The opera... is to music what a bawdy house is to a cathedral,” H.L. Mencken once observed. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I like to think of it as one. A bawdy house is a place of confusion, expense, high and low drama, the fleshly pleasures, and raucous song. These are all commodities and situations common to every opera house and to every opera production, which is why, I suspect, this largely anachronistic art form still attracts so many of us to the premises where it’s performed year after year. Who would attend, if it were as boring as your average place of worship? It wouldn't surprise me in the least to hear that Jimmy Swaggart is a closet opera buff. If so, he’d have loved the recent production by the San Diego Opera of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and he wouldn’t have had to cry about it in public afterward.
A lot of bantering went on among the choristers, most of whom were working for the first time with their cumbersome props — swords, halberds, crossbows.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
I began to think about all this last February 17, on a Wednesday evening, when I dropped in at the first stage rehearsal at the Civic Theatre of the company’s final offering of the season. I arrived at about 7:00 p.m. to find the male chorus massed on stage inside set designer Ming Cho Lee’s idea of a medieval bastion, a narrow courtyard flanked by two enormous gray battlements pierced by narrow windows and containing broken columns and scattered chunks of stone. The men were being positioned in groups about the stage by director Richard Gregson and his assistant, Jeff Markowitz. The conductor, Thomas Fulton, watched the proceedings from his podium, while accompanist Ruth Baker sat at an upright piano in the pit, waiting to provide the music to which the scene would eventually unfold.
“Gentlemen of the chorus, every time a prop comes through and you are singing, it would help if you expressed some excitement."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The atmosphere was informal, with a lot of bantering going on among the choristers, most of whom were working for the first time with their cumbersome props — swords, halberds, crossbows — but who didn’t seem in the least alarmed by the prospect of an opening night only ten days away. It was the sort of rehearsal that in the theater would take place at least a month before a performance but which in the opera house occurs at about the time a Broadway-bound show is already previewing to paying audiences. The light chronology of an average opera production contributes mightily to the sort of hysteria, likely to erupt at any moment, that afflicted the crew of the Andrea Doria when it was almost cut in half in mid-Atlantic some years ago by the Swedish liner Gripsholm. But not even a disaster at sea is as conducive to panic and desperate improvisation as a grand opera headed for a premiére, once things start to go wrong. I knew from experience (I was once an opera singer) that the chatty calm of this first stage rehearsal could be deceptive.
The "rail party," put on by the crew after the opening performance takes place offstage right, where the ropes controlling the rising and lowering of curtains and scenery are located.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Gregson is British, a regular at Covent Garden, and his directorial style is affable and understated. He’s a pleasant-looking man who dresses in rumpled slacks and sports jackets, and he was setting the tone of the proceedings. “Would you make a little more of an attempt to see the dice games, please,” he instructed a lounging group of soldiers down right. “Gentlemen of the chorus.” he said at another point, “every time a prop comes through and you are singing, it would help if you expressed some excitement. ‘Oh, good, things are hotting up,’ that sort of thing.” He was making his intentions plain, but it was immediately clear that we were not dealing here with a martinet for detail or a radical visionary. He had been handed a cast and a physical production over which he had had no say, and it was his job simply to make as much sense of the goings-on as he could.
Campbell received a telegram from Giacomini’s representative in New York arbitrarily informing him that his client would not honor his contract.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Stage directors are at a disadvantage in the opera house. Even the ones with clout, like Franco Zeffirelli and Jonathan Miller, are frustrated by inadequate rehearsal time, due mainly to costs, and also by having inevitably to give way to the demands of the score. This particular scene, which opens Act Three, calls for the chorus to exit singing. No sooner had Gregson finished staging it and they had run through it once than Fulton complained about the balance of sound and spoke to Martin Wright, the chorus master, about it. Wright passed the word on to Gregson, who was standing at the back of the house. “We need some tenors left on stage,” he explained.
"We’ll have to re-do the scene,” Gregson complained.
“Well, I can have some second tenors sing first,” Wright suggested.
The chorus was called back on stage, and Fulton asked how many of the men were merely “marking,” an operatic term for not singing at full voice. Eight of them held up their hands, but the conductor was still apprehensive. “We’ll have to move some of them down front,” he told Wright. Gregson spent the next half-hour reblocking the scene to satisfy the musical demands. By reshuffling people and repositioning them on stage, the action seemed less fluid, with bunches of men now facing front when they should have been starting to move away. It was the first of many compromises Gregson was forced to make over the next ten days.
Il Trovatore, composed in the 1850s, is one of the most difficult operas, dramatically and musically, in the standard repertory. Its plot is obscure and not easily understood, because much of it occurs offstage and the background is explained in a couple of early arias, the words of which no one pays much attention to, including the singers. This is mainly because Verdi’s exquisitely beautiful melodies are fiendishly difficult to sing and require four major artists in the lead roles — soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone. Given a first-rate cast, the singing will carry the day. And if properly staged, each dramatic scene will stand on its own and make a tremendous impact. The overall theme is revenge, but all of the emotions expressed here are elemental and forceful. The plot convolutions of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto, adapted from a romantic Spanish play, may strike modern audiences as absurd, but the conflicting human passions on display are not. “I’d very much like to have a go at a truly realistic staging of this opera,” Gregson would tell me on dress rehearsal night. “Not this storybook approach one always sees.” The implication was that his hands had, in effect, been tied, a not unusual situation for an opera director to find himself in.
