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Susanne Mentzer

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Blood and Other Hazards of Opera

Posted: 05/22/2012 9:32 am

The other evening as I got out of my car here at my temporary quarters, I got a lot of weird looks from passersby. I just could not figure out what was so intriguing ("Take a picture it lasts longer!"). It had been a long day and my dog Charlie met me at the door with crossed legs so I had to run him right back out. More stares.

Once inside, I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw blood all over my neck and face... fake blood. We just had six hours of rehearsal for Sweeney Todd at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. We ran the neck slashing sequence. In my haste to get back to walk the dog I had neglected to wash up.

We have an amazing special effects guy who normally works film and stage and this is his first "opera". This is my first show with this type of effect and it is definitely effective.

I got to thinking about blood, gore and unexpected events on stage.
In Munich -- or was it Vienna (?! senior moment), I sang the role of Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, a role I did over a hundred times. In the first act my character hides from Count Almaviva by crawling around on the floor always keeping a large armchair between us. At a certain point he sneaks into the chair when the Count's back is turned at which time he is covered by a sheet. Later he is revealed when the Count demonstrates a previous time when he had found Cherubino under a table by pulling off a tablecloth. Cherubino has the habit of turning up where he is not supposed to be. The fellow playing the Count was a genius at the art of the double take. When he pulled off the sheet and found me crouching there with my knees against my chest he did a perfect double take followed by an even more impressive triple. (This sounds like baseball.) While singing he kept signaling with his eyes for me to look at my knees. There I saw my bloody knee soaking my white stockings. Apparently while crawling on the deck (stage floor) I ripped it open on a nail. With the adrenaline that comes from being onstage I never felt it. Most theaters have a doctor on duty and this was no exception so all was taken care of at intermission. I still remember feeling like a little kid, as I had to pull down my trousers and stand there undignified while he inspected my knee.

Things can happen onstage in the blink of an eye. We hear about singers falling or being hit by scenery. There are tragic stories along these lines. The stage ops work like a finely timed machine. One second off can be a disaster. I have the utmost respect for anyone working behind the scenes. I don't think the general public knows how carefully synchronized some effects are and in turn how risky. The stage crew works hard to keep us safe while they do dangerous jobs. Fires are another risk and when fire is used onstage there is usually a fireman on duty. Through the years OSHA and the singer's guild AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) have added guidelines for work in the United States. No doubt every performer has stories.

One of my scarier experiences was in 1998 when I was singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in Buenos Aires at the historic Teatro Colón. It was not a good financial time for Argentina. My flight there had even been held up by a week due to a bombing in the air traffic control room over wages. At the theater I remember being greeted by the strong smell of cat urine. When I inquired, I found that the cats were there for the rats and that there were fleas because of both. We were advised not to get too close to the curtain as it was infested. Great.

More alarming was the news that many of the employees of the theater had not been paid for three months. It was a very sad and awkward situation. Even toilet paper was being metered out by the dressers.

Here is an excerpt from what I faxed to a friend at the time about the final dress rehearsal:


Approximately five minutes into Act II, while I was waiting for my entrance to present the rose, I suddenly saw all the supers that enter before me (about 20 cute hussars) running madly out the sides of the stage, the reverse from where they were supposed to run. I then noticed that I heard the orchestra but no singing. I thought maybe someone was hurt but then more people were running out and I knew there must be something terribly wrong but no one would tell me and no one could speak English.

Finally, I noticed the curtain was down and thought maybe there was a strike, but then a dresser said to the girl playing Sophie, "You need to get out" in Spanish which she translated so I grabbed my passport and ran, in costume, to the street. There was a box in the lobby and they have reason to think it was a bomb. Apparently, someone called it in, and there was the same situation yesterday at the airport.

At any rate, I stood on the street bedecked in white wig and costume, for about 20 minutes, with chorus, supers (curiously out of costume), orchestra, onlookers, etc. I told a passerby that it was early Carnivale. It was chilly and someone told me to go back in and change but they were not letting anyone else in. So, I did, against my better judgment, and in a hurry I changed, then saw Elizabeth (Marschallin), who had not left the building and we both saw the Maestro and we decided to not wait around because the bomb squad had not yet arrived, only the police. Even though the theater wanted us to continue the rehearsal later, half of the orchestra had left and it was nearing 11:30 pm so by the time we would get in after the bomb squad, a rehearsal would have gone on until 4am. When I left people were still out on the street and not being allowed back in.

Now there is much speculation, of course, that this was purposeful so that Friday (which was to be the opening night) will become a dress rehearsal and the theater will lose money, which is precisely what the government wants to happen so they can have more reasons to close the theater. Who knows?

I am ok, but I am quite shaken up by the lack of communication regarding the whole situation. Our lives were allegedly in danger. If there had been a fire or the bomb had gone off, I would have not been informed The entire stage staff up and ran and no one said a thing to me or the other singers who were there.

That really makes me uncomfortable. I don't feel safe.

The performances did go on, after many orchestra walkouts during rehearsals, but I could not wait to get home. We were paid in U.S. dollars at the intermission of each performance and no bank would wire the money back to the U.S. I had to hide it in my armpits during the shows and in food boxes at my apartment. It was truly ridiculous. I worried about carrying that kind of cash back home on the airplane so I bought travelers checks and swallowed the fee.

Me thinks drama is best left to the stage.

If you bleed for your art, it is best to stick to fake blood.

 

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