A few exchanges of comments and replies on my blog and the purchase on Amazon.com of a second hand copy of Martin L. Sokol’s fascinating book The New York City Opera have brought back some memories. That, in turn got me thinking about the uncertain prospects for so many fine actors, singers, instrumentalists, conductors and stage directors being trained in conservatories all over America about to enter a profession that now, in a manner of speaking, has both its long term members and those planning to join its ranks standing by and waiting to see what’s next.
Not that things were that much better back in the fall of 1973, when my wife and I packed up our bags and drove from Shreveport, LA., where right after graduation I had been lucky to land a one-year sub teaching job at Centenary College while their Opera Workshop director finished her DMA.
At the end of that year I had received a grant-in-residence from George London’s National Opera Institute to join the staff of the New York City Opera as a rookie stage director.
We were off on a long drive in a long-in-the-tooth 1965 Pontiac Catalina we had gotten as a wedding present four years before. Our sights were firmly set on arriving unscathed in Brooklyn, where our friends Paul and Maggie Kwartin had an apartment at 39 Plaza Street near Grand Army Plaza. Union Temple, where Paul was the Cantor, gave them those digs as part of his compensation.
We had become friends the year before when the Kwartins were guests at Quisisana, a lakeside resort in central Maine staffed by Juilliard and New England Conservatory of Music grads that would work as waitresses and beach boys during the day and concertize at night for the pleasure of the clientele.
From aspiring baby bass-baritone to fledgling stage director to daytime beach boy I had moved up in the ranks of the Quisisana staff to the August Position of Music Director. Passing around fresh towels and cold drinks to sunbathing seniors was then for me a thing of the past. Instead I was in charge of organizing the nightly entertainment, which never lacking in ambition included among other offerings a fully-staged Boheme with piano accompaniment.
Knowing that we were on our way to the Big Unknown, our friends extended their hospitality and invited us to stay in their 12th floor apartment (13th, actually, but it was bad luck to call it thirteenth) as their guests. Indefinitely. They were there once a week for the Sabbath, between Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon and then they would drive back to their home in Connecticut.
Our old Pontiac Catalina had seen better days, and it barely made the 1,416 miles between Shreveport and the Big Apple, running out of water several times (broken radiator) and nearly giving out on us. Miraculously, the poor car came to die right in front of our destination.
Our friends had left the keys with the doorman. The car had to be towed to a destination of our choosing. First it was one of those New York garages that charge an arm and a leg monthly and where you have to give them 24 hours notice if you want to take your vehicle out for a drive. How about the parking lot of Union Temple, we asked. Our friends made it possible.
That was the last time we laid eyes on that Pontiac. Weeks later we took a walk to the parking lot of the Temple to say hello to our beloved car and were stunned to see that what remained of the gutted, stripped automobile that had carried us cross-country had been set on cinder blocks and become a residence for the neighborhood rats.
On our arrival we unloaded our bags and were stunned to open the doors to what would be our home for the next several years. The apartment had a 380 degree view from all sides. From our tiny bedroom we could see Ms. Liberty and the Bay. From the kitchen and living room we could see Grand Army Plaza and Prospect Park.
We were in Heaven.
The day after our arrival I contacted City Opera to let them know I was ready to report to work.
Bad news… The chorus, orchestra, and stage hands had gone on strike.
We busied ourselves the best we could. Kimberly wasted no time and auditioned for several of the little opera companies that operated on a shoestring budget around the city. She immediately got cast and soon developed a reputation for being a go-to reliable young artist with a beautiful voice, a solid technique, good on stage, pretty, and a fast learner. She got a nice church job and a nice real job that allowed her to work whatever hours she wanted. I kept the wolf from the door by doing translations of texts in various languages that paid something like ten cents per word.
