Photo: Michael Ouzounian
I entered Juilliard in 1956 as a violin student of Oscar Shumsky. On filling out a form as to my performance interests I put “chamber music – string quartets,” never dreaming that in 1960 I would commence a 50 year career at the Met Opera, with all stops out in loud percussion and brass sections, is far removed from the world of string quartets.
I’d never played the viola in my life but all the violinists at Juilliard were requested to take turns playing the viola as there were not enough viola students to go around. William Primrose, world famous violist, was teaching at Juilliard but not living in New York. He would be gone for six weeks, then try to make up the lessons in two weeks. The school told him that wasn’t fair to the students. He replied he didn’t want to live in New York, and stopped teaching at Juilliard. For the next three years I played principal viola at Juilliard on a small very sweet toned Grancino instrument belonging to the school, studying violin as well as viola with Oscar Shumsky.
In the spring of 1960 the Met’s orchestra contractor, Mr. Felix Eyle, phoned me and asked me to audition. I replied, “for backstage work or substitution?” He answered, “No, no, for life.” Tired and still dreaming of playing string quartets, I replied, “I don’t want to come for life.” Mr. Eyle indignantly said, “I don’t call everyone up, you know.” I said I would ask my teacher. Mr. Shumsky advised me to take the audition for the experience. I had a week to prepare.
There were about 12 contestants in the Grand Tier of the hall. A violist who’d come back to Juilliard from the 7th Army Orchestra was helpfully encouraging me to “play out” as I was warming up. An older man watching said despondently, “Oh, you’ll probably be the first woman at the Met.” He looked as if he and his family really needed a steady job. They drew lots for the order in which we would play and kept us away from the audition room so that no one could be affected by what others performed. Eric Leinsdorf was seated at the piano and the principal violist, John di Janni, was at the music stand. All along two walls were the conducting staff.
Leinsdorf looked at the piano part for my Hindemith Sonata and refused to play it so I played the first movement by myself. That over, the sight reading began. One of the pieces was the little viola solo from “Meistersinger.” I played the crescendo and diminuendo as written. One of the conductors liked it and asked the man next to him if he’d heard it. He was sound asleep! They woke him up and made me play it again. The contrast between this man who was so secure in his life that he fell asleep and the worried violist in the hall that needed a steady job seemed so ironic that I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” and started to relax and enjoy the music. I got quite excited about “Otello” and thoroughly enjoyed playing a passage from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” as Leinsdorf conducted to see how I’d follow the beat while sight reading. I was informed afterwards that I was the only one that got it.
After we all played, the conductors said, “The girl is more musical but the boy has a bigger tone.” They argued, “Should we have them play again?” Then Jean Morel, conductor from Juilliard, threw the vote my way, saying he knew us both from school. The Met’s first violist voted for me as he had never seen me in his life and so knew I was sight reading. Mr. Eyle informed me I would have to get a bigger viola. Little did he know I didn’t even own a viola!
I graduated from the diploma course taking a final exam on violin and viola. The lady at the school placement bureau was indignant that I had never registered there. I was always too busy playing outside jobs and thought I’d wait ‘til I had a chance to really practice before I asked for my teacher’s recommendation. She said, “Well, this is your final year and you still haven’t registered. Where do you think you’re going to work next year? The New York Philharmonic? I replied, “No, the Metropolitan Opera.” She had a good laugh.
When I started my first season at the Met, Mr. Bing announced in his welcoming speech that he was delighted to have another woman in the orchestra, as now he could say, “ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra.” It had been difficult to say “lady and gentlemen of the orchestra,” the second harpist being the only woman until then. She couldn’t have been kinder to me, giving me a key to her locker in the cello room. There was a mouse hole at the bottom of that locker! The harpist was small enough to change inside her harp trunk on tour – I had to change at home or in the dressing room of the prima ballerina, “Rhine” maidens or “Traviata” maid. When not allowed there I went up with the chorus ladies. The only way into the pit was through the men’s locker room where they were changing, so I either went in half an hour ahead of time or dashed in the last five minutes before the downbeat.
