LEE -- Irwin Adler may be one of opera's greatest fans. His personal museum is a testament to his lifelong passion. Stored in the basement of the condominium he shares with his wife, Claire, are opera programs, signed portraits of singer actors, conductors and composers, photographs of the world's opera houses, record jackets with vinyl LPs, statues of opera characters, a miniature opera house and other paraphernalia, such as a sliver of wood from Puccini's piano bench.
He is known around the world -- as a glance at his guest book will verify -- and his house museum soon may go to a new address.
He has a letter from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston expressing interest in his collection. He plans to visit several schools of music with strong opera departments to see where he might want to donate his collection, he said. He's 83 and planning ahead.
"We get youngsters coming down here and older opera lovers," Adler said. "They come here and go bananas."
While the collection itself spans more than 400 programs from the New York Metropolitan Opera, from 1942 to 2011; programs from Bayreuth, the 1748 opera house built for Richard Wagner's operas; a wall of Renata Tebaldi photos, and programs, LP jackets, letters and Christmas cards from her -- as well as a shrine of sorts to his father, Oscar Adler, who took him to his first opera -- the museum would be just so many relics if it weren't for Adler himself.
His running commentary is a tour de force of opera history, and he delivers it with the pitch, stance and conviction of a practiced oratorio singer. He knows how to sell his song.
"I pinch myself constantly," Adler said. "I can't believe I lived through the high points of opera and was welcomed by its people."
Born June 5, 1930 in Passaic, N.J., Adler started listening to classical music at age 10. An older cousin had a small radio, and he listened to what his cousin played. Adler attended a boys camp in Lenox for several summers, and one of the highlights of the experience was being taken to Tanglewood.
"I was hooked. I even got to see Copland and a young Bernstein," Adler said, two of America's greatest modern composers and conductors.
Adler dabbled in music as a musician, taking piano lessons for a few years. But he found his true calling as a fan at age 11.
"I remember that fateful, wonderful day, Feb. 13, 1942," Adler said. "My father took me to the Met to see Tosca."
Grace Moore sang Floria Tosca, with an unforgettable "Vissi d'arte," and Ettore Panniza conducted.
His head in the clouds, Adler pushed a little red wagon around Passaic, collecting scraps of wood and metal for the war effort.
"I got five and 10 cents a pound. I saved $37," he said.
A season ticket at the Met then cost $43 for 16 performances.
"My father gave me the last $5," he said. "I still have the stub."
As his adolescence progressed, Adler chased opera around the metropolitan area.
"Wherever there was a scent of opera, I went," he said.
And then the second tumbler dropped, locking him into his passion for opera forever.
"An amazing thing happened on Feb. 11, 1955. I went to see Otello at the Met," Adler said.
It was his first experience of soprano Renata Tebaldi.
To say he fell in love is to underplay the depth of his passion for the sound of her voice.
"I started to see everything she did at the Met, 38 performances," Adler said.
Adler's wife, the former Claire Saffer, came with her husband on global jaunts to see Tebaldi perform, and there are photographs of the two women in evening dress at several affairs.
When Adler met Claire, he was enamored but worried that she might not share his passions. He devised a test. He played an album of Tebaldi's. He watched his intended's face for her response. Was it emotional? Was it real enjoyment?
They have been married now for 54 years.
Adler's passion for Tebaldi's voice brought him through the progression of her career. And she brought him to his second great opera passion, Richard Wagner.
"I saw her first Isolde, and then I saw it five times more," he said.
He also saw her at Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn Academy of Music, in fact wherever she performed. He eventually became so well known to Tebaldi that once she arrived in a limousine at the Met, and Adler slipped through a police line to open the vehicle's door.
"She exclaimed, ‘Irwin, you came!,' and she kissed me on both cheeks. The fans were delirious," Adler said.
He credits attending the funeral of her mother with cementing a more personal relationship with Tebaldi, who never married.
When Tebaldi died in 2004, people called Adler to offer condolences.
There were times when Adler couldn't get opera tickets. Tales of intrigue, involving ushers, burgomeisters, all sorts of mid-level European officials with access to tickets, spice his monologue. He always got his seat.
These days, Adler is less inclined to attend live performances of operas. Instead, he prefers to slip a DVD into his player, pull the cord on his old Metropolitan Opera House curtains covering his miniature opera stage with figures of an orchestra down in front, and watch on his 42-inch television.
He pointed to the tableau of Parsifal. "This is my religion," he said.
If you go ...
Perhaps the best way to benefit from Adler's lifetime of opera is to read his book, ‘My 70-Year Love Affair with the Opera.'
Adler's museum at his house in Lee s open by appointment.
Every two weeks, he hosts a social at his home, where he gives the free two-hour tour of his museum. Sometimes he shows opera videos and plays opera albums. Anyone can attend. To learn more, call (413) 243-9060.