A Producer’s Lament: Using One’s Own Money to Put on a Show

Paul Turner
14 min readMar 21, 2024

I had given up on opera because of the long preparation with coaches, teachers, and rehearsals, and principally because of the brinksmanship regarding compensation and other parameters. For The Merry Widow production, maestro had decided to pay me $300 (I had given her a wide range and she preferred the low end). Two weeks after the three performances and after a chatty but engaging soirée with maestro and her ailing husband, an additional $250 had passed to my arched palm.

Addio, so long, bye, bye.

The next year or so was taken up with working on my cabaret act and two graduate courses in user interface design. I also gave some thought to an invention for which I wanted to pursue a patent.

It was miles away from the hijinks of last-minute opera productions, eighty-mile roundtrips thrice weekly, and much public relations work for an unknown opera company, outside of Attleboro, Taunton, Easton, and Mansfield, in southeastern Massachusetts.

Still, I was smitten with the role of Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus. Its high tessitura — the lay of the notes — and volume of words and excessive consonants on high notes make it a difficult role to prepare and master. But, it’s a comedy, with all the indirection, mannerisms, and goofiness that I crave in a role.

Where are the other comic roles for full-lyric and heavier tenor voices? So far, I had sung the full role of Eisenstein in German, in New York, and most scenes in the Schirmer edition in English in opera workshops, in Boston and New York. I was also involved until the 11th hour with a new production of Die Fledermaus in the West Village of Manhattan, which included completely different lyrics and a ton of dialogue. And, given the weight of my voice, I was beyond the role of Alfred in Die Fledermaus.

Besides the newness of the West Village production, the NY production was a hardship because the company wasn’t willing to pay anything for a 20-performance-per-cast run, and I had a nettlesome writing contract in Massachusetts that I was shuttling back to in the middle of each week.

The southeastern MA production I heard about in the Burlington rain involved miles of trekking too, as I mentioned. But, they were going to reprise the Metropolitan Opera Version, which had been commissioned around 1949 and produced in 1950 in New York. Since then, the local company had performed it four times. Since 1969, much of the cast has been the same.

So, if this production came off reasonably well, I could pitch my skill set as an Eisenstein in an impressive way: German, yes; Schirmer edition, yes; Metropolitan Opera version, yes. In my mind then, it was worth pinching nostrils and sucking it in.

Holding one’s nose is a practiced exercise of opera singers who dismiss Die Fledermaus as stupid contrivance with a ridiculous plot. Would-be Leonoras, Musettas, and Manricos take note. Fledermaus is performed the world over to delighted audiences. In Moscow for example, there is a theater devoted to operetta, in which Fledermaus is hugely popular.

Some of the derision hides the stark discovery that the show is hard to learn for all the principals because of the tessitura. Although Adele is in general a comfortable role for a light coloratura, the farewell trio has her singing in the middle of a mezzo-soprano range. For other singers, the tessitura is two half-steps above their comfort levels.

Maestro expressed to me during my phoned-in audition in the rain that she wanted/needed to hear other men for Eisenstein before offering the role to me. She always hoped that the stalwarts for the last 20 years would rally behind any production, and participate. These people include a tenor who had sung Carmina Burana to great acclaim and was allegedly comfortable in traditional baritone roles. This versatile tenor is a construction engineer who spends considerable time handling business on the road; so alas, he was unavailable.

Then, there’s a former high tenor, who’s a skilled dancer, upholsterer, interior decorator. Lately, he had favored baritone roles like Prince Danilo in The Merry Widow. The high tenor was not answering phone calls, probably because he felt burned by the excesses and the mighty rebuffs from maestro during The Merry Widow production, a topic that is somewhat beyond the scope of this essay.

Both tenors were unavailable for this production, and the soprano who used to sing Rosalinda, of late with the fractured foot and pale voice, couldn’t hit the boards for a few more months. And let me not forget the erstwhile Adele who learns well when the role suits her notion of personal justice.

She was unavailable probably because her booster couldn’t sup before rehearsals or come out and play during the rehearsal run, May and June 2005.

