When I was 19 I shared digs, in Gloucester Road, London with two medical students from Guys Hospital. One day, when they are deeply swotting for an examination, I was asked if I would stand in, for one of them, at Sadlerâ€™s Well, Rosebery Ave, East London (since moved to the London Coliseum) the home of the international opera company. I suppose I must have known that they were involved in some way or other with this company but had not taken a great deal of notice in the past. However, having agreed to help out, I was a little alarmed to discover that I had committed myself to appear in a live public performance of Bizetâ€™s Pearl Fishers. I tried to back out but they pleaded with me to do it as they were way behind with their studying.
How could I possibly appear in front of a paying audience in an opera which I had never even seen? No problem, they said, Big John will tell you what to do when you get there. With some trepidation I reported to the theatre. There was no sign of Big John but, having explained that I was standing in for one of the students, I was told to strip off and put on, what appeared to all intents and purposes, to be a bundle of rags. As a rather naÃ¯ve and innocent 19 year old, and having heard something of the reputation of theatre folk, I was rather nervous at the idea of removing all my clothes, including my underpants.
The â€˜bundle of ragsâ€™ turned out to be a loincloth to be worn by one of the pearl fishers â€“ me! That and nought else except for a turban. It was February and there was snow on the ground. It was freezing cold in the theatre when I was sent to â€˜make upâ€™. In my case, no comfortable, warm dressing room with mirror and lights, but a dark back room with a 4 gallon drum of, what looked like liquid, gorgonzola. The â€˜make upâ€™ artist dipped a 4 inch brush into this freezing cold liquid and painting me from head to toe, back and front â€“ a random pattern of yellow, green and brown streaks. Apparently, I was now ready to face my public and, as yet, had absolutely no idea what I was expecting to do, or even what the opera was about. There was no sign of Big John.
Nobody else seemed concerned and some 10 minutes or so before the overture started, Big John arrived and introduced himself. He had apparently been warned of my substitution and my total lack of knowledge of the storyline. He kindly suggested that he would not tell me too much as I might get confused. He said he would give me my directions as we went along, immediately before we were actually to appear on stage.
Shortly after that he instructed me to grab the end of a huge, long fishing net, and, when he gave the signal, I was to drag it onto the stage and stand looking out to sea, while the chorus sang a blessing to the gods for a good catch.
I was to keep my eye on him and he would give me the nod when we were to exit. Apart from almost pulling down one of the scenery flats, with the net, I managed my first appearance without too much difficulty.
I remember little more of this performance except for the disastrous scene which I describe below. However, I now know that the opera was set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka, as now is) in barbaric times. I also know that this opera includes what, fast became one of my favourite male duets â€“ Au depth du temple (In the Depths of the Temple.) This duet is sung between the two principal singers, Zurga, the chief and Nadir. They are recording their love for the beautiful princess Leila and swear that neither one will see her again. In the second act, Zurga catches Nadir and Leila together and sentences them to be burned at the stake.
Enter once more the pearl fishers. Standing in the wings Big John said that, on his signal we were to rush onto the stage and grab Nadir, tying him to the stake on the funeral pyre.
He warned me that the little Welshman playing the role of Nadir would struggle to make the arrest look more realistic. Once we had tied him up, he said, we were to stand back, with arms folded, to keep guard on him. BJ gave me the signal and on I rushed, as instructed. The Welshman was singing his heart out at the time but, unperturbed, I attempted to arrest him. Under his breath, and cleverly between his singing lines, he swore blindly at me and, with a sweep of his massive hairy arm, sent me flying across the stage. Gosh, I thought, this is realistic stuff. I picked myself up and tried again and, after a considerable struggle, and more sotto voce swearing, I dragged him to the stake and, using all my old Boy Scout skills, securely tied his hands behind his back.