So why Il Trovatore? “It hasn’t been seen for a while,” Ian Campbell, the company’s general director, informed me over lunch one day. “And we own the set. Also, we wanted [Giuseppe] Giacomini back, because he has a marvelous voice, even though his Otello two years ago was poor. He was ill and it wasn’t in his voice yet.”
Money and singers, the two prime movers in the opera house. Ming Cho Lee's set, originally commissioned for the 1980 production, was on hand and could be refurbished for between $12,000 and $15,000. It would have cost $120,000 to build a new set, or about $50,000 to rent one from somewhere else. The total cost of this Trovatore would come to $482,800, “covering all items that apply to the opera as apart from the main budget.” The box office would bring in about $340,000, with the rest to be recouped from the company's annual fund-raising drives. The prospect of saving about $100,000 has to be a major factor these days in the selection of the repertory.
Of the Trovatore budget, $84,000 would go to the principal singers, $35,000 to the chorus, $75,000 to the orchestra, and $60,000 to the stage crew, for a total of $254,000 for personnel alone. “Lots of people get employment through the opera,” Campbell pointed out. “Our total yearly budget is $3.7 million. You take the arts out of a city like this and you leave a hole worth millions of dollars.” It was a theme I was to hear again from Greg Hirsch, the company’s technical director. “People think of opera as something always needing money,” he said to me backstage one day. “This is true, but the money stays here. It's poured back into the community, not only in the form of salaries and taxes, but into services — hotel rooms, restaurants, you name it. We take the money from one sector and put it back into another one. All except for the singers, of course”
An important exception, but an unavoidable one; the singers sell the tickets. Because top artists are in short supply, opera companies plan their seasons and sign up their major singers several years in advance, if they possibly can. The role of Manrico in Il Trovatore calls for a top dramatic tenor, the scarcest of all operatic commodities. Campbell began going after Giacomini in mid-October 1984, and after several months of haggling over his fee with his agent, a contract was issued on January 31, 1985. Giacomini did not sign it until May, a very common practice among singers, who are constantly shopping around for a higher fee. “In too many cases, art has nothing to do with it any more,” Campbell said. “Get-rich schemes are the order of the day.” So are cancellations. In mid-November 1987, Campbell received a telegram from Giacomini’s representative in New York arbitrarily informing him that his client would not honor his contract. When Campbell asked why, the agent replied. “Well, it’s not enough money.” “We agreed on the money.” Campbell reminded him. “Yes. but that was when the lira was 2000 to the dollar,” the agent said. Campbell wondered aloud whether Giacomini would have offered refund, if the dollar had risen rather than fallen against the lira, but this speculation did not seem to amuse the agent.
There wasn’t much Campbell could do about the situation. The top foreign artists cancel engagements all the time, often at the drop of an arpeggio. A doctor can always be found to confirm the sudden onslaught of a bad cold or a strep throat. In this case, Giacomini could hardly claim illness, since he was busy singing everywhere else at the time and had not canceled Chicago, where he was scheduled to appear the week before coming here. Campbell, like other impresarios, was reluctant to sue. The American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union representing the soloists, is never helpful; its basic attitude is that American singers should have been hired in the first place. In any case, the basic problem was finding a new Manrico, quickly and at a price the company could afford to pay.
San Diego’s top fee is now $8000 a performance, but only a Pavarotti or a Domingo could command that, and neither of these gentlemen was available.
Most artists receive between $3000 and $5000 a performance, but Campbell can go higher for a dramatic tenor. The trouble was that even Giacomini, who is not by any means among the immortals of song, can now command up to $20,000 every time he clears his throat on a European stage. Faced with such demands, Campbell would have preferred not to schedule an opera like Il Trovatore, but a more modest rep of Mozart and Donizetti and other bel canto works in which ensemble values are paramount and for which there is a cornucopia available of good young American singers. “But the public demands these operas," Campbell explained, “and they should be done. So you have to count on singers to honor their contracts. I always try to sign Americans, because they are, on the whole, very reliable.”
With limited time and resources available to him, Campbell now found himself with not much of a choice. It soon boiled down to a journeyman Venezuelan artist named Ruben Dominguez and an unknown Hungarian, Janos B. Nagy (pronounced “Natch”), whom Campbell had heard sing a “very acceptable" Tosca in Dusseldorf eighteen months earlier. “The voice was solid, if not beautiful," he recalled. Nagy was the leading tenor of the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, where he had sung many of the big tenor roles. The clincher was that he was available for most of the two-week rehearsal period, whereas the other candidates, even the uncelebrated Dominguez, were reluctant to rehearse at all. It is not unusual in the world of opera for singers to go on stage having put in little or nothing in the way of rehearsal time, even though it doesn’t contribute to the credibility or musicality of their performances. Campbell opted for Nagy and hoped for the best. “We’re in one of the most demanding artistic disciplines in the world,” he said. Negotiating with tenors has nothing to do with art or discipline, but it is unquestionably demanding.