June is a good month for attracting professional-level, graduate-level and emerging artists, because it is between the end of the school year and the traditional opera season and the start of summer festivals and workshops.

However, this community opera company and this production had some items working against them.

The company offered no contract, and more important, the maestro deemed it unnecessary to pay singers. After all, she had to pay orchestra members and they were indispensable. Therefore, any promise of compensation was made on an ad hoc basis and required that the maestro remember the details after the production.

The vast majority of the singing talent pool had performed scenes from the Schirmer edition, whose English lyrics were written by the husband-and-wife team of Ruth and Thomas Martin. They cut their fangs on this edition, in conservatories and workshops. Now, the clock was ticking furiously. We didn’t start engaging singers until late April. The performance dates of June 17, 18, and 19 were looming.

Most of the stalwarts of the company were unavailable and decided not to help with casting or anything else.

Most aspiring and professional singers make arrangements for singing 6 months to one year in advance, based on timetables of grand choruses, opera companies, and legitimate theater groups.

The opera company and the maestro were largely unknown outside of southeastern Massachusetts.

Instate singers who participated in productions were often glad to be done with them and powers-that-were. Some of the singers were gossipmongers who worked for and vented at prestigious preparatory music schools and conservatories.

Another stalwart had experienced major heart surgery during the previous season. His illness left us in the lurch, searching in vain for a singing Baron for The Merry Widow production. He also had a chronic respiratory condition and drank a bit too much — it’s opera after all. He loved the role of Dr. Falke, the interlocutor and mastermind of the plot, and maestro was hellbent on giving him the role.

Dr. Falke had been there out of the conception of the opera company 46 years ago. During his first rehearsal, which was two or three after we got underway, he nearly collapsed after singing the Falke-Eisenstein duet. He was a naysayer about the prospects for a successful run; he intimated that he dropped out of other productions in southeastern Massachusetts when it suited him. At the start of his participation, he told me that he hadn’t sung in a year. I thought that the red tide had come in.

Soon after I found out that the production was going forward, I applied my moxie and broadcast skills to find principals. So quickly, we had three of the principals: the Alfred, the Adele, and the Rosalinda.

Bad news rolled out of the barrel soon thereafter. The Alfred was engaged to marry a woman two weeks after the production. He had done the Metropolitan Opera version, a real plus, with a well-paying company that bore the name of the geographic cape in our area of the Bay colony. About a week after we engaged him for $500.00, the fiancée became disquieted. For all I know, there was uncultivated screaming in their two-room third-floor walk up in Roslindale. He dropped out graciously — at least, he thought so.

The Adele had sung a small role in the 2004 season of one of the B-class opera companies in Boston; she came and went, and that was all there was to that.

The Rosalinda was a special case. A tall woman with a world-class voice and operatic curves, this Rosalinda had a great sense of humor and a self-effacing charm — somewhat. Her brother was a working comic actor in Boston, whose face graced a stagecraft web portal. The putative Rosalinda was dating a high baritone Brooklyn cop who had been making the most of his 15 minutes of fame, derived from singing God Bless America to a mourning public after September 11, 2001.

And the cop wanted our fabulous Rosalinda, whom my coach had recommended, to join him for large dollars or yen on a Japanese tour. So, I got a Dear John letter and a couple of contrite follow-ups.

Now, the race was on. The maestro let slip that the exiting Rosalinda needed to lose weight. The maestro needed her worldview examined. Finding the Alfred was the most slippery challenge of my year.

A jumping-jack leggiero who probably was a most engaging harlequin (Cavalleria Rusticana) recently practically flew down from Boston to southeastern Massachusetts to delight and regale the maestro. A few days later he dropped out, knowing full well from the get-go that an interesting choral opportunity was awaiting him with a major opera company in California. This particular singer is among those, I’m told, who are awaiting a phone call from the Metropolitan Opera Company regarding an offer of $50,000 to sing a Bellini role and get unlimited coaching sessions with Ms. Lucy Arner and others.