Eventually City Opera resumed activities. That season and the next I worked as an assistant director in various productions – a crazy Barber of Seville directed by Jean-Claude Auvray, a Gitanne-smoking Frenchman who preferred to communicate with his cast by screaming at them in a strange mix of French and English peppered with 4-letter words in both tongues.
One of Monsieur Auvray’s staging ideas consisted of using large quantities of baby powder in the shaving scene, a bit which baritone Richard Stilwell took issue with, as the clouds of baby powder that he was asked to apply to Doctor Bartolo’s white wig created some breathing difficulties for him and all those involved in the scene. The bit was scrapped and the foul-mouthed French director was never asked back.
They assigned me to several productions in which I was to put in singers who were making their first appearances on the stage of City Opera in important roles. I will never forget working with Faye Robinson, a lovely young soprano who was making her debut as Micaela in Carmen that night. She got two hours with me and a pianist in a rehearsal room with the outline of the set taped on the floor. I took her through the staging that afternoon, from there she went to a costume and wig fitting, and that night made her New York debut, with the NY Times music critic in the audience, right after meeting Herman Malamood, her tenor minutes before curtain.
City Opera felt to me like an operatic assembly line. Against all odds Jack Edelman did a wonderful Mikado and Gian Carlo Menotti delivered a magnificent production of his own The Consul. Watching artists the likes of Nico Castel and Olivia Stapp work was nothing short of inspiring, but doing the daily grind under a never-supportive regime took a toll on many of the wonderful, underpaid, hard-working artists who never got a word of thanks or praise from Julius Rudel.
The Viennese-born, Mannes School of Music-trained Rudel had a mittel-europeisch management style that made many of those working under him feel bullied and underappreciated. In one dress rehearsal of Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet he belittled director Frank Corsaro in front of orchestra, stage crew and principals.
Rudel had been at City Opera for several decades. He was disenchanted. He was tired. His effectiveness had gone. He had to be replaced. It would be nine years before Beverly Sills took over the reigns of NYCO to reinvigorate it.
Since I was there to keep silent and learn, keep quiet and learn I did. At the end of the Spring Season of 1974 I left City Opera. Days later I had a gig directing La boheme and another one staging The Barber of Seville. It was not a MET debut but it was work, though truth to tell it was all hand-to-mouth and waiting for days on end between job and job.
Many of our friends headed for Europe, where German and Austrian opera houses were hiring our much better-trained American singers that were arriving week after week in search of decent work. Coming full circle in my narrative, it is not that much different today, other than the simple fact that today there are hundreds more artists vying for the few available jobs.
Back in those days the MET had a reliable stable of top-notch “house” singers who week-in, week-out filled all the supporting roles throughout the season. Once the season was over, they would be free to sing in Cincinnati or Santa Fé or Chautaqua or Lake George or Central City – often bigger roles than those they sang at the MET. It was as close to a perfect arrangement as one could imagine, and then one day it came to an end. Managements found it much cheaper to hire both stars and supporting role singers on a show by show basis.
A mezzo-soprano friend who landed a MET contract early on in her career once confessed to me her frustration: after singing several seasons in roles as large as Cherubino in Marriage of Figaro and Siebel in Faust to then be offered a per-performance contract rather than a seasonal one. She said how frustrated and financially uncertain she felt when going from appearing on the MET stage with the likes of Placido Domingo and Samuel Ramey in the cast to flying to Omaha to appear as Suzuki in a couple of Madame Butterfly performances.
Back in those days many fine American singers worked hard and managed to nobly cobble together all-American careers in and out of New York. Some ended up singing in European Opera houses, some major, some minor, but in one way or another singing for their supper. Many gracefully transitioned to teaching in American universities, where the security of a steady source of income and, eventually, tenure was a welcome respite from years of piecing together a modest income and living out of a suitcase.
You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And I firmly believe that the enormously talented crops of young artists coming out of our conservatories year in year out will find a way to make all that fine training count for something, even at a moment like the one in which we now live, one in which the future looks so very uncertain.
Rafael de Acha