Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fidelio and the reluctant tenor.

Seeing the above posted by one of my friend's on Facebook reminds me of one of my worst moments in my career as an opera director. I had planned for every disaster I could think of but not this.

Many years ago I ran an opera company in the Concert Chamber of the Auckland Town Hall. It was to give work to the very talented singers which Sister Mary Leo and other brilliant singing teachers were turning out. Kiri Te Kanawa was just one of many.

Naturally I choose Fidelio Beethoven's one and only opera and possibly the greatest ever written. It is a plea for freedom and I set it in a concentration camp of an indeterminate state. It looked like a  hospital to begin but gradually one came to realise it was a bit more than that. I got rung up by the KGB who told me that in USSR they had no such camps but I digress.

All went well. We had the most fabulous dress rehearsal. I was just so happy. The singers sang beautifully. The mise en scene which was montage of the works of NZ's finest artist Tony Formison who had painted two oils for me looked wonderful. Tony had told me of his experiences in  Paris prison and I based my prisoners on his description. Although I had commissioned and paid for these oils I never recieved tham. One is lost and one hangs in the boardroom of the NZ Bank. It is now worth $80,000 and they are not giving it back but I digress.

I got home thinking I had the most wonderful production to show to the world and what could be achieved with little money but superb artists and then I got the call. My Florestan whose name I now forget fortunately rang. He had been exemplary in rehearsal and was doing an excellent job so what came next was somewhat of a surprise.

He said he was about to make a phone call that I should never forget and it would teach me the lesson of my life. He was right there!

He calmly informed me that he was withdrawing from the production as the local reviewer had left his name out of the publicity. He knew I did not have an understudy and I should lose all my money if this failed and it would serve me right. These were the words he used.

I could not believe my ears. In London I could have found a replacement but in Auckland? Impossible. New Zealand in those days was isolated. He knew I was stuck.

Yes, I crawled and begged but it was to no avail. Florestan thought I had done it to spite him. I said I could show him the press release sent to every paper with his name underlined. It was no good.

As I director I decided never to submit to an artist's blackmail ever. Once you do, word gets around and it would happen all the time. Fortunately I had a brilliant young tenor who sang the juvenile role and he said he would learn it. He did and he did it. Aucklander's realized what had happened and forgave the dual role on this occasion. I don't think that this has ever been done before or since and was not my choice but needs must sometimes.

Under the circumstances it was OK but my production was not the stunner it should have been. The tenor arrived on the morning of the performance and told me he would go on but it was too late. I did not accept his offer. It had been a cruel, vicious thing to do and could have cost a lot of singers their opportunity. I should have had to shut up shop! No performance, no pay and no company.

Later I learned about insurance but I had to learn on the job.


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