In my singing career of many years in many opera houses I have learned many things - especially in German opera houses - but I'm not sure exactly what!
In my singing career of many years in many opera houses I have learned many things – especially in German opera houses – but I’m not sure exactly what!
Early in my opera career I was engaged to sing Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the Berlin State Opera. We were rehearsing the last act where Mimi is in bed dying. Tenor Rodolfo is looking out the window for the doctor who has been summoned to treat her. Rodolfo walks over the bed and sees that all is lost. Mimi may not live through the night. At that point in the score Puccini writes, “Rodolfo is crying.” No sooner had I dropped my head and started to cry when I heard a voice from the empty theater, “Herr Roney, what do think you are doing?” I answer, “Herr Direktor, I am singing Rodolfo in “La Boheme” as stated in my contract with your theater.”
“But you are crying,” said the Direktor. “Yes,” I said. “In the score Puccini writes at this point that Rodolfo cries, therefore I’m just following directions.”
“Herr Roney, there is something you must learn – in Germany men never cry.”
“Herr Direktor, I did nor know that “La Boheme” is a German Opera and that the characters are Teutonic. What would you have me do?” The Direktor pulled himself up to his full 6 foot 4 inches. He mused for a moment and then said, “Just stand there and look sad.” First lesson learned…
A few years later in another great German opera house, I was rehearsing the last act of Verdi’s “Aida.” Aida and I were sealed up in the pyramid-tomb with little air when we came to the spot in the score where I sing “O terra, addio” (Oh goodbye to the world). In the score at that moment Verdi writes pppp — very, very, very softly. I sang softly. The Direktor jumped on the stage screaming, “Herr Roney, what the h--- are you doing?” “Herr Direktor, I am singing very softly as Puccini’s score instructs.” The Direktor was livid as he answered me, “Herr Roney, there is one thing you must learn, and remember: namely, in Germany men do not die softly, men die LOUDLY – FORTISSIMO! Next lesson learned...
At another time I was in my New York apartment with my constant companion, a black male poodle named Sweetie, when the phone rang. The call was from Herr Direktor K in Germany who said, “Mr. Roney, I am now in my 80s and will soon retire. I have been asked to direct my last “Otello” and I would like for you to sing the title role for me.”
I was delighted to do so and had my manager arrange the details. I was singing in France the weeks before that, and then would go to Germany to do the premier and eight more performances of “Otello”. I arrived at the concierge’s window.
“Hello, Mr. Roney so nice to see you again, but I must tell you that your pal, Sweetie, may not come in the opera house.” I made a point of remaining calm and polite — concierges, after all, do not make the rules in opera houses. I said, “I have sung here many times before, and I just came from the Paris Opéra. My dog is always with me and stays in my dressing room when I am onstage.” “I know, Herr Roney. But this is a new house rule.”
“Who made the rule?” I asked.
“Herr Direktor K; a certain new soprano wanted it that way.”
“Is she singing Desdemona with me?”
“Nein, Herr Roney no.”
“Would you kindly get Direktor K on the phone?”
When Direktor K found that I was waiting below at the stage entrance, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My dog can’t come in the house as he has always done. This change in the opera house rules was not told to me when I agreed to sing Otello.”
“Ja, aber....” — yes, but…but, lieber Herr Roney, Kammersängerin Ursula S is now a resident singer here. She says she is allergic, and doesn’t want dogs in the opera house. The Intendanz — the administration — was only complying with her wishes.”
“My dog has not changed a whit since he was here last. The Deutsche Bühnengenossenschaft (the opera “union”) will, I believe, support my objection to this newly-passed ex-post-facto rule.”
“Herr Direktor K.” I said, “May I respectfully suggest that you replace me as Otello in this production?”
“But we need you immediately, Herr Roney!”
I said, “Otellos are not hard to find, Herr Direktor. They grow on every tree. You won’t have any trouble. I will be in my hotel room until noon.”
At 11:30, the phone rang. It was Direktor K.
“Good news, Herr Roney!’
“Really? What has happened?” I asked.
“Something quite wunderbar,” he said. “The Intendant called a special meeting. I explained your position, and the ex-post-facto aspects that you say exclude the “no dogs” house rule from applying to your dog.”
“The intendant found a brilliant way to solve this problem.”
”And.... What is his solution?” I asked.
“Just this. He is making your dog an employee of the opera house.
Sweetie is now a supernumerary — an extra. He is of course welcome in the house.”
A logical German had conquered a confounding enigma.
And again, all was right in this best of all possible worlds!