Hamburg, ham and Heimlich

BreakALegIn September 1988, I was in Hamburg, rehearsing for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in which I had, in 1981, created the role of Lensky in  German; this time – the first revival – it was to be in the original Russian.  No problem, I had already done it in Russian at the Met in New York.

There was a two week revival rehearsal period. At the end of the first week of rehearsals, I received a phone call from my wife, Diana Montague, who was in San Francisco rehearsing Così Fan Tutte.  At that time, Diana was expecting our first child, and was having some problems with the pregnancy.  I asked for permission to go and be with her, but promised that I would be back for the dress rehearsal and the performances.  I was given permission, and took the next available plane via London. There I transferred to a PanAm flight as a tourist (coach) passenger but was upgraded to First Class because my travel agent used to work for them.  Lucky me!

On arrival I met Diana and we went to the hospital where she had ultrasound scans and obstetric tests, which showed that the problem wasn’t as serious as we had at first thought.  The scan technician asked if we wanted to know the sex of the baby to which we both replied ‘NO!’.

A couple of days later, and after some rest, Diana had her dress rehearsal at the War Memorial Opera House on Van Ness.  I attended, of course, but was so frustrated that I wasn’t performing with her, as we had done at the Met, in the same opera a little while before. I remember so well sitting in the stalls at the public dress rehearsal and wishing – rather uncharitably, it has to be said – that the tenor (Dénes Gulyás) would break a leg (not in the American way of saying ‘toi toi toi’ or ‘merde’).  The first three trios (sung by Alfonso, Ferrando and Guiglielmo) went well, and they all rushed off stage leaving it empty for the entrance of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Suddenly the curtain came down.  After a hushed silence, the audience started to talk amongst themselves.   About five minutes later, the door at the front of the auditorium opened and the casting director shouted, “Is David Rendall in the House?”

I stood up and went over to her, upon which she asked if I could continue the performance. The tenor had fallen over and damaged his ankle, and was being taken to the hospital.  I had sung this production by Jean Pierre Ponnelle many times, and each was a mirror image of each other, so I had no worries there. There was no time to find a costume at this point, so I just took the sword and any other prop that was necessary, and went on stage in my street clothes.  During the interval, they found a costume for me to wear, so that I could look like a part of the show and not some vagrant from Polk Street.  (At that time, Polk Street was the centre of the Gay community before it finally moved to the area known as ‘Castro’. There was a wonderful store on that street which sold alcohol, which was, appropriately, called, ‘Suckers and Liquors’.)

At the end of the rehearsal they were all so grateful to me for saving the show that they insisted on paying me.  I suggested that they talk to my agent about the fee, as I found it all a bit embarrassing.  The next day, I went in to the theatre to find the outcome.  My agent had asked them for my full Met fee, which I said was ridiculous.  I agreed a half fee, and that was enough to cover my air fare and some of Diana’s accommodation costs.

It was in our recent performances of this opera in New York that Diana and I had first got together. During the first-act quintet, ‘Di scrivermi ogni giorno’, in which the two pairs of lovers bid each other farewell, we would intersperse the ‘Addios’ with whispered ‘I love you’.  Here is that quintet from one of those Met performances. In addition to Diana and myself, the performers are Kiri te Kanawa, Håkan Hagegård and John Cheek. The conductor is Max Epstein.

Di scrivermi ogni giorno

And for good measure here are a few more excerpts of myself and Kiri from the same performance.

Barbara, perchè fuggi
Ah, lo veggio, quell’anima bella
Fra gli amplessi

I returned to Hamburg in time for the dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin and the first night, only to find that they had booked another tenor to do both.  I was furious to say the least, and had so much support from the director and chorus that they agreed to pay me for the first night, after which I would finish the run of performances.

Whilst in Hamburg, I stayed in an apartment owned by the Hotel York on Hofweg.  It was on the first floor, in an adjacent street called Uhlenhorsterweg. During the first week of rehearsals I decided that I really should start another diet with salads and cold cuts of protein. The protein on one particular occasion was Parma Schinken (ham); it was to prove almost fatal. I only purchased a few slices from the deli across the road and went back to the flat for a relaxing evening and dinner. I had finished the salad and was just chewing the last piece of ham, in which there were some sinews, so decided to swallow what was left. ChokingWell, it went badly wrong and I started to choke. I couldn’t breathe, and panic was setting in as there was nobody around to help me. The only thing that could possibly save me was to give myself the Heimlich manoeuvre, but how to accomplish it was the question. The main chair in the flat was a wing-backed armchair. Deciding that this was my only source of help, I positioned myself so that the wing was under my rib cage, and pulled the chair toward me with the greatest strength I could muster. Nothing happened on the first couple of thrusts except a huge amount of pain, but on the subsequent try there was a loud crack and the ham came flying out of my mouth.  I thought that the cracking sound was my ribs breaking, but when I looked at the chair, I realised that the wing had broken and was flopping inwards towards the centre of the chair. I pushed it back to its original position, where it stayed in place thanks to the tautness of the material. I was left with a swollen sternum and a large bruise, but I could breathe easily again.

Back in 1981 for the original production of Onegin  – I decided also to diet and that I should get some exercise.  I cooked a chicken for a Sunday roast, and used the bones for a stock from which I planned to make a soup.  The following day, I put a saucepan containing the chicken carcass on the electric stove, which I set to cook for several hours at its lowest power (or so I thought).  I then went on what must have been a five-kilometre walk around the Alster See. It was not a fast walk, as I stopped frequently at the lakeside vendors for a coffee or beer (some diet!!).  The final watering hole was opposite the department store Alster Haus, where I had a drink overlooking the lake. I then continued my journey back to the apartment, passing the Atlantic Hotel, and on to Uhlenhorsterweg.

On arrival, I was met by the sight of a fire engine, together with a crowd gathered on the pavement, in the midst of which were the apartment owners.  I asked what the problem was, and was told that I had left the stove on full power, and that the saucepan I had used had melted. I had to clean the whole apartment, which was now full of oily smoke. The furniture and all the curtains and drapes were ruined, and I had to spend three days in a self-service dry cleaning establishment to rectify the situation.

pan2My hosts, Klaus and Juergen, were understanding, and have the result of the ‘Melt Down’ displayed in their house.  It looks like a table tennis bat, although made of aluminium rather than wood.  I signed it for them, as it is obviously a great work of art.  Here are a couple of pictures of the treasured possession hanging in Klaus and Juergen’s apartment in Hamburg. (Click for a larger view.)

All’s well that ends well!



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