Although several of the principal singers took part in the first stage rehearsal, most of it was devoted to maneuvering the chorus about. Even at less than full volume, the voices sounded fine to me — fresh, well balanced, musically well prepared. Martin Wright stayed with his troops every minute of the way, helping to balance the often conflicting demands of Gregson and Fulton. A tall, personable man, Wright has been on the job four years now, after having put in time with the Arizona Opera and as a baritone himself, singing mainly out of New York. “As a singer, I can help them,” he explained during a break in the action. “Some of them are untrained, basically." When he arrived here, his first task was to weed out some of the older members of the chorus, whose frayed and wobbly tones were distorting the ensemble sound he wanted, and replacing them with fresher, younger voices. Today there are eighty-six singers on the roster, only thirty-four of whom are women, since most operas require a heavier contingent of men. (In Il Trovatore, for instance, the women’s chorus appears in only two scenes.) To qualify for a chorus job, applicants must first of all be residents of San Diego County. Secondly, they have to be able to sing nearly the full operatic range, at least two octaves. “Every year up to 200 people audition for me,” Wright said, “but this year I hired only twelve, all but one of them men. The competition for the women's parts is fierce.” Nor can most of these people make a living as singers. Most have full-time jobs, which is why chorus rehearsals are held at night. The hardest thing to achieve in any opera is a correct balance of sound, especially since choristers are also expected to act and have to move about in costumes, often holding unwieldy props such as swords and spears. When they do work. they work very hard. During the period of the Trovatore rehearsals, the chorus was also singing in performances of Faust, the penultimate work of the current season. “And the basses really hate Trovatore," Wright added, “because they have to sing so high throughout.”
The only people who seemed to he having a relatively easy time of it were the supers, a motley crew of local opera buffs, who are recruited mainly by word of mouth. Their basic job is to participate mostly in crowd scenes, Gregson had bits of business for all of them, and in this particular scene the twelve men and three women being used in Trovatore were asked mainly either to take an interest in the proceedings or march about with various military props. They were clearly enjoying themselves, “Opera gives people a chance to be on stage,” explained Leslie Tucker, the production assistant responsible for hiring them. “They’re paid fifty dollars for all rehearsals and performances, and they’ll sit around for two and a half hours to get on stage for ten minutes.” Tucker has no trouble finding volunteers, except on special occasions. “If I need twenty very large soldiers, for instance,” she said, “Or kids."
By the end of the evening, Gregson seemed to have solved most of his traffic problems, and the scene went off fairly smoothly, even though he had no time to polish or to strain for nuances. I went backstage and found everyone looking forward to a calmer rehearsal period than during Faust, which had apparently featured some dandy temperamental clashes involving the director and various members of the company. Greg Hirsch seemed sanguine about Trovatore. “At least nobody’s doing any screaming,” he said, then smiled and added, “Yet.”
Next to Ian Campbell, Hirsch is the most important member of the opera staff. It’s his job to sit over the entire technical side of the production, which in any opera house is a vastly complicated affair. I spent most of my second day in the theater watching him and his crew execute a “turn-around,” which essentially means substituting one set for another. The Trovatore had to come down to be replaced by the first-act set of Faust, which was scheduled to be performed that night. Even within the vast interior of the Civic, the procedure can be a cumbersome and backbreaking affair. At present there were ten forty-five-foot truckloads of scenery inside the theater, about fifty tons of stuff in all, to be shifted about, hoisted into the flies, swept up against the rear wall, tucked into the comers. And it all had to be moved and stored and set up very carefully. “The biggest danger in a turnaround is that you hit one of the sixty-eight pipes and then you have to refocus your lights, and that can be really time-consuming,” Hirsch explained. “It usually takes four to five hours for a turnaround, but a lot depends on how often you can get the theater, which is in constant demand. In Trovatore, no sooner had we gotten the set up than we had to get rid of a bridge, because the director didn’t want it, and we had to find a place to store that. The audience never thinks about these things, but it will notice if anything doesn’t look right.”
Hirsch is forty-two, tall, gray-haired, a cool customer. He arrived here last August after two years with the Dallas Opera. Prior to that he had put in thirteen years in New York, in lighting and stage managing, then left, “because I couldn’t take living in New York anymore.” Campbell had been trying to lure him away from Dallas for some time, and the move was clinched after Hirsch flew out here in June to have a look around the area. “That did it,” he said. “But the main reason was that San Diego does very high-quality work, with a minimum of hysteria. In its professional attitude, it’s one of the best operations I’ve ever worked with. Two things usually happen in most opera companies. If the artistic people take over, they do wonderful things for a while, but they spend money like water. Then, after the money is spent, the bean-counters take over and everything begins to look like trash. Here the season is run with an eye to efficiency as well as product.”
