My opera career up to a year and a half ago consisted of an appearance as a monkey in a Cal State Los Angeles production of The Magic Flute when I was 10 and as a Paris street urchin in La bohéme at UCLA’s Royce Hall when I was 14. At least in the latter, I got to sing. My older brother Stephen, a baritone, sang leads in both productions.
During high school, my interest in opera fell to zero, but it shot back up during my senior year of college. A Three Tenors CD — the first one, recorded in Rome, 1990 — floated around the dormitory that year. I can’t remember who owned it, but it converted a lot of rock listeners into opera fans. Walk through the dorm at any time of day and you’d hear Jose Carreras crying his way through “Il lamento di Federico” from Cilea’s L'arlesiana or Luciano Pavarotti singing his trademark “Nessun dorma” from Turandot by Puccini. For guys who grew up on three-chord rock, this was powerful stuff.
All through college I was embroiled in a relationship with a girl named Mary. When things between Mary and me went well, nothing expressed my love and happiness like “Recondita armonia” from Tosca by Puccini. When things with Mary weren’t good, only “E lucevan le stelle” (also from Tosca) or “Il lamento” captured my despair. By comparison, the expressions of emotion in the rock music I had listened to seemed trite.
Prior to falling in love with opera, I sang, but always in choirs and always in the bass section. But as I listened to and sang along with tenor arias, I discovered I could hit high notes, though it wasn’t a pretty sound and it wasn’t good for my voice box. After wailing through an aria or two, my throat would feel as if there were a pair of hands around it, squeezing it to half its normal size.
In 1997, Mary and I, married for two years, bought a house in Rolando, and one of the first furnishings we bought was a spinet piano, so Mary could practice. I photocopied tenor arias from the downtown library’s huge collection of scores and brought them home for Mary to play and me to sing. I learned “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci — think of a crying clown and a Circuit City commercial. I tried to learn “La donna é mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto but couldn’t hit the B natural at the end. I copied “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s Elixir of Love but found it too difficult. That convinced me to quit trying arias, and I moved to more modest Italian songs, such as “O sole mio.” I concentrated on breathing and supporting the sound with the stomach — something I’d heard that opera singers do — to produce volume and vibrato. Other than that, I had no clue what I was doing. Still, I improved to the point where I started to sing at family parties. After Thanksgiving dinner, 1998, I sang an Italian song by Monteverdi, and my brother Stephen, who sings opera and teaches voice in the L.A. area, looked surprised. “I think you’re a tenor,” he said, “maybe even a dramatic tenor. Come over for a lesson tomorrow.”
At the lesson, Stephen took me through scales to test my range. He called to his wife, an operatic soprano, after one set, “Laura, that was a D over high C.”
Not being able to read music, I didn’t know what “D over high C” meant, but it felt very high. After the lesson, Stephen said he thought I could become a dramatic tenor, but I would need to see him at least once a week, twice a week if possible. Problem was, he lived in Pasadena, I lived in San Diego. After that lesson, I didn’t have another until October 1999.
A friend who was singing in the San Diego Opera Chorus gave me the number of his former teacher, Daniel Hendrick. “He’s a tenor too,” my friend said. “He has sung all over the country and around the world.”
I called, scheduled a lesson, and a week later showed I up at Hendrick’s La Mesa home-studio, which, it turned out, was only a couple of miles from my house. “Come on in,” said Hendrick, a tall, massive man of 42 with reddish blond hair and a scruffy beard. He motioned me toward a chair and sat himself down in front of an ancient spinet. “Now, why are you here?”
The broadness of the question took me off guard. “Well...I’m here to develop my potential as a dramatic tenor.”
A quick smile flickered across Hendricks face. “A dramatic tenor, eh? Let’s see about that. Did you bring any music?”
I handed him my three-ring binder of sheet music. He flipped through it and finally settled on “O sole mio.” “Let’s sing,” he said, beginning to play in a chord-heavy, thumbless style that made me appreciate my wife’s skill "Che bella cosa...” I started singing the Italian words, which meant nothing to me. After the final climactic high note, Hendrick stopped playing and sat silent for a slow minute. “You’re definitely a tenor,” he finally said “I don’t know about dramatic tenor, but we’ll figure that out later. Your voice is very advanced, especially for someone who hasn’t formally studied You seem very comfortable with the high notes, and you have a strong low range as well. Having that natural high range is a big advantage. It puts you ahead of the curve. Learning to sing the high notes is more than half the work for most tenors. You already have the high range, but you want to sing those high notes in a thin head voice. What you need to learn, if you want to be a dramatic tenor, is how to connect that high head voice to the rest of your body to give the high notes a more masculine, more dramatic character.”
