Iam often asked how I got my start in opera, and indeed what tips I might have for those seeking some measure of the starlight I've basked in. People will tell you that years of vocal training are necessary, as well as more than a few lucky breaks. These are the same people whose mouths drop open when they hear that the only thing required is a few weeks of dedicated work at Red Lobster. Not Vienna or Milan but Ronkonkoma or Sioux Falls should be your proving ground. One might see lightning strike in Toledo or Secaucus, site of the newest member of the Red Lobster family (still hiring at press time). Another will follow in my footsteps, earning his operatic chops just off Highway 290 in Houston.
Do not assume that success will be an overnight thing, however. Millions will take up the apron and tray, and many thousands will distinguish themselves, as I did, in the areas of basil-infused cod and popcorn shrimp. The thing is to plant yourself indelibly in the mind of your superiors, in my case by being the first waiter to load six strawberry daiquiris onto one tray, and later by . . . well, being the first waiter ever to spill six daiquiris on one patron.
Okay, I'll cut the baloney. This is hard to say -- and by all means, do not tell the Washington National Opera this -- but I was a poor waiter. I was in fact excruciatingly bad. My table service was a pale imitation of Benny Hill, my record for dry cleaning vouchers distributed still unsurpassed. After three weeks, I was unceremoniously shown the door. To top it off, I did not actually sell much cod.
It's memories like the above that haunt me as I prepare to make my Washington National Opera debut Saturday in the small but critical role of Servant/Waiter. I am one of a mere 10 selected to serve champagne during the jewel in the crown of WNO's 50th anniversary season, "Trilogy: Domingo and Guests in Three Acts," and the only one to lie his way into the job. I had been candid about Act 1 of my Red Lobster experience, but not Acts 2 or 3, the disasters borne of peach schnapps and mango slush. Thus was I cast as an extra in the opera's eagerly anticipated evening of excerpts. I am ashamed. And I am terrified.
To the question of why someone would dissemble so egregiously, thus risking the chance of wreaking havoc on both Placido Domingo and guests, I have only one reply: Opera -- that spectacular, opulent, mysterious and eternally misunderstood art form -- had taken command of my soul, stripping me of all reason. Like every great opera character (and untold members of the "Trilogy" cast), my only concern had become blind passion and its aftermath.
You may think you're immune to such possession, that in the end all that stuff about corpulent ladies singing and blue-haired audiences and sky-high ticket prices will save you. But you are not safe. Not the lawyer on the Hill, the coffee bar barrista, the lowly government functionary or the penniless grad student. Opera has devised ways to find all of you.
Tuesday, Sept. 6. It's the first rehearsal of "Trilogy" at the WNO's Takoma Park studio, and I am greeted without suspicion by Jennifer Crier Johnston, the opera's "supernumerary coordinator," a sort of queen of the Liliputians. But she is also an actress, most often seen as the maid to wealthy and louche 19th-century women.
"My first opera was [Massenet's] 'Werther,' directed by the famous George London," Johnston tells me. "Nicolai Gedda was singing the lead, and I will always remember the thrill of being on stage as the curtain went up, and then the scrim, and the orchestra's music wafting over you." But then her mind drifts to other leading-man moments -- bass-baritone Samuel Ramey playing the title role in Boito's "Mefistofele" and Domingo in the 1998 production of "Fedora," as the title character's doomed, doomed lover.
It's the revival of this last show that is our present concern, Act 2 of "Fedora" forming the first part of the "Trilogy" program. Stage manager Cristy Langan, stopwatch in hand, calls us promptly to order at 7 p.m., introducing director Micha Hendel and assistant director Cindy Oxberry. Each receives hearty applause from the bit players, chorus members and leads. We learn that Domingo and this production's Fedora, Sylvie Valayre, will not attend early rehearsals, their understudies substituting for the moment.
Rehearsal Room C in Takoma Park is one of those homely rooms in a nondescript building in a most unlikely neighborhood -- which is to say it's a room that craves miracles and is regularly rewarded with them. White brick walls are awash in a severe fluorescence, and the faces of the shorts-and-sandaled chorus glow eerily. It hardly looks like adequate preparation for a fin de siecle party in Fedora's Parisian home, at least until I spy tray after tray of plastic champagne flutes on the prop table. I note that the scene bears a striking resemblance to a nightmare I've had two nights previously.
And then, just as I resolve to tell Hendel the truth, in hopes that he might still let me hold up a pillar or something, the rehearsal pianist dives into "Fedora's" irresistible opening waltz. The chorus enters, laughing and drinking, and once more I can't bring myself to confess.
