My Night at the Opera

By Robert Plunket Photography by Phillippe Diederich February 1, 2010

asset_upload_file726_31021.jpgI open in La traviata tomorrow night, and I’m scared to death. Not so much for my singing, as I don’t do any. But I do pass out champagne to the partygoers at the beginning of Act One, and I just can’t get it right.

Normally this wouldn’t be such a horrible problem. I’m only a waiter—a “super,” an extra, one of those opera-loving locals who volunteer for a bit role in a production—and what I mainly do is circulate around the stage with a tray of champagne glasses. What difference could I really make to the success of the opera? Well, here’s the problem. Once my tray is empty, I must gracefully scurry off stage, weaving my way through the enormous crinolines, then toss my tray to a strategically placed stagehand and dash to the upstage entrance and walk grandly on, followed by the hero, Alfredo. I then stand in the center of the stage, take his hat, and exit stage right through a magnificent pair of French doors. It is the first time the audience sees the hero, and the moment is crucial.

It never has gone right. At tonight’s dress rehearsal I was late. The partygoers picked up their champagne so belatedly that the hero had to walk on before me. I ran after him. He got to center stage, where I was supposed to be, and looked around. I sneaked up on the wrong side of him and grabbed his hat. He grabbed back. So the first sight the audience had of the hero was him having a tug of war with a servant. Somehow, it just wasn’t the proper setup for the tragic romance to follow.

What was I going to do? If everything went perfectly, and the partygoers picked up their glasses exactly when they were supposed to, I had just enough time. But if one of them was late, if one of them threw in an extra greeting or gesture, if I got so much as one second behind schedule, poor Alfredo would be left there holding his hat. What could he do with it? Everybody else had their hands full. The table was covered with food. All the chairs were occupied. The mantels were too narrow. Would he have to carry it about? Would he hand it to Violetta? I had an awful vision of her singing Sempre Libera while holding a bowler.

I opened another beer and paced about the living room. The logical solution was to call the director, Martha Collins. She was a sensible woman who wanted only the best for her production. God knows she had always been available to help me out during rehearsals, to show me how to fold a napkin or pour out of a bottle.

But it was one in the morning. She had an opera opening tomorrow. She had almost 40 performers to keep track of, not to mention all the backstage people and the 60-piece orchestra under the direction of Maestro DeRenzi. For me to call up and demand a special rehearsal with Alfredo and the champagne drinkers—well, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.

I’d just have to move as fast as humanly possible.

Up until now the rehearsals had gone so well. I loved the way the supers were treated. We were special, in all senses of the word. Not being talented, we did have a definite handicap.

But we were crucial to the production. So people went out of their way to make us feel good, to fuss over us. When we were released after a rehearsal, everybody applauded.

The rehearsals took place in the building next to the opera house, the one that overlooks the courtyard. There is a big, low-ceilinged hall with the dimensions of the stage and set and furniture outlined in blue tape. There was Kristen Kemp, the rehearsal pianist, and various backstage people were watching and taking notes. Running things was stage director Collins. She is a fastidious dresser with a charming Canadian accent and a habit of puffing on an imaginary cigarette while making a droll comment, rather like Tallulah Bankhead.

Usually Victor DeRenzi, the artistic director of Sarasota Opera, was there. Sometimes he would conduct in sync with the rehearsal piano, but sometimes he just stared down at the floor. How odd, I thought. Is he zoning out? Then I realized—he’s listening! He could hear every note from every singer, and if somebody was the tiniest bit off in diction or pronunciation, he’d stop things and correct them. He could detect a badly rolled “R” at 50 paces.

The cast consisted of the stars, Lina Tetriani, a delicate-looking young soprano from the Republic of Georgia who now lives in Brooklyn, and Edgar Ernesto Ramirez, the tenor playing Alfredo, who hailed from Guadalajara. (Marco Nistico, who played his father, was not in this scene.) They were friendly, kind even, but there was a seriousness to them. On their shoulders rested the success of the show, and the burden was something that never left their minds. They had to pay constant attention, stay constantly focused.

The supporting roles were played by the nine “studio artists,” younger singers still in the early stages of their careers. Many had sung with the opera before. Some were employed for just one role; others worked the entire season. They were all terrific, but the success of the show certainly didn’t depend on them. A small part could be performed in a mediocre manner and most people wouldn’t even notice. But on the other hand—what if? What if one of them was so good that people did notice? What if a star got sick and they had to go on? It would be an enormous boost onto the operatic fast track.