He turned to the keyboard. “We can do a few things right away to help you make that connection and to open up even more top range. To be a dramatic tenor, you’re going to have to use all four resonators: head, mouth, throat, and chest.”
With that, Hendrick put me through several vocal exercises employing the long-O sound: To home I go... Blow blow blow blow blow...and others. He started low and took me to the upper limits of my vocal range. Every few moments he interjected, “Relax your jaw” or “Feel it in all four resonators.”
After 15 minutes he stopped and asked how I felt. My exhausted throat managed a hoarse “Okay.” “I’m having you sing long O because you want to go to an AH sound when you get high, which is shutting down all but your head voice.”
He started again, this time yelling at me to think down, bear down, as I sang up high, instead of standing up on my tippy toes and craning my neck like a pelican swallowing a mackerel. I followed his orders and was surprised at the result. An A natural, which I’d previously considered my upper limit, popped out clear, bright, and loud and felt easier than it ever had. Hendrick didn’t stop there. He took me to the B flat, which felt and sounded good, to B natural, which was okay, and on up to high C which I hit, though not comfortably. Hendrick stopped and raised his hand for a high five.
“Feel that?” he asked as I slapped him some skin. I nodded and realized it was the first time I’d ever thought of singing in terms of feeling it and not hearing it I wasn’t just singing a note — I was creating it with technique, albeit the rudiments of technique. The difference was akin to learning to shoot a basketball as opposed to just chucking it at the hoop.
“Now let’s try ‘O sole mio’ again,” Hendrick said. I sang through it, trying to replace my old singing habits with my new technique. It felt new and exciting and a little difficult. At the end, my throat felt as if I’d been cheering for three hours at a football game. Still, he said, “You already sound better.”
I flopped into the chair next to the piano and rubbed my throat. “I think if you come once a week,” he continued,“we could enter you into the Met auditions next year.”
“Met” is short for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the premier opera company in the country and probably the world. Its auditions are like a nationwide opera tournament. Place in the top four or five in your district and you go to the regionals and win some cash. Win your region and you go to New York to compete in the national semi-finals, from which ten finalists emerge to sing in the grand finals concert on the stage of the Met. Win that and you’ve got $15,000 and a name in opera.
I wrote out a check for $40, gave it to Hendrick, and drove the three miles west on University to my house imagining myself singing one of my favorite arias, “Recondita armonia” perhaps, or maybe “Vesti la giubba” on the Met stage. But, as 1 turned the key in my front door, the cynic within me scoffed, “Boy, Ernie, he sure hooked you into a year’s worth of $40 lessons with that Met auditions line.” I didn’t care. Forty dollars a week seemed a small price to pay for such a dream. The next Monday night, 8:00 p.m., I showed up at Hendrick’s again. “What did you work on since last time?”
“Listen to any tenors? You need to be listening to tenors”
“Yes,” I answered,“I listened to José Cura ” But it had been for only 20 minutes or so in the car. I was getting the feeling that Hendrick expected homework out of me, that showing up for a lesson once a week wasn’t going to be good enough. That thought ran through my head in the split second before Hendrick started putting me through vocal warm-ups using a long-0 sound. After two or three high notes, he stopped me. “You still want to go from a nice, long O to an AW sound up high,” he said. “This is what you’re doing.”
He sang a scale in which the O sound — as in boat — gradually opened up toward a yellish AW — as in bought — near the high end of the scale. “Hear that? That’s an exaggerated version of what you’re doing. I’m really surprised you can hit those high notes in such an open position. But even though you’re hitting the notes, singing them open like that will wear you out and you’ll never make it through a dramatic aria, let alone a whole opera.”
He turned to the keyboard. “This is what we’re going to do to help you break that habit” He sang an octave scale starting on AW and changing to O at the top of the scale and back into AW at the bottom. “You do it now.”
