Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Few Opera Stories

Update: Fixed an incorrect date. I actually did La Boheme in 1997, not 1999. I'm off by two years! I think I'm getting old.


I have a bit of a confession to make.

(And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that I haven't blogged in nearly a week.)

One of my recent posts had a crack about the relative girth of the (supposedly) typical female opera singer:
(And those six-foot actresses who are slightly on the beefy side? Well, that's why God made Opera.) :-)
And truth be told, that little voice in the back of my head has been nagging at me ever since. Fact is, I've been involved in a couple of opera companies, and while there are certainly some women in Opera who fit that definition (enough to keep the stereotype alive), there are also plenty who are tall, slender, and drop-dead gorgeous. Especially like those at the companies I was involved with, which tended to recruit younger singers.

So I've been reminiscing a lot lately about my younger stage days, and the people I knew then. And I've remembered a couple of stories that are worth sharing. Not coincidentally, both of these stories involve young sopranos--in both cases, they were very dear people who I think the world of, who had top-rate vocal talent, and were coincidentally drop-dead gorgeous.


Here's the first one. Full disclosure: I was not present when this story happened; I was told it by the other members of the cast who were present, including the soprano in question.

Back in 1997, I played a minor role (Alcindoro) in a production of Puccini's opera La Boheme, at a small start-up theater company located in Capitola (on the Central California coast, near Santa Cruz). This page was written to provide publicity for the company--and actually has a publicity photo in it with me, for those of you who want to see me before I got pudgy and grew a beard.

The role of Mimi was sung by a wonderful young soprano named Jennifer. Now, for various logistical reasons (like the fact that none of us lived anywhere near Capitola), the early staging rehearsals were held at her house. And Jennifer's family had a couple of dogs--great danes, to be precise--who were fairly friendly, yet quite protective of their people.

Now, the opera La Boheme ends as a heartrending, highly emotional tragedy, as Mimi dies of consumption up in the garret apartment of the four main male characters. The last act begins with the four friends horsing around, making jokes, getting in mock duels with things like umbrellas and loaves of French bread and whatever else they happen to have around (depending on the staging), when suddenly Mimi arrives on the arm of a female friend, near death. The mood immediately shifts as they try to figure out how to keep her warm and comfortable, and as they madly scramble to figure out what to sell so they can get money for medicine. She slowly worsens, and then as the act draws to a close she falls asleep, and quietly passes on; when her former lover (one of the four main male characters) realizes this, he breaks down into loud weeping as his friends comfort him and try to brace his courage. It's an absolutely heartrending ending.

That is, it's absolutely heartrending if it's done right... and it's a little tricky to do right. It's not always easy to act out such strong emotions on the stage. And if anything goes wrong, and I mean anything, this scene of crushing tragedy can turn into sublime comedy in a fraction of a second. I mean, let's face it: there's something rather humorous about the very idea of a bunch of grown men and women moping about on a stage for the entertainment of a large audience. It's really easy to do the William Shatner thing and over... emphasize... every... hand... motion! Like this.... whereupon the spell is broken, and people realize just how ridiculous the scene is, and then are no longer weeping with you, they are laughing at you.

And of course it's even more awkward when you first start blocking the scene. Imagine that you're just learning your lines (or your music), and there's a short little woman with an unusual accent bossing you around: "Now you come down over here next to the couch, on one knee, and move your hand like this, and start weeping really loudly. Ok, let's see how this works. No, let's have you go down on your other knee instead, and grab her hand... Now let's try it again, from the beginning of the scene..." And now you're supposed to turn on the waterworks on cue! Typically, these kinds of rehearsals have a way of turning into laugh riots.

Enter a pair of curious Great Danes.

Imagine the beautiful young soprano, lying on the couch, pretending to be dying (or already dead), as the young men cast about trying to figure out what to do next. Imagine that into this scene of deep pathos bound two very happy dogs, each nearly the size of the soprano. Unsure of why she's just lying there like that, they bound up to her face and...


Whereupon the suddenly-very-alive soprano leaps up from the couch and yells Eeeeeewwww!

So much for all that pathos.

