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Exchanged hockey gear for costume of a

Visiting Dignitary to Aida's Court.

In the fall of 1987, bored with having to retire with a bad knee from ice hockey, the author of these pages, then living in Anaheim California teamed with a friend from Laguna Beach, Gary Watson to have some fun on weekends in places where there was no booze nor cigarette smoke. Our first venue "Danceasy", a free style dance on saturday evenings in a City of Laguna Beach rec room set up for dance classes with floor length mirrors and grab rails along the walls. Some of the habitues of area poetry readings were regulars at these "free style sock hop" dances. We either brought our own music or made eclectic selections from what others brought. It was healthy, hilarious and very relaxing. Gary had been on stages for years after being on a football scholarship at the U of Texas. After some disabilities he was living as an artist, performer and poet in classic artist surroundings, upstairs in a artist painter's house.

Because Gary had met a young Italian girl who was helping him with Aida's lyrics he went around Laguna Beach  practising arias from Aida. That alerted him to find a notice in the Orange County Register that the Orange County Performing Arts Center  would open its season in January 1988 with a top rank production of Aida. Since the cast is huge, locals were invited to tryouts  to be onstage supernumeraries, aka "spear-carriers" . Gary called me and said, "Do you dare be in an opera?" Naturally I said yes and I drove him and a wilder friend of his from Laguna Beach to the first rehearsals on Tuesday, December 29, 1987. That first "supernumerary" rehearsal schedule was for "Guards, Captains, standard bearers and scribes." Now Anaheim to Laguna to Costa Mesa is rather roundabout but neither of my friends had drivers licenses. 

We tried out for four Captain roles and were told we were strong contenders. I can recall going through some "stage steps" similar to close order drill. However the winners we learned were supporters of the center when neither of us had more than car fare. Gary even packed a lunch for rehearsals.  We were assigned to "Populace-Men" and so listed in the program.

Gary soon replaced a dropout in the soldiers cast, I missed a rehearsal due to some flu and upon my return found my peasant role was to hail a King passing some grandstands. I didn"t feel right about it and asked the whereabouts of our subdirector. I intended to give my notice but as we sighted each other in the reheasal hall he approached, shouting, "Nix, we need you in makeup immediately, you're in the choir as a Visiting Dignitary to the Queen"s court, a guy just your size has quit."

So downstairs I went and sat for the first time in my life in makeup. A Met soloist guy was there, being on the West Coast for Aida and some other appearances. From makeup I went to costume and came out  decked out as one of the "three Visiting Dignitaries", a role within the men"s choir.

Here I am Click to enlarge.
Roslyn Nehls was in the choir and also ticket sales

Almost immediately I was with the choir at a rehearsal and since my mother had sung Aida at home I knew how to carry along without making errors. When the rehearsal ended, we all went to our dressing room where I had a small desk and makeup mirror assigned to me. The choir director then led us in some more singing and a couple of guys near me encouraged me to sing out, saying "you're good."

They had all passed tryouts and were getting scale.  I got $25, period. Apparently I could have made it through tryouts. They had already taken place when Gary spotted the notice. I think we had only one evening of rehearsals before the dress rehearsal with high school kids in the audience. My position on stage was stage right, third in from the lights, a very outfront position.

My main learning was when to move since the others had several practices and knew what moves were next. Since we were outfront they had no opportunity to notify me and I had to keep a close eye on the other two dignitaries in order to raise my staff and turn this way and that at the right time.

That evening during the performance, a dignitary on my right, a hilarious guy from Laguna Beach, lead off a choir piece too quickly, before the baton signal. John Mauceri, the director looked to me for "who was it?" and I nodded lightly to my friend who was unaware of what he had done. There were other timing incidents on my side where the director and/or the lead tenor would catch my eye. When the scene broke we would exchange observations briefly back stage.

Martin Bernheimer, L.A. Times Music Critic wrote an accurate description in the Times of Jan. 18, 1988:
"John Mauceri inspired exceptionally sensitive playing from the Opera Pacific Orchestra, whatever that is, and shaped drama with poise and introspective deliberation. He cited Verdi"s specific metronone markings to justify his unusually slow tempo. For the most part, the loss in impetuosity was counterbalanced by a gain in majesty. The local chorus, trained by Henri Venanzi, marched, gesticulated and sang with precise gusto. It could teach its Music Center counterpart a lesson or two."

My costume consisted of a heavily brocaded robe, a helmet and I was obliged to carry a staff. Our stage right front positioning was highly visible and between appearances in I believe the second act we stood, crowded together behind a scenery wall. The slightest noise would carry from there so my primary concern was not banging the staff or helmet into anything. Or yakking too loudly.

There were five performances with Leona Mitchell as Aida in four and Carole Neblett debuting as Aida in one. Despite the large cast, my position on and off stage placed me in close company with lead cast of Amneris, Dolora Zajic, Radames Ruben Dominguez for four productions, Stefano Algieri for one, Amonasro Andrew Smith, Ramphis Eric Halfvarson, The King Mario Storace, Messenger Thomas M. Shikovsky  and High Priestess Anita Protich.

Blythe Arne, a friend from poetry readings, writer for an Orange County Scene magazine did a writeup on the production and cast, emphasizing local participation. She had one line about "one Visiting Dignitary had put down his hockey stick and helmet and taken up staff and helmet for Aida"s court".

We had a ball. Enough to offset the damage to the back of a classic 66 Mustang GT I had parked outside the breakup party.

Subsequently I auditioned for two plays but in each case came in second an experienced actor who was known to the directors. I abandoned my thespian career that year. You can imagine what my hockey player friends said when I told them where I had been performing.

Copyright, 1996-2013 Joe Nix where applicable

Other participants in this performance are welcome to email me your memories
to Joe Nix nixit@charter.net for inclusion in this writeup.

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