“The king is dead. Long live the –“
Well, we’ll have to see about that one. There was not a singer like Pavarotti for a long time before him and there likely won’t be another for a long time after. Even though he was pretty much retired and had long been past his prime, the fact that he was still around meant something to the world – and the world took notice when he left us. Although he had stopped singing publicly, it still feels like there’s a void.
Most people knew Pavarotti through recordings or opera broadcasts. Some others may have been lucky enough to see him perform live. I, however, had a closer connection with him (though I’ll be the first one to admit how tenuous a connection it was). For four years, from 2001 to 2004, I worked occasionally as a supernumerary at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York. (A supernumerary – or “super,” for short – is a fancy word for an extra on stage, or, as I liked to call myself, an actor in a non-speaking role.)
I enjoy many kinds of music, including classical and opera, so a friend of mine once suggested that I try to become a super at the Met as he had done a few times. I tried, and it worked. During those four seasons, I appeared in five different operas. I was an Egyptian soldier and treasure bearer in Aida; a yeoman of the guard in the party of the queen of Spain in Don Carlo; a French soldier in La Boheme; a vagrant who attends a church service in Tosca; and, in my favorite, I carried a banner in the court of the Chinese emperor in Turandot. It was a fantastic experience, being on stage and being in the midst of such great music coming from the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists. (Seeing what went on backstage was even more interesting than what happened on stage! Speaking of backstage, here’s a BW photo of me backstage getting ready to go on in Aida; I’m the tall one on the left.))
I made my Metropolitan Opera debut (as I jokingly liked to say) on January 15, 2001 – with Luciano Pavarotti singing the role of the hero, Radames, in Aida. When I was offered the chance to be in Aida, I knew that Pavarotti would be in it, so I was thrilled to be able to be in it with him and tell everyone (jokingly) that I made my debut with Pavarotti.
As fate would have it, I began my Met career with Pavarotti – and he ended his career with me. I had never actually seen a full performance with him, so I bought a ticket to see him in his farewell to the Met (and staged opera) in Tosca. Afterwards, I was given the chance to perform in Act I of Tosca over several weeks, so on the night of his farewell, I wasn’t sure whether I should see the show from the audience or act in it.
Finally, I decided to do both – I did my bit in Act I on stage, changed back into my regular clothes and then went up to the Balcony section to take my seat and watch Act II and III from there. It was great to finally hear Pavarotti sing, even at that late stage in his career, and I timed the standing ovation at the end at around 10 minutes and 45 seconds, as I recall – and it would have gone on longer had Pavarotti and his bad legs been able to stand for longer. (I was actually sitting next to the reporter for the Associated Press and we both timed it.)
I was also able to meet him and get his autograph a couple of times, too (though sadly, no photos). The first time was following the Saturday matinee performance of Aida (on January 27, 2001 – the 100th anniversary to the day of the death of Aida’s composer, the great Giuseppe Verdi). I waited with a friend until the opera was over and sat outside the dressing rooms as the singers came back, all dressed up in their outfits. Afterwards, I waited on Pavarotti’s visitor line and peeked inside his room. I saw a heavy set man with a big beard wearing a shirt that was primarily red in color. It felt a bit like I was waiting to meet Santa at a department store. (You can see a scan of the autographed program here. Click on it to see it larger and read the names.)
Another time, Bill and Chelsea Clinton came to see Aida and visited the cast following the Act II curtain. I was standing just feet away from Clinton, Pavarotti and the Met GM Joe Volpe as they had a conversation, able to hear every word. Here’s a photo made on that occasion that appeared in both Opera News magazine and the National Enquirer! You can see me with my Egyptian headpiece on, standing on tippy-toe in the back between Bill and Chelsea. (Again, click to see it larger.)
The second time I met Pavarotti was following his farewell performance. After the show, I went backstage to retrieve my bag from my locker. I saw that some members of the public were being allowed backstage, so I joined them in a reception in one of the large spaces next to the stage. I’d heard that there would be some kind of presentation, but I waited and it never happened. Finally I decided to leave, but as I passed the singers’ dressing rooms, I saw a short line going into Pavarotti’s room. Sure enough he was there receiving people. I got on line and waited my turn. He seemed tired but in good spirits, and he signed the CD booklet seen at the top here plus that night’s program. However, that day was the birthday of a woman on the Met staff and he had just taken a piece of chocolate birthday cake – so not only do I have his autograph on that program (seen here), but his thumbprint in chocolate, too!
On the subject of men with beards, my good friend Dave Levingston has been visiting me for several days. It’s certainly good to have a friend like Dave around (whiskers and all). One of the reasons he came to New York was to pay a visit to Coney Island before it succumbs to development. I grew up by Coney Island and lived there for many years, so I was happy to take Dave over and give him a walking tour. He seemed to enjoy it. Here are a couple of photos of him looking rather un-New Yorker-ish in straw hat and Hawaiian shirt. Apparently some people thought that he was from Texas.
By the way, Dave’s beard is one of historic stature. Here’s his listing on the website of the National Registry of Historic Beards: http://www.blissisnow.org/beards/Beard-details.asp?ID=293
Finally, today is September 11. The office where I work is just three short blocks from the World Trade Center site, but on that fateful day six years ago I was at a photo workshop in southern Colorado photographing nudes. I was lucky. Many others weren’t. I offer my condolences to those who lost loved ones and friends in the tragedy, whether their grieving has ended or has not.