Imagine his surprise when I pressed him about accepting the role by dialing him at 8:00am. This Johnny-jump-up was peeved. Well, at least someone wanted him.

Next, the Orlofsky with the handsome mezzo-soprano voice and regal Alexander-technique bearing recommended a young fabulous tenor from the “ensemble” of a B-class Boston opera company. The process to cheer, engage, and lose him took of two weeks of precious time. In his May 16th email, he wrote: “My artistic side jumped too quickly…the financial investment of undertaking the project is simply not something I can commit to at this point…[I] always want to help out a group who is desperately seeking to complete a cast.”

We’ll soldier on, bub.

Next in line was a baritone transitioning to tenor repertoire, whom the eventual Adele recommended. He didn’t tell me of this change in his life, because certainly I would not have a budding Cavaradossi audition for Alfred. He auditioned with a stuttering song that was suitable for a Dr. Blind audition, maestro was desperate, and he was engaged. But he couldn’t handle the tessitura and called me the following day after speaking with his multiple coaches and teachers to bow out.

Finally, we asked another guy who had sung the Alfred role from the Metropolitan Opera version, who was lightly recommended by my coach. He wanted $1,500 to sing, but couldn’t get over the fact that he would pilot two Sunday church services plus the Sunday rehearsals for three straight weeks. He was so sorry to lead me on. I wonder if his mother would give him $1,500 out of the goodness of her heart.

Meanwhile, my teacher was lobbying for the Dr. Blind, a 26-year-old high tenor, to fill the role of Alfred. I demurred because the eventual Rosalinda was a woman in her early 40s and the tenor looked like a younger third cousin. Talent won out, and the young tenor was awarded the role, and astonished us all.

The eventual Rosalinda astonished all of us as well by her progress, not so much by the final singing performance. Her voice has more weight now and evenness. Maestro was especially pleased by her acquiescence and obedience, and by her buff condition thanks to regular work-outs. This particular Rosalinda drove a Porsche Boxster, had two very young daughters, and au pairs. Her husband’s family runs a foundation that funds the performing arts. She lives the life of the von Eisensteins, apparently (Anna Russell, are you reading this?) and is a decent person.

Casting was also a matter of timing. Sometime after the first Rosalinda dropped out, I reached a brilliant soprano who was apprenticing with a mid-Atlantic young artists’ program. She and I had performed the Act I farewell trio at a Boston conservatory. The perfect musician with a matronly air and a mother who liked my voice, the soprano offered a tantalizing prospect. If we could wait until May 15th, she would be joined by her boyfriend, a Frank, and a good friend, an Adele. All three were finishing up in a young artists’ program.

Maestro couldn’t wait, especially for the Adele, which led to the accidental engagement. A New Hampshire high soprano with a hummingbird coloratura-sized voice found my audition notice on a Boston portal. She drove the 100-plus miles and sang the Laughing Song in her blond wig and white dance practice shoes. She hung around and schmoozed with the maestro, the ultimate raconteur, then offered to copy the vocal score locally. So, in a quiet way, she was engaged.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t been present for the mewing of Little Bo Peep, and my coach was strongly advocating for a twenty-something tap dancer, with a solid fioratura and mighty stagecraft. Said soprano was out-of-town and promised to call upon her return — I immediately thought I was back in the 1970s when in-country distances affected calling charges.

It became clear to maestro that Peep would not be heard over the din of the orchestra, but she didn’t know how to release Peep. So, it fell to me, sorta. The boom was dropped in an unceremonious way when both Adeles were present in the moldy rehearsal space in southeastern MA. “Well, I thought you told her” and so on.

Peep, you can share the role with the other Adele, but we can give you only one performance, Saturday, June 18.” So, Peep packed up her noshing chips and left. In a subsequent email, she said that she understand that she couldn’t fit in with loud voices. Here’s to cultivated screaming!

We still needed a Frank, and a delightful baritone who would have been awarded Dr. Falke if the pulmonary kid had dropped wouldn’t take the role. Among the portals and crannies on which I posted audition notices was New England Theater 411.