In fact, as I watched the turnaround, I became increasingly impressed with the low-keyed competence of Hirsch’s crew. It consisted of thirty-three men, about equally divided between carpenters, electricians, and props. No one seemed to be giving orders, but the work got done. “I’m of the notion that we’re all doing the same show and that no one should have to make an ultimate decision,” Hirsch said. “The show makes the ultimate decision.”
Hirsch’s right hand is John David Peters, the production carpenter, who clumps about the stage in workman’s boots and shorts bristling with tools. He peers out at the world from under a full head of long, blond hair and over a bushy beard, and he looks like an amiable Visigoth. Peters is always improvising new ways of doing things, all designed to simplify the tasks at hand. In the case of this Trovatore, he figured out that if the crew could move the two soaring walls of Lee’s unit set without having to dismantle them piece by piece, it would save a minimum of several hours. He devised a system of delicately jacking them up onto sets of rollers, after which it was a relatively easy matter to push them carefully out of the way. Peters and his crew belong to the stagehands’ union (IATSE), which in New York has been blamed for imposing costly and wasteful work rules and is considered openly hostile to management. “Here you can talk to the union,” Hirsch said. “There’s no secret agenda you know nothing about. The guys want to make money, of course, but not at the expense of the show.”
Peters presides over his backstage fiefdom from a desk offstage right that is shielded by a plywood partition. Resting on the desktop facing out is a large piece of wood on which a half-circle has been painted in various colored sections to indicate how Peters and his men think the production is going from their point of view. A movable arrow provides the answers, ranging from “Day off’ at extreme left to “Total bullshit” at extreme right. In between there are sections painted green (“Piece of cake," “No sweat,” “Like a walk in the park”); yellow (“It’s an easy show," “Here comes the designer,” “Check’s in the mail,” “Just a minute’’); and red (“May I make a local phone call,” “Any stage management suggestion”). This is the Bullshitometer, also designed by Peters. It provides an excellent indication of the way things are going from day to day. When I first glanced at it, during the turn-around that morning, the needle pointed reassuringly to “No sweat.”
A fair amount of sweating, however, had been going on in the wardrobe department, presided over by a normally unflappable elf named Dennis Manuel. This was because the costumes had been rented from the Malabar Costume Company in Toronto, the biggest rental outfit in the world. It was another money-saving measure, since Malabar's prices are reasonable and it maintains a huge stock to draw from. (Often the rented costumes will clash with the set designer’s concept, but in opera, aesthetic corners almost always have to be cut.) Malabar will also “size” the costumes to fit the measurements provided by the wardrobe master, even though they almost all require some adjustment once they arrive and are tried on. The procedure is routine to Manuel and his staff, but in this case he found himself temporarily helpless to cope.
The problem was that of the fifty-four boxes shipped by Malabar on February 10. eleven had failed to arrive. They had cleared customs in Detroit and lingered there for a week, then thirty-three boxes had appeared on Tuesday, followed the next day by ten more. The missing eleven had simply vanished. It was eventually discovered that the airline had shipped them back to Detroit. Manuel was hoping they would arrive in time at least to be properly fitted. “We made a lot of phone calls,*’ Hirsch said. “Needless to add. I’m going to be asking for some forgiveness of charges.”
This is the most earthy of the early Verdi operas,” Fulton explained to Jeffrey Wells, the young bass singing the small but important role of Ferrando. “You can refine for weeks, make sure all the sixteenth notes are right, but if you don’t punch it, you’ve got nothing. You have to let it out, especially with this one, go with it.”
They were running through the opera’s opening scene, in which Ferrando has to sing a musically tricky aria that explains and sets up the entire plot. Wells is tall, with macho good looks and a Louisiana back-country accent you could fry. “His Italian's better than his English,” one of the production assistants said about him. He could also sing birds out of trees. “Tom’s right, you’ve got to forget about technique and let it go,” Wells told me later. “Hell, I’ve only had five voice lessons in my life, so I don’t have to worry about that shit." The only thing he did worry about all week was the Santa Ana, which had been blowing for a couple of days and could dry out a larynx. He kept a bottle of mineral water handy, just to keep the right juices flowing.
“I don’t worry about any of that,” commented Jonathan Summers, the Australian baritone entrusted with the role of the Count di Luna, one of the toughest in the Verdi rep. “It’s all mental, isn’t it? And you can’t do anything about it. I never know what’s going to happen until I open my mouth anyway. You just have to get on with it.”
Getting on with it was what this particular rehearsal, held in a downstairs studio room on the Friday of the turn-around, was all about. The action had been blocked during the previous week, but this was the first time that the entire cast of principals had been assembled to work through the entire opera from start to finish, under the guidance of Gregson and Fulton. (In opera, the conductor has to contribute to the dramatic interpretation, because so much of the drama is in the music.) They seemed to work well together, with Gregson guiding the singers through their paces while Fulton tidied up the musical aspects of their interpretations. As in the case of the chorus, however, Gregson was repeatedly compelled to yield on movements and adjust each scene to conform to Fulton’s preoccupation that no one would be heard if anything took place too far upstage. “We’ve got such wonderful depth on this stage,” Summers lamented at one point, “it’s a pity we can’t use it.”