Umberto Giordano's "Fedora," unlike the other offerings in "Trilogy" (Act 4 of Verdi's "Otello" and Act 3 of Lehar's "The Merry Widow"), is not often performed these days. It survives mainly as a reminder of how deep the composer talent pool used to be. In a now-famous 1889 competition to find the greatest one-act opera by an Italian composer, Giordano's entry placed just sixth. (The winner was Pietro Mascagni's masterpiece, "Cavalleria Rusticana.") But it was a respectable showing for young Giordano, an experience that later emboldened him to compose his own masterpiece, "Andrea Chenier." "Fedora" has never quite found its audience, despite a riveting-as-a-train-wreck plot that must be considered a precursor to tabloid television. (Fedora falls in love with the man accused of killing her fiance.) But its great tenor aria "Amor ti vieta" is immortal. To listen to a Domingo recording of it is to see an artist transforming a simple melodic line into a soul-stirring experience. The voice obliterates every doubt in your mind, indeed every thought in your mind, a confession of love that seduces Fedora and everyone within earshot.
Act 2 of "Trilogy" features the heart-stopping finale of "Otello," Verdi's operatic adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy. Domingo has sung the title role to acclaim all over the world, strangling countless Desdemonas on countless satin beds. (Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli gets to feel the grip at the Kennedy Center.) It's a part that places equal demands on the tenor's vocal and acting abilities, and some are not up to the dual challenge.
"I just don't believe you can do opera without acting," Domingo tells me during a rehearsal break. "Of course, it is done. Many people don't have the ability to act. I think [audiences] have to believe in the person, the character. If you are not able to portray that, then maybe you should sing concerts, sing in the church, sing recitals."
Domingo, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary as the company's general director, can hardly remember a time when he wasn't hanging around a theater. In his native Mexico City, Domingo's parents regularly performed in zarzuelas, music-dramas similar to opera but with more dialogue and minus the tragic endings. There was no one moment when he decided to dedicate his life to opera, but Domingo credits his mother for much early encouragement, mentioning in particular one day when he was 15 or 16.
"My mother used to make me sing, warm up, vocalize, all the time," he says. "One day, for the very first time, I reached some sounds that she considered really beautiful. And I could see the tears in her eyes." Tears form in Domingo's today as he recalls the moment. "And I said, 'Why are you crying?'. . . . I realized then that she was moved, and I said, 'Well, there is something here.' "
At the climax of "Otello," a crowd discovers a lifeless Desdemona on her bed, with Domingo collapsed on the floor. Among those making the discovery is extra Dan Bernoske, who is also charged with the task of running down a flight of stairs, torch in hand, while wearing knee-high boots. Bernoske is an unlikely sort of opera lover, except that he isn't: The 35-year-old manager of product marketing at RCN is part of an emerging generation of young fans who see more to this than high notes and spectacle.
"It's the ultimate date," Bernoske says, adding that his most memorable evenings with the ladies have begun with dinner and an opera. ("Tosca," he notes, has proved most reliable in this regard.) And lest you think Bernoske is in the minority, consider the experience of 25-year-old Eric Hutchins, a proud participant in a program the Washington National Opera calls Generation O.
"I've never met a woman who will turn down an opera," he says. "It can be a sure bet, especially if we're talking $25 or $30 tickets." The reduced ticket price is one of the chief benefits of Generation O, whose explicit mission is to encourage the attendance of audiences between ages 18 and 35, but which also serves as matchmaker for the la vie de boheme set. Operagoers often meet during intermissions and at special WNO-sponsored lectures. The atmosphere is relaxed and unstuffy. As Hutchins puts it, "I don't want to sound Machiavellian, but there's a golden social opportunity here."
Back in Takoma Park, the air in Rehearsal Room B is also redolent of amour both noble and illicit as the company begins staging "The Merry Widow," a Lehar chestnut that has been popular since the day it premiered in 1905. A comic operetta about Hanna (Leslie Mutchler), a woman whose large inheritance makes her the target of suitors of all stripes, the show also caused a minor scandale in its day. "Widow's" final act is set in Hanna's parlor, which has been tricked out to look like the Parisian restaurant Maxim's. Waiters are everywhere serving champagne -- I am assigned to Table 3 -- but then the guests (chorus) arrive, followed by a covey of skimpily dressed cancan girls. Heads turn, skirts fly, and I sideswipe a champagne bucket on my way upstage.
"Et moi!" snaps Christiane Noll as she makes her first entrance, a striking presence in feather boa, long skirt and Skechers. Noll is best known for her work on Broadway and sometimes as The One Thing You Liked About "Jekyll & Hyde," the campy 1997 musical in which she co-starred. In Takoma Park she is known as Valencienne, the cancan commandant, and her bright, sexy performance brings cheers from the chorus.
