I’m reading a book called Opera Offstage by Milton Brener (Walker & Co NY 1996) which is about the stories behind, around and among the great operas: love affairs and other things which led to their composition; extraordinary stories about premieres, the shadowy and sometimes shady characters who moved through the 18th and 19th C. opera worlds.
For instance: the Paris premier of Tannhauser (1861) by Wagner; the biggest fiasco in Paris music history until Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky (1913), was all because Wagner wouldn’t put an act-opening ballet in the second act.
Why, you ask?
Well, when being told he had to have one, Wagner said logically, that it made no sense dramatically, especially after the bacchanal in Venusberg in Act I. It doesn’t matter, said everyone, there must be a second act opening ballet. “No,” said Wagner. “Well, the Jockey Club won’t like that!” they said.
The Jockey Club was a bunch of aristos and upper-middle-class ne’er-do-wells who slept all day, lolled around, dined late and showed up at the opera in time for the second-act opening ballet, danced by, usually, their and their buddies’ girlfriends and mistresses. Anyway, they showed up to see lots of leg, the one place they could do that in a semi-cultured setting in 1861.
Well, Wagner didn’t put in a ballet. Opening night, the Jockey Club poured itself in after the first act with their police whistles and cowbells. The second act opened up on some guy center-stage singing. Out come the whistles, cowbells and catcalls. You couldn’t hear jack shit out there onstage but them.
The rest of the audience tried to yell them down. That added to the problem. The Jockey Club would quiet, the music would start again, the singer stepped forward and Clanga-danga-danga-wheet! they’d be off again. So it went.
Not only opening night, but for the next three performances. Fists flew around like cake at an Irish wedding.
Wagner withdrew the opera and left (as usual) in a cloud of debt.
Similarly with Puccini and the opening night of Madame Butterfly—not, this time, noise and scandal, but silence. I mean dead.
It was from a one-act play by David Belasco. Puccini and his co-librettists turned this into a (against convention) two-act opera (the second act being more than 90 minutes long). Before, Puccini had always had opening-night jitters; he knew Madame Butterfly was his best, so he wasn’t worried at all. He expected another triumph. He brought his whole family, which he’d never done before. The cast, orchestra and technical people were the best. (The stagehands had cried during rehearsals, so moved were they by the singing and the story.)
Here’s what happened to Puccini: hubris. And the sound of hubris, like in a Daffy Duck cartoon, is the sound of crickets chirping in the back of a packed theater . . .
The book’s full of stories, not just about disasters, but about snookered librettists, plagiarism suits, blackmail, censorship (for reasons you’d not guess in a million years, in some cases . . .) and sharp practices.
It’s a neat book, whether you know anything about opera or not.
But all this is prologue. I want to tell you about the time I performed with the New York Met in 1996.
But, Howard, you cry. The only thing you can play is the radio. You only know two tunes, like General Grant said; one’s the drum solo from “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” and the other’s not. What are you doing with the Met?
Well, one of my minors was in Drama at UT-Arlington (I’d been Nick Burns in A Thousand Clowns that semester, the Barry Gordon kid’s part). I was the only one who could do the Peter Lorre voice called for in Act I. I was a pretty normal-sized sophomore playing a supposedly 12-year-old kid. In one of the most surrealistically-performed plays in American college theater history, they used the simple expedient of casting giants in the grown-up roles. I was (and am) 5′ 6″. The Jason Robards Jr role was by a 6′ 7″er. The other 3 guy roles were between 6′ 1″ and 6′ 3″. The leading lady (the Barbara Harris role) was 6′ even.
Somehow it worked.
Anyway, the drama teacher told us The Met was coming to Dallas and they needed people. They were doing 3 operas in two nights and a matinee. The deal: you worked in one; you got a little pay and tickets for the other two. The call was going out to all the drama departments in all the colleges in the DFW area.
The three operas were, I think, Turandot, Otello, and Falstaff.
A bunch of us decided to do the Sunday matinee, Turandot.
We drove over to Dallas (@ 20 miles) in a couple cars on a blazing hot May afternoon. Where we were going was to the Texas State Fairgrounds, next to the Cotton Bowl, which had all been built for the 1936 Texas Centennial, 30 years before. The operas were in the Texas State Music Hall, a great Pennsylvania Dutch-looking 6-story barn, the kind with two balconies which actually had seats with pillars in front of them (you could hear but you couldn’t see). It had the acoustics of a 6 story kazoo.
Anyway, it’s an hour till showtime. They call about 30 of us out back. “In a minute, you’ll go in and get costumed,” said an assistant stage manager, who had on a suit, in a heat wave, in May, in Dallas.
“After that, we’ll give you some spears and flags and stuff. You’ll march in from each side, turn, go through the gate, and go up the two stairs and line up on top of the wall. There’ll be a guy already there in the middle—try not to bump into him when you line up. He’ll sing a lot of crap for a long time, then he’ll yell something that sounds like “HiYA!” when he runs out of wind. Turn to your left and march off the wall.”
It was the most succinct stage directions I ever got in my career.
Well, by the time they got us dressed and slapped some Oriental #3 makeup on us, it was time for us to go on.
What I’m dressed as is a Mongol @ 1300 A.D. I am in a goatskin vest and tunic. I have on a helmet, 1/2 authentic Mongol and 1/2 picklehaube, like the Hun wore in the Great War. We line up on both sides of the stage, march in, meet, turn toward the upstage gate, go through it, and climb the stairs in back of the wall. There’s a guy up there in the middle and we don’t bump into him much when we line up. Then he sings a lot of crap for a really long time.
I told you it was a heatwave in May. Out in the audience of the Music Hall it’s about 95°F. On stage, on the wall, under the Fresnels and Leicos, it’s like 147°F. I’m dressed in goatskins. I can feel the heat rash coming up all over me like Jiffy-Pop® on a stove.
I manage not to fall off the wall in a dead swoon.
The guy in the middle runs down after awhile and says “HiYa!” We turn to our lefts and march off down the stairs.
Intermission: the assistant stage manager meets us.
“Next part’s easy,” he said. “You march from stage left to stage right across downstage, run around quietly behind the set, and march across again. If you had a spear the first time across, trade out with someone with a flag. Do it till the guy with the fancy costume climbs the steps and the music changes. If you’re onstage when that happens, try to act interested in what he’s singing. Also try not to scratch your butts. When he’s through, march off stage right. Meet me out back after you get out of costume and make-up.”
Well, we do that. It’s hotter onstage than a recently-fornicated waterfowl. As soon as we march off the last time and take off for the dressing rooms, I grab my helmet by the earpiece and whip it off, forgetting about the spike.
“Yowwwch!” yells someone behind me, a real Met person, “careful with that thing, hombré.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Sonofabitch was cooking my brains.”
They ran us into the dressing room; they pulled off our goatskins and slapped cold cream over the Oriental #3 on our faces and arms and toweled it off and we dressed and they pushed us out, and we went out back.
We met the assistant stage manager out there, where it was at least 10° cooler.
He handed us $5 cash each and tickets to the two other shows and thanked us.
I think we gave him a round of applause.
So, that was my day with the Met on tour.
In a May heatwave, in Dallas TX, in a goatskin and boiling helmet, carrying a spear or a limp flag.
Heldentendors, Beware!: I take Large Steps.