Mormons at the Met

by Glen Nelson


I SAT IN THE AUDIENCE of the Metropolitan Opera in New City on the night of January 5, 1996, and I watched the tenor Richard Versalle fall to his death onstage. The performance had just begun when he died. It was the Met premiere of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, an opera about a woman named Emilia Marty who is given a potion to extend life 300 years. Jessye Norman was to sing the starring role. The young American, David Robertson, was making his debut as the orchestra’s conductor. The rarely-performed opera is all about death and the value of life. It contains a suicide, an attempted murder, and finally a declaration from the 337-year old Marty that if life lasts too long, it loses its value. At the end of the opera, exhausted with life, she offers the secret elixir to anyone who will take it. No one will touch it except to destroy it, and as the formula burns, she sinks to the floor and dies.

    Opera is about dying, in a way. There are comic operas too, but the majority of works in the repertoire are tragedies—far more than movies, for example—and audiences go to the opera for a hard look at mortality. Characters die at the opera house every night; this night was very different, obviously. Vítek, the tenor role played by Versalle, is a law clerk who sets off the action of The Makropulos Case by discovering an unresolved legal case that is nearly one hundred years old.

    As soon as the curtain went up, I felt uncomfortable. The scene was set in a law office, and at stage left, there was a ladder that stretched up to the rafters in front of a wall of file drawers. The ceiling above the Met stage is enormous. The proscenium arch itself is fifty-four feet wide and forty feet high. I don’t know exactly how long the ladder was, but it must have been 20 or 30 feet. It was designed to look endless. Vítek started to climb the ladder, and as he ascended higher and higher, he opened file drawers, all the while singing.

    Nothing appeared amiss as Versalle sang the line, “Too bad you can live only so long.” He then fell backwards off the ladder, and he landed on his back, with his head crashing against the stage floor. In my section of the audience, none of us had ever seen this opera, and we weren’t entirely sure the fall was unscripted. We just sat and waited. The orchestra continued playing briefly. And then I heard the conductor yell to the stage, “Richard? Richard!” Someone rushed in from the wings, and the curtain came down.

    The house lights came up.  A stunned reaction all around—the performance was only a few minutes old. I was there with my wife, Marcia. We didn’t know what to do. From where we were, up in the balcony, we couldn’t see much movement in the audience below. A few people stood in the aisles, but the majority stayed where they were in their seats waiting for whatever would come next. It felt like a very long time before a voice sounded out over a microphone that Richard Versalle had been taken to the hospital for treatment and that there would be an intermission. I don’t remember all of the details of that night; some of it I’ve tried to forget, but I do distinctly remember feeling angry. I thought that the set design and stage direction were irresponsibly hazardous. It looked to me like Versalle had slipped and fallen to his death.

    After 45 minutes passed without any update, a Met official announced that the performance was cancelled. Ticketholders were instructed how to get replacement tickets, but I already knew that I wouldn’t be coming back to see that opera. I couldn’t. The following performance of The Makropulos Case was a Saturday matinee, and it was dedicated to Versalle, age 63, who, the papers reported, died of a heart attack onstage. A blizzard blanketed the city with snow overnight, and the matinee performance was cancelled, too.

    I had witnessed two other men die here in New York in the ten years since I moved from a farm town in Southern Utah. The first casualty was hit by a bus in Times Square at the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street. I was standing diagonally across the street at the time. The other death was a man my wife and I saw jump from a high ledge of Macy’s Department Store near Herald Square on 35th street, to the encouraging chorus of fools below.

    Inside the Met, people have died both onstage and in the audience. I was listening to a radio broadcast from the Met on Saturday January 23, 1988—a performance of Macbeth—when an 82-year old singing coach named Bantcho Bantchevsky committed suicide by jumping from the Family Circle Balcony down four stories to the orchestra level. His body fell into empty seats and then rolled into the aisle. 