"I've never been in an opera before," she tells me later, "at least not one where I'm being paid. . . . I don't consider this to be my world, and that really relieves the pressure." Noll had never even met Domingo until a few days ago. "I was stretching my hamstrings, and I heard this 'Hello.' I looked up, my legs were spread, and said, 'Oh, uh, hello.' "
Among the youngest of the dancing grisettes is Heidi Kershaw, a 21-year-old senior at George Mason University who reminds us that opera is about far more than just first-rate singing. In just five years, she has appeared in 11 WNO shows, and that's despite the fact that dance sequences are routinely shortened or cut in contemporary stagings. That saddens Kershaw, who submits that "the singing is beautiful, but for people who are not opera aficionados, the dance kind of wakes them up and brings new energy." Still, she says, "I love it. It's such a big spectacle, the biggest you can get show-wise."
Thursday, Sept. 15. It's eight days before opening night, and the biggest of the big travel to the Kennedy Center Opera House for final rehearsals. Patrons innocently making their way to the night's Millennium Stage performance are unaware of the vast ant colony below their feet, two floors of dressing rooms and prop areas, stage sets that will never be used again next to sets that will be hauled into place the following night (for WNO's "I Vespri Siciliani," which runs concurrently with "Trilogy").
I make my way through the stage door entrance, descend a stairway and hopscotch some cables in the dim backstage light. Suddenly, there it is, the magnificent opera house stage, its floor shining like polished obsidian. The red velvet seats disappear into infinity, the Austrian chandeliers are unlit. To my right are the enormous doors to the conservatory in "Fedora," hitherto an abstraction, hanging precariously from the ceiling. In the corner sits Desdemona's red satin deathbed, not far from the silver champagne buckets of "Widow," basking in the dull glow of the house lights. It's at once utterly fake and entirely convincing. Even the diet ginger ale in the champagne glasses bubbles convincingly.
Now the stagehands are on headsets, and director Hendel watches "Fedora" from somewhere in the blackness. "All of you, have fun with it!" he commands, his voice booming over the loudspeaker. I try, but there are the champagne flutes again, mocking me from a prop table on the periphery. One member of the Kennedy Center crew has poured the glasses and set them on trays, another hands one to me and another takes the empty tray as I exit. The backstage blocking, I notice, is as intricate as any on stage.
I enter with four flutes. Denise Gulley and Vito Pietanza, chorus members and "guests" at Fedora's party, are waltzing. "Oh, look," they whisper. "Champagne!" In the time it takes the pair to stop waltzing and glide over to my tray, I become paralyzed with fear. Later someone will tell me he thought Pietanza had pulled a gun on me. Gulley, sensing my nerves, tries a little small talk, but the thought balloon over my head is clear: Just take the damn glasses.
"You just have to breathe," Gulley tells me later. "You have to remember, it's such a privilege." The word stops me, and in that moment my attitude toward the task at hand begins to change. "We work very, very hard to be here," she says, reminding me that more than 300 singers auditioned for the 28 chorus slots, all for the, yes, privilege of creating a bit of operatic alchemy. Gulley knows it has happened before, during the 2000 production of Massenet's "Don Quichotte" with Ruggero Raimondi ("I wept on stage every single night") and the same season's "Parsifal" ("every single performance was transforming").
"They think of the horns," says Pietanza, referring to the non-opera-inclined public, which instantly thinks of Viking helmets and Wagner when they hear the word "opera." "That's a misconception. A lot of that is from cartoons. It's Bugs Bunny who did all that." The real thing has a somewhat different effect: "When my friends come to performances, they are absolutely amazed by what they see."
Equally amazed, he says, are the children who attend WNO's Look-In performances, a school-based program designed for those in grades 3 through 6. The point, of course, is to expose kids to opera before the stain of cultural prejudice takes hold, with hour-long performances and study guides to enrich the experience. Come to one of these performances sometime, Pietanza tells me. "You can hear a pin drop. It's the spectacle. . . . I only wish I'd had that experience when I was that age."
Friday, Sept. 16. The extras have their own dressing room at the Kennedy Center, safely cordoned off from the principals, who assemble themselves in an atmosphere of relative calm. Here, however, with 10 men crammed into a small space, chaos reigns. It is the first of two dress rehearsals for "Trilogy," and shirts, vests, livery jackets, powdered wigs and knee-highs are everywhere. If the founding fathers had decided to go skinny-dipping after signing the Declaration of Independence, this is what the scene might have looked like.
A speaker in the dressing room crackles with life. "Places, everyone. Places, please, for 'Fedora.' " I rush down the corridor, the wind whipping the braid on my wig. I wind my way to stage left while snapping on a pair of white gloves and grabbing an empty tray. It slips out of my hand and clangs on the floor. I pick it up, it slips out again. The gloves, you see. I shake my head and tiptoe to my entrance stage left.
There is something here, says Domingo. It's a privilege, says Gulley; absolutely amazing, says Pietanza; a thrill, says Johnston.
"Quiet, please," says Hendel. The red velvet curtain trembles a bit, or maybe that's me.
The waltz from "Fedora" begins. The curtain rises. I close my eyes and breathe.
Scott Vogel is an assignment editor for Weekend.