Trapping Wolves, Part 2

Now, where was I?

Ah, yes--the summer of 1987 when The Wolf Trap Opera Company set me on course for a career in opera. My wife and I packed a large portion of our meager belongings into two cars (including our wonderful mutt, Molly) and headed from Connecticut towards Washington. We knew that, since our next year was going to be spent almost completely in the D.C. region, we might just as well move to the area. About half way between Philadelphia and Baltimore, we pulled off at a rest stop and came face to face, for the first time, with the massive outbreak of the 17 year cicadas which decided to pop out of the ground just in time for our arrival south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The last time they had ventured out of the soil was when I had been a mere 5th grader back in Washburn, Illinois and long before folks in Northern Virginia had built so many roads and parking lots on top of their heads. They couldn’t have been too happy about this when they emerged to enjoy long evenings of chirping, mating, and basically driving everyone nuts. These enormous bugs were EVERYWHERE. I think Nancy was ready to immediately turn the car around and head back north. What a racket these creatures made. However, I coaxed her to get back into the car she was driving and follow me down to Washington. We were to be staying with a host family in Northwest D.C. for the summer (all of the young artists stayed in host homes) and happily pulled into this gorgeous area of the city on a very warm afternoon. The adults of the host family were not around that day but we were met by their two young sons who couldn’t have reached their teenage years as of yet. They showed us around a bit but then seemed more interested in exhibiting their great excitement over the cicada outbreak. They just glowed in admiration for the bugs and then began trying to feed Molly these insects. We were a bit more than a little grossed out. I was going to be spending a lot of time in rehearsals and the thought of leaving Nancy with these two insect aficionados was a bit too much to contemplate. I knew that if I didn’t make a change quick, Nancy might have just moved back to Connecticut within an hour.

Peter Russell, the then head of The Wolf Trap Opera Company, quickly went to work and, with the help of his assistant, found us new housing by nightfall. We settled into Reston, VA for the summer and prepared for a great adventure despite bugs surrounding us and the heat of the summer of 1987 being nearly overwhelming at times (It was one of the hottest summers on record for Washington, D.C.).

Very early on in the summer, we had movement and acting classes to attend as well as our rehearsals (which filled most of the day). As the summer went on and the heat got worse, many of the other young artists started to fade away from the morning classes. I tried to keep up with the lessons as I wanted all the experience I could get and felt there was a lot to learn from these sessions. I still call upon some of the skills I learned on those days. The first production I was in, “The Barber of Seville”, had me singing the role of Dr. Bartolo which was quite a challenge. I had never sung a role that large in a foreign language (Italian). But the coaching and direction greatly helped me and it all turned out pretty well (someday, when I’m quite a bit older, I’d like another crack at it).

The next opera for me to rehearse was Benjamin Britten’s, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which was an incredible experience. I played the part of Bottom which is an amazingly fun role. I was a real ham when wearing my donkey head---and how great to even be able to blink the ass’s eyes by pulling gently on a near invisible string that I kept attached to my finger. The performances in the outdoor Filene Center were so special (and brought my first review and picture in the NY Times). But what I remember most about that show, other than working with a cast of wonderful young singers, was the magic that was created by nature. As the lights faded at the end of Act 2, the theater was in complete darkness (All of the performers on stage had, as required by Mr. Shakespeare’s play, fallen asleep.) You could hear the sound of crickets (and cicadas) echoing through the night. Wow!!! I’ll never forget being in the forest on stage and being surrounded by one even more beautiful off of it.

Probably the most incredible experience of the summer, however, took place in a rehearsal. Each summer, the Wolf Trap Opera Company presented a concert of opera highlights in the very large Filene Center (seating capacity nearly 4,000 inside the semi-enclosed theater and room for another 3,000 on the lawn where people picnic and enjoy entertainment under the stars). Many duets, trios, and other ensembles were presented as well as a few arias. We rehearsed in the rustic Barn of Wolf Trap (where “Barber” was also presented) although the space was tight for a full orchestra and numerous singers. I was to sing, on the concert, “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” from Wagner’s
Das Rheingold (which had been one of my audition arias) and then a duet from Verdi’s, Luisa Miller, with my friend David Pittsinger. We both studied with the wonderful teacher, Richard Cross, and were glad to have this chance to sing together on stage (We were both in “Barber” as well) as Richard was coming to the concert that was to be presented on a very hot Sunday afternoon, two days later. (My parents also travelled from Illinois for the concert as did Nancy’s parents from New Jersey.) However, it was the Friday rehearsal that brought us notoriety. In the Barn at Wolf Trap, there was a large sliding glass door that opened onto a little patio. The conductor, William Huckabee, was seated just in front of that door as he conducted--we were standing behind the orchestra for our “Sitzprobe” (a rehearsal in opera where the singers only have to sing--no acting). The duet was going wonderfully and built to an incredible climax---dramatic, high, and LOUD). When we hit the zenith of the piece at full volume, the sliding glass door absolutely SHATTERED. OH, the noise and the spectacle this created. Everyone in the room was stunned. A “Memorex Moment” had been achieved and was witnessed by the 70-80 people in the room. We didn’t know whether to laugh, continue singing, or just call an end to the afternoon. The look on Maestro Huckabee’s face was one of shock as the window could have crashed on his head (fortunately, it stayed in a rather beautiful mosaic condition within the confines of the metal frame). I think my biggest fear was that I was afraid Wolf Trap was going to make us pay for the window---thankfully, that didn’t happen. We became “famous” as the incident was written up in “The Washington Post” and became the stuff of legends. This may be my biggest claim to fame.

