Deep and poignant memories of New York City Opera
Volume 113, No. 11December, 2013
Hello from an old-time member of the New York City Opera Orchestra. When I heard that the opera was faced with bankruptcy, I just about cried. NYCO embedded the best years of my life.
I auditioned and got into the orchestra in 1949, the year I graduated from Juilliard, and three years after I first joined Local 802. I was almost not hired at NYCO because I was not Italian and I was not a man. I was a black woman playing the timpani in a professional ensemble, for the first time in history!
When I entered the orchestra, Laszlo Halasz was the director and conductor. Winning the audition with NYCO was ironic because I had been playing with Ballet Society in 1948, with Leon Barzin conducting. After I got the chair at NYCO, the opera and the ballet began sharing City Center. I chose to stay with NYCO because I thought at that time that the ballet had no future!
During my time at NYCO from 1949 to 1961, I got married and had three children. In fact, I went into labor with my son while playing “Carousel” in 1954. I had my daughter on May 10, 1959, the day after we completed the recording of “The Ballad of Baby Doe.” And I was pregnant with my third child at the same time that Bev Sills was pregnant. (Over the years, we bonded since our children were the same age.)
On tour, I always had to stay at the “Y,” since I could not stay at the hotel with the other orchestra members, due to segregation. When we were in St. Louis, I remember that members of the chorus stayed in the “Y” with me so I wouldn’t be alone.
Also in St. Louis, our soprano Camilla Williams could not sing “Madame Butterfly” with the company because blacks were not allowed on stage! Management also did not want me to play because it would “offend” the audience. (In this hall, the orchestra was visible to the audience.) But our contractor Joe Fabbroni was adamant, saying that it was impossible to find a sub for timpani as they did for Camilla. Since we were playing in an auditorium that had a pit that rose up and down, their management built up the podium which reached the stage level so our conductor could conduct the stage. But the orchestra remained down and could not be seen. We had to look up to the conductor while playing in the basement!
In 1950, the year we played Chicago, we had a historic incident. As was common at the time, there were two locals of the musicians’ union. One was for blacks, who played swing and jazz, and one was for whites, who played symphony, opera and ballet. I was the first person to come who was black and played opera! The dilemma? To whom should I pay my travelling dues ? I was playing opera – but I was black. I fought against paying my dues to the racist white union! But I lost out and had to pay them.
That policy changed when I got into the San Francisco Symphony. There, the union was also segregated. But in this case, my being hired contributed to the two unions merging and becoming desegregated!
I also remember a six-week tour in Brussels, in 1958, when we played for the Brussels World’s Fair. We flew over to Europe in a prop plane, since this was before jet airliners. What a trip! It took 10 hours from New York. But the historic moment was when we played Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” staged for the first time. Stokowski conducted it and he was the person who made history. He wanted the dancer, Carmen De Lavallade, to dance nude. Stokowski said that the clerics who wrote the satirical, bawdy, underlying text of the piece were singing about women, and they would not be singing about women with clothes on. Well, that’s when the opera director found or designed the body suit. From the audience, it gave the appearance that the dancer was nude!
What I also loved was when our conductor Jean Paul Morel threw his baton across the stage at the opening of “Manon.” Why? Because the curtain went up late, causing the three singers to make a late entrance. That made him angry!
I left NYCO in 1961 when asked by Stokowski to play in his newly formed American Symphony Orchestra. Years later, I auditioned for and played with the San Francisco Symphony. My last job was with the San Francisco Opera, from which I retired in 1998. My career ended and began with opera.
I have many other stories, but that’s all for now. I am in the process of writing a book about my life, which I hope will soon be published. To return to the present day, what is very sad for me is the fact that the entire brass and percussion section, who sat in front of me all those years, are no longer with us. I feel fortunate to be able to share my extraordinary experiences with the New York City Opera.
At NYCO, a full house in more ways than one
Prior to joining the New York City Opera Orchestra, I had played primarily in symphony and ballet orchestras, so discovering the operatic repertoire was quite thrilling for me. Other than many musical highlights, I remember our poker games with great fondness. We would play poker whenever there was time – during intermissions, in between shows, or before a show if there were enough of us there. The game’s unquestioned leader was double bassist Jaime Austria. His enthusiasm and passion for the game were infectious. As a novice player, I appreciated his helpful hints and basic tips on game theory, pot odds, and probabilities. Soon, I would look forward to coming to work not just to play a beautiful opera, but to see how I did in the poker game. Unfortunately, as the opera left Lincoln Center to venues we were less familiar with, and as the City Opera schedule became more erratic, the poker game fizzled out. Still, I haven’t given up hope that we will be able to resume our game someday and also get back to performing opera in some capacity in the future.
– Conway Kuo