Be Prepared: The Byword for Fire-Fighters, Boy Scouts – and Opera Singers

By Paul Hertelendy

The San Francisco Opera has enjoyed a rich history of Ring cycle performances, ever since its epic 1936 cast of Flagstad-Melchior-Rethberg-Schorr – remember?

Jess Thomas
(Bayreuth Festival)

But the SFO was never in as much of a Wagnerian sticky wicket as 30 years ago, when the Siegmund in Die Walküre canceled at a late hour, with a matinee performance pending on Dec. 6. There were no viable fill-ins available on short notice. So the troupe calmly contacted a retiree across the Golden Gate Bridge in Tiburon who had given up the stage two year earlier. Jess Thomas, arguably the best Wagnerian tenor in the 1970s, jumped at the chance, paid the bridge toll, stepped in, and saved the day – without rehearsal, without even having looked at the score in years. He carried off the performance to a jubilant audience that had never forgotten him as one of the most dashing and athletic Siegfried-Tristan figures of the past. With his graduate studies (psychology at Stanford University) behind him, he brought considerable intelligence and stage savvy to every role.

“Studying Wagner roles is like peeling an onion,” Thomas (1927-93) once said. “Beneath the first layer is another and another until you reach the center, then – infinity.”

His was one of the late cast substitutions that have bailed out the S.F. Opera on the verge of many an overture. Laryngitis, travel problems, visa delays, earthquakes, sheer terror: whatever the cause of cancellations, the show must go on and fill-ins must be found.

Soprano Luana DeVol was an unknown, the cover for the title role in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in 1983. She was taking a shower at home across the bay on a sunny Sunday morning when her son came rushing in, exclaiming, “Mom, you’re on!” She had to sub for Carmen Reppel the same afternoon.

Grabbing chicken and grapes out of the fridge, she immediately got into a traffic jam and was stuck in a dead stop in the middle of the Bay Bridge, with the clock ruthlessly ticking away. Curtain time was getting so close, she recalls: “I tried not to panic, but I was going to flag down a motorcycle to take me the rest of the way and just abandon my car right there, in the middle of the bridge.

“Luckily, at that point, things began to move.”

The SFO support personnel whipped her into costume and makeup. Before the curtain, General Director Terence McEwen announced that a cover would be singing Ariadne. DeVol backstage thought she could hear the audience groaning. When DeVol’s name was announced, however, there was warm applause that bucked her up. DeVol got through the tricky monologue, after which the Zerbinetta, Met star Kathleen Battle, bent down to her, holding her fan so the audience wouldn’t notice, and declared sotto voce, “Beautiful singing!”

That launched her belated international career as a jugendlich-dramatische (young-dramatic) Sopran even though she was already in her 40s, leading to contracts in Aachen, Mannheim, and eventually the biggest parts in Wagner, going to Brünnhilde and beyond.

When she was getting coaching lessons from Jess Thomas, she got memorable advice: always maintain contact with the audience with your eyes, never lower them…. Don’t look at what other competing singers are doing, just do your best…. Don’t be bitter, don’t be sick with envy.

Today, as a voice instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she will tell a budding opera singer, “Jumping in can be a great way to advance your career. But you have to be confident of what you can do; don’t risk failure with something you’re not ready for.”

Quite possibly the most dramatic last-minute substitution in all the history of American opera came at the SFO in 1983’s opening night Otello, when tenor Carlo Cossutta came down with laryngitis. Since Otellos don’t grow on trees, the SFO’s only recourse was to contact Plácido Domingo in rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, just nine hours before curtain time. Rising to the supreme challenge, Domingo hopped on a chartered jet (reportedly provided by S.F. opera fan and philanthropist Gordon Getty) the morning of the Sept. 9 opener and flew cross-country, getting his makeup aboard the plane, but still far behind schedule.

Just as though it were an Olympic marathon play-by-play, the sellout crowd waiting patiently at the War Memorial Opera House got hour-by-hour reports of his flight – Omaha, Salt Lake City, Reno – and then of his high-speed drive in from the airport. The curtain was held until 10:30 p.m., after which Domingo, who had his earlier Otello costume of five years earlier waiting for him, stepped on stage without rehearsal and met his Desdemona, Margaret Price. The performance went hand-in-glove and was an unmitigated triumph, or what in Germany would be called eine geschlossene Vorstellung.**

Domingo, already past his 40th birthday and seemingly immune to human fatigue, met well-wishers and media backstage after 2 a.m., then went to a nearby Italian restaurant that had agreed to stay open for him at the ungodly hour, and got to bed at 6 a.m., which was 9 a.m. New York time. The pit musicians graciously waived the elevated overtime pay they were entitled to after midnight.

After several hours’ sleep, Domingo rushed off to the airport for the return trip and Met rehearsals awaiting him imminently. Almost forgotten was that he had just gotten back from Europe. Thus the San Francisco gig involving one of the supreme endurance tests of all Italian repertory came on the heels of a nine-hour jet lag.

But cancellations are two-edged swords in this business. Two years earlier, Domingo himself had had to cancel Le Cid in San Francisco on such short notice that his title-role sub, William Lewis, carried a score around the stage. Evidently, in the never-never world of opera, the only certainty is Puccini’s promise of sleeplessness, “Nessun dorma!

The San Francisco Opera is mounting Wagner’s Ring cycle during the month of June – one hopes, without any last-second substitutions looming.

*Since 1964, California resident Paul Hertelendy has been music critic with the Oakland Tribune and San Jose Mercury News, and currently with the web journal Despite or because of degrees earned in mechanical engineering, he has also written eight books of poetry.

**Editor’s Note: The German phrase is not to be taken literally!



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