|Le nom de la premiere . . .
yes, loyal readers, here are Les Contes de Bordello, the
youthful recounting of my life and loves as a junior opera queen.
And where did these exploits take place? Roma? Milano? No, in New
Orleans, of all places! Enzo's humble origins are not truly
Italian but Cajun Coon Ass. The New Orleans Opera was a unique
place to cut one's aficionado teeth. Performances, then as
now, take place in the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center.
For many years, the opera house was conveniently located just a
stone's throw away from a French Quarter bathhouse. Well, the
bathhouse has long since shut its doors but here are my memories
of those happier days, culled from twenty five years of
experience as an audience member, production assistant and, now
that I no longer live in the City That Care Forgot, a
long-distance supporter. What follows is a veritable A to Z
roster of the divas and divos that left lasting impressions, both
the good and the bad. Laissez les bon temps rouler,
The first conte is June Anderson, who appeared to be a prospective La Dementia, not the successor to La Stupenda. My subsequent work with her as a production assistant only served to confirm the initial impression. The Amazonian Anderson arrived for a staging rehearsal of Il Barbiere di Siviglia wearing a sexless poncho with enormous jewelry right out of Pasolini's Medea. Her hairstyle was courtesy of a light socket. A wide-eyed, hysterical expression only added to her crazy demeanor. Anderson had previously appeared with the New Orleans Opera in 1979 as the Queen of the Night. Although still a rookie diva then, Anderson apparently supplied prima donna antics aplenty. Reportedly, she refused to sing "O zittre nicht" from the platform she had been directed to ascend, bringing the orchestra dress rehearsal to a grinding halt. General director Arthur Cosenza, fearful of overtime expenses and tanked up on martinis, came rushing down the aisle in orchestra seating and screamed across the orchestra pit: "Young lady, you get on that fucking piece of wood or you are finished in this business." Anderson did as she was told.
Loony June continued her shenanigans during a return engagement in 1983 as Rosina. By this time, however, she had the operatic world at her feet. Anderson had been catapulted to international fame the year before when she substituted at the last minute for an indisposed Montserrat Caballe in Semiramide. She was the hottest soprano property around. Immediately prior to these Barbiere performances in New Orleans, Anderson had debuted in several important Italian houses. Italians love their divas raw and Anderson's petulant ways were well-received in Venice and Milan. Unfortunately, screaming and foot stomping just look bitchy and stupid in New Orleans.
I remember a rehearsal where Renato Capecchi, serving double duty as Bartolo and stage director for the production, insisted Anderson play with a doll during "Una voce poco fa." Anderson was hesitant to try this idea and Capecchi explained why it was a good piece of business.
Anderson sniffed and replied: "I wouldn't know. I've never worked with any good directors."
Capecchi countered: "That may be, madame. But I've worked with many insecure singers."
Nostrils flaring, Anderson stormed into the ladies bathroom, screaming that she was quitting the production. Capecchi, furious, shouted: "Go, then! Go!"
The stage manager knew Anderson well from their joint years at New York City Opera and spent the next hour prying Anderson out of the john.
At the first dress rehearsal, Anderson took one look in the mirror at makeup and wig designer Joe Marino's work and started throwing things:
"I look like a drag queen," she shrieked.
Exactly. That's all Joe knew how to create, since his only previous experience had been creating makeup for gay Mardi Gras balls. Anderson took her Dulcinea wig and industrial strength eyebrows quite personally and refused to let Marino come near her for the duration of the run.
What about the performance, you ask? I recall a lot of cold, hard tone, a shitty trill, lobotomized acting--but great high notes. And, honey, did she fret over them high notes! I remember her singing high E flats over and over again in her dressing room, which could explain why she looked and sounded so sleepy on stage.
As an administrative assistant, it was my job to drive La Anderson to her various commitments in my beat up Ford Fairmont. We stopped for lunch one day at an Italian dive on Rampart Street. Over a salad, Anderson proceeded to dish every singer in the universe, living or dead. Most divas engage in a fair amount of good-natured gossip. Anderson was chillingly serious with her venomous comments. She admired not one of her peers at City Opera: Gianna Rolandi was "vulgar" and Ashley Putnam dismissed as "a pothead." She resented comparisons with Joan Sutherland but conceded La Stupenda's Daughter of the Regiment was "cute." Her comments regarding Renata Scotto were particularly vicious but she softened their impact somewhat by allowing that Scotto's Desdemona was more tolerable than her usual "dreadful" performances. She spoke kindly only of Alfredo Kraus, from whom Anderson appeared to receive a paternally nurturing interest.