The run-through was being conducted in the Rehearsal Hall, a big, windowless space with a low ceiling and mirrored walls. Ruth Baker was at the upright piano, as usual, while Barbara Donner, the stage manager, and other members of the production staff operated from behind a long table facing the action. Peter McClintock, a young production assistant, helped the singers position themselves, while Chris Mahan presided over props and generally made himself useful. Mahan is a tall, elegant-looking man who moved here after many years at the Met in New York in a variety of responsible posts and has become nearly indispensable. He always seemed to know more about what was going on than anyone else, and he refers to his love of opera as a hopeless addiction. He calls the claustrophobic rehearsal hall Nibelheim, the underground home of the cunning dwarfs in Wagner’s Ring cycle, and it soon became clear to me that what he didn’t know about the opera in general was not worth knowing.
As the rehearsal progressed, I became increasingly impressed with the two female leads, soprano Susan Dunn and mezzo Dolora Zajic, two young American singers on the edge of brilliant careers. Even though they were both marking through most of their music, they revealed voices of astonishing beauty and, especially in the case of Zajic, enormous power. Opera singers in general have big voices, because the sound has to carry unamplified over a full orchestra to the far reaches of auditoriums seating thousands of people. Even the sounds described as thin or reedy or merely small by music critics would easily overwhelm a room. Nibelheim has a soundproofed ceiling, but on the occasions when the cast let loose, the voices sounded huge. When Zajic Fired off a few big notes, I thought the mirrors might crack. Wells caught my look of amazement at one point, grinned and winked at me. as if to indicate I hadn’t heard anything yet. He’d sung with Dolora before and he knew.
The big problem during the run-through was Nagy, but not because he couldn’t sing. He had a dark, dry, metallic voice that sounded secure enough on the top notes, even though he seemed unable to shade it or to spin out a long melodic phrase. The immediate problem was one of communication. Although he was supposed to understand German and could at least sing in Italian, he spoke only Hungarian and it soon became clear that his German was severely limited. Gregson was forced to walk him through and pantomime every movement, gesture, or bit of business. Zajic, in the role of Azucena, Manrico’s gypsy mother, had strong ideas of her own about her fiercely demanding part, and she too had to try to get through to Nagy. Luckily, the tenor seemed affable enough about what he was being asked to do and, after he finally caught on to one tricky bit of action with the mezzo, Dolora said, “There you go!” and kissed him on the cheek.
No one seemed worried about Nagy’s appearance. He was short, nearly bald, with a fringe of gray hair and a small but pronounced paunch. Dressed in sneakers, scuffed jeans, a shirt, and a sleeveless sweater, he was several inches shorter than his inamorata, the statuesque Susan Dunn, and looked about as heroic as a bus conductor. Manuel and the wig and make-up department would have to perform prodigies of creativity on him, but singers are almost never hired for their looks. Lyric sopranos, the most common category, occasionally; dramatic tenors, never.
At the conclusion of the rehearsal. Fulton seemed preoccupied. He’s a young man, with a shock of red hair that he combs forward, giving him a boyishly mischievous look, but he’s an accomplished musician and a stickler for details. He had not been impressed by the somewhat cavalier way the tenor attacked his music. Perhaps as a result of this rehearsal, it was decided over the weekend to use the prompter’s box for Nagy, with Karen Keltner, the company’s music administrator and associate conductor, hidden within it to flash the tenor his cues. No one was happy about the move, because the box sits downstage center and cuts off part of the action from people sitting in the front rows of the orchestra. Campbell regards the device as an anachronism, a throwback to the bad old days of opera when many of the singers, even great ones like Caruso, couldn't read music. The idea, however, was to make it as easy as possible on Nagy, who had sung mainly in central Europe, where the prompter’s box is still an ugly fixture.
One of the busiest people in the opera house was Paul Best, the company’s wig master and make-up designer. He and his associate, Donna Couchman, have to make everyone on stage look believable, while trying to reconcile the director’s view of a show with the personal demands of the singers. “If someone says, ‘I will not wear that,’ you have a problem,” Best explained to me when I dropped into his headquarters, a long, narrow dressing room near those of the leads. “PR is a big factor in this department. You have to take responsibility for the show and also keep the singers happy. We’re the last people to see them before they go on stage, and you want them in a good frame of mind.” The women, he added, were usually harder to please than the men, often because their ages and looks were not those called for by their roles. “We really can only do so much. I have a brush, not a wand. I can’t make a fat woman thin.”
Best, who has been around in one capacity or another since 1975, is a plump and cheerful young man who doesn’t rattle easily. “To survive in this business, you learn to do a lot of different things,” he said, fluffing out one of the dozens of wigs mounted on shelves along one wall. He was enjoying working with Gregson, who was easy to deal with, knew what he wanted, and said so. “He doesn't want a cookie-cutter look, which is refreshing to us,” he explained. “He wants a variety of ages and looks. In the past we’ve had, ‘Okay, this is a blond show, we want everybody blond.’ He wants these people to look like real people, and he's giving us some leeway, so we can enjoy what we do. Some directors can’t describe what they want, nor can the singers. They know only what they don’t want.”
