Nearly 12 years ago I found myself sitting with Bob Simon at Gabriel’s restaurant, a 60 Minutes haunt, discussing a possible profile of the Russian maestro Valery Gergiev. Smeeta Sharon, a friend of Bob’s from the Metropolitan Opera had a feeling the brilliant, globe-trotting maestro would make a great profile and Simon acted on it. That lunch was like reaching the peak of Mt. Everest for me: Several months later we were in St. Petersburg attending countless performances at the Mariinsky Theatre and celebrating the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding, as Bob interviewed Gergiev, who was orchestrating the events, and the 60 Minutes crew shot hours upon hours of footage.
Bob Simon was a consummate war reporter and foreign correspondent, to be sure, but he was like a kid in a candy shop when it came to classical music, especially opera. He might not have been intimidated by world leaders, but when it came to meeting one of his favorite singers, you sensed he was in awe. We developed an enduring friendship after that, in part because of his devotion to classical music. In an era when it has become nearly impossible for classical music to carve out even a few minutes on network or cable television, Bob went out of his way to get stories from that world on the air. It’s fitting that the last of his 27 Emmy Awards was for a story about a Congolese children’s orchestra with makeshift instruments.
“Our cultural landscape is far richer for having had Bob Simon tending to it.”
Back at the Mariinsky in 2003, a stunning soprano with a voice to match appeared on stage. Bob turned to me and exclaimed in a hushed tone, “Who is that?!” It was Anna Netrebko, at the time a rising star. Bob was floored. “Do you want to profile her?” “It’s too early,” he replied, “she’s not ready for it.” I couldn’t help going into full pitch mode. “Some people say she’s the next Callas,” I told him. “Here’s the deal,” he replied, “you find three journalists who mention her name and Callas in the same article and we will profile her.” Over the next few months I did just that. When presented with the evidence he replied with faux resignation, “Well, we’ll just have to profile her.” And he did.
He was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, often attending multiple performances each week. A friend reminded me that in the late 1990s Bob spotted the legendary soprano Birgit Nillson in the next box. Asked if he wanted to meet her,” and he replied almost shyly, “Would that be possible?”
Charlie Rose was recovering from heart surgery in Paris in 2006 and I asked Bob if he had ever hosted the show. He mentioned it was one of his dreams. A few days later while speaking with one of Charlie’s producers I gave them Bob’s number. I suggested that a part of a program could be an interview with the former Met general manager Joseph Volpe about his new memoir. Several weeks later Bob called me, “I’m hosting Charlie Rose!” he said. His guest was Joe Volpe — followed by a roundtable discussion about the Middle East.
The list of classical music and opera stories attributed to Bob Simon is long and included Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Renee Fleming, Lang Lang, Deborah Voigt and a Milan retirement home for singers founded by Giuseppe Verdi.
Two weeks ago we had a St. Petersburg reunion of sorts when Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra were at Carnegie Hall for two concerts. Bob attended both. A week later, the last time I saw Bob, we attended the Met’s double bill of Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle, conducted by Gergiev and featuring that stunning soprano Netrebko, now a global superstar. It had been nine years since any of my pitches made it onto 60 Minutes; Bob would almost apologetically tell me that the terrain was harder than ever for classical music stories.
But our cultural landscape is far richer for having had Bob Simon tending to it, and we can only hope that the next generation of news producers and correspondents will learn from Bob’s example to not only recognize humanity’s failings by covering the wars that divide us, but balance it with an occasional spotlight on the arts that unite us as well.
(Perelman is managing director of Semantix Creative Group, a public relations agency specializing in the arts.)