Anderson's real-life mad scenes were not only
pathetic, but unpredictable. During performances, I used to hand
Anderson a prop candle that she carried on stage during the Act
Two storm music. One night, she exited into the wings, took the
candle and calmly reflected, "You know, I'm glad my
career is so promising because my private life is the pits."
Without missing a beat, Anderson walked right back on stage while
I stood dumbfounded at her disclosure. With behavior like hers,
no wonder the diva's private life was the pits. She could
keep a therapist in business for years. And that promising
career? Forget it. It never happened. Now the high notes are gone
and la sua repertoire is molto bizarro:
Carlo Bergonziwas the first great star I ever worked with. Appearing in a 1981 Un Ballo in Maschera, he was then entering the twilight years of a great career. The tenor was a quiet, conscientious man who fell to his knees behind the set and crossed himself minutes before his first entrance on stage. That's Italian!
I approached Bergonzi once during rehearsals and asked him to autograph my copies of his classic Boheme and Butterfly recordings with Tebaldi. As he stood in the dim light, he silently took my pen and did as I requested.
He handed the box sets back and asked, "What do you think of the recordings?" I thought I was going to die. Carlo Bergonzi is asking me what I think of his work! I told Bergonzi they were my first recordings (they were) and I had cherished them since the age of eight. "Davvero, giovanetto? Grazie."
Bergonzi never seemed satisfied with his work; I would often notice him leaving for the day with a sad shake of his head. So I was honored to step in at staging rehearsals for the absent Erie Mills and support Bergonzi in his death throes. You could wait a lifetime to hear singing as eloquent as Bergonzi offered in the last act. The voice showed the inevitable ravages of time but the sound was still liquid gold. I stood in the wings every chance I could to hear this hero of my opera queen beginnings. In those unforgettable moments, the junior queen and impressionable queer boy stood as one, transcending time, united and inspired by the indelible artistry of the great Bergonzi.
Fiorenza Cossotto represents a paradoxical disparity between the public and private personas of any artist. On stage, Cossotto was a figure of mystery and fascination, an impression enhanced by that immense powerhouse of a voice. Up close and in person, Cossotto was a thoroughly unpleasant little fireplug of a woman, obsessed with her own need for attention via awed responses. As assistant stage manager for a 1982 production of Samson et Dalila, I had numerous occasions to witness both aspects of the Italian mezzo-soprano.
It was my job to meet Cossotto and her husband Ivo Vinco at their hotel in the French Quarter and escort both of them to the opera house. On the morning of the first sitzprobe, I waited nervously in the hotel lobby for this legendary duo. Good Lord, I ruminated, the fate of two of the biggest names in Italian opera is in my hands. Cossotto and Vinco had sung Norma with Maria Callas. Cossotto was the reigning mezzo-soprano of La Scala, a favorite of such maestros as Karajan, Muti, Levine and Pretre. I was terrified the three of us would be mugged on the way to the theater (not a rare occurrence in the French Quarter). How would I explain that one? Well, one look at La Cossotto and I knew any prospective mugger would regret accosting this diva.
"Andiam," Cossotto commanded and I timidly set off in the direction of the opera house. She walked briskly, plying me with questions about the production. Who was singing Samson, she asked. Richard Cassilly? Ah, yes, she had just sung the opera with Cassilly in Hamburg. They were scheduled to sing Samson et Dalila at the Met the year before but a strike had sabotaged that plan. "Che vergogna," sighed Cossotto. I was struck by how tiny she was. She wore huge spike heels to compensate for her short stature but she could not have been any taller than five feet. She lacked nothing in grandezza, however, and as we walked past winos and prostitutes, she exuded all the regal character of Eboli or Amneris. Safely inside the opera house, Cossotto sailed through the sitzprobe with a flawlessly sung account of Dalila's music. I will never forget her attack on the high B "Lache!" near the end of Act Two. It was ringing, rock-solid and massive. My eardrums vibrated for hours afterwards. It's hard for the junior queens to understand what the impact of such a voice is like. But once experienced, you never forget it.
If only my subsequent impressions of Cossotto were such positive ones! Alas, the mezzo soon revealed her true character, a self-absorbed narcissist unaware and unconcerned for the feelings of others. She screamed with rage at the costume ladies for not hiding her flabby arms with the requisite cape. She didn't even stop when they burst into tears. Christ, these were old housewives from the suburbs! They couldn't even begin to make sense of Cossotto's Italian-only diatribe. They didn't even know Cossotto wanted a cape. They would gladly have supplied one without the bitch fit.Cossotto hounded the old French maestro Jean Fournet after every rehearsal. She told him she had coached the role with Pretre, who was a much better conductor, and the tempos were all wrong. She heaped scorn on the set designer, "Che cos'e questo pasticcio?" was her first comment upon sighting the Act Two scenery. She was snarly with me, as well. My primary function, she informed me, was to bring her glasses of water backstage and to keep changing the cassettes in her tape recorder set up in the wings. She did get along splendidly with the makeup designer, who, for once, had a diva who enjoyed looking like a drag queen.
