My opening performance at the Frankfurt Opera in Germany was an unforgettable event. At least for me it was. Sad to say, it went unnoticed by the media and the public. My debut lasted for a brief shining moment - actually two - and then fizzled.
It was my friend Wilfried who secured my engagement on that fateful Saturday evening. Not that Wilfried was my agent, but he had a love for the stage and could look back on a string of cameos in various productions. In other words, he appeared as an extra now and then. It would sound nice to say that his walk-ons helped finance his law studies at Frankfurt's Goethe University. Truth be told, the modest sum of 3.50 deutsche marks per night - one mark of which was a "makeup bonus" - may just have paid for a few meals at the Mensa, the campus cafeteria.
The vehicle for my operatic coming-out was "Aida," which Verdi composed in 1871, two years after the opening of the Suez Canal. When Wilfried invited me to join him as an extra, he warned me that the warriors marching downstage to the tune of the famous triumphal march had to hide their fair skin under brown body paint. The trick was, he explained, to join a group of warriors with the least exposure of skin so we didn't need to spend a lot of time in the shower later. Having marched before, he knew what branch of pharaoh's armed forces had to slap on the least amount of body paint. He instructed me to stick closely to him at rehearsal.
But alas, an assistant director needed to beef up the detail of archers and moved me to a platoon dressed with barely more than a loincloth. After slathering myself with brown paint, there were few areas left on me that hadn't changed to a deep tan. I fancied myself resembling those figures depicted in ancient Egyptian murals, minus the typical profile stance.
With the rehearsals done, we whiled away time in a lounge until, during Act II, we were ordered to the back of the stage for our grand entry. There we found ourselves in a twilight world screened from the dramatic goings-on by the sets and the acoustic curtain welling up from the orchestra pit. Stagehands went about their business, oblivious to the theatrics only a few feet away. We saw Radames in the person of a stout tenor clutching his sword and bantering with the stage personnel.
The only connection to the histrionics downstage was a closed-circuit television monitor. It told the assistant director when to send us on our way. When he finally gave us the cue, we held onto our bows in the prescribed manner and, with quivers slung over our shoulders, marched - barefoot, to boot - into the blinding floodlights to the blaring sound of trumpets.
Somewhere beyond this wall of light sat people engrossed in the action and enjoying the experience. In vain I tried to penetrate the light and get a glimpse of individual faces in the audience. Could it be, I wondered, that people out there didn't realize they were looking at a bunch of amateurs repeating an exercise rehearsed only a couple of hours earlier? And was this curtain of light all that the tenors and sopranos ever saw as they delivered their arias and duets night after night?
I couldn't dwell on this too long, for I had to keep in step with the archer in front of me. Arriving at the ramp, I made a left turn and quickly another and was headed to the back of the stage. There I turned in my bow and arrows and was equipped with a spear.
Again I proceeded in single file the same path as before, wondering whether anybody would detect my reassignment from archer to spear carrier. I filed past a graven image of a god - or was it Pharaoh? I couldn't take time to look. Then I repeated my two left turns and arrived backstage to surrender my spear. Thus ended my short but glorious moments in the limelight. They couldn't have lasted more than a couple of minutes.
Down in the shower, Wilfried was the first to complete his transformation into a fair-skinned Central European. Even after I had used up all my apportioned soap, little rivulets of brownish water still emerged from my shower stall as I tried to scrub off the last patches of my Egyptian makeup. We then collected our pay and left, long before the final duet.
Waking up Sunday morning, I realized what that "makeup bonus" of one deutsche mark was all about, for I still found smudges of brown on my bedsheets. I would have to explain to my landlady, not exactly an opera buff, that her bed linen showed traces of my service to the arts.
The theater never called me back for a repeat engagement. My debut proved also to be my swan song.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society