One day, a guy in his 60s drove down from Southie (South Boston) with his wife and sang a few G&S notes for maestro. Like Peep, he offered to make copies straightaway. So, he was engaged.

After a few rehearsals of “I’m not ready to sing during rehearsals,” he came to and engaged one of the rehearsal pianists to make a recording of his tricky role. His characterization was sterling and his singing was more than decent.

Finally, we needed a strong actor for the role of the jailor, a comic role. Our rescuer was a local guy who didn’t sing very well but mastered the 3,000 lyrics of the Baron role in The Merry Widow in three weeks, the previous season. He was not especially available during much of the rehearsal run, but came through with an over-the-top portrayal of the longwinded enabler at the jail of Bad Ischl, Austria.

During much of these exercises, I spoke to out-of-town singers who found me through classicalsinger.com or a voice teacher or impresario in New York. They all wanted more than $500 to perform (no problem) but required boarding or travel reimbursement. Their interest often waned when they considered the prospect of learning the Metropolitan Opera version in under six weeks.

Our rehearsals started with an incompetent pianist for Fledermaus, a minister’s wife who loved ushering at the major theater in Providence. She was another physical wreck waiting to meet Immenso Phta or her maker. She was replaced by the nimble Boston Metrowest guy who toured with a great American tenor in southeast Asia back in the day of the undeclared war. He kept the 26-year-old on track and chided me about learning lyrics.

Throughout the rehearsals, singers played a wait-and-see-if-we’ll perform game regarding selling tickets. I sold 25 tickets through the web or on the days of the performances, more tickets than all the principals and secondaries fielded together.

Promoting the Dr. Blind left us in a bind. Casting a Blind is not too-too difficult but there were no local takers. Maestro balked at my idea of a professional tenor who turned to baritone fare because she felt burned by so many who came and left.

So drawing on the fairy characters of two blind mice (Maestro’s idea), we yanked two choristers to split the lines of dialogue and song. Maestro wanted the elder gentleman to carry the role but he needed cattle-prodding and mouthwash to solo. The undynamic duo never mastered the off-beat entrances and mealy-mouthed words but looked pretty good in their white perukes that were bought by me.

And where are all the basses in southeastern MA? You say in streams; I say in professional choruses that worship them. Maestro kept calling out to phantom basses during the sweaty rehearsals. My faux bass is decent but not so good as Howard Keel’s. We had five men in the chorus; we need ten more.

I was also called on to dial those wayward, undercompensated instrumentalists who just needed a friendly voice to get them onboard. The orchestra started to gel when the quasi-concertmaster, a great flutist started her shepherding duties.

With a good, accommodating conductor, an aspiring stage director, the shepherd and I could do great things outside of shady southeastern MA. With my moxie, I had no problem offering flyers to the orchestra for posting. After one rehearsal, they were keen to take as many as I could offer.

If only they had a pit in which to play in the college auditorium, we the non-Wagnerian would not have been swamped.

The deus ex machina was the pale lady with the broken foot and voice who along with her in-laws who ran a musical-theater group almost derailed the endgame of the Fledermaus rehearsal run. Their contract at the college theater ended during the first hour and a half that we expected to set up and start rehearsing the first act on the Sunday before the first performance. They wouldn’t budge, so we had a late rehearsal that ended at 11:30pm.

The pale soprano also helped by collecting money and doling out the few tickets at each performance and by astonishing the cast by admonishing them about their lyrics and stagecraft. She also let me know that we needed another one month of rehearsal before primetime. She needed vocal therapy and a course in shepherding — baa, baa!

Well, it finally came off, warts and all, with fabulous backdrops and stage platforms from local groups who heard maestro’s pleas of poverty. There were also gorgeous costumes for two of the leads from an opera impresario who was rejected by maestro years before.

Twenty one of us were left standing and singing on June 17–19 2005. Now, some of us await payment and future engagements.

Chacun à son goût.

--

--