San Francisco Opera | Leontyne Price’s Farewell ‘Aida:’ An Opera To Remember

Leontyne Price’s Farewell ‘Aida:’ An Opera To Remember

It was standing room only for the final performance of Leontyne Price’s Aida on the San Francisco Opera stage. Fans swarmed for a last chance to see the great diva sing her signature role right here in the Bay Area.

And at this monumental performance, I was on stage, a fledgling, a greenhorn, in my virgin appearance as a supernumerary. It was June 1984. My job was to play the role of an Egyptian soldier.

Little did I know that my first performance opposite Price would end with me flying across the stage, skidding to a halt just two feet away from the open orchestra pit. 

It all happened during the opera’s famous triumphal march. I was positioned at the front of the stage with my back to the audience, guarding the Ethiopian prisoners, including Amonasro, Aida’s father and king of Ethiopia, sung by Juan Pons.  

I also happened to be standing in Price’s way. She was behind me, singing to the audience, and Pons was meant to be standing directly in front of me. In rehearsals, we had practiced having Aida reach over my right shoulder and pull him out of the prisoner chorus — but this time, Pons was standing too far away. Price could not reach him. She did not look pleased. 

With whip in hand, I was strategically braced, ready to hold back the rebellious prisoners, when suddenly Price grabbed my right arm. She pulled me backward with strength and determination, throwing me off balance and toward the open orchestra pit.

I was caught off-guard — we had not staged this altercation — but I was determined: I absolutely could not fall down. I had to stay upright and make this anomaly look premeditated.  I came to a stop just steps away from the open orchestra pit. I paused, allowing Aida enough time to retrieve Amonasro before I reassumed my position, careful to avoid another encounter on my return.

Upon exiting the stage, I was briefly met by Jerry Sherk, the stage manager on Aida, and Paula Williams, the assistant stage director, who had just witnessed my unanticipated and rather dramatic encounter with the diva.

I was terrified. That had been my first time on an opera stage as a supernumerary, and my mind was spinning. Had I just destroyed one of the most magical moments in the opera? What must the 3,000-plus opera devotees in the audience be thinking after my near-tumble into a tuba?

Jerry and Paula had seen it all, and to my delight, they congratulated me on a great “save.”

With my mind at ease, I was able to enjoy the rest of the evening. I listened to Dutch conductor Edo de Waart leading the orchestra, and I relished tenor Franco Bonisolli and soprano Dolora Zajick in their performances as Radamès and the Priestess. And of course, there was Price, a star in her element. It was a night many will never forget. And for me, it was a night I will cherish always.

 

 

 

Tom Taffel was the longtime manager of the War Memorial Opera House’s Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Intermezzo Lounge. He also leads luxury travel tours through Tom’s Group Cruises.

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