This exercise went on in various forms for the next 45 minutes. I worked on closing AW to O, O to U as in boot, long A as in hay, to ER as in earth, and long I as in isle, to short I as in it. Finally, he stopped me and flipped ray binder of music to “O sole mio.” I summoned enough strength to sing through it, and as I approached each high note, Hendrick held up a hand with the thumb and fore-finger forming a circle to signify closing the vowel. I did my best, though it felt foreign. Habit urged me to lift my chin up and belt out the high notes. Hendrick guessed what I was thinking.“I know this feels weird,” he said when I finished the song, “but you already sound better singing this way, and in the long run, if you learn the technique, you’re going to be able to sing the big stuff that you’ll sing at auditions. In fact,” he reached into a pile of music books sitting next to his piano and pulled out an anthology of tenor arias, “we should pick a few arias for you to learn now. If you know five arias really well, you can go to an audition and make the judges think you’re an accomplished singer, when they’re really the only five you know.”
He scanned the table of contents and made pencil marks next to “Recondita armonia,” “E lucevan le stelle,” “Una furtiva lagrima,” and “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen by Bizet. After looking for a fifth, he decided to pick one later and sent me home with instructions to practice closing vowels and listen to more tenors. The rest of that week I drove around town listening to the same two arias over and over again, the late Jussi Bjoerling singing “La fleur” and José Cura doing “Recondita armonia” Though it wasn’t the first time I had listened to either singer, it was the first time I heard them from the stand-point of what they were doing physically to produce the sound. With Cura, in particular, I could hear an UH sound underlying all his notes, no matter what the vowel sound was. It seemed to me that this UH sound powered his singing, made it ring in his stomach and chest as well as in his head, and unified his high, medium, and low ranges. I started to imitate it and, for the first time, hit the B flat at the end of “Recondita” without it sounding like veiling or making me choke and cough.
That weekend, we celebrated my mom’s 70th birthday at my brother Danny’s house in Ojai. After dinner, my brother Stephen went to the piano and accompanied the various singers in the family. A couple of nieces sang, and then I walked up to the piano, handed Stephen my binder full of music, and told him I wanted to sing “Recondita armonia.”
“You’re crazy,” he said. I took my place in the crook of the piano, and as he played the long, slow intro, he said to the family members gathered in Danny’s living room, “I take no responsibility for this.”
When I started to sing, I looked across the room, over the heads of my family. I didn’t want to make eye contact with someone and have it cause an onrush of nerves. My B flat came out fine, if a little short, and I finished the aria to applause and cries of “Bravo!” I looked down to see my opera-loving Aunt Azilda crying. To her left, my wife was also crying. “That was fabulous!” Stephen yelled “Where did that come from?”
For the next six months I went to my lesson every week. In between, I sang at home, memorized my arias and a few other songs, and listened to tenors. My wife and kids fluctuated between enthusiasm and tolerance for my constant singing. My wife shushed me if the baby was sleeping, and my four-year-old, Evelyn, and three-year-old, Augustine, sometimes covered their ears and veiled, ‘Too loud! Too loud!”
At weekly lessons, Hendrick continued to drill me on closing vowels and gradually introduced other concepts. One was energy. “This is what you do,” he said at one lesson and he sang a phrase from “O sole mio,” beginning strong and clear and tapering off to lifeless singing. “You’ve got to energize the whole phrase,” he told me, “and even continue the energy for a split second after you stop the sound. Otherwise, the whole piece will suffer.”
Phrasing was another issue. “You can’t stress every syllable of every word the same way. It makes the piece sound dull to the audience,” he explained. “Take ‘Recondita,’ for example. You need to stress the syllables the way an Italian speaking the words would: re-CON-di-TAR-mo-NI-a. But you’ve still got to keep the energy going through every syllable.”
Hendrick also taught me a theory of vocal training he was developing based on what he called the ER resonator, or ER position. The idea, which he derived from listening to the great tenors past and present, is that vowels sung in the same throat position as the sound ER are naturally closed and possess a ringing, resonant quality.
