The singer was a world-class bass cast in the role of a prophet. The director needed two chorus members to step forwards so he had someone to address at a critical moment.
That moment occurred in front of a crowd of 2,800 at Newark Symphony Hall. But the size of the crowd wasn’t scary—you couldn’t see anyone past the footlights, just a black hole. It was the director’s instruction from rehearsal, “Take two normal steps forward,” that produced the same nervous self-awareness that follows the instruction, “Breathe normally.”
I stepped forward in full robes, wig and fake beard to have Paul Plishka, a Metropolitan opera singer, bellow at me and a cohort from two feet away in Verdi’s opera, “Nabucco.” It was not an unusual spot. A former girl friend said she always knew where to find me on stage—in the center next to the soloists.
The question in my mind arose, “How do I get there,” as a trained singer who was not that far along in training at that point. A lot of the chorus members weren’t anything special either. We just managed to get into a good group. (But I won’t kid you. Being that close to a famous singer is a kick.)
I had seen professionals in the chorus who tried to position themselves and sing as if they were stars. Then there were the characters who took a four-note entrance that said, “There’s a message for you,” and try to turn it into the beginning of an aria. That was not my way to center stage, as much as I was tempted to do those things.
My course was doing my job. I wasn’t going on if the star had the flu. My job was to sing my choral part and to act and react to what the principals were doing. I found that when I did that, soloists would gravitate to me because when they sang, I would act interested, amused, surprised, amazed, scared, whatever the plot called for. I gave them something to act against. I gave them feedback. I helped them do their job.
I don’t always have that kind of insight and wisdom. None of us do. The lesson was, there was nothing wrong with the lesser ambition and that there are ways to greater opportunity by doing a small job well, by making someone else look better. When we take pride in the small job, sometimes we can move beyond what we thought we could accomplish. Of course, the economy, accidents, disease, bad luck and the like can get in the way. Not all jobs done well pay off with rewards we didn’t expect. But there are times that not only can they bring satisfaction; they can open doors we have not seen before.
And when it works, as the Great One said, “How sweet it is.”
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