On Oct, 25, late in the evening Berlin-time, conductor Reinhard Peters got a call from the Washington Opera: its orchestra had gone on strike and Mozart's "The Abduction from the Serglio," with which he was to make his Kennedy Center debut, was canceled.
"Of course, I was disappointed," Peters recalls now. "But I was not upset as I might have been, because frankly I needed a vacation. And it had been far too long since I had been on the Alpine slopes. So I sat down, waxed my skis to a fine polish and set off in the car for 800 kilometers (600 miles) to an Austrian resort.
"Then on the first day, just as I was about to go out the door, the phone rang and it was the Washington Opera again. The strike was over; the opera was on; and my vacation was finished.
"It was too bad for me because the weather was perfect. But since it was only eight days until the first performance, I raced back to Berlin, canceled an engagement in Belgium and got to Washington as fast as I could."
The experience of Peters, who is permanent guest conductor at the celebrated Berlin Opera, is one of many that resulted from the opera's last minute decision to put together the "Abduction" production in about a week. It will open tonight at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and be repeated three times over the folowing eight days.
"We found out," says the company's managing director, Gary Fifield, "that it is almost as difficult to unproduce an opera as it is to produce it. And then we learned that putting it back together again is the hardest of all. It took about 200 telephone calls just to find out if the personnel and sets would be available, and time was very short."
"The Abduction" lends itself to quick resurrection better than most works. There are only six characters, one of them purely spoken, and the drama is carried almost entirely in speech. It is only in moments of high emotion that the characters have recourse to song.
Until Fifield arrived at his Kennedy Center office the morning after the strike was settled, things looked virtually hopeless for saving the first half of the opera's season. Morale was so bad that several days earlier Opera personnel had shared a Futility Party with the National Symphony staff upstairs.
Any thought of also bringing back the "Rigoletto" originally planned was abandoned because of the additional expense of reviving a production after cancellation. "It's just too risky," says Fifield, "for a company that still has a $42,000 deficit left of the $147,000 debt we inherited when the new management came in. Anyway, 'The Abduction' is the right work. After all, it's the opera the company opened with its first season years ago."
The production, which was coproduced with the Miami Opera, was budgeted here at $50,000, and performing it under these circumstances will cost at least $25,000 more, estimates Fifield. When the strike began, the performances were 9 percent sold out, but before the decision to go ahead could be made, checks for 15 percent of those seats had been returned and subscribers had been notified of the cancellation by 4,000 post cards.
But within 24 hours of the strike's end, artistic administrator Francis Rizzo had the full cast lined up and on the way to Washington.
Bass Noel Mangin, who plays Osmin, the overseer of the sultan's harem (or seraglio), was raking leaves in the back yard of his home in Hamburg when the call came. "The weather's about a week ahead of Washington there. And I was getting ready to go to Munich, where they had just hired me to sing Fafner in Wagner's 'Rheingold.' Now I ask you, which of the two characters is the worst ghoul, Osmin or Fafner?
"Anyway, I called Munich to cancel, packed my bags and got myself to the States. Meanwhile, I'm sure all those leaves have blown back into the yard."
For tenor William McDonald things could hardly have gone more easily.
"I drove up from Charlotte and was staying with a friend in Falls Church. It was a bit of a shock when I got here and found out about the cancellation. But as long as I was here I decided to stay around and have a good time. We planned a rather heavy social schedule, so the only inconvenience reviving the production cost me is missing a few parties, and in the process I got a nice vacation."
This entire cast sang "The Abduction" under Peters last winter in Miami however, so to a considerable extent they were pre-rehearsed.The only catch was that Nathaniel Merrill, who had been the director in Miami, turned out at the last minute to be unavailable for Washington.
Rizzo thus had to find an experienced director fast, no easy task because productions of "The Abduction" are fairly rare in this country. He finally decided on 28-year-old David Alden, who had done the opera last year in Omaha to much praise.
"The problem then was to find him, recalls Rizzo. "We finally discovered he was on a plane returning from Britain, where he is directing a 'Rigoletto' for the Scottish Opera. We were ready to pounce the minute he got back and we finally got him on the phone in New York after midnight. He was down the next morning and has been working in the theater for 12 to 14 hours a day. That does not include time for meals and sleep. Thank heaven he has stamina."
On a midweek afternoon, Alden was found in the darkened Opera House working with light technicians. "We're going to make it fine," he predicted. "My only regret is that I'll miss the opening performance, because I've got to get on to New Orleans to direct 'Tosca.'"
So the show will go on after all - though no one on this production can recall such an on-off-on again event in opera.
"In fact," said Peters, the only other cancellation I've ever had was a 'Rosenkavalier' in Lisbon. And that wasn't because of a strike. It was because of a revolution."