My good friend Bill Russell posted this on Facebook and I had to share it with you. Opera stories abound, but this one is priceless. I thought my own City Opera debut was fraught but this knocks me into the shade! And you had to know Jerry Hadley (and I only knew him slightly) to know how self-effacing and extremely funny he could be. Read on and live a slice of the opera singer’s world.
A fitting tribute to Jerry Hadley, the story of his City Opera debut in his own words:
The most castrophy-filled opera debut may belong to tenor Jerry Hadley, who on September 14, 1979, made his New York City Opera debut as Arturo in Lucia di Lamermoor on less than a week’s notice, without any stage rehearsal. Those of you who know Jerry know that he was one of the all-time best storytellers. . Here in Jerry’s own words is his story of his star-crossed first night.
“ I vividly remember my City Opera debut. As my friends will tell you, I believe that any story worth telling is worth embellishing and improving with each passing year. However, in this instance, as Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet, I will tell you “just the facts.”
[The night of my debut] rolled around. I hadn’t really had a proper rehearsal, but by this time, I had developed a mantra. I would go home at night and chant, “I-am-a-professional-singer-I-know-my-part-everything-will-be-fine-I-am- a- professional-singer-I-know-my-part-everything-will-be-fine.” When I showed up at the theater, it occurred to me that all I knew about the set was the tape marks. So I went up and found the stage manager. “Do you think it’s going to be possible for me to walk on this set before I go on to sing?” He said, “Oh, yes! No problem! You’re in the second scene of Act II. The curtain will come down we’ll change the scene, and before everybody else walks onstage, I’ll send for you. You can give it a look.” I said, “Oh, thank you, thank you. That’s great. O.K.”
Sure enough, when the time came, they changed the set. I said “Now?” and he said, “Now!” I walked onstage to look things over and was out there for maybe five seconds when about eighty people charged onstage whom I had never seen before. In costume. I sort of froze, because I was definitely not in Kansas anymore, and then, thank God, Robert Hale [Raimondo] had the presence of mind to say, “Hey! Get up here! The curtain is going up!” So I ran up the stairs and got to the platform just as we heard, “DadumdaDUMDUM, DadumdaDUM.” I looked out into that vast sea of humanity, and there was Beverly Sills sitting up [in the general director’s] box. She gave me a kind of a thumbs-up wave as I was standing there, and that was that.
The first thing I had to do was sing my little aria to Enrico – “Per poco fra le tenebre,” right? – and I realized I had no earthly idea which one of those people was Richard Fredricks, who was Enrico. So I turned to Bob Hale and whispered, “Where ishe?” He said, “Right over there. The blond.” Well, Richard’s not blond in real life, but I found him, sang my aria, got the high note and thought, “Ha. That’s not so hard.”
Well, God heard that. He set out to prove I was mortal. Because the next thing that had to happen was a cross to stage left for Fredricks and me. We were supposed to be talking about the impending marriage. So there was a chair – and I had a goblet in one hand and my other hand on my scabbard- and I sat down and tried to look real macho. Somehow, the scabbard got itself lodged in the rungs of my chair, and I didn’t realize it. So I sat there, singing “M’è noto. Si! M’è noto!” He got up and walked across the stage, and I followed him, dragging my chair with me. Even to the novice audience member, that looked wrong. So a couple of the supers came over and very nicely took the chair off the sword and – I don’t know what made me do this, but I glanced up to see how the boss was taking all this, and I couldn’t see Beverly anymore. What I could see was this shock of red hair leaning on the front rail of the bow. She was laughing so hard she couldn’t sit up!
By now I felt like Jim Ignatowski in Taxi. I was in a different zone from the rest of the world. Then these three supers approached me, and one of them said – I swear this is a direct quote – “Come with us. We’re your friends.” They took me up to sign the marriage contract, which I did, and by now I was in a position to see Lucia come down the stairs. I stood up and tried to regain my composure. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, my head was grabbed from behind. It absolutely snapped back. I turned around, and there was one of these guys who had just told me that he was myfriend. I said, “What are youdoing?” He said, “Don’t worry. It’s out.” I said, “What?” He answered, “Thefire.” The plume on my hat had gotten too close to the candelabra and had caught fire, and I was the only one in the State Theater who didn’t know it.
So now, I see Lucia coming down the stairs. My bride. Do you realize how short this scene is? Normally, the Arturo scene goes like a snap. Well, for me that night it was like Götterdämmerung! Here was Lucia coming down the stairs, Gianna Rolandi, laughing so hard there were tears streaming down her face, and her teeth weregritted, she was trying so hard to keep it together. I was supposed to walk over to her and bow very gallantly. I got over, and she hissed, “Don’t make me laugh!”
Now I was supposed to bow to her and doff my hat. Because I was wearing a wig and because the hat had been pinned onto the back of my head in such a way that I had no peripheral sense of where I was, I didn’t know that when they put my fire out they had pulled on my wig so hard the hat had fallen off. Again I was the only person in the State Theater who was not aware of this. So I bowed as instructed and reached for a nonexistent hat. Where’s my hat? No hat. So instead I substituted something Veronica Lake might have done – I sort of flipped my long hair at her.
Edgardo came on, and I thought, “Great. Now they’ll watch him.” When it was time for the sextet, I got as far downstage as I could, thinking, “I’m gonna sing really loud now. I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by.” This is a pointless strategy when you’re singing the inner voice in the ensemble. But everything seemed to work out fine. We were almost done.
When the music was drawing to an end, and the last note had been sung, I was supposed to draw my sword and turn upstage threateningly to Edgardo as he exited. Well, I was standing in the wrong place, and I didn’t know that four guys – my friends – near me were also going to draw their swords as they turned upstage en masse. I wasn’t prepared to move out of their way, so – according to my wife, who was sitting in the second row – the last thing people saw, as the music cut off and the curtain began to come in, was that I drew my sword, turned upstage – just as my friends did with their swords drawn – and got at least two of their swords right where it hurts. And I jumped. I left the stage – straight up in the air – as the curtain came down.
After the curtain hit the floor there was long pause backstage – maybe a second of silence, I guess, but it felt like an eternity. Everybody looked at me and then dissolved in laughter. Everybody chortling, “That was really funny. Welcome to the company, man!” So I went back to my dressing room, thinking the worst. “Well, I’ve sung at the City Opera once. That’s better than nothing.” Then Beverly came backstage, and when she knocked at my door, I could see she was prepared to put a good face on the whole thing to cheer me up – you know, singer to singer. Well, she took one look at me and went, “HAAAAAAAAAhahahahaHHHHAAAA!” Don’t worry! We’ll talk! We’ll talk!”
That was my debut. I actually got good notices! After that, everything else was a piece of cake! That really did happen, and I only embellished it in one spot, I swear.