At this very moment there is a snare drum sitting in the middle of my apartment. I’m a little scared of it. My cat is a little scared of it. And perhaps you should be scared of it too, because I’ll be playing it this weekend.
Now before you jump to the conclusion that I have no experience whatsoever in this department, let me just say that I was the cowbell soloist for the world premiere of Josh Feltman’s “An Old American Dream.” So, there’s that. Also rumors of a stint in the pit band for my high school’s production of Into the Woods, which my lawyer advises me neither to confirm nor deny.
The presence of the drum can be traced back—like so much of my life—to burritos. In this case the burritos were accompanied by drinks with Eve Budnick at the Sunset Cantina over seven years ago. Eve and Rebecca Grimes were starting a small opera company, and they were wondering if there was anything useful that I could do to help them. I believe my exact words were, “Yes, I can turn pages and drive singers to rehearsals.”
Now in my eighth season with Opera del West, I am still proud to hold the title of Resident Page Turner, a position whose job description includes a large number of varied, random, and unnoticed tasks, which include everything from accompanying rehearsals to shoveling snow to finding stage directors for our productions. I may also be Vice President of the Board, which I casually mention to the tenure committee at Xavier on a fairly regular basis. Oh, and sometimes I buy Eve orange soda.
In the absence of a full stage crew, I also end up doing a lot of the backstage work, much to the dismay of the genuine professionals. While I was painting some flats olive green last summer, the carpenter’s assistant muttered, “Well, THAT’S a technique I’ve never seen before.” And although my first trip to Home Depot for the lighting designer was perfectly legitimate, I’m pretty sure he only sent me to the store the second time to minimize the time I was up on the ladder manhandling his electrical equipment. Luckily the theater where we perform, The Center for Arts in Natick, is a converted firehouse.
Being a “shoestring budget” company, we at Opera del West have no money. We pay our singers a pittance for “transportation,” which doesn’t even begin to cover transportation. (Unless, of course, they’re hitching a ride with me, which I still consider to be an important part of my job, and one of my favorites.) We pay our directors so little it would almost be less insulting to pay them nothing. And I’m pretty sure the most expensive prop or costume piece ever employed was a bonsai tree for our production of The Magic Flute two years ago. Our stage manager still sends me pictures of bonsai trees when she encounters them in real life.
But somehow, beyond all comprehension, we still manage to get amazing artists to work for us. And the casts get stronger and stronger every year. Auditions for this summer’s production of Così fan tutte were jaw-dropping; we turned away literally dozens of sopranos who in any other world audiences would have been thrilled to hear in a leading role. We had a never-ending stream of brilliant mezzo-sopranos for the role of Dorabella, and it was heartbreaking that we could only cast two of them and one cover. The only major concern we had was the traditional one of finding tenors, but the two tenors we have now are so spectacular, I can’t even believe they are here…I’m considering it a modern Mozart miracle.
Boston is remarkable in that we have not one but FOUR major graduate opera training programs: New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, and just across the river in Cambridge, Longy. Not even New York can boast the dense population of phenomenal young singers that we have here. And when we hold auditions, they all show up and bring their A game. So opera singers, you should know that just because you didn’t end up getting the part doesn’t mean that you didn’t blow us away with your audition—we just don’t have enough performances to hire you all! Believe me, if we did, we certainly would. And audiences, you should know that when you pay ten dollars for a seat in a rusty folding chair to an opera in a YMCA or a public library or a firehouse with minimal sets, minimal costumes, one bonsai tree, and a cast of people you’ve never heard of, you may still be getting a world-class performance.
And I LOVE these performances. I am not what you would call an “opera buff.” There is only one recording of Tosca on my shelf, and I don’t remember the name of a single performer in the cast. I haven’t been to the Met in over six years, and it’s been well over ten since I’ve been to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I’m a member of no listservs or chat rooms, and although Opera News keeps showing up in my mailbox every month, I couldn’t tell you the last time I read through an article. But I love seeing these opera productions—cheap, raw, young, intimate, and thrilling. Maybe there’s a small orchestra, but usually just a piano. Someone in the cast is singing in an opera for the first time, and almost everyone in the cast is singing that role for the first time. They have worked and suffered and sweated and made any number of personal sacrifices for the opportunity to get on that stage. And in the audience are a small number of friends and family, but mostly complete strangers who for one reason or another showed up for the novelty of a great story told through singing in a venue small enough that you can see (or feel) the spit flying out of the baritone’s mouth.
As an opera composer, I can tell you that I have learned far more in these rehearsals than I have learned anywhere else. Freed from the trappings of a million-dollar production, and forced to deal with nothing but a piano and a bare stage, you get to see firsthand what works in the theater and what doesn’t. What scenes are quick and easy to stage, and what scenes leave a director scratching his or her head, wondering what on earth the characters should be doing. What information only needs to be communicated once, and what information needs to be repeated two or three times. What lines instantly make perfect sense, and what lines require a thirty-minute discussion before a singer can try to sing them with some semblance of truth and dramatic intention. What arias can be sung early on in the first act, and what arias need to wait for the singers to be warmed up first. What ensemble passages sound terrific at the first rehearsal, and what ensemble passages still need to be run through two or three times on opening night to prevent a train wreck during the performance. What jokes are never funny, and what would-be serious moments always are.
The great opera composers understood all of these things. That’s what makes truly them great, not just the ability to come up with a good tune here and there. And they were practical, too: Così fan tutte, our current production, requires several costume changes during the course of the show. And incredibly, Mozart has written in just enough time between exits and entrances for those characters to get out of their old outfits and into their new ones. IT’S LIKE HE KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING.
Which reminds me, I should probably get ready for rehearsal. There are singers to drive, pages to turn, and drum rolls to mangle. And who knows what I’ll learn tonight.