C.W. Gusewelle

June 28, 2014

The flotsam of the opera

The body of my work as a performer in grand opera has not been extensive. But despite its brevity, there were electric moments. Two in particular.

The body of my work as a performer in grand opera has not been extensive. But despite its brevity, there were electric moments.

Two in particular.

On a Friday evening in 1950 or ’51, our high school basketball team was scheduled to play a game in the arena of Municipal Auditorium. A chum and I had ridden a bus downtown to see the contest.

Unfortunately, admittance was by ticket only. We had none and were both short of cash. So it occurred to us to see if we might sneak in through a side door.

An elderly gentleman sat on a chair by the entrance. We approached him haltingly.

“Hurry up!” he barked at us. “You’re late!”

He held the door open. And immediately inside we were met by a different, younger man.

“Follow me,” he demanded gruffly and led us down a long hallway.

Near the end, on the left, was a brilliantly lighted room. In front of mirrors, a great number of men were applying makeup and being fitted with burlap togas, with ropes around the waist.

A woman took each of us in hand, and we were draped in togas of our own. The burlap itched like anything against neck and bare arms.

Then we got our spears.

“Make two lines,” wheezed a shrunken little man who seemed to be in charge. “You are defenders of the king of Egypt. When you enter the king’s presence, raise up your spears in salute.

“Now … enter the back line.

“Now the front line.”

The stage was brilliantly lighted. The first several rows of the audience could be seen. Some men were in tuxedos and bow ties, the women in elegant gowns. Beyond that, all receded into darkness.

We held our upraised spears in what we imagined to be proper military posture.

“Down!” came a hoarse command. Then louder. The little man again: DOWN!”

My friend and I knelt. Being on the front line, how could we know he meant only to lower our spears?

The next was almost a whimper of despair.

“You have ruin zee opera.”

That was our first night’s performance in “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi, one of two works presented on successive nights by the touring San Carlo Opera Company, established in 1913 by Italian-American impresario Fortune Gallo.

“Tomorrow it’s ‘Carmen,’” said the woman in the room with all the mirrors. “The costumes and makeup are elaborate. So be here by 6:30. We’ll need the extra time.”

My friend and I were there on the dot. It turned out we were cast as Gypsies in a Seville crowd scene. Our only responsibility was to move around actively and pretend to be talking with characters like ourselves.

Waiting backstage for instructions to enter, I happened to notice what looked like a rubber dagger lying on a crate in the wings. It seemed like a prop that would go well with my flamboyant Gypsy outfit. So I stuck it in my belt.

In the opera’s final scene, the torment of rejected love ends with a fatal stabbing. At the time, I thought it was Carmen’s scorned suitor, Don Jose, who would lie dead. Reading about the opera now, I realize it was Carmen herself.

But whoever did the killing had to do it in pantomime. Because through all the rage and tears, I was the one who had the dagger.

That was our two-night adventure. My friend and I shed our disguises and went back to our schoolboy lives.

The San Carlo Opera Company was notable for using local talent in the cities to which it toured. We were paid $10 apiece — $5 for each performance. I suppose that qualified us as professionals.

Seven years later the company folded. I prefer to believe we were not responsible.

For more of C.W. Gusewelle, go to gusewelle.kansascity.com.

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