In the winter and spring of 2000, I attended the San Diego Opera’s productions of Il trovatore, Don Giovanni, and La bohéme and an idea hit me: I’d try out for the opera chorus for the 2001 season. I called the San Diego Opera’s office and a receptionist explained that the first round of auditions was done by tape. She took my address and sent a letter a week later saying that I needed to record two classical pieces, in two different languages, at least one of them an operatic aria, and send the tape to the San Diego Opera, attention of chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons, by the end of June.
I told Hendrick about it at my next voice lesson. He scratched his scraggly beard in thought for a minute. “What two pieces do you think you can do?”
“I was thinking 'Recondita’ and ‘La fleur.’”
He scratched his sparse beard some more." ‘Recondita’ will work,” he said, “but I don’t know about ‘La fleur.’ Your French stinks.” There was no denying it, my French was terrible. I could hardly pronounce the first four words of the aria. “No matter how beautifully you sing it,” Hendrick lamented, “whoever is listening to the tape won’t be able to forgive your French.”
The problem was, that was the only non-Italian classical piece I knew. “What else do you have in here?” Hendrick flipped through my collection of sheet music Everything he found was either in Italian or not a classical piece. “What about this?” he said, tapping a photocopied version of a Schubert serenade I had forgotten about. I knew the tune because I had heard my brother Danny sing it many times. I didn’t know the text and I had sung very little in German, maybe three pieces in 15 years of choral singing. But Hendrick started playing and I found the German easier to read and pronounce. There were only a few rules to memorize, stillen for example, should be pronounced SHTEEL-en, not STEEL-en, and w's are, of course, pronounced like v's. “This will work,” Hendrick declared after running me through it a couple of times. “It fits your voice, and your German is much better than your French.”
For the next three weeks, I practiced the Schubert serenade along with “Recondita armonia.” Though I had the serenade nearly memorized and both Hendrick and my wife said I sounded good singing it, I didn’t feel confident Then it hit me in the car one Monday on the way home from work: “‘Panis Angelicus,’ stupid!”
I’d known Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” for years and had sung it at my brother-in-law’s wedding just a few months earlier. The Latin presented no problem. I’d studied it in high school and college, and three-quarters of all the choral pieces I had sung in my life had been in Latin. I dug the sheet music out of our piano bench and took it to Hendrick’s that night “This will be fine,” he said, before helping me fine-tune it a little. When the lesson ended, he wrote the name “Janie Prim” and a phone number in the top margin of my “Panis Angelicus.” I recognized the name. She had accompanied Daniel in a recital he had given a couple of months earlier in Rancho Bernardo. “Call Janie,” Daniel said. “She can play for you much better than I can, and she has the recording equipment to make a tape. And she lives near here.”
I called Prim the next day and made an appointment for later in the week. When the morning came, I drove to her secluded canyonside condo, which she had decorated with Southwest furniture and artwork. Prim, a slim woman in her 40s, asked, “What are we singing today?” She gave a low “wow” when I mentioned “Recondita armonia” and said, “Lets start with that.” I was a little nervous as I stood at the metal music stand across the small living room from the piano. It was the first time I’d sung this aria in front of anyone other than family or Hendrick. “You have a very nice voice,” Prim told me, “though you have a tendency to close down your vowels into the consonants that come after them, especially N’s. Try to stay on the vowel a little longer. Let’s do it again and we’ll record this time.”
“You mean you didn’t record the first one?” I asked.
“No, that was just a warm-up.”
Some warm-up, I thought to myself as she started to play. I sang through the aria one more time. It didn’t feel as good as the first. Prim rewound and played the tape for me, and again I thought it wasn’t as good as the first. “What do you think?” she asked. I didn’t know how to answer her and shrugged my shoulders. “I think it’s definitely good enough to get you a second audition,” she offered, “which is all they’re really looking for out of this tape.”
So I nodded my approval and spread the four sheets of music for “Panis Angelicas” across the music stand. That piece went well, and after a quick replay, Janie handed me the tape. Later that day, I dropped it off, along with a job application, résumé, and head shot at the San Diego Opera’s 18th-floor offices across the concourse from the Civic Theatre.
The next day I received a letter on San Diego Opera letterhead. The first two lines read, “Thank you for submitting your audition tape for the San Diego Opera Chorus. I would very much like to hear you in person at the callback auditions.”