There were no guaranteed nights off in 1960. More than once I played 16 days in a row. First chair winds and brass automatically had days off as their lips couldn’t take that schedule. At a “Rigoletto” rehearsal the men in the viola section were playing a boisterous forte – egging me on to join them as I conscientiously stuck to the printed mf dynamics. “That’s the trouble with women in orchestras,” they said. The conductor Fausto Cleva caught on to the method in this madness and said, “All right, you can play ‘Rigoletto’ with six violas.” We happily rotated our ‘Rigoletto’ nights off amongst the eight of us for the rest of the season.
There were wonderful singers and bad singers my first season. One tenor sang so sharp on a Toronto tour performance that a violist colleague said, “I’m going out the front door with the audience. I’m not going to admit I work here!” There were evenings of great delight with Leontyne Price singing “Aida” or “Forza,” and Richard Tucker and Robert Merrell in “Forza” urgently proclaiming together “un brando, un brando” with a drive which is missed sometimes today.
Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli singing Turandot was a spectacular success. One night Corelli mischievously decided he would hold a note longer than Birgit to make her look as if she couldn’t hold a note that long. The next performance she picked a place and way out-held Corelli’s note. During the ensuing performance in Boston, both behaved on note lengths, but Corelli held the kiss in the third act until the orchestra chord was too long. Birgit informed Mr. Bing that she couldn’t go on in Cleveland, saying Corelli had bitten her during the kiss and “she had rabies” – of course she went on!
Tours were like a vacation as there were no rehearsals, only performances. The A train had the orchestra and ballet and the B train the chorus and soloists. Car Six was for poker players and party drinkers. The harpist and I were in the non-smoking car – Car One, directly behind the engine. At night I bounced like a child on a trampoline in the roomette behind that engine. If the men wanted to get some attention, they would come smoking in Car One. The harpist would come fussing into the corridor and say, “Put out that cigarette and you can come chat with us!” I have a lovely memory of listening to a late Beethoven string quartet on a trumpet player’s tape recorder as we rolled through the countryside.
Eventually charter flights took over train trips. Once our scheduled flight from Memphis to Dallis was canceled when Braniff Air Lines went bankrupt. As the show must go on, we were re-scheduled onto commercial flights. I was seated between two business men and the stewardess mistakenly thought they too were in the opera. She asked the man to my left, “What instrument do you play?” He replied, “The tuba.” She said, “Is it difficult to play?” “Oh, no,” says he, “just heavy to carry around.” I had great difficulty keeping a straight face. I asked our tubist the next day if that was the right answer and he chuckled, “Yes!”
Many people played golf on tour. Others of us played free concerts for mentally disabled children. Singers from the chorus could sing solos, rehearsal pianists joined us for Saint Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” or members of the ballet danced “Peter and the Wolf.” Still others played softball, against Mr. Bing’s wishes: “What would I do if my concertmaster broke a finger?” One year the Met Opera baseball team (including solo singers like James Morris, Paul Plishka, and orchestra and chorus men) beat the Detroit Symphony. The T.V. station videoed the Star Spangled Banner as sung by the Met team after the victory. My first cousin, living in Detroit, heard it on the evening news and announced it was the best Star Spangled Banner she’d ever heard at a baseball game.
One time the orchestra played in two different keys for about five measures. It was the conductor’s habit to put thumbs down for the transposition at the end of the first act of “Boheme.” This meant the tenor couldn’t reach the high note. Thumbs up meant play the original: this tenor can reach the note without trouble. In Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades,” the baritone couldn’t reach the low note, so we had a half tone up transposition. We did this successfully all season without thumbs up or down. But on tour the conductor suddenly saw people in the woodwinds that hadn’t played in town and decided to warn them. Thinking thumbs down meant transposition – down went the thumb. The newcomers chose the lower key and the rest of the orchestra knew the singer could not reach that low note and stuck to the higher pitch until they won the argument. Nowadays there is a note taped to the pit entrance announcing a transposition. We’ve had no more semitone arguments in front of paying customers.
