In November of 1984, I returned to the New York Metropolitan for a revival of Così fan tutte. The production was originally by Colin Graham but in these performances Graziella Sciutti added her six eggs in her debut as stage director at the Met. The cast was wonderful, with Carol Vaness as Fiordiligi, Ann Murray as Dorabella, Mariella Devia/Julia Hamari as despina, David Holloway as Guglielmo, Cornell MacNeil as Don Alfonso and, of course, myself as Ferrando. The whole lot was beautifully conducted by Jeffrey Tate. (The above picture is from Colin Graham’s production of 1982 with Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Ewing, Kathleen Battle. James Morris, Donald Gramm and yours truly).
As often happens, when a singer takes on the role of Stage Director, a great proportion of the rehearsal time is spent on the scenes and character that he or she had previously performed. Such was the case with Graziella Sciutti and the role of Despina. However, the rest of us had performed our roles hundreds of times with the exception of legend Cornell MacNeil. ‘Mac’ as he was affectionately known was talked into singing the role by Jeffrey Tate, thereby leaving his comfort zone as a Primo Verdi Baritone. We often talked of how difficult he found it to sing Mozart, and the vocal discipline required. There was a time during rehearsals that he wanted to withdraw from the production but was persuaded to continue by the powers that be.
We had left the rehearsal room in the bowels of the theatre, and commenced our period of stage and piano rehearsals. It was good to have the space around us and a full set on which to strut. We had just reached the part of the opera when Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are by this time disguised as Albanians, pretend to take poison, in the hope that Fiordiligi and Dorabella will feel sorry for spurning their affections, and will fall in love with them. In this production the men laid their love-rejected bodies, head-to-head, on a bench which was set centre stage. It was at this point, whilst Don Alfonso was explaining to the ladies what was happening to the men, that an accident occurred.
Walking to and fro in front of the bench, Don Alfonso (Mac) used his walking cane to gesticulate whilst singing to the ladies who were standing down stage. He used his cane, in a thrusting manner, to point toward the bench. He was a little closer than he thought and the end of the cane hit me right in the temple. Well, apparently I was knocked unconscious and rolled onto the floor. I don’t know how long I was out, but when I came to I could hear a number of voices asking if I was ok. I tried to open my eyes but it seemed that I couldn’t as it was still dark behind my lids. I was told to keep still until a doctor could examine me.
Again, I had no idea of how much time had elapsed before the doc arrived, but I still could not see anything. I was put on a stretcher and rolled to an awaiting ambulance in the loading dock at the rear of the theatre. I was escorted by the Artistic Liaison Manager, my dear friend, Charlie Riecker. I didn’t have far to go as the emergency room was in the next block to the Met.
My sight still had not returned, and the doctors feared that I might have detached my retinas. I was therefore moved to another part of the hospital, where they had the correct ophthalmic equipment to see right into my eyes. My eyes were filled with dilating drops, my chin perched on a stand and the examination commenced. The good news was that everything was intact and that my sight should return.
After about four hours at the hospital I began to experience some changes to my vision. From complete darkness to a very foggy grey were the first stages but still no definition of shape. Gradually though shape started to become apparent followed by some colour. I was finally discharged with the explanation that my optical nerves were affected by the blow to my head and that I should return to the hospital if my sight deteriorated.
Charlie, who had been with me for the whole ordeal was the guardian of the Met’s Blue Shield Insurance details (essential in the USA), also held my hand and escorted me out of the hospital and across the road to his favourite watering hole called ‘O’Neal’s Balloon’. It was owned by the actor Ryan O’Neal and called ‘Balloon’ because of an out dated Prohibition-era-law forbidding the usage of the word Saloon. My eyesight did deteriorate towards the end of that day but that was probably due to having one or two vodka and lemon mixes too many.
Fortunately, this incident did not impair my ability to perform the role. Here is the opening scene from one of the performances.
Così fan Tutte, Act 1 scene 1. New York Met, 22 December 1984
It was on this sojourn in New York that I had my first run in with the NYPD. I quickly add that I was not “run in’ to the local precinct.
My first wife was with me on this trip (we were still married at this point), and decided on a take-out meal one evening after rehearsals. Indian was the choice for that evening and, going on a recommendation, called the Indian Restaurant ‘Shah Jahan’ to place an order. I was told to collect an hour from ordering, which I did.
On return to the apartment we opened the aluminium (yes, with an extra ‘i’ because I am English) containers, and were amazed that almost $60 could buy such a small amount of food. Lids were replaced and we both went back to the restaurant to complain. The place was full with clients, and my wife went into a tirade about cost and portion size. It was getting very heated and the restaurant became quiet, with the exception of the Indian staff and my wife. A refund was refused and there was no offer of increasing the portion size. We were told to “take it or leave it”. My wife said that we would leave it and promptly picked up two of the containers, now lidless, and poured them over the manager’s head. I felt like disappearing. How could my wife do this? I just wanted to be somewhere else. It was like time had stopped, then suddenly, like a crash of thunder, the screaming got louder and louder, with one utterance from the manager, “Nine one one, nine one one!” This was the police emergency call number and, within minutes, two squad cars had pulled up outside and four officers had entered Shah Jahan’s doors. Oh my God!!!! I was going to be arrested, my MET contract would be cancelled, my visa would be revoked and there was nothing that I could do to turn the clock back…..my career was over!!!
I came back to reality rapidly. I noticed an expression of amusement on one of the officer’s face as we were questioned about the incident. The Indian hadn’t even bothered wiping any of the curry from his dark hair and face, which made the whole picture quite hilarious. We were told to leave without being charged (except for the meal, that is) but with a warning never to do it again, and the manager was told to give value for money if he didn’t want it to happen again. We left and went to O’Neal’s Balloon for a delicious oversized cheese burger and fries (chips in English).
To this day I do not know how the news of this experience had reached the inner sanctum of the MET, but the next day I was welcomed by all my colleagues, with a chorus of “nine one one, nine one one” uttered, of course, with an Indian accent!