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From Muni to the War Memorial…Memories from an operatic childhood

10:00AM, September 1987
It was a foggy day in San Francisco (shocking!) and I had just handed my third-grade teacher a note reminding her that I had to leave school early. I exited Jefferson Elementary School in the Sunset District and made my way to the N Judah Muni stop. I carefully reviewed my mother’s hand-drawn map to ensure the train I was about to board would take me the right way. (Being only eight years old, I didn’t quite have my directional faculties about me.) A short ride later and I was at Van Ness and Market Street, once again referencing my mother’s cartography. After only a few minutes of getting lost, I found my way through an unassuming glass door. I was immediately confronted with the smells of plaster, sawdust, paint, fabrics, hairspray and make-up, a combination of scents that could only mean one thing… I was backstage! This wasn’t just any backstage though; I was behind the scenes at the War Memorial Opera House for my first staging rehearsal of Puccini’s Tosca. My life, from that moment on, was forever changed.

Cole Thomason-Redus

9:00AM, April 1988
Once again I was on the N Judah, traveling from Jefferson Elementary School to the War Memorial. (No map this time. I knew the way quite well by then.) Why I was headed to the War Memorial during the off-season? Today was the memorial concert for the late San Francisco Opera general director Kurt Herbert Adler. As a member of the San Francisco Boys Chorus, I stood on stage alongside the San Francisco Girls Chorus for a performance of the “Evening Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel. A young Ian Robertson was conducting. I remember how full the War Memorial was that morning. I remember being schooled on the importance of that concert, the importance of the people who made up that audience and the importance of the man we were there to pay tribute to. (Although I had only turned nine a few weeks earlier, I already knew who Adler was. In fact, in the six months since my opera debut in Tosca, he’d become my childhood hero.) I remember having to stand still on stage for what seemed like hours as the San Francisco Opera Orchestra completed the lengthy pantomime section of Engelbert Humperdinck’s score. I remember the sparkling of jewels and diamonds that shone from famous divas and patronesses scattered about the hall. I remember returning home later that day and transforming my walk-in closet into my own stage, above which I hung a sign: “Adler Theater.” 


11:00PM, September 1989
On this night I was headed in the opposite direction on Muni. I had just finished a performance of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele with star bass Samuel Ramey and was riding the streetcar home, chaperoned by my mother. It had not been my best night! Television cameras had been all over the opera house that evening as we recorded the production for a national broadcast of Great Performances on PBS. Us kid choristers played the roles of angels and were covered from head to toe in sheer, cloud-like gowns. Atop our heads were heavy, plastic golden crowns. And what should happen during the standing ovation as we proudly took our bows? My crown came tumbling off my head and bounced onto the stage floor. “Do I pick it up and put it back on? Do I try and subtly retrieve it once my too-deep bow is completed? Do I do nothing and pretend everything is as it should be?... Yes! Let’s go for option three!” Well, America and I cringed as the next row of artists promenaded in front of me and curtsied deeply, turning my bejeweled crown into operatic roadkill. Oh, the horror! The humanity! In hindsight, I’m glad that happened: To this day when I watch the video, I know exactly which tiny angel is me.

Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele with star bass Samuel Ramey

5:00PM, October 20, 1989
This time my Muni ride was not to bring me to the War Memorial. The Bay Area had suffered a huge earthquake just days before, and this night’s performance of Verdi’s Otello would take place at the Masonic Auditorium atop Nob Hill. The audience was so friendly that night, their applause warmer than ever. This is how we roll in San Francisco! There is no earthquake, nor any virus, that will ever keep us San Franciscans from loving our opera.


5:00PM, December 1992
As I rode the Muni train from the West Portal station to Van Ness Avenue, my face was covered in tears. Earlier that week, I had debuted in the role of Peaseblossom in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What thirteen-year-old boy doesn’t want to play the role of a Shakespearian fairy, dressed in pink lace, ruffles and a curly pink wig? Let’s go a step further: What eighth grader doesn’t want a photo of himself in said costume on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle? Well, on this day, I certainly didn’t want any of those honors. The photo had made the rounds at my school, mostly thanks to the teachers who held it up and said, “Did you all see Cole in the Chronicle today?” By lunch, the photo had been plastered onto my locker with some not-nice slurs graffitied on it in red marker. Filled with rage, sadness and utter humiliation, I ran home crying harder than I ever had before. I continued to do so in bed for several hours. But by 5 o’clock, none of that torment mattered. No pain would deter me. I had a performance of Tosca that evening and the show had to go on. I had to go on. Thank God for opera! 

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

3:00PM, April 1994
My sixteenth and last opera as a boy chorister was Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème in the ’93 season. I was a freshman in high school at that point, and although I had graduated from the Boys Chorus a few months earlier, I still had soprano notes in me and was thrilled to be a part of three productions that fall as an independent artist. The following spring, our production was reprised for a daytime concert for school children. The most memorable part of that performance was that my voice changed literally during act two. I began the scene singing my usual boy soprano lines and twenty minutes later had no choice but to finish the act’s closing chorus with the tenors! As I rode Muni home that afternoon, I remember crying once more. This time the tears were not due to names that hurt like sticks and stones. Instead, they came from the flood of memories, from half a childhood spent growing up at San Francisco Opera.

As the streetcar reached my stop, I thought about the very last thing I had done before exiting San Francisco Opera’s stage door. It made me smile. It still does. It was the naughtiest act of my life up to that point. Deep below a staircase, backstage at the War Memorial, a fifteen-year-old boy carved his initials into a plaster wall along with a promise: I’ll be back!

 

 

Cole Thomason-Redus is a composer, conductor, educator and vocalist based in San Francisco. He recently joined San Francisco Opera’s Department of Diversity, Equity and Community as program manager for the Jerry Rosenstein Arts Project (JRAP).

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