Saturday, November 10, 2007

Don't Just Lie There!

As soon as she could see stagehands emerging from the wings, Minna Gustavson (the mezzo soprano singing the role of Fricka) spun around and dashed downstage toward the inert body of her stricken colleague. Having sung frequently in European opera houses with John Axenbourg, she found it difficult to believe that -- even under the weight of such a heavy costume -- the athletic baritone who always exercised so religiously in order to stay in shape could have fainted from the heat.

"Wake up, John," she shouted as she slapped Axenbourg’s face in an attempt to stimulate his circulatory system. "Can you hear me?"

When the baritone failed to respond to her touch, Gustavson put her hand to the singer’s jugular vein to check for a pulse. Suddenly she recoiled from Axenbourg’s body. After emitting the kind of piercing scream that could only erupt from the chest cavity of a trained Wagnerian singer, Gustavson yelled "Oh my God, he’s dead!"

The production’s stage manager, Paul Frisch, was the first to react to the situation by cancelling all curtain calls and ordering the house lights up. The other singers onstage froze in horror as the audience’s applause continued in the background. From the control booth at the rear of the auditorium's orchestra level, Mark Hoffheimer, who had been providing the narration for the Met’s telecast, covered beautifully.

"The house lights have come up as the audience continues to applaud this historic performance which has been broadcast to you live tonight over the PBS network from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Conducted by Maestro Erich von Blindt, tonight’s performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold -- the first opera in the composer's tetralogy based on the Norse sagas comprising Der Ring des Nibelungen -- featured baritone John Axenbourg as Wotan, mezzo-soprano Minna Gustavson as Fricka, soprano Nancy Westheimer as Freia and contralto Madelyn Fortson as Erda. Also in tonight’s cast, we heard baritone Malcolm Esterhazy as Alberich, tenor Paul Rivendell as Mime and tenor Stephen McLellan as Loge. This evening’s telecast has been brought to you by Texaco, where you can trust your car to the man who wears the star. We thank you for your support. And now, we return you to your local PBS affiliate for station identification."

As he disconnected the microphone from his headset, Hoffheimer waved to the lighting designer on the opposite side of the booth. "What the fuck’s going on back there?"

"Damned if I know," shouted the man.

Next: Duty Calls

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