What I Did Last Summer: My Nights at the Opera, Part 2

- August 30, 2011

"I was amused to discover that even in the rarefied atmosphere of the opera, the banter in the men’s dressing room was sometimes indistinguishable from men’s locker room lingo"


My first rehearsal was called for a Saturday. The day before, I found a message on my voice mail: “Mr. Panaro, this is Matthew Principe calling from the Santa Fe Opera. Your call for rehearsal, tomorrow, is for 11:00 am at Styrene Orchestra Rehearsal Hall. Thank you and goodbye.”

In the hall, I passed soundproof rehearsal rooms in which singers were practicing.  As I entered the rehearsal space, I felt self-conscious, and discovered 60 to 70 men and women talking together or sitting in groups. The conductor, John Fiore, was working with the pianist.

After a short time, a stage manager asked my name, then led me to join the three apprentice singers who would play three young Romans to my elder Roman. I was given a large name-tag to pin on my shirt --- “Panaro – Roman guest.”  Mr. Donnell was leading the players through their action within spaces that had been marked out on the rehearsal floor with masking tape  ---  the set of the palace yet to take shape on stage.

Mr. Donnell was conferring with Herod, sung by Norwegian tenor Ragnar Ulfung. Mr. Donnell gestured in the direction of the Roman guests and it was Herod’s first time to see us.  Mr. Ulfung, possibly seeing me as a senior like himself, remarked to Mr. Donnel within earshot “He has a good face.”  On closing night as the cast awaited the call to take our final bows, I went to Mr. Ulfung to bid him farewell, and got up the courage to embrace him. He smiled with the word, “Caesar.”   I was touched by his good humor. 

Another example of this good natured camaraderie happened during the second rehearsal, held under a tent in the hot July sunlight. Tenor David Cangelosi, who played First Jew (rabbi)  of Herod’s court, offered me his chair in the shade. The tent sits in the gardens of The Ranch --- the name of the original adobe hacienda, now serving as the Opera offices.


Once it became clear that I was in the cast, I got a call from the costume director, David Burke. My measurements were needed and an appointment was set. When I arrived, I was ushered into a small room near the main work room.

Two seamstresses hovered about me, and from the great workroom I heard a voice ask: “Is that Arthur Panaro?”  The question sounded as if I were a well-known personage, whereas it was probably only curiosity about the addition to the cast from Santa Fe. Do I sound stage struck? You bet I was!

Various costumes and wigs for the other productions were hung and stored throughout the dressing rooms.  A tag was sewn into my costume with my name and “Roman Guest,” and I was listed with the “additional performers” in the opera program.

The dressing room of the male apprentices (including me) was designed with room-length mirrors above a counter top, with stools for each performer and his name at each place. Above the mirror ran the traditional strip of bare light bulbs that you have seen in every movie about theater --- the movies being as close to this scene as most of us get.

At each of our stations, before each performance, would be placed our freshly laundered undershirt and flesh-colored tights. The Romans wore sandals with knee-high leather straps. Two apprentice costume designers, Danny Davila and Carrie Varney, assisted with the straps and gave final approval that the costumes looked right.

One evening,I was escorted to a room in which a photographer was waiting to take an official picture of my character in costume. The thrills never seemed to stop. I was even given a 35 mm slide for my own, with a typed note that the other pictures would be included in the official archives of the 50th anniversary season.

I was amused to discover that even in the rarefied atmosphere of the opera, the banter in the men’s dressing room was sometimes indistinguishable from men’s locker room lingo. This put a very human face on the players and contrasted greatly with all the majesty and glamour --- though opera, come to think of it, can be quite bawdy.

Another one of my realizations, coming from being so up-close-and-personal in the company, was that men in opera are not all Madison Avenue types, not trim athletes. The men came in all sizes and shapes --- mesomorphic, ectomorphic and endomorphic. There were bald men, balding men and men with full heads of hair. The women apprentices were attractively feminine. But ah! What magic do costumes, make-up and wigs work! In the end, however, it is not the look of the body in opera that is important. It is the voice.

When we went to performance evenings, Mr. Principe’s calls became a magical summons from the Opera’s aesthetic heights, from the dry and rolling sands of the desert just north of Santa Fe. On opening night, Mr. Donnell left a note, in his own hand, at each performer's place. “Dear Art, I am happy that you have been part of “Salome”. Have fun tonight and all the best. Bruce.”


Neil Patel was the scenic and costume designer. The floor of Herod's palace was built as a huge disk tilted at a good angle into a raked stage setup on the main stage floor. The disk served for three scenes to be played out. Scene one: the garden with three tall torches burning in the night. Next, in the garden was the large circular grating covering the dungeon from which John the Baptist entered the action. And finally the whole stage morphed into the royal chamber, as slaves entered with the regal chairs, rugs, pillows, great plates of fruit and flasks of wine.  A sloped ramp, painted black, stage left, was built as a backdrop to the disk. Entrances and exits were made from the ramp, which was reached by eight wooden steps off stage left so that we players could climb to the high end of the ramp.

The design of the set from the audience's point of view would be a circle and a diagonal line.  It was a stunning, abstract design.

The stage disk was of tremendous weight, covered in small ceramic tiles. After the performance, the highly adept stage crew, using an elevator as large as a ballroom, moved it off stage as if it were featherweight to make way for the next opera’s set.  The sets are stored below stage.

Next installationPart 3 -- open-air theatre, makeup and wigs, the performances, closing

Read Part I