When the excitement subsided, I read on. At the callback auditions, which would be at the Mission Hills United Church of Christ in the last week of July and first week of August, I would need to sing two classical pieces from memory, which could be the same pieces I’d sung on my audition tape. The letter also stated that a week before my audition I would receive some music. “You will be expected to prepare this and sing it for the audition.”
The music arrived six days before my audition date. There were two opera choral pieces — one from Mozart’s Magic Flute, one from Gounod’s Faust — plus part of the “Libera me” from the Verdi Requiem. The accompanying letter said I was to prepare all three pieces and I would be asked to sing one of them. Reading from the sheet music would be allowed, the letter went on to say. That was no consolation as I can’t read music and the pieces looked difficult. “Who the hell am I kidding?” I asked my wife. She didn’t answer. “I’ll never be able to learn these in a week.”
I felt even more despair when Mary, who does read music, took the music from me, glanced through it, and shook her head. “I don’t think I can play all of these for you,” she said, “not unless we had a lot of free time to work on them.” With three young children and another on the way, we never had free time until the kids were in bed. And then we couldn’t sing or play the piano for fear of waking them. While Mary went back to cooking dinner, I glanced over the music and felt the despair mount. Finally, she broke the silence of my self-pity. “Why don’t you call Janie Prim and ask if she can record the three pieces? Then you won’t need me to help you practice.”
Judging by Janie’s reaction to my request, it was one she’d heard before. “I’ll play your part of each piece at three-quarter tempo with some of the accompaniment,” she told me, “then I’ll play them up to tempo with only the accompaniment.”
The next day I picked up the tape from Janie, and every night for the rest of the week, I’d put the kids to sleep, then play the tape softly over and over at the three-quarter tempo. When I had my parts down, I practiced them at full-speed. I visited Hendrick twice that week as well. He stressed accuracy in the three pieces the opera sent. “The chorus master is going to be thinking, ‘How hard is this guy going to make me work?’ He’ll take a guy with a lesser voice over you if he thinks he won’t have to work as hard with him.”
Finally, the night came. I had all five pieces down pat. We got a baby-sitter and my wife accompanied me to the church. It’s a Mission Revival-style building with ornate exterior light fixtures and wood-framed, arched windows. There was a warm-up room available, but I had warmed up in the car, so my wife and I wandered in the courtyard for 20 minutes.
As my 7:40 audition time neared, a man called for me. I followed him down a long hall to a chair near a door. On the other side, inside the church itself, a tenor was singing the Faust piece. He was doing a good job of it. Soon he was done and coming out the door. I got up and walked in. Just inside, to the left, Janie Prim sat at a grand piano. To the right, under the heavy open beams of the church, 20 rows of pews-sat empty, except for the three judges, two-thirds of the way to the back. Mary walked down the side aisle to the rear of the church, while Janie motioned for me to stand in the middle of the raised sanctuary. “Hello, Ernest,” said Timothy Todd Simmons, the opera chorus master. “What are you going to sing for us?”
“I’m going to start with ‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosco, and then I’ll sing 'Panis Angelicus.’”
“By Franck?” he asked.
“Maybe well only have you do one verse of ‘Recondita armonia,’” he suggested from the back. “Which would you like to do?”
The question caught me off guard. I had never thought of the aria as having verses. Prim sensed my confusion and offered, “Why don’t we start at...” but I couldn’t hear the end of her suggestion.
“Where?” I asked.
Afraid she was flustering me further, she said, “Let’s just start at the beginning,” and she started to play. I took one look at my wife’s smiling face before fixing my gaze on the balcony above her and starting the aria. It was the biggest room I had ever sung solo in. I was expecting to be stopped at wherever the end of the first verse was, but the request never came. Next, Simmons had me sing one verse of “Panis Angelicus” and then asked me to sing the “Libera me” from the Verdi Requiem. For that, I moved to the podium near the piano and spread out my music With a nod from me, Prim began the quick-paced piece. I sang through it, the judges thanked me, and I gathered up my music to leave. As I walked by the piano, Prim leaned over and whispered, “You sang very well.”
August passed and I heard no word from the opera. One Monday in early September I received a call from Simmons. “A man called me,” he said, “who is casting a production of Master Class. He needs a tenor and I thought of you.”