As it transpired Big John was getting to the end of his time at Sadler’s Wells so, for a lark, he sent me on stage about 30 seconds early. Quite a long period of time when you are singing an aria. Thus, the â€˜under the breathâ€™ cursing from the Welshman. Apparently, I infuriated him even further with secure knot work in tying him to the stake. As all experienced thespians will know, and I learned to my cost, all that was necessary was to place the rope loosely in his hands behind his back, as they were hidden from the audience. The tightness of my rope around his wrists had prompted another string of mouthed expletives. To compound my error, having done what I thought was a splendid job of tying him up, I stood back, again as instructed, with arms folded, to observe the following scene. The flames and smoke from the funeral pyre were licking around his legs and I was no more than 3 feet from him, still on the pyre myself. Realizing my error, a minute or two later, I leapt backwards, 10 or 12 feet. I cannot imagine what an experienced theatre audience thought of my performance, if indeed any of them noticed that there was anything amiss.
I had been blooded and amazingly was not sacked. What’s more I was paid the princely sum of 10 shillings and sixpence (52 Â½. p), so after paying my bus fare and buying a bun and cup of coffee, I was probably 12 Â½ p. in profit.
What on earth were medical students doing at Sadler’s Wells, appearing in an opera, before an international paying public in the first place, you might well asked. I was told was told, and it may well be apocryphal, that when Queen Victoria went to the opera, two of her household guards were planted into the chorus line in order to be on hand in case of trouble. The tradition, so it seems, continued, after Victoria’s death, until modern times. Just how these two parts had ended up in the gift of Guys Hospital is lost in the mists of time, but there was I. Pressures of studying meant that I was to continue to stand-in in for my friends for some months to come.
My next role was that of a flunkey in J. Straussâ€™ Die Federmaus (The Bat) 55 or so years later. I recall little of what the flunkeys were required to do other than stand around looking decorative. However, what makes this particular role stand out was that it was the first in which I actually spoke on the stage. It was, I believe, in Act II, the ball scene. Three flunkeys were lined up as a serving table when one of the principals called for a drink of Madeira wine. The order was repeated in turn by each flunky, one of which was me. For that splendid piece of acting and oratory I received an additional one shilling and fourpence – apparently that was the going rate at the time.
A few weeks later I was to play my most important role, that of the priest in Gounodâ€™s Faust. Again with absolutely no rehearsal. Indeed, it was more frightening as Big John, had by then, abandoned the stage and I had been promoted to his part. His name did not belie him.
When I donned on the priest’s cassock, which he had worn previously, it trailed on the ground but there was no time for the seamstress to shorten it. Add to that I was to appear on stage having little or no knowledge of what was going on having received my directions only few moments earlier.
Fortunately I had read the synopsis earlier that day, I gathered that the principal singer, Faust, had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a return to his youth. The devil had conjured up a beautiful maiden for him, Marguerite. This synopsis however gave me no clue to as to the role played by the priest. Fortunately I did not have to appear until Act II, the fair scene.
I was handed a 7 foot long wooden cross and told to mount the wooden staircase I would see in front of me. Having reached the top I would see the entire cast on their knees looking up to the point where I would appear. I was then to bless them en masse, in the Catholic fashion, fore head, shoulder to shoulder etc. and then, when the music started, to return down the same stairway. All of this explained to me minutes before I was pushed into the wings. The one thing I had been warned about was to be careful how I actually administered the blessing. Big John, it seems, had been rather lax with his fingers and some of the audience had gained the impression that he was giving the V sign rather than a papal like blessing, and this had given offence to a section of the audience who had complained to the management.
Having been given the signal to go, I walked into the wings only to be confronted with two wooden staircases. It was too late to return to ask which of the two I was to climb. I went up the nearest. However, the overlong cassock tangled in my feet as my hands were fully occupied carrying the 7 foot cross. I’m told that it appeared, over what clearly was a scenic hill, in fits and starts. I had little idea of what I was to see when I arrived except that there appeared to be a vast number of people, on their knees, gazing upwards at me. The stage was darkened and the only spotlight was playing on me. Wow, my moment of fame. I dutifully blessed them in the best possible Catholic fashion but with nothing happening, and no music playing, became rather alarmed. I spotted Marguerite and a handsome young man kneeling next to her. In desperation I went over to them and whilst blessing them whispered, â€œWhat do I do nowâ€ the reply came, “Bless the flagâ€. I spotted the flag, duly blessed it and then decided I had had enough and turned to leave. At that point the music started, so clearly I was fortunate in getting my timing roughly right.
