Stanford Takes Aim…
At a recent Paul McCartney concert in a packed sports arena one of my companions commented that if someone screamed “Fire!”, a lot of us might not survive the ensuing barbecue. I smiled, though in truth I would probably laugh until the flames consumed me. The explanation for my reaction is presented below. It was a unique moment that occurred during my formative years, long before The Three Tenors became an entity. As nearly everyone knows, the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and Spaniards Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras famously pooled their talents in Rome for a concert at the time of the 1990 World Cup. The multimedia explosion after this performance became the most successful “crossover” phenomenon since Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love” (number one on the pop charts) and his smash hit film The Great Caruso in the early ’50’s. Our three heroes surpassed even that triumph when the C.D. of the Rome concert entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling classical album of all time. The Three Tenors, as they soon became known and marketed, became household names, and their subsequent concerts, videos and C.D.’s continued to keep them in the limelight as the ’90’s yielded to a new Century. That first concert was certainly good show business, particularly on video, and helped bring opera off its pedestal.
Critics and opera lovers complained of crass commercialism and lowest common denominators; Pavarotti insisted that music was for everyone. In a way he was right–the “show” could hardly have been expected to appeal to the already converted. The target audience was very different, and who is to say there is anything wrong with that? One result of this exposure was that millions made their way to an opera for the first time and some of those became, perhaps to their surprise, opera fans.
For those of us already in love with opera, the reaction was very different. Only Domingo was still in his prime; Pavarotti’s wonderful lyrical voice, while still impressive, was past its best. Then there was Carreras, whose voice was sometimes painful to listen to for those who had admired him from the first, due the loss of the sheen around the sound and an intermittent wobble which made a nasty effect on some of the high notes. The finest new tenor to turn up in the ’70’s, his prime lasted only about a decade, and that assessment may be a bit generous. The culprit in his case was the same one that had caused the early decline of Giuseppe di Stefano: unwisely taking on heavy roles hardly suited to his lyric gifts. I began hearing the signs of deterioration in Carreras’s voice by the time he reached his mid 30’s. Later, many believed that his vocal difficulties had simply been caused by his near-fatal bout with leukemia in the late ’80’s. While this couldn’t have helped, the problems had already been apparent for some time. The process in Houston during which all Carreras’s bone marrow was gradually extracted, cleansed and replaced was not only agonizing and lengthy; it also seriously affected his finances, and therein lies a tale.
Opera fans generally felt disdain for the media circus of The Three Tenors. They believed their art had been cheapened by the obvious pursuit of wealth and fame. The truth was not that simple. The Houston treatments had struck Carreras hard financially, though that must have ultimately seemed a small price for saving his life. The better known Pavarotti and Domingo got together and planned that first Rome concert in an attempt to help Carreras regain financial stability. Their success and its continuation more than took care of that, but they could hardly have realized the unprecedented scale of the general fame that came along with the money. It is greatly to the credit of the two older tenors that their principal motive was altruistic. The Ear’s own reaction to The Three Tenors remains simple: I can’t stand them–particularly when they sang together. As if the three-way “Nessun dorma” and “O Sole Mio” were not enough evidence—witness their versions of “My Way” and “Singin’ in the Rain” as Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly sat together watching them in Los Angeles. I prefer to treasure my many memories of each of them in their greatest opera roles—each singing during their primes. Appreciations of all three will eventually appear in this venue in articles on “Great Tenors of the Twentieth Century”.
Thinking about Carreras brings back many memories. I had begun reading about him soon after his debut at The New York City Opera in 1972, when we were both in our mid-twenties. My opera obsession had made me escape the Midwest at about that time. In the Spring of 1973 the New York City Opera came to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where I had worked since late in ’72, and Carreras was on hand for theirTosca.
Word was soon out among the Kennedy Center staff that the visiting company would need many “supers”, short for supernumeraries, as opera extras are called. When the City Opera company arrived, a general casting session was held. The turnout was large, and I was an eager part of it, excited about being onstage in several operas, though not singing or saying a word. The auditions were conducted by a gentleman named Edgar. From the start, Edgar put everyone at ease with his kindness, humor and low key wisdom. My first reaction to seeing Edgar was to ask him if anyone had ever told him he looked almost exactly like the great bass Ezio Pinza. “Pinza always told me so and since then, so has everyone else. That is from the neck up”. Edgar was short and stout, while Pinza was tall and slender but the resemblance was striking.
