In the Fall of 2007, I was hired by the New York City Opera to appear in “Pagliacci” at Lincoln Center. Briefly, the story of Pagliacci is a simple tale of love, lust, betrayal and murder – a family show.
Canio and Tonio are two male clowns. Silvio is the local townsman. They are all in love with Nedda, the female clown (married to Canio). A jealous rage ensues. By the end of the short opera, Nedda and Silvio are killed onstage by the hot-headed Canio (urged on by the crafty and evil Tonio) during a performance of their traveling show. The onstage audience applauds the realism of the “acting” as the curtain falls, unaware that they have just seen an actual murder.
There may be clowns, but this is no comedy.
Early in the show, my task is to follow evil Tonio and spew fire in the general region of the seat of his pants. One long blast will send him howling to center stage before I turn back toward the wings and give a final spout of flames. I’ve got to get close to Tonio, but not too close. I’m not really supposed to burn him – nor the orchestra members, who are in the pit just beyond Tonio. But, I AM supposed to get as close I can to setting the clown on fire.
Because I am the understudy, I never set foot on the stage nor had a full rehearsal before my performance. If the company knew how little I knew of what I was doing, they would never have let me near the stage. And because I am the understudy, I am virtually “plugged in” to the show. Later (when the production is in full swing) the rest of the cast turns to watch me juggle, there is a moment of “who are you?!” on their faces.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. It is Show Night. I am beyond terrified. To top it off, my in-laws are in the audience. Pressure squared.
The opera opens and I am on stage in a 1950-style travel trailer. The cast greets me and is remarkably casual in their conversation (see Part One). Don’t they know there is an opera on? Don’t they realize this is a Big Deal? As the music changes, I step out of the trailer with the acting troupe.
It is all stylized movement and colorful flourishes as I make my entrance. I spin, toss a fireball with my hands and then head stage left.
Off in the wings is the prop master with a bottle of Everclear, a torch, fire extinguisher, a bottle of water and a bucket.
I take a swig of the 190 proof alcohol and hold it in my mouth. Someone lights my torch and I am ready for my big debut. With an exaggerated tip-toe sneak, I come up behind Tonio and spew the liquid over the torch, right on cue with the music. I turn with a brief smile to the audience and spout once more before going into the wings. My mouth is puckered with the taste of alcohol. I take a long gulp of water and spit it into the bucket. Someone hands me juggling clubs and I am back out on stage.
The hard part was over. From this point on, I am just a juggler amidst the townsfolk. Townsfolk who don’t recognize me, cause there has always been another guy in the costume.
But, oh, there is the little dance that everyone does. I never completely get those steps, but I fool myself into accepting that my “character” does a clownish version of the dance on purpose. I fool nobody else, I’m afraid.
There was something else I wasn’t expecting to have to do. I think they call it “acting”. I was ready for the fire (sort of) and I was confident I could juggle. What I forgot was that I was on stage for the next 20 minutes while some rather extreme things were happening. How was I to react to the murder? I hadn’t even considered that! Suddenly, there I was, doing improv at Lincoln Center in the middle of my first production, quite by accident.
So, I worked up something I call “Acting with a Hat”. When something shocking happens on stage, I take off my hat quickly and hold it in front of my waist. When the danger subsides, I put it back on my head, slowly. Sorrow? Take the hat off slowly. Need for action? Put the hat back on quickly. There is a hat move for every emotion, it turns out. It is acting – with a hat!
On the second night of my run, I got a little ahead of myself. I thought, “I can do this again, no problem.” I step off stage to load up on the fire-juice. Soon, I realize that I am WAY early. My musical cue is a long way off and I have a mouthful of noxious liquid tearing up the insides of my cheeks.
Do I spit it out and start over? Do I have enough time to do that? I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing. My lips start to numb. The Everclear trickles down the back of my throat. I have to cough, but that would be bad – I have a live torch in my hand!
The cue finally comes. I step forward (again, in that sneaky way I do it) and spew the fire towards Tonio. Trouble is, the numbness has ruined my embrasure. I can’t get a good spray! What should be a fountain of fire becomes a brief burst of unimpressive dribble. I turn toward the wings for my follow-up blow. A bit of liquid flows over my swollen lips. No spray, no burst, no nothin’! The crew looks at me quizzically. I swish water, spit and grab my clubs and juggle. I move on.
But here is the best part of the whole experience: As the darkness fell on the stage at the end of the opera, someone said, “Follow me!” and took me by the hand. I was whisked back into the bright lights, this time facing the cheering, real live audience. A tenor was on one side of me and an acrobat on the other. I realized that I was in the front line of the curtain call! That is where the stars stand!
We even did that thing where we step forward to receive the ovation, step back and then come forward again for an even stronger up-swell of applause. It was so much fun, we did it 4 or 5 times before a standing, ecstatic crowd.
There I was, alternately feeling like a star and a fraud. I pulled it off. I was taking my bows.
There. That about sums up my New York City Opera debut. I wasn’t fired (there’s an ironic term, considering). I didn’t blow up the building. I didn’t immolate any clowns. The show ends with everyone and everything intact. And I am always grateful that I never once did the job I was hired to do. I never once set fire to the clown.