My Rise To Operatic Stardom
By Allen McGill
It was on a Saturday back in the 60’s that I’d planned a quiet day at home, avoiding the New York crowds and, especially, the subways crammed with hustling, holiday shoppers. A restful day to be spent lazing, reading and generally doing nothing. Indeed, a day of unabashed self-indulgence. Until the telephone rang—as it always does on such a day.
“Al, what are you doing tonight?” the voice of Jack Hinton, a long-time friend, asked in an eager voice. I was always leery when that question, or any one similar, is asked without a reason being given. I’d been coerced into too many less-than-ideal situations in the past when I’d answered with an innocent, ‘nothing.’
“Why?” I asked. “What’s up?”
“A friend of mine called,” he said. “They’re short a couple of ‘supers’ at the Met for tonight. Want to go with me?” Supers—superintendents? Met—Metropolitan, I assumed, but what? Museum? Life? Jack was hardly the type to get enthusiastic about mopping the floors for an insurance company. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
“The opera,” he replied, obviously growing impatient. “They’re doing Aida tonight and they’re short two extras—you know, spear carriers and soldiers. My friend can get us in, so if you’re not doing anything, come with me. It’ll be fun.”
A spark burst into flame beneath the dormant ham in me. The Metropolitan Opera! On Stage! Aida! “That might be nice,” I said, gripping the phone, trying to breathe normally and attempting to keep the tremor from my voice. “Who’s singing tonight?”
“Leontyne Price, Leonard Warren and Mario del Monaco,” he replied.
I felt faint. To be on the same stage...maybe even at the same time. Oh, my God. The ham began to sizzle, my eyeglasses to steam. I’d never been a true opera buff, as were some of my friends, but would have paid a fortune, if I had one, to see and hear that cast in person. Tickets were unavailable at any price. “I think I might be able to make it,” I said, trying to keep my hands from shaking.
There was a pause, before Jack said, “It has to be definite. If you’re not sure, I’ll call...”
“No!” I blurted, instant panic threatening composure. “I’ll be there. Where? What time? What do I have to do?”
We arranged to meet at the stage entrance. The STAGE ENTRANCE, where Caruso had entered, and Callas, and all the other glorious voices of the century. The portal to opera heaven—and I was going to enter that portal, to be a part of it.
“Oh, and wear old clothes,” Jack said, before he hung up. “The dressing rooms can be pretty grungy downstairs.” I was going to be in a dressing room, downstairs at the Met! That means I’d be wearing a costume! All those people in the theatre would be looking at me...on stage... in Aida...with Leontyne!
Well, maybe Jack would wear old clothes if he wanted to, but I certainly wasn’t going to. Imagine! Entering the grand old theatre was an occasion! For me, at least. Unlike some cretins I’d seen, ascending the marble staircases and brushing past antique frescos in sweatshirts and jeans! Abominable!
The glorious monument was like a jeweled dowager by virtue of her age and quality alone, deserving the respect of, at least, proper attire. It did house Grand Opera, after all. And Aida, which to my mind was the grandest opera of them all.
I wondered if it would be looked upon as pretentious by the rest of the cast if I made my debut entering through the STAGE DOOR in white tie and tails. Perhaps wearing a cape? A top hat? Carrying a cane?
Practicality grabbed hold quickly, spurred by the exorbitant price quoted by the tux-rental company. So, when I met Jack at the STAGE DOOR of the Met, I was dressed as he’d suggested, namely like a peasant...my best clothes.
The entrance for the “in” crowd was gloomy and intimidating: gray, plastered walls, tunnel-like hallways going off in all directions. Which was a bad enough letdown for this stage-struck tyro, until I learned that the “supers’”—short for supernumeraries—dressing room was several layers below ground; the lair, one would suppose, of the legendary Phantom. Actually, it was grimier.
The room itself was a vast, stark square with clothes hooks along one wall and shower heads along the opposite one. A maze of benches spread throughout the center, on which dozens of men in various stages of dress and undress were spreading a thick, orange-y mess on their skins. Texas dirt, I learned it was called, a muddy concoction that would afford ancient-Egyptian skin color. Who, I wondered, in the makeup department was old enough to remember.
Jack and I were called to a counter by a bearded man wearing heavy makeup and a short skirt, who looked us over and said, “soldiers.” With that, he tossed parts of costumes in our direction. The glamour of Grand Opera was beginning to dissipate.
After stashing our clothes, slathering the “dirt” over most of our bodies and donning the pieces of costume assigned to us—the best part, so far—another “Egyptian” came by to draw eyelines on us. Afterwards, a bare-chested bald guy came to ask if we wanted pictures taken.
“Oh, yes,” I exclaimed, shocked at myself that I’d forgotten to bring a camera.
“Five bucks,” he said. “It’s a Polaroid.”
He obviously recognizes a newcomer, I thought. Five bucks was a lot, Polaroid or not. But, of course I said, “Fine!” Applause suddenly burst forth from speakers at each corner of the “dungeon.”
“Curtain going up,” someone announced. “Finish up, everybody.”
The overture began, strains of the world’s most beautiful music filled the cluttered, yet dingy, room. Waves of emotion once again filled my being, thrilling me deeply. I was here! Part of it all! Overwhelmed, I sat to listen and experience the glorious moment to the fullest.
“Okay, guys,” a tall, pharaonic-looking gent called. “The triumphal march is coming up. Line up by costume, tallest guys first.”
I lined up at the rear of the “soldiers,” giant that I am, and waited. Music suffused my being.
“From now on,” the pharaoh look-alike announced, “no talking. Everybody, let’s go.” He led the way up the stairs, and up, and up.
At one level I saw the stage! Some of the taller guys branched off as we reached each landing, but we littler guys kept climbing and climbing until I thought we must be as high as the roof. Finally, we came to the top landing and were directed to a door. There weren’t many of us left by then, so we strolled through...to the largest open indoor area I’d ever seen, short of Grand Central Station. We were at the uppermost back wall of the Metropolitan Opera stage itself! On the top level of Aida’s pyramid! Looking down, way down, on all the lower levels, each lined across with Egyptian soldiers.
And there was Miss Price, levels below, center-stage, regal and alone. Mr. Warren was singing a most exquisite aria beyond the scrim, which divided up- from down-stage, hiding us from the audience’s view.
The aria ended and the applause exploded, “Bravos” lasting for minutes. Finally, the scrim rose high, revealing Leontyne...and me...to a packed, eager, and enthusiastic audience. I had found my calling, to be a star, to be noticed, to be adored. . .
I just wish I’d remembered to take off my glasses.