Mack Williams column: Opera nights

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 13, 2016

Recently, daughter Rachel and I, along with Danville friends, attended the Winston-Salem Symphony and Chorale’s performance of Brahms German Requiem at the Steven’s Center. The wonderful performance was made additionally interesting by cousin Hal Garrison being a chorale member. His grandfather, Ross Garrison of Maupin Avenue, was my uncle, of whom I’ve previously written.

Despite an orchestra and chorus-filled stage, by filtering my vision with memories of Uncle Ross, Hal appeared! I was also aided by Hal’s Facebook Profile Picture, being friends there (though having yet to meet), but Uncle Ross’ long-departed visage helped greatly!

One Danville friend later said the Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium had been demolished for a new downtown venue. This brought back 1982-1988, when I was in the Greensboro Opera Company Chorus.

The opera chorus members were talented and friendly, unlike an unnamed Virginia chorus to which my late wife Diane and I belonged but for a season. The lips of the people in that unfriendly, self-possessed group seemed as likely of curling themselves into a smile as would have a sphincter (comparison of both recalling what my sister-in-law Sheila always says about the contents of hot dogs and potted meat).

On my first “opera night,” an improperly placed stage-entrance step broke, its wooden splinters stabbing me in the leg. Of course, “The opera must go one,” so I extracted myself and continued. The production was “Lucia di Lammermoor,” so in addition to the character, Arturo’s blood (faux) being on Lucia’s gown, my blood (real) was on one of my kilt socks. (Lucia’s setting is, of course, Scotland.)

My then kindergarten-daughter Rachel was so impressed by “Lucia” that her school artwork depicted a woman in a white, blood-spattered gown. The worried teacher, when told of its meaning, complimented my wife and me on exposing Rachel to the arts.

An opera chorus friend, Lane Ridenhour, battled pneumonia one year, so I copied some chorus music and mailed it to him. I’m not lauding my goodness, just illustrating the lesser amount of “cut-throatedness” existing between male singers as opposed to singers of the opposite sex (sopranos). I can still picture Lane and me on the stage of the Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium, dressed as Spanish soldiers and “decoratively” playing cards.

During Carmen, our Don Jose “hocked a luggie” onto the back of a piece of scenery before making his entrance (such is the singer’s life, professional or otherwise).

Our Maestro was the late Dr. Peter Paul Fuchs, a renowned, talented Austrian, expatriated due to Hitler.

The chorus was expertly prepared by Dr. Richard Cox of UNCG, with stage blocking excellently formulated by Bill Beck of the N.C. School of the Arts.

Dr. Fuchs was exacting, but fairly good-tempered. During a practice in which half the chorus was “Marching to a different beat,” he said, in thick German accent: “Ladies and gentlemen, vhyy zis zyncopation?”

One time, Madame Fuchs said to keep one eye on the Maestro during our singing exit from the stage, to which he remarked: “But of course, you don’t vant to look shhhtupid!”

I think this couple sometimes had musical differences, recalling what my late wife said about seeking me backstage, following the 1982 production of Lucia Di Lammermoor.

Opening a door (the wrong one) she beheld a silent, seated Maestro, with Madame standing a few feet away, talking very loudly in German! When both looked over at her, my wife made apology, closed the door, and quickly left (as I would have, probably even more quickly).

Madame Elissa Fuchs was a wonderfully talented dancer and dance teacher, having once been with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

As chorus members waited in the stage’s wings, prior to their entrance, Madame Fuchs approached from behind and asked: “Is this where you’re supposed to be?” I always said “Yes ma’am” (though nervously, despite my absolute certainty).

Hors d’ oerves and hot cider were kept backstage for the chorus. Whenever smelling hot cider, I feel almost backstage at the now departed Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium.

Of the three, Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium, Madame Fuchs, and me, she and I are still here (as far as I can glean from the Internet, she lives on at 96).

When we are both in Heaven, perhaps the Greensboro War Memorial Auditorium’s “shade” will be there too, with opera in performance.

While I’m waiting backstage to go on, if Madame Fuchs suddenly says from behind: “Is this where you’re supposed to be?” (a question of much weightier meaning in those future “surroundings”), I will answer, as before, a little nervously: “Yes Ma’am.”

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