    It’s rare to have a performer die onstage, but it has happened before at the Metropolitan. The most famous tragic event was the death of Leonard Warren, a great American baritone and a native New Yorker. He had sung 662 performances at the Met before he took the stage on March 4, 1960 in La forza del destino, of all things, at the age of 48.  The performers that night included some legends: Renata Tebaldi, Richard Tucker, and Jerome Hines. Thomas Schippers conducted. Raymond A. Ericson later wrote about that night in Musical America:

    “In the middle of Act II (as given at the Metropolitan), the duet for Mr. Warren and Mr. Tucker, ‘Solenne in quest'ora’ (Swear to me in this solemn hour) brought another crescendo of applause and bravos. Mr. Warren then was left onstage alone to sing the recitative that begins ‘Morir! Tremenda cosa!’ (To die! Tremendous moment!). How ominous this phrase was to prove!

    “Mr. Warren continued into the superb aria that follows, ‘Urna fatale’ (O fatal pages), and he had never seemed in better form as his remarkable voice rode the long legato phrases and soared excitingly through the cadenzas to the climactic high notes. At the end, he stood quietly until the shouts of approval had died away. Moving to stage left he completed his next few lines of recitative and then fell forward heavily, as if he had tripped.

    “Roald Reitan, as the Surgeon, entered, singing his single phrase, ‘Lieta novella, e salvo’ (Good news I bring you, I saved him). No response came from Mr. Warren, as Thomas Schippers, the conductor, waited with upstretched arms to bring the orchestra in.

    “Uncertainty and wonder gripped everyone for a few seconds, and the audience stirred uneasily. Mr. Reitan then went quickly over to Mr. Warren, knelt by his side. The audience did not know that Mr. Reitan raised Mr. Warren's head slightly, that the stricken baritone uttered faintly the word ‘Help!’ and then went limp. The audience was only aware of Mr. Reitan's looking anxiously into the wings and at Mr. Schippers, and of a voice in the auditorium saying clearly, ‘Bring the curtain down!’

   “…About 10:30, warning bells rang in the lobbies, and the audience filed back to their seats. [General Manager] Mr. Bing reappeared before the curtain, his expression grave.

    “‘This is one of the saddest days in the history of opera,’ he began. ‘I will ask you please to stand,’ he continued, as the shaken audience uttered gasps of disbelief, ‘In memory of one of our greatest performers, who died in the middle of one of his greatest performances.’ After the audience had arisen, some of the members openly sobbing, Mr. Bing concluded: ‘I am sure you will agree with me that it would not be possible to continue with the performance.’ Slowly, a dazed and saddened public departed.”

    This is a morbid way to introduce an upbeat book, I know, but for me opera is serious business. I have always responded to it viscerally. Other people my age grew up laughing at opera—at Elmer Fudd in drag singing Wagner to Bugs Bunny, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!” and at television commercials parodying Pagliacci, “No more Rice Krispies! We’ve run out of Rice Krispies!” Not me. My mother was a singer. She sang small parts in Carmen and Rigoletto in our town’s college productions. On Saturdays, as we cleaned our house, we played the reel-to-reel tapes of Broadway musicals and light operas that my parents recorded from television broadcasts. We heard them over and over, along with recordings of the operas my mother performed. I knew the music by heart. One of my childhood toys was the set of castanets that Mom used as a stage prop in her Carmen days.

    There was no opera company close to us on our farm, so I saw no live performances, but for some reason, I was surrounded at home by the elements of opera—painting, dance, music, and theater—and both of my parents encouraged me and my four siblings to appreciate the arts. Their message to us seemed to be this: there is more in this world than sheep and hay.

    My dad played trombone in a community band as a young man, and he supported an uncle who was a painter and ceramist by purchasing all of his works that he could afford. My mother was an expert tailor, weaver and quilter who raised sheep for their wool, and then she could shear, card, spin, dye and weave it into fabric and then make a suit out of it without a pattern. My parents assumed that all of us would make the most of ourselves one way or another. I started to take piano lessons in first grade. My oldest brother, Mark, learned to paint. My oldest sister, Kris, was a cellist. Another sister, Rhea, played the piano, and my other brother, Ray, sang and was a ballet dancer in high school, when he wasn’t playing football, basketball, and baseball.

