Native son: In costume - For real

by Charles D. Novak
It was 1957 and I was on the Greyhound Bus headed for Minneapolis. I was going to see my first opera. For years I had been overwhelmed by the singing of the Slovenian Choir and the High Mass Choir at St Anthony’s Catholic Church. I found it amazing a human being could produce such beautiful sounds. The chorus director at school suggested I should see an opera. I took his advice and started with the best.
I was on my way to see the Metropolitan Opera which came on tour to Northrop Auditorium every spring. My first opera was going to be the four hour long Der Rosenkavalier. The curtain went up and there was the Mighty Met in all its singing glory! On my way home the melodies kept swirling around in my head. I was hooked!
From then on I spent every free minute learning about this art form. The high school’s physical education teacher was already a fan and had a collection of operas on LP format which she lent to me from time to time. I started to recognize voices and the names of the singers.
In reading about opera I discovered that not everyone on stage was singing. There were people acting in silent parts just moving their lips to the words. They were in the roles of soldiers, prisoners, maids, butlers and people in massive crowd scenes. Every once and awhile there was a real acting part in which one was part of the story. As a bonus you got to take a curtain call with the main cast. My goal was to get one of these coveted roles. In future years I excelled in these parts
Young and naïve I wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Opera and asked them how I could get a silent part in an opera. I’m sure there was laughter when the letter was first opened. What an upstart!
My first reply was from Milton Cross who was the host for the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts. He wrote back informing me he turned my letter over to Stanley Levine, the stage manager. Spring was approaching and so was the Met Opera on tour. Weeks before they arrived by train I received a letter from Mr. Levine. He said if I wanted to be in the opera he would meet me at the stage door at five o’clock sharp.
I exploded with excitement! I kept running around telling everyone I was going to be in the Metropolitan Opera. At one point I was sure I was going to be sent to the state mental hospital. People just assumed my ranting was just another delusion of grandeur.
At the stage door Mr. Levine took one look at me and said “you’re tall enough. Follow me!” As we walked inside the auditorium I could hear some of the singers warming up their voices. My Metropolitan Opera debut was in the Shakespeare inspired Othello. The Italian opera version is Otello without the H. The opera begins with a fierce and loud storm. Otello is trying to dock his ship and the 82 member chorus is encouraging him at the top of their lungs! The ninety piece orchestra was trying to overpower the chorus.
When Otello’s ship is finally safe he rushes on stage and sings of his victory with one of the most powerful tenor voices I’ve ever heard. My knees were shaking as I started to sweat with makeup running down my face. I played the part of a solider in all four acts When the opera was over I was exhausted. I must have done something right. Before I left the stage manager said that if I was ever in NY he would put me in other performances. Little did he know I would hold him to his promise!?
On the local scene, my Met debut landed me on the front page of The Ely Miner thanks to Fred Childers, newspaper editor at the time.
I eventually made it to New York and appeared at the old Metropolis Opera house which was torn down in the late ’60s. In that one visit alone I appeared in five different operas.. The Met Opera moved into their new home at Lincoln Center in 1972. I made only one appearance at the new house. The memories I had of the old theater have never left me.
Moving to San Francisco in 1965, I did extra parts in the San Francisco Opera for three seasons while holding down a full time job in the investment banking business. During the four month opera season, I worked my regular job from five to four, ate dinner and was at the opera house by six for rehearsals that lasted until ten.
Many times the director wouldn’t need us for more than half an hour so we stood around and waited to be called for the next scene. This allowed me time to talk and have fun with the singers and joke around with the staff and stage hands while watching the world class directors putting a performance together. It was a once in a life time experience.
If there were any artistic disagreements it was usually between the conductor who controls the whole show and the singers. Sometimes he had the orchestra playing faster than the singers could sing. Objects were thrown into the orchestra pit out of anger especially by the Italians. Shoes were a favorite.
Some stars would simply walk off the stage and go to their dressing room and sulk until a prominent member of the opera staff appeared on bended knee to smooth things over. The super star singers were paid $5,000 a performance! They now make $12-15,000. In contrast I didn’t even make enough to report my earnings to the IRS. I was in it for the love of opera.
This article includes pictures of some of my performances. In the last ten years I made 47 trips to New York to see opera at the Met. This time I was a member of the audience. And guess what? I can’t sing a note or carry a tune!!