Ironically, Vinco was a relaxed, soft-spoken man who took his wife's verbal abuse in stride. He arrived at the height of a huge conflict between Cossotto and the director carrying a plastic Woolworth's bag and beaming ecstatically. "Deodorant is so cheap here," he stated cheerfully. Cossotto berated him for this inappropriate intrusion and the bass shrugged his shoulders good-naturedly, departing to savor his savings on toilet items. I asked Vinco about Cossotto's relations with Callas. He said Zeffirelli had painted a false picture of his wife. Callas and Cossotto were the best of colleagues. "Fiorenza would do anything for Maria," he explained. "She worshiped her." Vinco even claimed Callas had requested Cossotto as her Adalgisa for the final Normas in Paris. Based on my personal observations of Cossotto's behavior, I felt Vinco's defense of his wife was simplistic and naive.
Still, it was hard to stay angry with Cossotto once she started to sing. The voice was magnificent, an evenly produced mezzo-soprano of lush amplitude. On the other hand, her acting was campy beyond belief. While Samson was blinded by the Philistines, Cossotto jumped up on the bed with his sheared locks, waved them over her head like a lasso, threw them down on the pillows and stomped them with her infamous wedgies. In the final analysis, Cossotto was an artist best experienced in the house, safely viewed through the haze of stage lights and aficionado enthusiasm. Up close, Cossotto the woman left a lingering bitterness that contrasts poorly with her undisputed talent.
La Cieca offered an affectionate tribute to Mignon Dunnin the last issue , so I'll keep my praises short and sweet. Dunn was instrumental in the revival of several rare operas at New Orleans Opera during the '70's. She was obviously looking for a showcase for her little-known talents in the bel canto and French repertoires. Didn't know Mignon had a great Donizetti portrayal in her, did ya know? I was lucky to have seen her only appearances as Leonore in La Favorite. The performance was en francais but Dunn brought her own Italianate touches to the part. Like the two-foot high black pizzeria wig. And lest we forgot Leonore was a woman of easy virtue, Dunn added chandelier earrings, platform shoes and a bodice open to her naval, accentuating her six-foot plus frame. Yes, my dears, this was Gina Lolabrigida on steroids, Patrick Swayze as Lucrezia Borgia. A big fucking girl.
Dunn proved an equally stylish interpreter of Massenet the following season when she sang the title role of Herodiade. This time Mignon sported an orange bouffant with turquoise diadem, shoulder pads and the same platform wedgies. Endora as Juno. Joan Crawford as the Empress Livia. The set was all stairs and Dunn wasted no time in workin' those steps. When Paul Plishka revealed that Herodiade was the mother of her rival Salome, Dunn threw herself down a staircase with a shriek of horror (well, if you found out Marisa Galvany was the fruit of your loins, wouldn't you?)
Dunn also brought her unfailing theatrical flair to the standard repertoire, as well. Her Carmen was fashion-conscious but, oh, so practical. If black is your color but it's too darn hot in Seville, what's a mezzo to do? Mignon solved the problem brilliantly by wearing a sleeveless black gown for the bullfight. And it was satin to boot. Cool fabric, cool dress, cool look. Dunn's outfit also came in handy for the wrestling match staging devised for her in the final duet. When Dunn threw Jose's ring away, she was straddling Ermanno Mauro and laughing like Regina Resnik as Klytemnestra. When Mauro got an arm free, he simply had to reach up and stab Dunn, who, naturally, fell on top of him, her dress covering both their heads. No one understands the requirements of realismo better than our Mignon.
Kidding aside, Dunn was a beloved artist of my youth. She defined the essence of queer operatic spirit: dangerous, exciting and unabashedly outre. Dunn was sometimes over the top but always committed and con amore in her approach. And her burnished, beautifully produced mezzo was a quality instrument. I'm so glad dear Mignon is still strutting her stuff in third career repertory (Quickly, Augusta Tabor, Mother Goose, etc.) A new generation of junior queens can appreciate her generous, heartfelt artistry. I know I did. You go, diva.
Enzo talks of Sherrill Milnes in a jockstrap and Evelyn Lear in leather chaps, plus a lot more, in Part 2 .