I WASN'T raised to be a page turner; it seemed a chancy liveI lihood at best. Most page turners are piano students or Kennedy Center ushers. I am neither. But when pianist Alan Mandel, a friend of mine, asked me to help him out during a concert at the Embassy of New Zealand, how could I refuse? Not since I served as Beverly Sills' (non-singing) page in an opera years ago had such a stellar part come my way.
"There won't be many sixteenth notes," he assured me. "I can't promise you about thirty-second notes, though. Look -- I nod my head, you turn the page. Simple. I don't know what you should wear. If you worry, you'll make me nervous." So I fretted in secret, and twiddled my right thumb against my index finger to build up calluses.
The afternoon of the concert, friends who heard my trembling voice on the phone suggested a glass of wine, a long hot bath, a half hour of meditation. They could tell I was not taking this lightly. My debut outfit, I decided, would be quietly elegant, with no scene-stealing red socks. No glittering earrings; no sexy perfume.
We artists were mashed together in the back seat of the car on the way over. So I guarded my fingers zealously. Alan, the pianist, seemed remarkably unconcerned about his fingers. My attempts to discuss former page turners who had become movie stars did not work.
At the embassy, there were no long-stemmed roses or telegrams. I did meet a friend of Alan's who told me how he had been drafted once from the audience to turn pages when Alan's current recruit threw up just before the concert. The friend had never clapped eyes on the music before. Midway through the first movement, the fire alarm went off by mistake. At the end of the movement, the piano bench collapsed. I wondered whether Beverly Sills would have stayed calm.
We tested a few songs beforehand. My technique did need refining, I found. Lunging violently at the end of each page of music can give you paper cuts. So I worked out an agreeable slide-forward-in-a-swift-but-fluid-motion. A few people were sitting in the audience, all of whom I decided were staring at me.
At last we walked on stage -- Alan and baritone Jerome Barry in front of the piano, me behind, modest as a violet -- and my grand moment began. Page-turning has subtleties that the world cannot understand. For the Scarlatti songs I turned, but for the Xeroxed Duparc songs I slid the pages over. That requires quite a different wrist flick. Scotch-taped page edges called for yet another approach. I began to anticipate Alan's nod by a few seconds.
At the reception afterward, I ate a lot of cheese and kiwi fruit. A kindly physicist from Catholic University came over to ask, "Isn't there an easier way? Shouldn't I invent a page-turning machine a pianist could work with a foot pedal?" I flinched noticeably.
Suddenly a very elegant young man appeared -- an assistant to the ambassador of New Zealand. "I did so enjoy watching your twinkling digits!" he exclaimed. "What a performance. Will you accept this kiwi stickpin in honor of your fine work?" I told him I would treasure it always.
When Alan and I parted that night, I let him squeeze my right hand in farewell. Risky, yes, but artists must take risks every so often. And I felt sure that any damage to my digits would be healed by my next engagement.