David joined me for other great experiences that summer as well. I recall one day when he joined Nancy and me on a trip into to D.C. to visit Tower Records. On that trip, I purchased my first recording of the wonderful George London as well as my first recording of “The Flying Dutchman”. I’ve always admired the great Maestro’s voice and, of course, “Dutchman” has become very important to me (can’t wait to sing the title role again this winter in Munich). David has been active as of late singing the role of Emille de Becque in
South Pacific on Broadway and on tour. He is having a 1st class career. Hopefully, however, on that very warm weekend in August 1987, our teacher was proud of what David and I were able to “accomplish” (or should that be, “destruct”) at a much earlier time in our journeys.

That summer was HOT. Rehearsals were held in un-air conditioned spaces and one had to be able to adjust to all of the elements that surrounded you during your performances. But, despite bugs and incredible heat, the summer opened my eyes to what it was like to be a featured artist in a professional company. It was a “feeling” I liked and wanted to continue to build upon. Nancy and I enjoyed being in the area, attending MANY concerts at Wolf Trap, getting to know D.C., working with great colleagues, receiving outstanding support and teaching, and settling down in a town (Reston) where we would buy our first dwelling. We found that we could indeed have stability in this crazy business and that perhaps I might just be able to make a go of this singing thing.

Of course, this was only the first summer at Wolf Trap. Much more was ahead in the coming months as I took on 5 roles at The Washington Opera (more will be written about that experience in the coming weeks as I recall my time with the company leading up to next month’s opening night of “Tosca”--rehearsals are going very well). The following summer of 1988, however, also brought great experiences at WT with me singing one of my most favored roles, Leporello in “Don Giovanni”. This was my first professional go around with the role--a role that is, surprisingly to many, one of my most performed roles. How I loved singing the “Catalogue Aria” in that production. It also brought another Showcase Concert where I sang, for the first time, parts of “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” which, of course, surprises no one that it is one of my most performed operas. It also brought performances of “The Love for Three Oranges” in a production by Maurice Sendak. I have been honored to return to Wolf Trap for a recital in 2006 with Kim Pensinger Witman who is now the wonderful head of The Wolf Trap Opera Company. In my first years at Wolf Trap, she was one of the coaches for the singers---she’s come a VERY long way (We are all fortunate to have her leading this company). She also invited me back to Wolf Trap in the summer of 1999 to speak to the young singers about the “business” of singing. I probably only provided enough information to screw the artists up for life---but I was honored to be asked (and we stayed on during that trip to see a great concert by Peter, Paul, and Mary in The Filene Center).

Wolf Trap gave me the chance to sing. It gave me the chance to express myself abundantly as a singing-actor (perhaps my real calling card). And it gave me a chance to grow up considerably as a man with a dear young wife (and a dog that never did latch on to cicadas as a delicacy--although there are many folks who “fry up” the bugs for a snack). I am so grateful for the experience. I am SO happy that this coming Wednesday night, August, 24, I will return to Wolf Trap to sing in a concert called “Opera’s Greatest Hits”. And I’m thrilled that my return to The Filene Center stage will have me singing once again “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” and Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria”. So much has come full circle. I’ll be singing with great singers---fellow Wolf Trap Alumni and wonderful young artists who are finishing up the first or second year of their own Wolf Trap experience (I’m very proud that one of the young singers, Eric Barry, is a graduate of Yale who I’ve worked with over the last 3 years from time to time during my yearly visits to the campus). Wonderful friends who we’ve cherished over the years since we first met in that summer of 1987 will also be in attendance. They are great sponsors of Wolf Trap and have been such a wonderful support for both Nancy and me. In fact, when we adopted our youngest child, Keith and Barbara Severin wrote a letter of recommendation for us during the application process. And how great it will be to have Terrence (Terry) Jones in charge as well. Terry was the head of the Kirkland Fine Arts Center at Millikin University (our alma mater) when Nancy and I were undergraduate students in Decatur, Illinois. He has been, since 1996, the President and CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation. Terry, you’ve done well. It’s incredible seeing what a grand job you have done at Wolf Trap after knowing you had to put up with my very first performances in opera as a college student so long ago!

All of these moments of those summers came together as simple patches that have helped to make up a very special quilt. Much more could be written and more will be penned. But for now, I’m just very happy to be back in Washington and am so looking forward to Wednesday night. There won’t be many cicadas with their vivid red eyes. There won’t be any windows ready to be shattered. There will be, however, some incredible moments of music and much emotion shared from singers who are all grateful for a company that fostered our careers and “put us on the map”. Thanks to you---Peter, Frank, Kim, Terry, Keith, Barbara, Richard, David, all of the maestri, singers, teachers, directors, audience members, friends, Romans, and countrymen---and of course, Nancy for tolerating the bugs and heat. God bless you all, just as you have greatly blessed me!