My priestly services will not required again until Act IV. Marguerite was in prison for the murder of her illegitimate child and I was to excommunicate her. This comprised me standing next to her with the poor girl on her knees stretching your hands up towards the cross. I was told to hold cross just out of her reach with a suitable sneer on my lips. I like to think that this was my finest hour in my musical acting career!!
Despite having successfully carried out my function splendidly, and excommunicated the poor girl, I’m pleased to say, that as she went to the gallows, a choir of angels proclaimed her salvation. Would they had proclaimed mine. Despite my stumbling appearance with the cross the management were clearly desperate enough to retain my services.
Within the season the operas alternated. One night The Pearl Fishers and the next night Tosca, and so on. I was certainly not in all of them and therefore might not appear from one week to the next. One night I turned up expecting to do The Pearl Fishers to be informed that the tenor had a sore throat and that instead we would be doing La BohÃ¨me.
There was no adult part in this opera for Big John and me, and as there was insufficient notice to drum up two of the small children who usually played the parts, we were told that we would have to be the urchins.
From memory, these urchins only appear in Act II, the market scene outside CafÃ© Momus, where Marcel and Musette are to meet, while the rest of the entire cast of merry friends mill around. Having dressed the two of us in ridiculously youthful and urchin-like clothes we were directed to skip onto the stage holding hands and then get into mischief, for around 12 minutes: stealing from the stallholders; being pursued; knocking over things, etc. What a ludicrous sight we must have made bearing in mind that BJ was 6-2â€ to my 6-0â€. Still, needs mustâ€¦, as they say. I wonder how many of the audience realized the absurdity of the situation…
My fifth, and as it turned out, last opera was Verdiâ€™s Don Carlos. Ironically, it was the only one for which I ever rehearsed. It was a new production so everyone had to rehearse. I had a rather grand role as the captain of the guard. This is a five act opera set in the 16th century around a Franco/Spanish war. The soldiers appeared from time to time and, no doubt, as their captain, so did I. However, my big moment came in Act III when I was to rush onto the stage and warn the king that â€œThe rebels were revolting”. Like Big John before me I was tired of being tied down to these evening performances, so, in a rush of blood to the head one evening, I tore onto the stage and delivered my line quite deliberately with the emphasis on the word revolting and at the same time cocked a limp wrist. The producer was, of course, furious and not surprisingly my musical career at Sadler’s Wells came to an abrupt end.
It had been a rich and unique introduction to the world of classical opera for a teenager which has lived with me ever since. This may be why I missed out on the pop music generation enjoyed by my peer group.
55 years later I found myself sitting in the Sydney Opera House waiting for a performance of La Boheme to commence. A group of five people came and sat next to me and after some shuffling about the seat immediately adjacent was occupied by an elderly gentleman. Passing the time of day we discovered we were both from the UK then, he said apropos of nothing in particular, â€œI actually appeared in this opera some 50 years agoâ€. â€œReallyâ€, I said, â€œ Surprisingly, so did I.â€ It took us no time at all to establish that we had both been performing at Sadler’s Wells during the same season and this, now retired surgeon, who started his medical career at Guys Hospital, was the person who performed with Big John on the nights when I wasn’t there. What an absolutely amazing coincidence, even to the point of which, of the five people sat next to me on that evening, it just happened to be that one. Afterwards, I wondered what role he played in La BohÃ¨me. Certainly, not like me, an urchin. He was probably a far more accomplished actor than I, or at least, a better rehearsed one. Sadly we did not exchange cards otherwise it might have been amusing to have caught up with him in the UK, but maybe just those few magical moments were enough to spark a fascinating memory.