“Thank you,” I replied, flattered and a little confused. “But I haven’t even heard from the opera yet as to whether I’ll be singing in the chorus next year, and if so, whether this play would conflict with it...”
Simmons chuckled, “We'll be sending you a contract this week.”
He left me with a name, Gordon Cantiello, and a phone number. When I called the number, a friendly voice greeted me, “Francis Parker High School.” Gordon Cantiello turned out to be the theater department head at Francis Parker. He described Master Class, which would run three nights ending October 14. “It’s a story about Maria Callas,” he explained, “after her singing career is over. She’s working with young singers. You’ll be a tenor named Tony Candolino. You have about three pages of dialogue with Maria and then you sing an aria. How much acting experience do you have?"
I gave the only answer possible, “Absolutely none.”
“Well,” Cantiello said, “we can work with that, as long as you can sing the aria.”
That night, at my voice lesson, I told Hendrick the double good news. “Fantastic,” he said. “Your voice is already starting to work for you.”
I asked him why he thought Simmons recommended me for the play. “The tenor in that play happens to sing ‘Recondita armonia,’” he said.
A few days later, I received my San Diego Opera contract. It offered chorus parts in three operas — Faust, Aida, and Idometteo — as well as a spot in the tenor section for the Verdi Requiem. The work would pay about $24 an hour, pending union negotiations. Elated, I signed the contract and sent it back.
I also met with Gordon Cantiello, a man of medium stature with a round, pleasant face and short, dark hair. He gave me a script for Master Class and I began studying it Cantiello s clear, unintimidating directing style put me at ease at the subsequent twice-weekly 7:30 a.m. rehearsals.
On Tuesday, September 26, Simmons sent an omnibus e-mail to all San Diego Opera choristers titled “URGENT DEADLINE: San Diego Met Auditions.”
The Met's San Diego County District, Simmons’s letter explained, was in danger of being folded into another district, Orange County’s or maybe Riverside’s, due to low participation. To avoid this fate, Joan Henkelman, the Met’s San Diego representative, urged all eligible singers to compete in the 2000 district auditions on October 14. “She must receive your completed application, birth certificate, 8x10 glossy, and $20.00 nonrefundable application fee on or before Saturday, SEPTEMBER 30th.”
Simmons’s e-mail reminded me that the bait that hooked me on studying voice in the first place was the Met auditions. I decided to go for it. It would mean having to sing the auditions and my final Master Class performance on the same day. But with the auditions from 1:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon and the play at 7:30,1 would have plenty of time. Plus, I knew the Met allowed singers to compete in four years’ auditions. If I bombed, I still had three more tries. I called Hendrick and asked if he thought it was a good idea. He hesitated. “Do you think you’re ready?” he asked.
“Sure.” I didn’t sound convincing.
“What would your five arias be?” he asked. The Met audition format requires participants to prepare five operatic arias with at least two languages represented. Each singer chooses one and is asked by the judges to sing one of the remaining four.
“I know ‘Recondita,’ ‘E lucevan le stelle,’ ‘La fleur,’ and ‘Una furtiva.’”
“That’s only four,” he said.
“How about ‘La donna é mobile’?”
Hendrick paused again. “You don’t have the words memorized.”
“I almost do,” I protested. “And I’ve got two weeks to get them down.”
“Well...” he relented, “if you want to try, go ahead. But I’d prefer to have you a little better prepared.”
“You get four tries,” I reminded him. “At the worst, it will be good audition experience.”
“Okay, then,” he said, “but you should get over here to see me as many times as possible in the next two weeks.”
That last suggestion turned out to be impossible because my Master Class rehearsals became more frequent and switched from morning to evening as opening night approached. We managed only one lesson. Hendrick ran me through all five of my arias, three of which I hadn’t sung in weeks. “Well, you sound better than you did a few months ago,” he admitted.
Then he started to talk strategy. “Most of the guys there,” he explained, “probably all of them, are going to have more experience than you do, more technique, more polish. What you’ll have going for you is raw talent. I'll guarantee you that no one there will have better high notes than you have. So what I want you to do is sing everything pretty straight, don’t try too much, don’t move around on the stage too much. Just stand straight and sing. Let the judges hear your natural vocal talent. They’ll be able to recognize it. They might even send you to the next round based on your raw talent If that happens, then you’ll come back here and we’ll work hard on shaping these arias for presentation.”