And then there were the apprentices. They were having the most fun. Mostly in their 20s, they were chosen from auditions that took place all over the country. For the fall season there were 20 of them. They all had beautiful voices, but they were just starting out. Some—a very small percentage—would have successful opera careers. Others would go on to the artistically inferior “Broadway,” which is not really Broadway but an all-purpose term meaning the commercial musical theater in all its various forms. Others would become realtors. Or bankers. Or housewives.

Their experience here might very well determine the future course of their lives. How well would they fit into the opera lifestyle? Judging from rehearsals, it was a lifestyle unlike any other, full of old-fashioned titles and manners. They even had to dress differently—no open-toed shoes, no shorts, jeans literally frowned upon. No cell phones in the opera house, no texting. No bottled water. The Maestro’s word was law, and he could be a little scary. He must always be addressed as “Maestro.”

People still remember how shocking it was when the Maestro’s wife, Stephanie Sundine, was directing a show and she called him “Victor.”

The apprentices got a lot thrown at them. The first thing they had to do was something called “death by aria.” On the very first day they had to get onstage and sing a piece for the Maestro. In addition to revealing the degree of talent and stage presence, it also gave the Maestro a chance to cast the C-level roles—the maid, the soldier, the policeman. Then they spent the next month with a packed schedule of classes, training sessions, coaching—plus the all-important “outreach” performances at events and recitals. (For instance, four of them sang at the Sarasota Magazine launch party for our November arts issue.)

And then there were the supers. There were four of us. Me, Steve Dickman, David Pilston and Anthony Palmieri. Steve is known around town as the perfect Sarasota volunteer. He ushers at the Players, the Asolo Rep, the opera (he was their Volunteer of the Year last year) and makes frequent public appearances in a shark suit to promote Mote Marine. David and Anthony got into supering through the Opera Guild, the fund-raising arm of the opera. They quickly took me under their wings and impressed upon me the first and most important rule: no humming along.

We were rehearsing the first act of La traviata, the only one I appeared in. Violetta is having a party to celebrate her return to society after a bout of tuberculosis. She invites her girlfriends, loose-living courtesans, and the rich gentlemen who support them. More important from my point of view, she also hires four servants. It is their job to serve food, take coats, pass drinks, refill glasses. (Never for a moment did I think I worked for Violetta full time. I don’t even think she had a real home. All through the rest of the opera she was always staying at a friend’s house. So of course she hired a caterer.)

The first thing Martha conveyed to us was that for the scene to work, we had to understand the behavior, both physical and mental, of Parisians in the 1850s. People stood a certain way, they did not slouch at the hip, they greeted each other with a bow or kiss to the hand. Not on the hand—you were supposed to stop about three inches above it. And posture was important. You could act a little grand.

The hardest thing for the apprentices to learn was to ignore the servants. The opera takes place back in the olden days, when servants were among the accouterments of daily life, like furniture. They weren’t acknowledged; they weren’t even looked at. But these apprentices were God-fearing, well-brought-up kids, and their parents had taught them to thank people and to smile at the wait staff. They did it instinctively. Some of them even wanted to greet the servants, to invite them into the party. “No, no,” the Maestro would yell. “You’re being too nice to the servants. Remember—they’re lower than dirt.”

Martha showed me what I would be doing first: carrying a tray of champagne glasses through the room. A little bell went off. Was this a good idea? I don’t have the best balance in the world. It runs in my family. My grandfather was so bad that he was once arrested in the IGA in Benton Harbor, Michigan, lurching around so badly they thought he was drunk.

I looked carefully at the glasses. Could they be . . . plastic? I picked one up. It weighed about a sixteenth of an ounce. It was so light that a metal weight the size of a quarter had been glued to the bottom. But on many glasses the weight had fallen off. I looked at the tray I was to use. Its bottom was dented and bent.

“Won’t they be a little wobbly?” I asked.

“They’ll be filled with liquid,” Martha replied.


As the rehearsals continued over the next two weeks, I tried to master my props. It was not easy threading my way through the room. Martha would encourage the cast to become more festive, to feel the wine more strongly, to toast and laugh and gesture. More than once a happy hand would come within inches of striking my tray. I thought about making warning sounds that I was coming through, like a truck backing up, but I just knew that the Maestro would hear me.

Then the big day came when we moved to the stage. Before, everything had been fun and creative. Once we were in the opera house itself, with the opening a week away, the rehearsals changed in tone and purpose. We had created our scene. Now a whole group of other people took over to make it look fabulous.