His main problem in Trovatore was Nagy, who was supposed to look sixteen, an impossible task. Gregson also wanted him dark. “I tried everything on him, and of course, he picked out a blond wig," Best said. He went to Gregson, whose reaction was, “Oh, dear. Well, we’ll try it. But if that’s what he wants, that’s what he wants.” In opera the singers have the ultimate muscle. Susan Dunn, for instance, was convinced she looked younger with her hair long and down, even though the director wanted it up, because the style was more correct for the period and her social status as a lady-in-waiting. Best was trying to design a compromise hairdo, which would also affect how all the other women in the cast would have to look to match it.
Despite what amounted to a lot of extra work, imposed upon him for reasons that had little to do with art, Best and his staff seemed resolutely cheerful. Their cozy headquarters, brilliantly illuminated by rows of mirror lights, functioned also as a social center; people periodically popped in and out to chat and gossip. “This is an easy show,” Best observed. “You don’t have body make-up, as in Aida, or lots of kids, like Carmen, or many changes, like Hoffman. Nabucco was tough, because of the sheer numbers and fast changes. People went from being Babylonians to Jews and back.” He laughed. “Asking for the impossible is the rule in opera,” he said.
After the last performance of Faust on Sunday afternoon, February 21, the crew spent the evening striking the set for the last time and loading it into trucks for the trip back to Houston. On Monday, Jane Reisman, the lighting designer, went to work on the Trovatore, a painstaking process that was to go on practically until opening night, five days off, while the cast continued to rehearse its music and staging everywhere, even in the star dressing room, Nagy’s, which had an upright piano. The singers sounded enormous in those close quarters. After the first-act trio, belted out full-voice by Dunn, Nagy, and Summers, Dolora Zajic grinned and asked, “Can everybody still hear?” Fulton, however, never missed a nuance. “The sound is fabulous, but you’re just a shade behind the beat,” he’d say. Or, “I wish that was a little more secure, that borders on the edge of fuzzy.” Every time Nagy sang, the conductor looked a little puzzled, as if someone had dropped a bit of guano on the tip of his nose, but he never stopped trying to strengthen the tenor’s obviously shaky grip on the score.
As the week progressed, the rehearsals in the auditorium itself began to take on a slightly frantic air, with Gregson constantly sprinting back and forth from the stage to the rear of the house, as he tried to correct, adjust, regroup, restage, and reposition, mostly in order to keep Fulton and the singers happy. Every time something had to be changed, there would be a long break, because getting everything to work together in the opera house is such a complex procedure. Fulton persisted in trying to move everyone in every scene farther downstage and in polishing musical rough spots, which at one point caused Gregson to crack. “You can’t do this to me!” he shouted, after Fulton had again interrupted what was supposed to have been a nonstop run-through to correct a mistake by the tenor. “I haven’t even been able to stage the last scene yet!” He knew he would have no chance to, once the orchestra appeared in the pit. The cost of running overtime is prohibitive in the opera house, due to union rules. “Every time a new contract has to be renegotiated," Campbell had told me, “it’s always more money for less time.”
My favorite rehearsal in an opera house is the sitzprobe, the “sitting rehearsal," during which the singers go through all of their music with the full orchestra for the first time. They don’t have to worry about costumes, props, make-up, wigs, or acting, just being up there on stage, letting it all out vocally and riding that great cushion of sound the composer has provided. It’s an exhilarating feeling, after all the hours of stop-and-go rehearsals with only piano accompaniment. A row of chairs and music stands, one for each artist, feces the empty auditorium from in front of a drop cloth. The singers stroll in and out, as they are needed, and can either remain seated as they sing or stand up, depending usually on whether they are marking or not. Most of the time they sing out, because it’s their only chance to do so unhindered and to get a feel of the acoustics in the hall.
The Trovatore sitzprobe was held on Tuesday, at 11 a.m. I showed up a few minutes before the start of it to find the singers warming up inside their dressing rooms. High notes came blasting through the doors into the hallway, where Gregson was perched on a table by the bulletin board. “This must be an opera house,” he said, smiling. Bernard Fitch, the tenor cast in the small role of Ruiz, stuck his head out the door of the room he shared with Wells. “Hear those B-flats?” he commented ruefully. “I won’t need those in this opera.” Jane Bunnell, the young lyric mezzo who had sung the meaty little role of Siebel in Faust but who as Inez has even less to do than Fitch in this opera, emerged from Best’s headquarters in time to overhear this remark. "Well, at least I get to wear a dress in this one,” she said. (She and Fitch are both vocally well-trained artists, but because their voices are relatively light, they will never have major operatic careers. In compensation, they will always work a lot, in a variety of character parts.)
The sitzprobe was a revelation. For the First time, I became fully aware of each singer’s strengths and weaknesses. Susan Dunn had the smoothest and most musical vocal line and was a favorite with the orchestra, even though her highest top notes sounded shrill. “I love to hear somebody being creative, not just singing the notes,” Fitch commented, after her opening aria. Dolora Zajic was even more impressive. She sang effortlessly up and down her whole range, bellowing out huge dark chest tones and, in her opening duet with Manrico, popping off an interpolated high C that rocked us in our seats. "Tell the orchestra to play defensively,” Fitch told her at the first break, “as loud as they can!”
