What I Did Last Summer: My Nights at the Opera, Part 3

- September 30, 2011

Open Air Theatre/The Performances/Closing

The theatre is built on a rise in the landscape. The audience sits beneath a great sweep of canopy, and there being no walls left or right, there are vistas of the desert hills and twinkling lights in the dwellings far off.

Neither is there a wall at the back of the stage. This makes possible the inclusion of the landscape stretching beyond the theatre, which can figure into many scenes.


Most of the singers, being young, had their faces streaked with dark makeup to age them a bit or give them character. I got only black eye liner, and Ms. Jamie Stewart,one of the several makeup artists, applied it for me.

The wig master was renowned New York theatre magician, Tom Watts. Some years ago I took a backstage tour of The Santa Fe Opera and one of the guides said that everyone in the opera wears a wig. Not so for me. In the first dress rehearsal, Mr. Watts moved at a brisk pace through the dressing room observing, adjusting and judging the look of the players. On my own I had pulled my hair forward toward my forehead in the Roman style. Mr. Watts passed me and remarked, “You’re OK,” meaning, I took it, that my styling looked authentic.  Not taking him at his word, I then dipped into some hair jell and plastered my hair back. Mr. Watts, passing by again said, “Oh no.” I responded, “Well,you do it...” He approached and gently pulled the hair forward again in the Roman style. At the next dress rehearsal I adjusted the hair as Mr. Watts had done, and when I encountered him, I asked, “How do I look?” He smiled and responded: “Fabulous . . .” My first ever “fabulous” in show business.


Santa Fe is 7,000 feet above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Summer is the rainy season. If there are no rain showers at days end, sunsets in New Mexico come in huge banks of billowing white clouds and are lit with the setting sun’s gold, red and yellow lights against a blue background. Audience members, walking about the theater plazas and lobby, would stand still in awe at the wonder of the sky. Backstage the cast, waiting for the light to go and the opera to begin, were equally stunned and meditative, sometimes taking pictures, just prior to the spectacle about to be performed.

But often, after a brilliant sundown, there would follow lightning and thunder in the summer dusk and night.  These were natural complements to the somber music and staging of “Salome.”

Strauss’s music is music of the shadow. To the natural dimness of the desert twilight, the lighting designer, Duane Schuler, added his deft touch.  The orchestra tuning up would compete with the growing volume of the gathering audience --- then “places please” and the art of nature would now bow and withdraw before the forces of human art. The orchestra and cast were now ready.  As if out of nowhere comes the soft, clear voice of Jennifer Good, Production Stage Manager: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen.  Welcome to the Santa Fe Opera.”  The conductor enters. The house lights dim.  The opera begins at 9:00 p.m.  Anticipation.  At last the music and the performance begins. The space of stage surrounded by proscenium arch becomes awash with light ---- singers, light, music and audience  surrounded by the dark and cave of night.


What more can I write about the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the company, which to me is still as extraordinary as the entire totality of the summer?  I was surprised from time to time that various company members approached me, as did Brad Woolbirght with:  ”“How are you doing? Are you having fun?”  Before one performance, as I was entering the stage door on one of the audience plazas,  Arlena Jackson, a veteran usher (and a social worker in her day job in Santa Fe) introduced me to two patrons with whom she was chatting.  She then suggested they might want my autograph in their program.  I gladly wrote my name, and could not help feeling I was getting much more attention than I deserved,  but I got a big kick out of it.  Another case in point: the choreographer Sara Rudner and the diva Janice Watson, who played Salome, both sat with me at lunch in the Cantina one rehearsal day.

 My brother, Adrian Panaro, a New York photographer, marveled at the egalitarian attitude I kept reporting to him.  One of the apprentice singers explained it simply: (Jennifer Forni of the 2009 season) “ You can't put on an opera in a bad mood.”

 In the midst of a world going rather mad as usual, I asked myself what I was doing in a grand opera? But then I decided that humankind needs art. If so much time is being spent on war madness, by all means we need the antidote of people working for the sanity of beauty and the joy of creativity. So bring on more opera, and music, and poetry. Let us have as much as we can.

At the party closing the season, I encountered Mr. Gaddes who asked how the summer had gone. I replied that I had loved it and would tryout again in 2007. He responded: “Oh, you don’t have to try out. We'll just put you in.” I had done well enough! And indeed it happened that way. I was cast as a waiter and street sweeper in the 2007 and 2011 productions of ‘La Boheme”, and a villager in the 2009 "Elixir of Love". 

But it all started in 2006, and as I drove away from the opera grounds along the winding, frontage road at the close of that magical summer, I re-entered my customary life. I was astonished that it had all happened as if in an evanescent dream.


(This is the final installment in a three-part series. To read from the beginning, click here.)