Our younger players have no idea what it was like having dress rehearsals on Thanksgiving Day with a performance in the evening, or having a five hour (with cuts) Gotterdammerung scheduled on a Friday night with a five hour “Meistersinger” on Saturday afternoon and something else Saturday evening. We never did play that Gotterdammerung as President Kennedy was assassinated and the performance was cancelled.
Finally, the orchestra told management we would play for opening night of the next Lincoln Center season and then strike if we didn’t get work relief. At last we got two guaranteed performances off a week. A whole group of regular substitutes were hired and the orchestra now sounds vibrant in the spring as well as fall – no more sixteen days of playing without relief!
Several years ago translation screens were put on each seat back in the hall. The patron may turn the screen on and understand the libretto in English as the opera progresses. Many laughs are heard in operas such as Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” as people get jokes they missed before the libretto translation screen existed.
On the 100th birthday of Carnegie Hall, all major New York orchestras were asked to play a concert in Carnegie Hall to honor the event. Our music director, James Levine, enjoyed this idea so much he arranged to have the Met orchestra perform three concerts a year on Sundays in Carnegie Hall. We perform works from the great symphonic repertoire on Sunday after a whole week of opera! It’s fun and certainly adds interest to the job.
We lost the spring tours and commenced recordings after the end of the regular opera season. The Manhattan Center Ballroom on 34th Street heard many takes of the great opera singers such as Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti played poker and lost during recording breaks. I overheard him saying, “Eera, Eera – come here!” (His name was Ira.) “Eera” had won the game before and at the next break Pavarotti wanted to recoup his losses! The next recording I noticed Pavarotti no longer playing poker and I teased them that he didn’t like losing. They replied, “Oh no, that wasn’t the reason. He didn’t know “Manon Lescaut” as well as other operas and had to pay attention to the music during breaks.”
Thanks to Placido Domingo we played at the World’s Fair in Seville Spain during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ sail to America. We were greeted late at night at the Seville airport by Domingo’s wife welcoming us to Spain. A flamenco dance group performed in the airport hall for our entertainment as we were whizzed through customs and immigration. One of my colleagues who must’ve had a wee too much of the airplane bar got right out on the floor trying to dance with them!
For financial reasons we have lost the recording contracts and European tours. The opera is slated to go to Japan again in 2011. The last time we played there they said, “Sayonara – see you again in 2011.” The principal violist turned to me and said, “Hang in there – you’ll come again.” If all goes well I shall certainly do that and it will be at the end of my 51st season at the Metropolitan Opera. However, the Boston Symphony European tour was cancelled this season. Who knows what the Japanese economy will be in 2011.
Nowadays the Met travels via live high definition television to movie theaters around the world. In North and South America the operas are seen on Saturday afternoons, and in European countries such as England and Denmark in the evening. The afternoon we played Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” they had a charming intermission feature in Aldeburgh at Britten’s hometown movie theater. The lady selling tickets was very proud and pleased that “Peter Grimes” was playing live in her home town theater, which was saved after the World War II by Britten himself.
My sister can see the opera in Ontario, Canada. Our first flute player says they are playing them in his native Iceland. Japan has always received the high definition performances. Other opera companies are copying the Met’s high definition movie theater route, although their performances are taped and ours are live. However, if you wish to see the crystal chandeliers rise to the ceiling – a lovely sight from the pit – come to the Met and see us in person!
This essay was originally a speech given by Ms. Stroh to the Women’s Club of Philadelphia last fall. Thanks to Local 802 member Steve Norrell for suggesting and organizing this feature story.