One of the operas being given was Tosca with the 26-year-old Carreras as Mario Cavaradossi. I was desperate to be one of the firing squad that shoots the tenor near the end of the opera. Tosca was the last of the operas to be cast for the supers, and the suspense was building constantly inside me. I already had parts in all the other operas and as soon as Edgar started with Tosca my constant refrain began: “I want to shoot the tenor”. The first time I said it, Edgar said that none of the supers’ costumes for the scene would fit me. By that point he was referring to me as “Booby” for some reason. He usually said it while rolling his eyes upward, followed by a friendly smile. The process of choosing the shooters proceeded and it was apparent that in this case, the main priority wasn’t acting or stage presence, but simply fitting into the costumes. Undaunted, my “I want to shoot the tenor” kept coming on as regularly as some of the leitmotifs in Wagner’s Ring. When we got to the final squad member, before I could say it again, Edgar looked at me and told his assistant “Oh, take Booby to the fitting room, alter a costume and let him shoot the tenor”. To this day, I remain convinced that that had been his intention anyway and that he simply enjoyed prolonging my suspense.
In the days that followed we had adequate rehearsal time supervised by a City Opera employee known to us as the Chief of the Supers. He put us through our paces quite adequately until the first night of Tosca. During the rehearsals, the firing squad was carefully drilled to respond to our Chief, who was costumed as our Sergeant for the performances. Our cue for firing would be simple: as the crucial second approached, he would raise his saber, holding it aloft until just before the shots should ring out. Our obvious response would be to fire simultaneously. I had no idea if any of the others knew the music. I certainly did and our Chief obviously must have. Puccini’s orchestration at that point couldn’t be clearer. You can actually hear the sound of the rifles in the orchestra at the time of firing. One would have to be deaf not to know when the shots came. We had never rehearsed to a recording illustrating our cue and the production had already had so many New York performances that there was no dress rehearsal.
Our entrance came near the end of the opera. I had been listening to the eagerly awaited young tenor all evening. I was thrilled to hear that beautiful voice so strangely reminiscent of the young di Stefano. Yes, his acting still needed work, but the voice and his fine stage appearance counted for much, and he had plenty of time ahead to polish the acting. By the time we were onstage, I was happier than ever to be up there with the new tenor, who had surpassed my expectations. Finally, my big moment had arrived. We entered and assembled into formation as Cavaradossi stood nobly erect, courageously waiting.
The orchestra was approaching the noisy climax as our Sergeant stood hand on hilt. He drew his saber and held it up as the orchestral cue approached. To my amazement, he prematurely gave us our cue to fire. Miraculously, everyone in our group realized his error and we held our fire as the music continued to build. Our Sergeant couldn’t believe that he had been wrong and the rest of us right. In his frustration, he loudly proclaimed, in English, “Fire!” For good or ill, we fired. The entire audience could hear this and laughter erupted as our Cavaradossi stood there, jaw agape, eyes suddenly opened wide and with his arms out in a gesture expressing “What the Hell are you doing?”. Three seconds after being shot by 12 bullets through or near the heart, he finally collapsed to an even bigger roar of laughter. Then the orchestra clearly rang out its simulation of the sound of multiple simultaneous gunshots, followed by the third and final laugh. The opera ‘s action at that point rapidly moved to its conclusion and the curtain came down. Immediately, our tenor jumped up and ran to the Sergeant, grabbing him by the collar and cursing him in a bizarre combination of Spanish and English. The crestfallen Sergeant quickly escaped offstage. The curtain calls commenced and although his smiles looked forced, Carreras was wildly acclaimed.
Fortunately, the two remaining performance came off without a glitch. Since that Tosca opening, I have spent hundreds of nights at the opera, including countless wonderful performances. But in a way, nothing could ever top what happened the night “Booby” finally got to shoot the tenor.