    I stepped into the Metropolitan Opera house for the first time on a college school trip when I was 18 years old. The performance was Tosca, and it wasn’t a particularly good performance, now that I think about it. I was there with a group of students who wanted to be anywhere else but listening to an opera, and we were viewing the opera from the worst seats in the place. But for me it became a beacon somehow, and I knew I would return.

    When a friend came back to New York a few years later to audition for opera apprenticeships, I traveled with him, and we went to the Met again. This time, I heard Placido Domingo sing Otello one night, and then I returned the very next evening for an opera I’d never heard of, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Freezing outside in mid-January, the house was less than half full. We had standing room tickets, but the ushers told us to take a seat wherever we wanted.

    We ended up near the aisle in the center of the orchestra for a searing performance of a story so bleak that I thought razor blades should be included in each playbill program. I had never heard anything like it, and as importantly, I had never felt anything like it. The drama on stage was the opposite of the silly, trite, dismissible clichés associated with opera stories. If I hadn’t been hooked on opera before that night, I certainly was after it.

    I moved to New York to go to graduate school after serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Costa Rica and Panama. I couldn’t afford to go out very often. I remember walking into Tower Records two blocks north of the opera house on a Saturday afternoon. In the basement where classical music records were kept, the clerks had turned on the live, Texaco Radio Broadcast from the Met. I recognized the music immediately. It was Tosca, and the voice over the air had the unmistakable ping of Luciano Pavarotti. It was the first act, and the painter Cavaradossi was laboring in the church on a portrait of the Madonna that he paints to resemble his girlfriend, Tosca. He began his aria, “Recondita Armonia”, (Remembered harmony) and to my surprise, the entire store started to sing along—men and women. At first, under their breath, but gradually with more abandon, just like Luciano, until we all sang the ending, “Tosca, sei tu” (Tosca, it’s you) together. To the radio audience’s applause, we laughed and went our separate ways, but I knew that the homesickness I was feeling for my farm town wouldn’t last long. Opera, as strange as it seems for a young Utah boy, had become a bridge to something else.

    My father passed away on November 6, 2006, a victim of the atomic testing fallout in the Nevada desert of the 1950s. People in Southern Utah call the delayed-onset cancers caused by the testing Downwinder’s Syndrome. My dad, tending his herd of sheep, used to sit atop the mesas northeast of the Mojave and watch the mushroom clouds billow and drift over him, just as many of the locals did. My mother died of a related cancer, too, in September 2010.

    Late in life, I brought her to New York and gave her a ticket to a performance at the Metropolitan Opera of Rigoletto. It was the same opera she had sung in college. I met her outside after the performance. She was still in tears. Mom related to me that as soon as the orchestra began playing the overture, fifty years melted away. She remembered every word and every note of the score she sang a half-century earlier. It was as if she were back in school, she said. She had been a sophisticated girl from Salt Lake City who followed her voice teacher down to a tiny agricultural college in the middle of nowhere, and there met a gangly farmer boy, married, and raised a family. It was where she would die, a few hundred feet from the adobe brick house where her husband was born.

    At the end of a personally tumultuous year in 2011, I happened to look at a season brochure for the Metropolitan Opera. On its back pages was printed the roster of singers for the new season, 2011-12. I started to notice names of singers I knew, not only from seeing them onstage but from seeing them in church. There were six LDS singers engaged to perform roles in the upcoming season.

    I had the idea to write about a season at the Met with an eye on these Mormon singers, as a tribute to my parents. I could go to the performances and describe them. I could explain how these vocalists arrived professionally. Some of the six are friends whom I’ve known for several years. I assumed that seeing them would remind me of other LDS singers in the Met’s history, and the whole thing might end up being a snapshot of a unique, operatic Mormon moment. There has never been a time when so many LDS opera singers are poised to enjoy significant careers in opera. At the very least, it would be a nice excuse to spend some evenings in a place that feels, if not sacred to me, like home.

August 2011

New York City


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