Friday, November 9, 2007

And Your Little Dog, Too!

If Axenbourg felt unnoticed and unappreciated as he stood by the curb waiting for a cab, his colleague, Ravenna McAfree, knew all too well that she was the center of attention in rehearsal room B of the Metropolitan Opera House. Ravenna was being read the riot act by the Met’s senior prompter and vocal coach, Wayne DiStefano.


Having just finished coaching the aria “Bevi, e fuggi, t’en prego” as part of her preparation for the Met’s new production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, the soprano was being taken to task for what Wayne considered to be her habitual lack of attention to detail and drama. Of course, Ravenna had heard this speech many times before. But since she was pretty to look at and easy on the ears, DiStefano’s tiresome lectures about her responsibility to uphold a grand performing tradition never really hit their mark.

Ravenna knew that she would always get work and that there was precious little this pathetically frustrated, mean-spirited man could do to stop her career. Once upon a time -- like so many other voice teachers -- DiStefano might have had a promising career as a singer. But acute stage fright had made it impossible for him to get up the nerve to perform. In order to continue working in the music profession, Wayne had built himself a secondary career as a vocal coach.

Although he was well-known to music lovers across the nation for his witty remarks during the Texaco Opera Quiz (the Saturday afternoon intermission feature of the Met’s weekly radio broadcasts), the scathing insults and bullying techniques which Wayne unleashed on the Met’s singers during their coaching sessions never scorched the public’s ears.

Most of the people who worked at the Met respected DiStefano for his unerring musicianship and encyclopedic knowledge of operatic history. Many, however, also despised the man and saw him as the evil embodiment of the old saying: “Those who cannot sing, teach.”

Thus, it was the publicly charming and privately feared DiStefano who once told Montserrat Caballe that she reminded him of a manatee with a severe case of amnesia. It was the snake-tongued DiStefano who suggested to “Damn Dreary Te Kanawa” (as he liked to call one of the world’s most popular sopranos) that, while sipping coffee during the Marschallin’s Act I morning levee in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, she might like to give the audience some indication of having arisen from the pathetic somnambulism which had become her artistic trademark.

If the artists performing at the Met were willing to tolerate DiStefano’s humiliating diatribes, it was only because he inevitably coaxed the kind of results from them which no other vocal coach could achieve. Once Wayne established a working rapport with an artist he was able to pull the most miraculous performance from that person when the singer was musically unprepared or feeling under the weather. However, if the two became mortal enemies, the singer’s only line of defense was to caution Wayne about his dangerously high blood pressure.

From where she was standing, Ravenna McAfree could see that Wayne’s fingers were starting to shake; a sure sign that he was warming up for the kill. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Wayne bellowed. “Are you aware that this aria is being sung by a proud noblewoman, hated throughout Venice, who is desperately trying to save her son’s life? Do you understand that Donizetti wrote this music so that a soprano with a golden voice like yours could have an absolute field day with this aria? Because if you do, you’re not convincing me of that fact for one second! The way you just sang this aria makes me wonder if you’re completely whacked out on Quaaludes or if you actually prefer to deliver some of the most beautiful music ever written for the bel canto literature as if you were a mindless cow farting out a high E flat!”

Before her coaching session that afternoon, Ravenna had sworn that nothing DiStefano could say would upset her. “Oh, come on, Wayne,” she sighed. “Chill out. You know what the doctor said about your blood pressure.”

Fuck my high blood pressure, you little tart,” roared DiStefano as he slammed both hands down on the keyboard. “I’ve been handed the unfortunate task of trying to squeeze a decent performance out of you and by the time the opening night of this production rolls around I’m damned well going to do it. This is the first time the Metropolitan Opera has performed Lucrezia Borgia since December 5th, 1904 and I am not about to let you walk out on that stage, all gussied up in some $20,000 costume, and make a total fool out of yourself simply because you’re content to perform some of Donizetti’s most intensely dramatic music as if you’d just had a designer label lobotomy.”

DiStefano’s contempt for the soprano knew no bounds. Here was someone who had been given a beautiful instrument to work with but who treated her voice as if it were an absolute joke. Like many of the successful new singers who had come to the Met in recent years, Ravenna McAfree struck DiStefano as a cold-blooded, materialistic little bitch who was only interested in cashing in on multimedia opportunities. The soprano’s enormous fees did not impress Wayne. Nor could he deny that the young woman was a magnificently photogenic creature.

However, what DiStefano simply could not tolerate was the fact that Ravenna McAfree’s filthy rich husband had hired the most expensive publicist in New York and told him to make his wife into an international superstar. Therefore, Ravenna really didn’t have to do anything to improve her singing. She was the kind of pretty, bland young artist who could be content to hit a few high notes, pick up her paycheck, and continue singing each role with the emotional involvement of a pencil eraser while her husband literally bought her an operatic career.

Having worked with all the great sopranos of the past quarter century -- legendary singers like Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese -- Wayne was not about to call this operatic bimbo, this embarrassingly vapid cross between Pia Zadora and Kiri Te Kanawa, a diva.

No way.

Compared to any of the Met’s great artists, Ravenna McAfree was staggeringly dull. Oh, sure. She was a good looking young lady. But the mere fact that her face appeared regularly in all of the popular women’s magazines offered no excuse for Ravenna’s appalling lack of musicianship. Even in DiStefano’s wildest fantasies, the only reason he could imagine why the Met kept hiring Ravenna was because her steady presence on daytime talk shows had such a healthy effect on the box office.

Times were tough. He knew that. But, having just suffered through another lifeless rendition of Lucrezia’s Act I, Scene II aria, how could Wayne even begin to explain to Ravenna that her singing wasn’t worth shit?

How could he tell this woman -- this vocal trollop that the Met was pushing toward superstardom -- that if she didn’t start to pay attention to what the composer was saying through his music she’d be booed right off the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House on her opening night?

Before Wayne could launch into his stock lecture about the history of bel canto singing, he was interrupted by the appearance of a young man from the publicity department who rushed into the rehearsal room and informed Ravenna that she was late for her photo shoot. Once again, the soprano (who, by now, had grown quite accustomed to Wayne’s temper tantrums) was saved by the clock.

As she headed for the door, Ravenna put her hand on DiStefano’s shoulder and whispered to him in her sweetest, most soothing voice. “Look, Wayne. I understand how you feel about the death of a musical tradition and I want you to know that I have nothing against you, personally. But as far as I’m concerned, singing is just a job. Okay? I don’t harbor any illusions about becoming a great artist; I’m just here to make a lot of money with my voice.”

Ravenna could see Wayne’s fingers starting to tremble again and knew that his temper was close to erupting. But she wanted to make her feelings clear. “For most of the singers in my generation, the music business is exactly that. It’s a business, and that’s all it really is,” she stated.

“A new production of Lucrezia Borgia is a means of fundraising and getting publicity. It’s not supposed to become some kind of artistic monument to the world’s dead divas. Besides, there are only a handful of the old girls left who can sing this music the way you’d like to hear it. And I’ve got news for you, Wayne. Those ladies are all going to retire soon. So, as far as I’m concerned, you can take their old recordings and cram them up your oversensitive musicological ass!”

As she stood in the doorway, Ravenna blew a kiss to the irate man at the piano and flashed him one of her most dazzling photogenic smiles. “On that cheerful note,” she said, “you have a nice day. And one more thing, Wayne. Why don’t you just fuck art! You might live longer!”

Next: Open Wide!

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