Now, after witnessing this, imagine trying to get back into character to practice the scene one more time. I can't imagine it having been easy.


Here's the second one.

I was in the chorus of Opera San Jose for three seasons in the mid 1990s. One of the artists in residence was this young lady, who was about as tall as I am (slightly upwards of six feet). I encourage you to take a look at some of her publicity photos.

Yes, boys, she really does look like that in real life.

In fact, she looks prettier in real life, because in real life, she actually smiles a lot. I realize that publicity photos are supposed to give a sense of sophistication--the smoldering eyes, the dark, passionate gaze--but you know, when this young lady smiled at you, she was absolutely devastating. I think that most of us guys lost about a third of our IQ points when she started talking to us, and didn't get them back until she left the room (whereupon we wondered what just happened).

Not only was she taller than most of the guys, but she had an absolutely fantastic voice, capable of doing the smoky mezzo roles, all the way up to the Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute. And she could act. And she could dance. And her hair came all the way down to her lower back. And she was a genuinely nice person.

Well, the year she was with us, we did Bizet's opera Carmen, with Ms. Walsh cast in the title role, as the gypsy seductress herself. She was pretty close to perfect in the role.

When we finally got into the performances, she decided to do a little something to keep all us boys on our toes. During the number in which the character Carmen is introduced--the Habanera--she would pick one guy in the chorus, and focus all her seductive attentions on that one guy, for the duration of the piece. She would flirt, and then turn away suddenly... and then throw a glance backward over her shoulder, then turn to him and come on... and then push him away... and so forth.

The catch was, over the course of thirteen performances, she picked a different guy in the chorus each night. What this meant was, when it was your turn (and you never knew in advance if it was going to be your turn that night), you were suddenly having to react a bit differently than you would on any other night. Whoa... I haven't practiced it like this yet...

And so you'd find yourself having to do a little, um... ad libbing. On a live stage.

With about a third less IQ points than normal. Because, yes, everyone's acting; it's all fake; but dude, this demi-goddess is coming on to you.

So one night it came to be "my turn". And I have never had a woman try to seduce me quite as powerfully as that before. If I hadn't had all the music memorized, I would have been stammering. I was nearly stammering as it was.

The really funny thing about it, though, was that was the night my girlfriend was in the audience. The whole time I was up there, there was this little voice in my head telling me, dude... you're never going to hear the end of this....

And that little voice was right. But: there was a mitigating circumstance.

You see, Ms. Walsh's then-boyfriend was in the audience, too, and my girlfriend got to shake his hand and say hi. It seemed that this made it all better. She wasn't only accusing me, "I saw her making eyes at you!" She was also saying, "Well, if it has to be, then she can have you if I can have him."

(I'm not sure I would have complained....)

By the way, he's a very handsome guy in real life, without all those funky head-bumps. He's a bit shorter than you would imagine--and much shorter than Ms. Walsh--but he was gracious to all those fans who came up to him after the show and wanted to shake his hand.


These are just a few of the stories that I could tell from my theater days. Pretty much every stage production has its own character, its own mood; some shows are just fun to be in, and some are drudgery. Interestingly enough, the mood of the production often has nothing to do with the mood of the play or opera itself. Some of the grimmest shows are a hoot backstage, and some of the most fun shows are no fun for the people who are in it. My last show with Opera San Jose was the Srauss comedy Die Fledermaus, after which I decided, this isn't fun anymore.

But every show leaves memories, and stories; and I keep finding myself drawn back into that world. Whenever I see a show on stage, I find myself thinking that I'm on the wrong side of the orchestra pit--precisely because I know what's going on on the other side, behind those curtains.

We'll see if I can work something into the schedule next year. ;-)


Anna said...

Good luck on your return to the stage! I bet you'll love it.

Wendy Power said...

One of the VPs at my office and his wife are heavily involved in Sacramento Light Opera. She is a voice teacher, and when he's not running sound he is happiest playing a lamp post or guard #3. I'm sure something can be arranged...

B. Durbin said...

Elaine and Perry? Yeah, they're nice people. I've got the first bit of video up; Elaine's the Duchess.

It will be a little while before I get more of them up since I'm a little busy at the moment.