I’ve always been loud and could carry a tune. Louder than most people when they open their mouths. And I’ve always been fairly articulate with pronunciation. Who knew that it would be a great combination for singing – loud, articulate singing that could reach the back of the hall. Throw in a 200 year-old musical score with words in a European language and we’ve got Terry doing opera.
I have never longed for the applause or the approbation of being a performer on stage. But with my big voice, articulation, a fairly good ‘ear’ for hearing pitch and a willingness to try something new, operatic singing seemed like a natural thing to try after 15 years abroad as a commercial diver in South East Asia. After all, I’d flirted with that vocal style while was employed as a diver, and even have a recording of me singing operatically while breathing helium down 225 feet doing an inspection dive off the coast of Borneo.
Mid-to late-30’s in age is not the typical time of life to take up the rigors and disciplines of becoming a professional opera singer, but with what natural talent I possessed and nothing to lose I found a classical singing teacher in San Diego and started in. It all went very well from the first lesson. Even though I couldn’t read music, I was able to learn and copy the special sounds and placement of the voice in order to create a tone and projection that sounded genuinely operatic. Within 10 voice lessons I was auditioning for the San Diego Opera Chorus - and in my first attempt, I was accepted. Not a bad part-time gig: it paid just over $20 an hour (in 1989 dollars). Plus, I was surrounded by serious musicians who’d studied voice all their adult lives, which created the very high standard of musicianship for which this opera company was famous. There was a lot of pressure on me to learn my parts and earn the respect of my peers. On my cassette tape player, I would record my teacher singing my parts and then I’d go home and repeat everything note for note while learning to pronounce the libretto (words) in French, Italian or German.
I sang for the SD Opera Company for 11 years, and on occasion, the Chorus Master would assign small ‘bit’ roles for me to sing. Like the 3 measures of solo in Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” as a carriage footman telling the aristocrats that the horses and carriage are ready to take them away to the ball. Quite heady to hear yourself sing over the full orchestra and in front of an audience of 3,000. Even if it was just the equivalent of “M’lady and Noble Sirs, the carriage is here, the carriage is here, oh yes, it’s right here…. For you...”
During a lull in a rehearsal for “Carmen”, I amused myself by juggling 3 soft balls while waiting for the next scene. When the stage director saw that, he said “Hey, you there, let’s put that juggling bit into the town square scene”… the scene where all us peasants are in a lively mood, listening closely to hear Carmen sing of her amorous conquests.
Opening night for Carmen. About to make our entrance for the town square scene, but where are my 3 soft juggling balls? They were on the props desk at last rehearsal - now they’ve disappeared! But among the props was a large bowl of oranges. Hmmmm. Oranges will just have to do… the show must go on!
So I enter, juggling oranges, and keep it up until my close-up at the fountain where Carmen is singing to me and my 2 fellow peasants. I tuck the 3 balls of fruit into my vest as I recline upon the edge of the fountain, totally engrossed; as we all are, listening to the lines of lust and love from the soloist singing the title role. As Carmen comes ever closer to me, just inches away, I feel the fruit slowly loosen and begin to exit out of the bottom of my vest. One by one the oranges fall out and thunk upon the stage floor. Thunk… thunk… thunk. I am beyond mortified because it is so comical yet will be incredibly disruptive if Carmen is distracted by this unintended bit of physical comedy just as she’s singing about how irresistible she is to every male she meets. I desperately stifle my contrary reactions of total humiliation (I’m the one who is about to screw up a $2 million dollar opera production) and suppressed laughter at the absurdity of the moment.
Fortunately, to my utter relief, Carmen is totally in charge of the moment and doesn’t notice anything amiss about me or my falling balls and continues to nail the part. Everyone else on stage who saw the descending oranges had to rely on their own profound discipline to keep from laughing out loud and ruining the scene. If the audience members saw what happened, they thankfully kept their laughter to themselves, and the moment passed.
There are so many other anecdotes about the opera I can recall, but that had to be the most potentially disruptive that I ‘got away with’ onstage. Thanks for the memories.