Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

December 2022

The Metropolitan Opera---Home again!

This is a long one, folks. I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera on April 17, 1989. It was one of the first opera companies with which I sang. I never dreamed I’d be an opera singer…let alone one who sang at The Metropolitan Opera (and in hundreds of performances here at the big house). It just wasn’t on the radar of a very small town boy from Illinois. But, tonight, I sing a performance at The Met in my FIFTH DIFFERENT DECADE. What? How is that possible? It’s kind of a rare thing to have happen…only three of the 368 singers on the Met’s roster this season can say the same. I truly am humbled, honored, grateful, and shocked. When I walked into the lobby the other day and saw my picture on the “Wall of Fame”, I was truly moved. It used to be a picture of me as Wozzeck…now, they use my real mug…maybe they should go back to using the picture of me as the tortured whacko.

A few years before my debut, I visited New York, for the first time, with Nancy (we were dating at the time) and her parents. We attended "Manon Lescaut" on a beautiful evening, March 31, 1981, during my senior year of college. (The day before, President Reagan had been shot.) I was mesmerized by the chandeliers as they floated to the ceiling before the massive gold curtain opened, the gargantuan size of the auditorium, the sound, the voices, and everything that occurred that night. I even got chills drinking out of the Ezio Pinza drinking fountain. I have mentioned before, in a Facebook Post, that I leaned over and gave Nancy a kiss during the evening and proclaimed, “Now I’ve kissed you at the Met”. We had a lot of those “first kisses”. It has been wonderful to have her by my side during this long ride.

But, I said something else that night…I said, “Wouldn’t it be incredible just to stand on that stage just once and sing just one note”. Uhm…that was a LOT of notes ago. Not all of them were great notes…but there sure have been a lot of them.

I can remember that debut performance so well. It was in “Billy Budd”. The John Dexter production is still one of the finest productions to ever grace The Met stage. I had no rehearsals on the stage and had to jump onto that ship and take a cruise. And what a tricky set it was. I was holding on for dear life but surrounded by outstanding colleagues.

I had a car accident just a few weeks before in the city. A taxi cab ran a red light and nailed me. I then rolled into a fire hydrant (thankfully, not drenching the city). My car was totaled but drivable. I made it back to Connecticut, where we lived at the time, in one piece and was happy that my Met debut hadn’t been put on hold because of the crash. But the car was a mess.
My parents came out to see my debut and to visit NYC for the first time. On the day of my debut, I drove our 2nd car into the city. It was a Renault 18i which was already very old. In that car, the heat was either on full furnace blast or the air conditioning was refrigerating you at ice inducing chill…depending on which way you taped down a lever. And, it had to be taped down…otherwise, you left yourself to be roasted in the winter or chilled numb in the summer. So, I drove that car in as Nancy and I arranged for a limo to drive my folks in a few hours later. I didn’t want them trying to drive my crumpled Buick. It was also an honor to facilitate them “riding in class” as they came to the Met for the first time. Nancy rode with them and said that they beamed all the way to Manhattan…holding hands. I was proud that I was making this debut in front of my two wonderful parents who were so very responsible for me becoming a musician.

It was a scary night. I sang my first high F# ever in a performance that evening…and even had a high G in a scene that is, thankfully, mostly covered by the chorus. But I was so happy with the results. A successful debut had occurred and more contracts were presented. I didn’t know that, nearly 34 years later, that I’d still be darkening these doors---and feeling a sense of awe each time I walk through the stage door entrance.
The roles got bigger, more challenging, and more fulfilling as well. Less than 4 years later, I jumped in to sing the Villains in "Les Contes d’Hoffmann" in that extraordinary Otto Schenk production. There were four performances in the run. I was only 33 at the time…WHAT A THRILL! There was a very cute thing that happened in one of those performances. My son, Andrew, who was only just over 2 years old, was held in Nancy’s arms in the wings watching the show. In the first act, my character has to destroy the doll, Olympia. A prop doll is obviously used when I pull off the head, the arm, and the leg. Andy looked at Nancy and said “Why Daddy no like Dolly”?

Andy spent a lot of nights on the carpet of the dressing room gathering space playing Jenga with other singers, makeup personnel, and dressers. The Met family was a huge part of his early years…it wasn’t all about singing.
At the same time I was being four different bad guys in those "Hoffmans", I was also singing in "Die Meistersinger" as well. Those were exhausting weeks. However, I’d live through them again and again if the Lord allowed.

