Friday, December 11, 2009

How I Got To Meet Igor Stravinsky

(Below, high-class tail-gaiters party down on pre-Opera fare,
awaiting sundown and the forthcoming performance.
The view is east. The snowy-browed mountain
in the extreme background is Truchas Peak Santa Fe Baldy.)

I was reminded of this today when, on Facebook, a correspondent mentioned she was watching the ballet "Firebird."

I got to meet Stravinsky when he was an old man. I worked at the Santa Fe Opera, back in the old days, in the first theater. It was my first "job," for which I needed a Social Security card. It was the year the Opera staged a Stravinsky summer, including a couple of American premiers of one-acts. Opera director John Crosby invited the Maestro to attend, and he agreed.

Stravinsky was a long-time friend of the SFO, and his Rake's Progress (Stravinsky's Don Giovanni) was among the pieces performed in the first season, in '57. At the time in question, in '62, my first summer there, they performed six Stravinsky pieces--Mavra, Rake's Progress, Renard, Le Rossignol, Persephone, and Oedipus-- all in one season, and the old man (in '62, he was 80) conducted Rake. He might have conducted in '57, in fact I think he did; but I wasn't there.

The best thing about the Santa Fe Opera (other than the money), if you were a kid building sets and then moving them around for performances, is that in those days, it was all just one big happy, crazy family, high on sex and drugs and expensive champagne, and they didn't check ID at the opera party bars, to which the WHOLE COMPANY, stage hands included, were always invited. It was pretty a much constant orgy. Liquor flowed freely, all the time. There was pot, I know for fact; and probably cocaine, and heroin and opium, along with lots of pills; singers and such arty types can get pretty neurotic... I wasn't in that circle. The crafts guys--stage, sets, lights, sound--drank a lot, smoked weed, and all smoked cigarettes constantly. There was a tradition to leave a mixed case of one-shots backstage for the crew every performance.

I was 16 the first year I worked there, in '62. At one such party that year--it happened to have been held at my grandmother's house, and was a somewhat more subdued affair--folks prevailed upon the Maestro to play the piano. He played the only score in the house at the time: Porgy & Bess, and singers in attendance--I remember George Shirley, a tenor, and John Reardon, a baritone (they were Mario and Scarpia in Tosca, either that year or in another), and a soprano whose name I no longer recall--sang the lyrics...and he asked me to turn pages of the score for him. I didn't read music, but he said he'd kick my foot to get ready, and nod at me when it was time. It worked.

I worked the stage crew again in '63; and in '64, they moved me to lighting: I ran an arc-lamp spotlight for nighttime performances and rehearsals. (I had a day-job that summer: lifeguard at the (tiny) La Fonda Hotel swimming pool; life was hard.) At wild party one night way out up Canyon Road, that last year, I caught the attention of a 29-year-old apprentice, a mezzo named Eilene (or Elaine?), who drove a spiffy little Alfa roadster, which later she would allow me to drive when we went out...It was a wonderful way for a young man to "become a man."

Autumn of '64, I entered the USAF and my opera career was thereby truncated. But it was fun "while it lasted," I learned a lot (understatement! thank you Elaine/Eilene) about life and music and work. The old 'house' I worked in burned down in '67, and I have only attended a few performances in the new theater.

Aside: John Crosby, the founder, decided on the "perfect" acoustic spot to build his stage by shooting rifles into sandbanks on the mesa, and judging the qualities of the sound.


  1. These days, I'm becoming convinced that folks had a lot more fun in those days because they weren't obsessed with health. I shudder at the prospect of a prolonged life among abstemious bores.

  2. great story! why didn't you tell me earlier? So, Igor played Honey's piano, huh? I'll be damned.

  3. btw ain't that "baldy" in the background? I could be mistook but I don't see truchas.

  4. Just outta curiosity: When was the last year there was still snow on Baldy in July?

  5. Smokes in those days, Santa Fe was a sybarite's paradise...