Performance week came, and I still hadn’t memorized the lyrics to “La donna é mobile.” And there wasn’t much time to do so either. Aside from the usual constraints of work and kids, there was the play at Francis Parker. There were full-dress rehearsals Monday through Wednesday nights and performances Thursday and Friday nights. To make matters worse, I cracked on my high note during final dress rehearsal.
I hadn’t been nervous until that happened. But my wonderful wife comforted me through it. As I lay fretting, my face buried in my pillow, she scratched the back of my neck just the way I like it and murmured in my ear, “You’re tired, honey. You’ve been working too hard. You’ve got a lot of things going on, and you’re exhausted. Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be fine tomorrow night.”
She was right. Everything went well on opening night. The lights shielded the audience from my view, and it was easy to put them out of my mind. I got a few good laughs from my dialogue, and I sang through my aria without a problem. Friday night, other than a little dialogue mix-up, which my cast mate and I covered, went well too.
Saturday, Met audition day, dawned, and I still didn’t know the words to “La donna é mobile.” I got out my tenor anthology and studied them. “Don’t sing, don’t sing,” Mary told me every time I sang the words. “You’re going to tire out your voice.”
“I have to sing,” I snapped. “I can’t learn the words without hearing the tune.”
“Then put on a recording of it,” she responded.
The intelligence of the suggestion left me with nothing to say. I found a Luciano Pavarotti CD with the aria and played it over and over until it was noon and time to shower and dress. My audition time, Joan Henkelman had told me earlier that week, was 1:40, but she suggested I be there half an hour early to check in and warm up.
Our baby-sitter arrived, and Mary, our college-age niece Brigid, and I set off for USD’s Shiley Theater. By coincidence, the auditions turned out to be just down the street from Francis Parker, where I would sing that night.
I checked in at the reception desk around 1:15 and was directed to a small warm-up room down a hall to the left of the theater. Through the wall, I could hear a soprano singing “Caro nome,” from Rigoletto by Verdi. That reminded me of the Rigoletto aria I might be asked to sing,“La donna é mobile.” I recited the words to myself and messed up a passage. That caused a flock of butterflies to start fluttering in my stomach. Nervousness made me sing too hard, and my throat felt tight. Mary, who was with me, could hear it in my voice and forbade me to sing any further.
When 1:30 arrived, I left the warm-up room and walked down the long hall to the backstage door. Mary left me with a good-luck kiss and took a seat in the theater. When I reached the door, I could hear a baritone doing a good job with a piece I guessed to be Mozart. I looked at the program and learned the baritone’s name was Gregorio Gonzalez, singer number eight. I found my name after number ten, immediately following the first intermission. A few minutes later, during the interval, I was called backstage, where I met Janie Prim, the official accompanist for the event. After greeting me, she glanced toward one of my hands, then the other. “Where’s your music, Ernie?” she asked.
“My music?” Because I had listed the arias I would be singing on the audition application I turned in the previous week, I assumed I wouldn’t have to supply music for the accompanist. “I didn’t know I’d need it.”
“I can’t play without music,” Prim said. “Daniel should have told you you’d need to bring music. I’m going to give him a hard time about this.”
Just then, Joan Henkelman, a small, elegant lady of around 65, walked up and Prim explained the problem to her. “Do you have the music at home, Ernie?” Henkelman asked.
“Go home and get it and we’ll move you back in the program.”
I took off down the hallway and before I reached the end remembered that I had brought some of my music with me so I could do last-minute cramming on “La donna é mobile.” I ducked into the theater, found Mary, and got the book from her. It had three of the five pieces. I lacked only die two Tosca arias,“Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle.”
I sprinted, in suit, tie, and dress shoes, out of the theater to my car. I sped off through the campus and picked up Interstate 8 east at Morena Boulevard, but before I reached 163, a thought came to me. “Ernie, you lost the book with the Tosca arias in it three weeks ago.” I started to panic but then remembered McEvoy’s music store in Banker’s Hill.