From 1993-2009, I was the only singer of the role of Gunther in "Götterdämmerung" at The Met. There were many performances in the Ring singing Donner and Gunther while covering the great Jim Morris as Wotan. He came over to me on so many occasions during performances of "Das Rheingold" when we were both onstage at the same time singing our roles and quietly say, “Alan, I’m feeling a bit tired…you’d better be ready to go on tomorrow night in "Die Walküre". And then, of course, he’d sing gloriously the next night…which was a good thing because I could hardly sleep on those nights following his “warnings”. In all those years of covering Jim, I only had to go on for him once in a Ring in San Francisco and once as the Villains in Paris. We were sharing those runs. I learned so much from him.

I’ve sung 20 different roles in the big house and covered another 10. Each one was slowly and solidly learned with the help of Met coaches for the most part. So much of my German repertoire was learned under Walter Taussig, drilling me over and over and over. Diction was practiced and perfected (well, I like to think so) with the incredible Nico Castel and Irene Spiegelman. I learned following the greatest Maestros. I gained solid technic not just from my great mentors George Gibson and Richard Cross, but also from watching the greatest singers in the world walk the boards. Countless nights I just stood in the wings and watched colleagues on stage or a conductor on the monitor. Watching Carlos Kleiber conduct "Der Rosenkavalier" on a small 8”x 8” monitor was one of the greatest music experiences of my career.

I grew up in this opera house…as a singer and as an artist. I was very young to take on so much. I had to learn from doing. Watching the greats was a great learning experience….how they breathe, how they move, how they adapt. I learned how to listen, how to control movement, how to prepare a role, and so much more. Working at the Met and at the Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera WAS my young artist program. We didn’t have all the programs that now exist. We learned by doing…the best way to learn anything.
After the Rings in 1990 and 1993, I sang my first Balstrode in "Peter Grimes" on this stage in 1994. I’ve gone on to sing this role so many times and even won the Canadian version of the Tony Award with this role at the Canadian Opera Company in 2013. In 1994, I had only just learned the role as I was to sing it the next month, for the first time, in Vancouver with Ben Heppner and Patricia Racette. However, the great Thomas Stewart became ill before the dress rehearsal and couldn’t sing the run. The Met started calling all over the place trying to find Balstrodes. I was in Frankfurt at the time singing Leporello in "Don Giovanni". I quickly put the polishing touches onto my study and showed up for 2-3 days of rehearsal with just the director and the conductor, James Conlon. A young Renée Fleming was the Ellen Orford. Again, we had no rehearsals together, on or off the stage. On my first performance of the opera, I stood there on that incredible set and in front of that nearly 4,000 seat house, and, when our scene came, she quietly came over, in character, and whispered a supportive “Hi, Alan”…and off we went. We had only sung together once before, 6 years earlier, in Toledo, OH.

"Elektra", "Tannhäuser", "Boris Godunov", "Samson et Dalila", "Die Zauberflöte,”countless "Rigoletto", "Tosca", and "Fidelio", "Hansel and Gretel", and, my cherished "Wozzeck" all followed. I can remember nearly every show in one way or another…and that isn’t because of my singing. I remember them all because of my colleagues…the singers, conductors, directors, orchestra members, chorus members, and everyone else that helps make up the Metropolitan Opera family. Bill Malloy was the head of wardrobe and a dear friend. He retired a few years back…but I remember so many great days and nights just sharing life with him.

I got to know many audience members as well who are just as much a part of the Met as are the singers. I cherished the nights during "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" when all of us Meisters would eat wings and pizza backstage while others sang onstage…it’s a long night (It’s a 6 hour opera) and we needed sustenance (although it was always more like a party). How many calls were made from this opera house to Ollie’s for Chinese delivery as well. We had NCAA basketball pools during March Madness (I think I won, once) and talked baseball. And for Bill Malloy and me, Notre Dame football was always at the tip of the tongue (just as much as the text of the evening's performance).

I was onstage the night Charlie Anthony broke the record for most performances at The Met. Charlie was so special. When he found out that my dad had worked at Caterpillar back in Peoria, he asked if I could get him a CAT hat. Dad went to the CAT store, got him one, and mailed it out. Charlie often wore that hat proudly on his trips in and out of the opera house.

I got to sing with so many of the greats including Christa Ludwig, Alfredo Krauss, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo (many times), Tatiana Troyanos, Hildegard Behrenz, Leo Nucci, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Teresa Stratas, Gwyneth Jones, Sam Ramey, and so many others. It was Placido who had to “stab” me in a performance of "Samson et Dalila" while I was up on a platform. I was to fall backwards where I would be caught by the extra actors. The only problem was that they didn’t catch me one night…and I had a badly bruised, if not broken, rib to show for it. Joan Dornemann was the prompter that night. Her hand was quickly on the phone to summon help if needed and whispered, “Are you ok?” (She thought I had landed on my head). Staying in character (I was supposed to be dead) I grunted a weekly affirmative “Uh-huh”. Breathing wasn’t fun for a few days…but, I was still able to sing the Villains in "Hoffman" two nights later…bursting through that flaming fireplace was something you just didn’t want to miss.