Of the men, Wells seemed the most secure, providing a fresh, youthful sound that is likely to improve with age. Summers sang lyrically, securely and with taste, but his voice was small for di Luna, one of those monstrous Verdi baritone parts that require big top notes and the power to blast over an orchestra playing fortissimo. He was swallowed up in the climactic moments. As for Nagy, he seemed no more than adequate. Fulton introduced him to the orchestra, which applauded him, but only out of courtesy. His singing aroused little enthusiasm, sounding dry and hard, though solid enough on top. I asked Fitch, who is articulate and had a lot to say about nearly everything, what he thought. "He sings as if he has no teeth,” the tenor said, which struck me as an odd observation but somehow accurate. The sound was old and worn. And Fulton clearly did not like what he was hearing.
I went backstage afterwards, where the crew had been working steadily on lights and props, and found Peters looking up toward the First-act moon, which had revealed a tendency to sway rather than sit quietly in place. I asked him how he thought things were going. “What’s everybody worried about?” he answered, with a grin. “We’ve got their money.” On my way out, I glanced at the Bullshitometer. The arrow pointed straight to a yellow square: “It’s an easy show.”
The dress rehearsal on Thursday night, before a small invited audience composed mainly of schoolchildren, was pretty much a disaster. The set looked bare and dull and the costumes foolish, like the illustrations in a second-rate children’s book. The men were uncomfortable in their thick woolen tunics and leggings, with ill-fitting helmets on their heads and holding weapons that looked as phony as they were. Dolora Zajic's outfit, topped by a Medusa wig, reminded me of Harpo Marx in A Night at the Opera, and Dunn looked uncomfortably constrained in a dress that, she said, made her feel “like a sausage stuffed into a casing.” Poor Nagy fared worst of all. Best had told me that he wouldn’t wear a mustache or eye make-up, so that, bare-faced in his wig and costume, he looked like a middle-aged man dressed in drag.
Things are expected to go wrong during dress rehearsals, when set changes are usually slow, props can fail to materialize or to work, and the performers, always inadequately rehearsed, tend to bump into each other or get tangled up with the movements of chorus and supers. Dress rehearsals are intended to correct such deficiencles, and allowances are made, because the form itself is so complex. Everything in grand opera depends on the precise fusion of all the disparate elements in a production, so that every bit of action, every dramatic effect, makes its point within the mathematical configuration of the composer’s creation. The score is like the steel framework of a building; it is nearly indestructible, but it can be marred and mocked by poor construction, missing bits and pieces, decorative obscenities. In this case, the lighting effects turned out to be disastrously wrong; they were often out of sync with what was going on on stage and contradicted the overhead Operatext projections explaining to the audience in English what the characters were saying to each other. They produced a couple of unwanted laughs, most notably in a scene, supposed to be played in darkness, during which the heroine. Dunn, is supposed to mistake the baritone villain for her lover. Summers and Nagy, who are supposed to be brothers, looked so unalike that when the soprano confessed her crucial mistake, which she had made in what amounted to broad daylight, it set off a hearty roar in the house. An occasional poor effect is to be expected during a dress, but here the lighting design itself seemed to be at variance both with the dramatic line and the movements of the performers, as if Reisman and Gregson had yet to be introduced to each other. Not even Verdi’s great score can compensate for the chancy libretto, if the latter is reduced to mere buffoonery. Campbell was not amused.
Even more disastrous, however, was Nagy’s Manrico. He began the evening strongly enough, on pitch and loud, so that Campbell was able to express the hope, during the first intermission, that he would be acceptable. “You simply have to let him do what he’s used to,’’ he said. “You can’t expect him to be refined or musical.” But the tenor’s performance immediately began to deteriorate alarmingly during Act Two. By the end of Act Three, he was singing consistently flat and seemed to be unable to sustain any sort of vocal line. Even his top notes, normally secure, were barked, and it was painful to listen to. Fulton summoned Campbell into his dressing room during the last intermission and informed him that he would refuse to conduct with Nagy in the role.
The general director was now faced with a nice dilemma, but not an unusual one in the opera house. Either he went with Nagy and risked losing his conductor or he tried to replace him at the last minute with a singer who would go on almost totally unrehearsed. Campbell felt that Fulton might be bluffing and he could risk it, because Keltner could have taken over; conductors are more easily replaceable than dramatic tenors. Furthermore, he had a list of only about thirty possible Manricos worldwide, most of whom would not be available. Thirdly, it could cost as much as $50,000 to replace Nagy, who might have to be paid his full fee of $5000 a performance, while a new Manrico would be able to impose almost any fee he wanted. Campbell would also have to inform the president of his board of directors, Esther Burnham, about what was happening. And there was the human factor to be considered. Nagy was a nice man whose career would obviously be jeopardized by being fired. The Met was thinking of hiring him as a back-up Manrico in New York, where he would undoubtedly also get a chance to go on. If San Diego fired him, the Met would not engage him.
