Superstitious Tenors

19 Apr

For quite a while, when I was living in London, I worked as a stagehand at Covent Garden – the Royal Opera House, home to both the opera company and the Royal Ballet. It was a great gig and I was loth to leave it. These were the days when the Three Tenors had not joined forces but were simply stars on their own.

With Jose Carreras, nicknamed ‘Cosy’ Carreras, when he was singing in ELISIR D’AMORE, even the least musical of stagehands would at a certain point drift up to the OP (opposite prompt) wing to get as close as possible when he sang ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’.

Pavarotti and Domingo were temperamental opposites. Pavarotti, ‘King of the High C’s’ was a voice pure and simple. He didn’t bother so much with acting. He just took the center of the stage and opened up his mouth and let the arias sail forth. No more was ever demanded of him.

Placido Domingo on the other hand was the complete professional package. He acted as well as sang. In rehearsal when the repetiteur was out of the room, he would go to the piano and accompany his fellow singers. And it was no surprise when some years later, he added conductor to his quiver of talents.

Both of them had their particular superstitions. In the case of Luciano, he had a ritual that had to be performed before he would step on stage. Most of the scenery in a theatrical set is held together by hinges fastened with a stage pin. This makes for easier assembly and disassembly. Pavarotti’s unvarying ritual was to pace up and down in the wings looking for a loose stage pin on the floor. He had to find one. Otherwise he simply would not go on. He had to find that lucky pin for each performance. Now the simple fact was that there were no stray stage pins lying about on the floor. They would have been swept up.

So we had this game. Luciano would appear and pace worriedly up and down the Prompt Side wings, hunting for his essential lucky charm. We would be standing around, watching him get increasingly desperate. Stella, the stage manager, would hiss at us “For God’s sake, give him his pin!” And one of us would casually drop a pin on the floor for him to find. There was always a crow of triumph from Luciano when he stumbled across it. “See, I always find a pin.” Yes, Luciano, fancy that.

Domingo’s superstition caught us all by surprise. We discovered it by accident on an all nighter when we were breaking up a giant set of FANCIULLA DEL WEST after the last performance. The set was a monster. Act One was a saloon so big that  Clint Eastwood would have been proud to shoot an entire movie in it. Act Two was a mountain cabin three stories high. Act Three was a mining camp with a giant water wheel. It was going to take us all night to break it down.

It was just past midnight when Placido came on stage and halted in surprise at seeing us still there. Somebody said “Did you forget something, Placido?”

“No,” he said. “It just little custom I have on last night of a show. You don’t mind?” He spread his hands, shyly supplicating.

“No, go ahead, Placido. What do you need?”

The stage curtain separating the stage from the auditorium was closed. He pointed to it and said, “Please. Can it be open?”

I stepped to the lever in the prompt corner and pulled it over. The red drape curtain divided and swooshed up out of sight to reveal the empty auditorium. All of us stopped what we were doing to watch. Placido stepped down stage till he was overlooking the orchestra pit. And he opened his mouth and sang an aria to all the silent empty seats. I can no longer remember which aria or from which opera it came.

Not a paying customer in sight. And normally, none of us would have been there. He would usually have been singing with no witnesses nor listeners. An offering, a thanks, a tribute to the Gods. He finished – and, yes, we all applauded. He turned to us and gave an embarrassed shrug. “It is little thing. But I like to do it.” And he left the stage, having shared his private ritual with us.

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