From September 2000 to July 2001, I sang with the Zurich Opera as a member of the Internationales Opernstudio.
Things got off to a good start: the day I landed and walked jet-lagged and culture-shocked into the opera house for the first time, they said, “Oh, hello, we have a role for you in Salome” – a new production conducted by Valery Gergiev. Things were looking up!
Turns out I was overly optimistic.
After Salome closed, I didn’t have anything else coming up in the house, which was mighty depressing. Then suddenly one day the director casually said, “Oh, we’ve found a part for you in Fedora.”
Fedora…starring tenor Jose Cura and my great idol Mirella Freni. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I thought, “I don’t care how small the part is, oh my God, I get to sing with Freni!”
Well…you know how they say to be careful what you wish for? They’re not kidding.
They wanted me for a non-singing extra, the police commissioner’s secretary. Ouch.
But, at least I would have the rare opportunity of being onstage with the great diva in the twilight of her career, and I knew that would be special. Also, I needed the money, and there was still more than half a season left, so I didn’t dare turn it down.
Madame Freni was extraordinary. She was 65 at the time, but looked marvelous and sang like the devil. It was just amazing. She was also so gracious and friendly and unpretentious. She made a small mistake in Act I of the dress rehearsal, then turned upstage to where I was standing and crossed her eyes and made a funny face as if to say, “D’oh!”
While she was delightful, I was the one who unfortunately had to be a diva. They wanted to glue a beard and mustache on me. Now, I am VIOLENTLY allergic to spirit gum: it causes my skin to turn lobster red and break out in lymph-covered blisters. It stays that way for about a week. I asked if they had hypoallergenic adhesive, and the makeup lady told me they did. She lied. The day after the dress rehearsal I marched into the theater with my red, crusty, swollen face, found her making someone up for La Traviata, pointed at myself and said, “Thank you very much. No more beard.” She looked appropriately horrified. For some reason, they wouldn’t let us do our own make up. As you can see from the photo, she painted me like I was doing a drag show in the Astrodome, not a bit part in a 900 seat theater. (The fact that you can’t see my blisters is a testament to the quarter-inch of grease paint I’m wearing, which didn’t help the rash. Love the eyebrows.)
My contract specified a fee of 100 Swiss Franks per night (after taxes about $50) over and above my monthly salary. Every night before a show, the management would place a receipt in our dressing room, which could be redeemed from the cashier anytime after the first act was over. Often I saved up my receipts and collected all my fees at once, but on opening night I was desperately in need of some cash. They hadn’t left me a receipt, so at intermission I went to the cashier to inquire.
“Which role are you?” the unfriendly Swiss woman behind the glass asked. When I explained, she said, “Oh, you are nonsinging, of course we don’t pay you for this.”
Early the next morning my scabby face appeared in the director’s office. “Look pal,” I said, “I did not spend 6 years in conservatory, earn a master’s degree and fly to Switzerland at my own expense to do walk-on roles for free. I did the rehearsals, I’m giving up six evenings for performances, and I will be paid what you said I would be paid for stage performances or I will not do them. I did not leave my apartment in the hands of a subletter to come to Europe for a year to volunteer to not sing. I auditioned for this.”
I got my fee.