Suddenly we were surrounded by seven scene carpenters who moved the set around, three prop masters who made sure my tray and glasses were always where they should be, four electricians (for the backstage sound only, of course—nothing from the stage is amplified), five wardrobe people (I alone was wearing pants, a vest, a shirt, an undershirt, socks, shoes, gloves, tie, coat, suspenders) and four people for wigs and make-up.

Fortunately, everything was starting to gel. The lights made the scene sparkle and glow. The costumes, particularly those of the girls, gave the party a historic sense of chic. In their make-up, the apprentices were no longer kids from the Bronx and Indianapolis but worldly Parisians. The 60-piece orchestra—members of the Sarasota Orchestra under the direction of Maestro DeRenzi—came in and filled up the pit. Hearing the live music and seeing the splendor of Violetta’s party was thrilling and magical. There was only one problem: What the %&*$& was I going to do about Alfredo’s hat?

The opening day of an opera passes in a kind of suspended animation. The stars get the day off. They are supposed to rest their voices and mentally psyche themselves up for three hours of intense labor. I had visions of Lina and Edgar back in their apartments, huddled in shawls and sipping tea with honey.

At the opera house it is business as usual. The Maestro is in his office going over last-minute details and no doubt signing checks for his daughter Francesca’s wedding, which will take place tomorrow at Selby Gardens. Many friends and family are in town for the occasions, and there has been much talk in this opera-loving group of traviatas past and present.

The apprentices are putting in another day of training. The backstage personnel are double-checking everything. The set, which is 30 years old and thus still lashed together in the old-fashioned way by ropes, is being carefully cleaned. Dust is anathema to an opera house. The plastic champagne glasses are being washed, and weak tea is being prepared to simulate champagne.

As for me, I’m at Barnes & Noble reading self-help books about how to prepare your mind for difficult challenges. There is no reason in the world why I can’t get out on stage, pass out my six glasses, unobtrusively sidle off, then get back on just in time to take Alfredo’s hat. It’s a question of focus and concentration, and I am told over and over by the best-selling authors that not only will I succeed but I will become a better person for having met the challenge.

I arrive at the opera house an hour before the curtain is to rise. My fellow supers are already there, leisurely dressing and joking, obviously looking forward to the performance. They seem not to have a care in the world, but then, none of them have to do anything as difficult as I. Hercules DellaRocca, the Sarasota Opera’s oldest and most famous super, pops in to wish us luck. Hercules has appeared in so many operas over the years that he has lost track. (The only reason he’s not in this one is a previous family commitment.) The Maestro sees him and gives him a big hug. They reminisce. I think of taking Hercules aside and getting his advice on my predicament, but the moment passes.

Places are called. We file down and wait until we are told to take our places for the curtain. The cast, more than 30 of us, settles on stage. Lina enters and perches on a divan. She is calm and composed and stares straight ahead. Through the curtain we can hear the audience talking and the orchestra tuning up. A few of the apprentices “air conduct.” Everyone clears their throats one last time. The short musical prelude that serves as an overture begins. I position myself in the wings, holding my tray. The curtain rises, and the audience breaks into applause at the glorious sight of Violetta’s wonderful party.

A few seconds later, Jennifer Rimmer, the assistant stage manager, points at me. This is my cue to enter. I take a deep breath and throw back my shoulders.

I throw them so far back, in fact, that the tray catches on the top button of my vest. I watch in horror as one of the glasses topples over and weak tea floods my tray.

I have no idea what to do. Should I walk on stage with a mess on my tray? There is no place to put it down and repair the damage. And I’m already late. Deep down inside my core a moment of panic overtakes me and I prepare to do the only thing I can think to do: yell, at the top of my lungs, “Stop the opera!”

Fortunately, before I can get the words out, props guy Jim Florek sees what has happened and springs into action. He swoops down on me, grabs the toppled glass, mops up the liquid, resets the glass, fills it with tea, and pushes me onstage.

I’m moving in a fog by this time, lurching like my grandfather. The apprentices see me coming, grab their champagne and get out of my way. The hat, the hat, I keep thinking. I’m so far behind schedule God knows what’s happened to poor Alfredo and his hat. Once the glasses are finally gone I run offstage, toss Jim the tray, and re-enter upstage.

And then, a traviata miracle occurs. After exactly one second Alfredo coolly saunters on, nonchalantly hands me his hat and spies the lovely Violetta, coquettishly fanning herself downstage. The opera has officially begun.

It was a triumph. z

Senior editor Robert Plunket is author of two novels, My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie, and has contributed to such national publications as The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly. He wrote about appearing in The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre’s Evita in the March 2008 issue—and he also played a bit part in Giselle with Sarasota Ballet in November.

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