To the people gathered in the gate area awaiting the arrival of friends and relatives, John Axenbourg looked like any other traveling executive. His dark blue suit, yellow “power” tie and beige raincoat did little to make him stand out in a crowd. The tan attache case he carried in his left hand and the brown overnighter bag slung over his shoulder were the trademark of the investment banker, traveling salesman, or merger and acquisitions lawyer whose work transformed them into road warriors..
Axenbourg, however, did not work on Wall Street. Nor was he repping any product other than himself. One of America’s fastest rising operatic talents, he had given a glorious recital in Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall the previous night and, on Saturday evening, was scheduled to perform the role of Wotan in the Metropolitan Opera’s telecast of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold
Despite anything that politicians and performers might say about how they crave anonymity, as he made his way through the passenger terminal John Axenbourg was desperately hoping that someone -- anyone -- would recognize his face and ask him for an autograph. In recent summers, the baritone from Omaha had developed an impressive following on Broadway by starring in limited run revivals of such popular old musicals as South Pacific , Man of La Mancha and Carousel.
During those carefully scheduled stints (which had been designed to capture the heart of New York’s tourist trade), Axenbourg had appeared on every local talk show, stopped to sign autographs after each performance, and taken advantage of every conceivable photo opportunity from appearing in the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday celebration to singing the Star Spangled Banner at the Republican National Convention.
During the previous summer, the singer had taped a new recording of Man of La Mancha with the London Philharmonia Orchestra which became one of the best-selling gift albums of the Christmas season. His video of the musical’s hit song, "The Impossible Dream" was constantly being shown on MTV.
The 39-year-old singer had worked hard to transform himself into a household name and -- although maintaining a steady presence in the media may have cost him a cool $75,000 in public relations fees – as far as he was concerned, the investment of time and money had paid off handsomely. Now, with the telecast of Das Rheingold coming up on Saturday night, Axenbourg was convinced that his publicity people could position him as the most exciting new voice in German opera. Hell, they had spent the past six months hyping him as the greatest Wagnerian singer of his generation.
With enough money, anything could happen.
Anything, perhaps, except the spontaneous smile of recognition which the singer so desperately sought as he strode through LaGuardia’s crowded passenger terminal. As he traversed the distance from the jetway to the curb, passing one crowded gate area after another, not one person at LaGuardia Airport recognized Axenbourg. It was a peculiar kind of anonymity which felt like a crushing defeat.
That would all change – and change for the better -- the singer reassured himself as he patiently stood in line for a taxi. If everything his publicist had hinted would happen after Saturday night’s telecast really did come true, Axenbourg’s recognition factor -- even at LaGuardia -- was destined to undergo a sudden and dramatic transformation. As far as the baritone was concerned, that change could not happen soon enough.