Praying it would be open, I veered off onto 163 south and raced to McEvoy’s Fifth Avenue location. Thanking God it was open, I parked crookedly at the curb, ran into the empty store, and told the lone clerk what I needed. She found it in half a minute, I paid the 20 or so bucks, and dashed back to USD, reciting “La donna é mobile” the whole way.
I found a closer parking spot this time and ran back into the Shiley Theater building with my two tenor anthologies under my arm. I met Prim and Henkelman in the hall near the backstage door. They explained that, while I was gone, it was decided I would sing just before the second intermission. “It means you’ll have to sing right after another tenor, which is usually something I try to avoid,” Henkelman said. “But it was the least disruptive spot to put you. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the singers to put you in the middle of a segment.”
I said the plan sounded good and thanked them for accommodating me. I wandered down the hall, catching my breath, and paced back and forth listening to the singers. Then I noticed that a door to the theater had a sizable keyhole. I peered through and saw soprano Kathleen Halm onstage singing “Porgi, amor” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Her rich, powerful voice filled the big hall. And, as far as I could tell looking through a keyhole, she had a confident, attractive stage presence to match her voice.
“I can’t compete with that,” I thought as the audience applauded Halm with vigor. After Halm, tenor Garrett Harris went onstage. I knew I would sing next so I worked my way backstage. There I met Prim again. Harris had brought his own accompanist, and Prim was taking a break. I gave her my music books, and she earmarked the pages of my five arias.
From behind the curtain, I could hear the audience applaud Harris, then get up from their seats for the second intermission. The MC, a tall older man, walked out to the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, could you please return to your seats. We have one more singer before intermission.”
His announcement was met with an audible groan from the seat-weary crowd. “Great,” I thought, “now I’ve got to sing to a hostile crowd”
“Our next singer is singer number ten, Ernest Pinamonti Grimm.”
I walked around the stage curtain, past the grand piano, and out to center stage. I looked up and around at the large hall. It was twice the size of the average church and about half full. “I’m Ernest Pinamonti Grimm,” I announced. “I’m going to sing ‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosca by Puccini.”
I felt my knees wobble when Prim began playing the introduction to the aria. As I had done at my opera audition, I fixed my eyes on the back wall above the balcony and sang.
When my last note reverberated off the walls and faded into silence, I received what seemed a healthy round of applause and a couple of shouts of “Bravo!” from the audience. When the clapping subsided, one of the three judges, all of whom were seated in the middle about three-quarters of the way back, piped up, “Could we have, the ‘Una furtiva.’ ”
I nodded, swallowed, and announced, “The judges have asked me to sing ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from The Elixir of Love by Donizetti.”
I wasn’t thrilled with their choice. First of all, it meant I had spent all morning obsessing over “ La donna é mobile” for naught. Second, I thought it the weakest of my five arias, and third, I hadn’t sung it in front of anyone, other than Hendrick a few days earlier, in four months. I had been hoping for “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen, but the tenor before me had sung it and they probably didn’t want to hear it again.
My worries were justified when I tried to sing pianissimo on the third-to-last note, only to wobble and nearly crack twice. I bowed in acceptance of my modest applause, waited for the judges’ “thank you,” and walked off.
Backstage, Henkelman hooked her arm through mine and walked me down the hall toward the lobby. “You have a beautiful voice, my dear,” she patted my arm, “you only lack experience. I’ll see you back here next year.”
In the lobby, I met my wife and niece. Mary beamed with pride as I walked up. “You sounded great,” she said. “And really big,” she added with a touch of surprise in her voice.
Mary, Brigid, and I watched the final 8 — out of a total of 26 — singers, all of whom impressed me with their polish and presentation, things I lacked almost entirely. “Still,” I whispered to Mary, “I think I’ve got as much raw voice as any of them.” “Except Kathleen Halm,” she replied.
The judges agreed with Mary. Halm took first prize in the competition: $1000 and advancement to the regionals in L.A. I didn’t win second ($750), third ($500), fourth ($300), or any of the three encouragement awards ($250 each) either. I did win one of two district auditor awards, which meant I would go to Los Angeles for the three-day regionals with the singers who advanced, but only to watch.
On the way down the street to Francis Parker, Mary reached over and scratched the back of my neck just the way I like it “I’m very proud of you, honey,” she said.