What I Did Last Summer: My Nights at the Opera, Pt. 1

- August 22, 2011

"Little did I know that what I was about to begin would indeed be fun and more than fun"

The whole experience came out of the blue. I never expected anything remotely like this to happen. I was a theatrical novice by most measures, but everyone was extraordinarily gracious. I was cast as an extra, but received as a full-fledged artist.

 It went this way: At my gym, the Santa Fe Spa, John Montoya at the reception desk got my attention and told me that someone from the Santa Fe Opera had asked if he knew of any men that fit a certain description. “Art, I thought of you.”  John handed me a small piece of paper with the name, Richard Gaddes, and a phone number.  “Give him a call if you want.”  I do admit I had the maybe barest inkling of what might be going on, but for the most part I wondered  how I could ever be the someone who was going to be calling the opera.  Was it the Ray Ban knock-offs I often wear?

 A day or so later I did call the number and left a message at the office of the man who turned out to be the General Director of The Santa Fe Opera. Mr. Gaddes then left me a detailed message: “We are looking for a supernumerary --- someone to play a Roman guest at the court of Herod in the opera “Salome” by Richard Strauss --- we are looking for a man who is older or could look older, and with something of a belly --- kind of a character. There would be daytime rehearsals and three evening dress rehearsals, and five performances scheduled in July and August. Would you be interested? There would be an honorarium. Give me a call if this sounds interesting to you.”

I was at a loss and felt disbelief at this seemingly incredible offer coming out of the blue. I also realized in the same moment that whatever might be coming to me, it was not because of my pipe dream of my dashing masculinity or panache. They wanted a character, and one "with something of a belly."  Oh well. . . I returned the call and got through to Mr. Gaddes.  Could he go over some of the details again, and what exactly is a supernumerary, I asked? (It is an actor employed to play a walk-on.) Mr. Gaddes again methodically set out what the part required. Did I think I would like to try? It would be fun.

I explained that I am employed as a therapist at a Santa Fe mental health clinic, and I could attend rehearsals, but only if I could have a fairly set schedule.  Believe me, rehearsal hours were indeed prearranged, as was everything I was about to experience at The Santa Fe Opera. It was a place of high professional stagecraft, with split-second timing, precision of movement and artistic mindfulness being the very air that everyone breathed. Little did I know that what I was about to begin would indeed be fun and more than fun. A “greenhorn”, was about to enter a world of modern high opera, acting and dance, surrounded by the historic, western mountain desert of New Mexico. But I would also be greeted and included in the whole venture of the opera season in a manner that I could not have imagined. I was given a company card. The company extended every courtesy to me and I felt welcomed at every turn.

Justin Peterson, apprentice baritone, for instance, was a personification of all this. Without fanfare, he played a guardian angel to my thespian inexperience. He would be the younger Roman walking and sitting to my left throughout rehearsals and performances, and I felt I had an professional ally.

The talk with Mr. Gaddes had gotten my attention. I said I would be willing to try out. But I wondered to myself if I could make the grade in an opera. But what the heck “Nothing ventured …!”

Mr. Gaddes then referred me to Brad Woolbright, Artistic Administrator. We spoke by phone. Brad referred me to Bruce Donnell, stage director of “Salome." After a phone call to Mr. Donnell, we set a time and place for the interview --- the Santa Fe Spa, where this all started. Mr. Donnell had a workout schedule in the mornings, and it was a convenient meeting place.

Maybe not so coincidentally, the man cast to play the executioner of John the Baptist and Princess Salome was also found at the gymnasium --- Matthew Peterson. During the run of the opera, he was featured on the cover of the local paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. The headline: “Opera Buff”, and in contrast to me, he was not an older man with something of a belly. Matthew is a personal trainer and body builder, tall and totally built.  He was a perfect fit for his part.

Mr. Donnell went right to the point and explained that I would play the eldest for four Roman guests at the court of Herod. The three younger Romans would be apprentice singers. Each apprentice stood six feet or taller, and they towered over me. The four of us, in our togas of earthen colored slubbed silk, would make a striking visual statement in the background of the action. As the eldest, I was leading my young diplomats on a tour of the provinces.  Herod sings a reference to the gift of wine we have brought to him from Caesar.  We four would sit on a rich carpet up-stage, reacting subtly to the goings on of the dysfunctional family before us. I wondered why Romans would sit on a rug. This, explained Mr. Donnell, was the Near East.

As the violence of the royal family escalates, our part called for we Romans to rise to our feet, hesitate a moment and then exit stage left in shock and revulsion (though we were not unaware of equally, if not worse, scandals in our own imperial households.)

Mr. Donnell explained that Strauss based his opera on the play by Oscar Wilde. My mind flashed back to my teen years as a member of the Wilmington Drama League, Delaware. I was cast as a slave boy in a lectern-drama production of Wilde’s "Salome." How deja vu “all over again.”

In the next installment we will see REHEARSALS and BACK STAGE.