material. She took much away from the conversations she and Frey had and, most importantly, she learned about the true nature of the beast that is the entertainment world.
“What a tough, tough world, entertainment,” she said. “Paul worked all the time, never turned things down unless there were conflicts. And to make it in that world, you have to be so determined and dedicated and tough. I learned about those disappointments and the competition [of] a world that I wasn’t aware of before.”
Upon retiring from the opera world in 2005, the star tenor, now 79, returned home to St. Clements. He has let his vocal cords rest for the past 15 years and is focusing on simpler things in life such as tending to his property and spending his days with family.
“I’ve always told people stories – that’s what my writing is, a biography, telling people’s story – and this was at the top,” said Silcox of the experience of writing the book, noting she feels honoured to share Frey’s tale.
The book now published, Silcox is preparing for a launch event October 18. Due to the COVID-19 situation, it won’t be conventional launch; instead, small groups of people will be invited to her home over the course of the afternoon. She encourages those interested in attending the book launch to contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She says no one will be turned away for the event, but it is possible that copies will be gone quickly, seeing as the first print has already sold out.