Friday, November 9, 2007

Valhalla Beckons

By 10:30 that night, John Axenbourg was in seventh heaven. Clad in Wotan’s costume, with a shiny cape flowing behind him, he looked like the very personification of Wagner’s mythical God. The baritone had carefully paced himself throughout the evening’s performance of Das Rheingold, knew that he had sung with great authority and suspected that, with just a few more minutes to go, he had scored a major career triumph during his first Met telecast.

Gesturing toward the castle which could be seen in the distance, he invited his fellow Gods to join him in their newly-built home. Having carefully rehearsed this moment, the singers portraying Fricka, Freia, Loge, and Froh all began to make their way toward the footlights. Only the baritone who was singing Donner remained upstage, anxiously awaiting the cue to raise his hammer in a move which would trigger some stunning scenic effects.

Suddenly, there was a roar of thunder.

A series of strobe lights shocked the audience out of its somnolence and, after delivering his final cue to the singers, Wayne DiStefano flicked off the light in the prompter’s box and raced down the hallway to the men’s room. Because Wagner’s one-act opera droned on relentlessly for two hours and forty minutes, Das Rheingold was one of the most difficult works in the repertoire for Wayne to prompt. He had tried to avoid being assigned to the production this season but, when the Met scheduled Das Rheingold as one of the telecasts in its “Live From Lincoln Center” series, Maestro von Blindt had insisted that Wayne be on duty in the prompter’s box.

By now, the first glimpse of Wagner’s rainbow bridge -- the span that Wotan would cross to enter his castle in the sky -- could be seen by the audience. The orchestra, under von Blindt’s baton, solemnly began to play Wagner’s familiar “Entrance Of The Gods Into Valhalla.”

Turning to face upstage, John Axenbourg kicked the train of his cape toward the audience and, as if by magic, the two women performing the roles of Freia and Fricka seemed to fit right beneath his outstretched arms. As the colors of the rainbow bridge intensified and the despairing cries of the Rhinemaidens could be heard offstage mourning the loss of their gold, the orchestra began to build toward the opera’s powerful climax.

Awed by the panoramic spectacle before them, no one in the audience saw the tiny glass dart which flew from the prompter’s box and embedded itself in the skin of John Axenbourg’s right hand. Since the television cameras had already zoomed back to show the entire stage picture, the millions of TV viewers who were watching the telecast were likewise unable to see Axenbourg’s fingers stiffen.

But, moments later, as the curtain began its slow descent and the Gods started walking upstage with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, people were horrified to see the man portraying Wotan -- with his arms outstretched like Jesus Christ on the cross -- suddenly fall forward and crumple to the floor in a heap.

Although Axenbourg’s body hit the floor with a sickening thud, his colleagues -- all seasoned operatic professionals -- never once turned around or lost a beat. Instead, they kept moving slowly up the steeply-raked platform until their arms were raised in unison, exactly on cue, pointing toward Valhalla.

With his attention focused on the orchestra’s last few measures, Maestro von Blindt remained totally unaware that anything had gone wrong onstage.





Next: Don't Just Lie There!

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