These were all strong arguments for standing pat, but ultimately Campbell decided that he couldn’t. The artistic integrity of the company was at stake; he couldn’t risk an absolute fiasco. This was not the singer Campbell had heard eighteen months earlier in Düsseldorf. Either Nagy was ill or his voice had begun to deteriorate from age or a faulty vocal technique. Once an opera singer’s voice starts to decay, the process of deterioration can be startlingly swift, as anyone can testify to who heard Beverly Sills just before her retirement or Renata Scotto recently. By seven the next morning, Campbell was on the phone, hunting all over the globe for a new Manrico.
He was hoping against hope that somebody somewhere in his international network of connections might have come up with some exciting new prospect who would prove to be a revelation in the part, but it was not to be. Only Ruben Dominguez was available on such short notice for all four performances, and he was in New York. Marianne Flettner, the company’s artistic administrator, called his agent that afternoon, and the deal was made. Dominguez would fly in that night. He’d have about forty minutes on stage with Gregson and an hour with Fulton to go over his part in Nibelheim before the Saturday opening night, but he’d sung the role before and was reportedly secure in it.
The tough part was telling Nagy. Campbell and Flettner, who speaks fluent German, went to see the tenor at his hotel. Campbell spoke English, Flettner translated into German for the tenor's son, who then passed the word on to his father in Hungarian. "Nagy was a perfect gentleman," Campbell recalled later. “I said that it was clear that his vocal health was deteriorating and that it was not in his interest to face the critics at this time." Nagy asked for specifics and Campbell delivered them, while also assuring him that a portion at least of his contract would be honored. The tenor was clearly distraught, but on parting there were hugs all around. He departed the next day for Germany, leaving behind a gift he had brought with him for Campbell — a recording, just about to be released, of Verdi’s Attila, with himself in the leading tenor role.
The highlight of the opening night, as far as I was concerned, was the "rail party," a traditional San Diego event put on by the crew after the performance. Peters and his gang produced some bottles of hard booze, cases of beer, and boxes of pizzas, then invited everyone backstage to stop by on their way out of the theater. The rail is offstage right, where the ropes controlling the rising and lowering of curtains and scenery are located, not far from the stage door. No one could leave unseen, so that everyone was compelled to stop long enough to take at least one swig of something before being allowed to go home. Every time somebody hoisted a bottle to his lips, he had to call out, "Boom boom, y’all!" to which the rest of the company would respond in chorus, “Out go the lights!” Needless to say, quite a few lingered on, and it turned out to be a cheery occasion.
Toward the end of it, I wandered out onto the empty stage, illuminated now only by a single work light, and looked out into the empty auditorium. It looked huge, with rows of empty seats soaring up into the dim light. How, I wondered, had Dominguez found the courage to go on cold that night, to confront that great beast that is the public? He had shown up earlier in the evening, a tall, good-looking man with a head of thick, black, curly hair, and sequestered himself in his dressing room to warm up. One by one, the other singers had stopped by to introduce themselves or to say hello (several of them had sung with him before), and Fulton had dropped in to tidy up one or two musical points, but most of the time he had been alone. The official announcement to the company had been made over the intercom at 7:40 p.m., and the audience had not been informed until Campbell went out before the curtain at 8:05 to tell them that Nagy had had to withdraw because he "had become indisposed during the week." Dominguez had had plenty of time to muse on the possibility of total catastrophe.
It had not happened. The tenor’s voice is not pretty — it’s a dark, throaty sound that becomes pinched and white on top — but it’s secure, hits all the notes, and can be heard. Furthermore, it improved as the night wore on and its owner became surer of himself and his colleagues. He would be savaged later by several of the critics, but as far as I was concerned, he deserved a medal for bravery, if nothing else.
The incident served to prove once again how indestructible opera can be, no matter what goes wrong. Everyone had rallied to the emergency. Manuel and his staff, what he called his "thousands of blind Belgian nuns," had been cutting and sewing since they first got the news on Friday and had patched together a serviceable set of costumes by early Saturday afternoon. Best had whipped out all kinds of wigs to try on, then was told that Dominguez had "perfect opera hair" and would not need one. Props had been rounded up. Cues had been checked. The chorus and supers had been warned to help point the tenor in the right direction and to stay out of his way if he strayed. The principals each checked out their own movements with him. Best of all, nobody had panicked, nobody had thrown a tantrum, everyone had gone about his or her business as if the whole company had been together for months, united in this single arduous enterprise. The arrow on the Bullshitometer had never strayed into the red.
And what had they all accomplished? The audience had been treated to a perfectly serviceable Trovatore, despite its small failures, its inadequacies, its old-fashioned look, its uneven singing. The ultimate success had been achieved again by Verdi’s great score, with its soaring melodies and tremendous dramatic confrontations. Not a bewitching night in the opera house, but one to be remembered, at least, for the beauty of Susan Dunn’s musical singing, the power and dramatic integrity of Dolora Zajic's Azucena, Wells’s handsome Ferrando, Summers’s more lyrical moments as di Luna, the sturdy sound of the male chorus, the sure hand of Fulton’s conducting. And so it would not matter in the least what the critics would say.