And that night I was injured…By the time I made it back to my dressing room, Bill, Placido, and the General Manager, Joseph Volpe, were already
waiting with a doctor in tow who went through the concussion protocol with me. They were so concerned. They were family.
I was also in the last full performance given by Richard Versalle before he died onstage a few weeks later.

I could write for months about Met experiences, but, for any singer, we have to keep moving onto the next performance…and here I am in the fifth different decade of those performances at The Met. It's been a while since I’ve been back and so many of my old friends have moved on. There are people in this production of "The Magic Flute" who are under half my age. The next singer in age to me is 16 years younger. But you know what, I don’t feel old at all with these people. I used to worry about the traditions fading away…the eras passing…nothing would ever be the same. I thought about that when I came back to NYC a few weeks ago. Would anyone remember me in the house? But, they did…security guards calling me by name…a guy working in the box office calling me by name yesterday…old faces amongst all these “kids”. And how impressed I am with these “youngsters” in the show. It is so very moving.

One of my greatest memories at The Met was getting to know the great Thomas Stewart who I covered multiple times in "Die Zauberflöte". A few years later, we shared a dressing room in Washington during "Parsifal". He was singing Titurel and I was singing one of his greatest roles, Amfortas. I was so intimidated to sing the role in the Sitzprobe with him sitting feet away. What an incredible man. We’d sit and talk in our dressing room…sharing so many stories. His wife, the great soprano Evelyn Lear, sat in a corner while Tom and I talked. Evelyn was reading a new book that her granddaughters had urged her to read…it was a fairly new book about some kid named Harry Potter. These friendships are cherished. When Tom passed away, I was honored to escort Evelyn into the memorial gathering in Washington with the Wagner Society.

It is interesting that I’m now back to sing The Sprecher, the same role that I covered Thomas singing in so many performances. And I’ve got a great cover here this year who will sing two of our nine performances (some are sold out or close to it…that’s a lot of seats). I hope, decades down the line, he’ll look back and be happy that he was connected to previous generations of singers just like I do.

And that is one of the most important things I can bring to the Met during this engagement and during the new production of “Die Zauberflöte” that I’ll return to be a part of in the Spring. I am a link, in this business to other eras. Opera, as I teach my students, is tied, like no other art form, to the past…the traditions, the national identity of composers, artists and politics, creativity, and so much more. I owe a lot to this history and want to be able to pass along these experiences to this new generation who will certainly continue to define their time. I am encouraged by these young singers here at The Met. I also am relieved that I can still hang with them in the vocal department as well. Together, we will sing these performances of a 231 year old opera and know that people are hearing it for the first time and experiencing their first night with this great art form. It is humbling to be a part of it all…I am very grateful to my creator and to all those who have helped create what we do.

One cherished night will always be my favorite in this house. Nobody in the company but Bill Malloy, who is not only a dear friend but a great Catholic, knew about what occurred in late 2009. (Bill’s family, like ours, adopted a beautiful girl from South Korea…another thing we have in common.) That night brought a December performance of “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, a new production and so totally different than the production of 1993. For a few years, we had, as a family, been away from the Catholic Church. I won’t go into all the reasons we had stepped away…but I do want to share how so much of my life has been shared between faith, family, music, and the Met. I decided, after much discernment and prayer (not to mention, the strong prodding of The Holy Spirit) to return to the Church. Our dear family friend, Father Albert Audette, was coming to the performance on December 23. I had pre-arranged for Father Al to be on my backstage visitor list for that evening. It was joyous to see him, share laugh after laugh, and then get “down to business”. In my dressing room, following a long and difficult performance, I made my confession and returned to the Church. We celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation as costumes were put away, sets were moved, fans were greeted, and the opera house was put to sleep for the night…although, during opera season, it never really sleeps. It was an incredible night…and, as my confession ended, it was after midnight and now Christmas Eve. We were nearly the last out of the opera house that night. I think the security guards truly wondered why the leading baritone in the performance left so late that night and with a Priest as well. It was one of the best Christmases ever. My penance was just to just get outside, look at the stars, and be thankful. And, as I looked up in the cool December night air, I truly was. I came home to the Church while at my music home before driving home to Pennsylvania to be with my family at home for Christmas. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I can’t wait for tonight’s performance at The Metropolitan Opera. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make it to decade #6?