March 16, 2019

Opera Birmingham’s Tosca – I’m one of the priests next to the painting of the Magdalene

It’s another exciting Saturday night chez Duxbury. Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner, a movie on the blu-ray so I can start work on another column, and a bunch of progress notes from the last week still to be written but which I have no real interest in working on tonight. (I did do half of them this afternoon, I’ll do the other half after tomorrow’s matinee.) No performance tonight. In the opera world, there are never performances on successive days. Gotta give the principals a vocal break so they can sing full out when there are paying customers.

Anyone who has been watching my FB recently knows that the last few weeks have consisted of work (the usual – supplemented by an occasional camel), the viral bronchitis from hell, now finishing it’s fourth week (the acute illness is long gone but it has left an inflammatory reactive airway condition that’s driving me mad), and rehearsals for Tosca with the opera and Man of La Mancha with Virginia Samford Theater.

Tosca opened last night. I counted it up on my fingers and it’s the 14th opera I’ve done since Tommy pushed me into the opera chorus back in 2009. Actually he didn’t push me, but when they were desperate for a larger chorus on short notice for Turandot that year and I asked him if I should go for it, he encouraged me to do it and I’m very thankful that he did. There’s no way I would ever have done something like this without him in my life. Over the years, I’ve been able to sing Aida, Carmen, The Magic Flute, Lucia di Lammermoor and so many other wonderful pieces of music.

Tommy had been intermittently involved with the opera for some years and joined the chorus on a regular basis in 2007 with La Cenerentola, a couple of years before I made my bow. He went from that to La Boheme and, the next year, Barber of Seville and Tosca. I wasn’t able to see that Tosca in 2008 (Kallen Esperian sang the title role and was by all accounts quite wonderful) as I had a show that ran opposite it but I do recall him rehearsing it and coming back from rehearsal excited about how it was all coming together. Tosca had always held a special place in his heart. Many years earlier, in the mid 70s, when he was a boy soprano, he sang the part of the shepherd boy that opens the third act for Birmingham Civic Opera, the precursor to Opera Birmingham. I’ve been looking in various archives for a program or picture of ten year old Tommy doing this but haven’t been successful. He never kept anything. If anyone out there who goes way back in Birmingham music circles has anything about this, I would be most grateful.

Last year’s opera gala – the last picture of the two of us together

All of this operatic activity, is of course, taking me into my head space of last year when we were busy putting together Romeo et Juliette. Tommy became seriously ill immediately after finishing work on the show, entering the hospital just after its closing and never coming out again. The annual opera gala happens about two weeks before the March opera, so as to build interest in the production and to allow the principals to provide some entertainment and as I look back on last years, it seems odd and almost like it was a different lifetime. It was the last major social event we attended. The last picture of us together was taken there. His car accident earlier in the day was probably the first indication of his rapidly worsening health as it was likely caused by a short syncopal episode from his heart which was already failing, we just didn’t know it yet.

Part of me wanted to sit out this whole opera season as there’s so many associations. I did skip the gala this year (I had a legitimate excuse. I had a Man of La Mancha rehearsal that night). I could not skip the opera or my usual chorus duties. That love, which was planted by Tommy, had to be nourished in his honor. In the weeks before he died, we had a couple of conversations about the up coming season. He was so looking forward to revisiting Tosca and trying to figure out how he could balance his front of house duties in such a way so he could be in the chorus for it. As the chorus doesn’t show up until half an hour into Act I, he could have made it work. Tosca is not a big chorus show. Two bits in the first act (including the Te Deum which is a show stopper) and then a cantata in the second act which is sung off stage. The guys have some off stage yelling at the end but it’s just not a whole lot of music or stage time.

Tosca and Scarpia – Act II

This production hits all the high points. Full of brio in Act I, creepy eroticism in Act II, and tragedy in Act III. Friday night’s audience was enraptured and I think we’ll have a similar reception tomorrow. It’s been fun working with Craig Kier again, one of the more laid back maestros but always exacting and precise in what he wants out of singers and orchestra. The more I listen to the show, the more I’m recognizing where Andrew Lloyd Webber cribbed some of his music from. Prima Donna from Phantom of the Opera is right out of the middle of Act I.

I’m playing a priest in Tosca. Usually, when it comes to opera chorus, I’m the town drunk so I suppose a priest is a nice change. I’m in the standard all black outfit with a white clerical collar. I did add one special touch, if you look closely at my feet, you’ll notice I’m wearing bright pink socks. One does want a hint of color. Don’t worry, Mary Gurney, the brilliant costumer, OKd the joke as next to no one is ever going to notice. I’m also carrying a rosary. It’s Tommy’s rosary. He bought it at the cathedral in Jackson Square NOLA one day. I’m not sure why. He had a fascination for the music of catholic ritual, especially the mass. One of his many projects that he wanted to get to eventually was to compose a Catholic Mass for children’s voices. I have his Liber Usualis and various other materials he was using for research. What I’m going to do with them, I don’t know.

Cavadarossi and the Firing Squad – Act III

Good opera heightens the emotions and brings both performers and audience to a slightly different plane of being. There’s not a lot of other theatrical forms that can do that. As I sit backstage and listen to Puccini night after night, I know I’m being transported in some way. Maybe it’s Tommy’s way of connecting. I just know that I’m both feeling closer to him and missing him more the last week or so than I have for a while. It might be at least in part the fact that I’m coming up on the anniversaries of both his birth and his death. Having done this before, those first year milestones are hard. I’ll soldier on, I always do.

And people are counting on my getting up tomorrow and being places and doing things…

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