By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
High Art Hijinks Soprano Leonie Rysanek, one of the world's most respected opera stars -- "the singer with a thousand faces" -- died in Vienna a few months back. Despite a long illness, she had recently accepted the position of curator of the Vienna Festival and even appeared in San Francisco -- the site of her U.S. debut in 1956 -- for the reopening of the Opera House last September. In 1959 she caused a sensation when she stepped into the role of Lady Macbeth after Maria Callas was fired by the New York Met. In 1974 she returned to San Francisco, to play Salome. Riff Raff was delighted recently to receive the following from reader Lois Silverstein: (B.W.)
Being a Super [short for "supernumerary," a fancy word for extra] at the San Francisco Opera had been a habit of mine in the 1970s. Nightly rehearsals from June through August, and performances September through November, did not deter me from juggling my professional and personal life to accommodate them, nor did being but a faceless part of a "cast of thousands" in operas from Monteverdi to Britten. When I was chosen, however, to be the only woman super in Salome, to be the slave handmaiden to the famous diva, Leonie Rysanek, I was exhilarated.
What was my job? On paper it was merely to hand Rysanek-as-Salome a half-glass of champagne and dress her in a long, white robe. In actuality it was to carry the cup and the robe up a ramp on the half-lit stage to wild and pulsating music, and then to dash up beside the "cistern" for John the Baptist -- a pit in the middle of the stage -- to the waiting diva, just before her final and illustrious aria.
I met Madame Rysanek at the first whole cast rehearsal. Glamorous, vivacious, gracious, she spoke to me in English. Over the course of our little contact, in the several weeks we worked together as mistress and servant, she never treated me as less than equal. In fact, Madame R- complimented me regularly on how I handled my challenging role.
The Maestro -- Kurt Herbert Adler -- sat somewhere in the audience. The stage was set. My cue came, and out I ran, up the ramp, to my post, waited for Salome, did my job, and ran back down just as she began to sing. Perfetto -- or so I thought. When I reached the wings, the voice of the Maestro bellowed out of the inky blackness of the audience. "Who is that? What is she doing?" Everything stopped, music, singers, light crew, me. "And what is that noise she's making?" My heart pounded. What noise? Sweat instantly turned my makeup to ooze. I clung to the curtain.
"Come out here," demanded the Maestro. "Get her out here."
I crept out from behind the black velvet.
"Impossible," he said. "Get rid of her." "But," I croaked, "what -- " "I can't have any distraction. And -- stand forward. What is that on your feet? I can't have that on your feet. Thank you very much. But no."
Oh, the shame, and the disappointment. I turned to stage right, my tail between my legs, not knowing what I had done, when a melodious voice boomed back at the Maestro.
"But, cher, she's fine, absolutely fine. Whatever it was, she'll change it, won't you, my dear?" It was Rysanek. To my aid. "Yes," I squeaked. "Of course." "But, Leonie ...," the Maestro rumbled. "No, I want her," she said -- "please," and she looked at him with those pleading blue eyes, big with passion and conviction. "If you're sure," he said. "I'm sure. I like her."
I discovered that the noise had been made by my gum-soled shoes, chosen to keep me from slipping, rather than for chic. In a flash they were traded for velveteen flats, silent and sleek. Dangerous or not, I aimed to glide up that ramp. I slept not a wink that night, nor the next, nor the next. Before every rehearsal, I tracked my every breath, step, arm movement. The dressers checked the slit in my skirt, the soles of my now thin, more-than-silent shoes. I checked the champagne cup, the robe, the hem of the robe, the snaps, every single one. If I made a mistake, Salome herself would be in the mud.
Opening night, there was no mishap on the dark stage. No mishap on the ramp. Nothing on the champagne, the robe, my shoes. When I hit the wings, my heart pounded with excitement, my face flushed with glee. Maestro, so there.
I looked out at my heroine standing in the spotlight, singing away. Her robe, the gorgeous white robe I had slipped over her gown, snapped up there in the pitch darkness, was snapped wrong. One-two-three-four-five -- and then seven-eight-nine! Mismatched. Mis-snapped. I almost fell over. I clutched the curtain. I buried my sob. Tears burned my eyes. But no one noticed! What's a snap in the context of Rysanek's power? Salome triumphed over more than Jokanaan that night, and never even considered her gown. And the Maestro? He never called for my head on a silver platter. After the curtain, Madame Rysanek came over and gave me a big hug. "You did great," she said. "Absolutely great."