When Carmen Conquered Omaha
by Jacquelyn Giles

In the summer of 1968, the call from Omaha Civic Opera inviting me to sing Micaela in their 1969 production of "Carmen" was a welcome chance to add the featured soprano role in the frequently performed opera to my list of credits. But there was an added inducement -- the renowned mezzo, Regina Resnik, would sing the title role.

What an opportunity -- to watch, listen and learn from a great artist! Did I accept with pleasure? You can be sure I did.

I had worked with the conductor Joseph Levine and the stage director Charles Peck the previous season when I covered Dorothy Kirsten as Tosca and sang the role in an added performance. Both men were talented and seasoned professionals in the realm of opera, but whatever their artistic leanings were, the audience in Omaha at that time was attuned more to tradition than innovation. The approach to this 1969 Omaha "Carmen" was decidedly traditional.

Tenor Chris Lachonas who was "my" Mario in the previous season's Tosca, was "our" Don Jose -- Carmen and Micaela do share him for a bit. A thorough professional, with a robust lirico-spinto voice, he was musically absolutely solid, and a delightful colleague. His experience at "plugging in" to regional productions with famous leading ladies surely helped him adjust to changes in blocking and "business".

Our toreador Escamillo, baritone Vern Shinall, later sang at the Met and appeared in at least one of their televised productions in the seventies. On opening night, he inhaled a noseful of hairspray just before his entrance for the Toreador Song. He sang it beautifully through a fog of fixatif! To Vern's credit, the hairdresser kept his job!

The advent of productions shared by several regional companies has streamlined many aspects of opera production, but in those days, the two weeks leading to opening night were akin to artistic "Purgatory". The featured artist usually arrived a week before opening night, when most of the "who goes where, when and how" decisions were already worked out. Even so, changes proportionate to the fame of the artist were inevitably made. Ms.Resnik must have suspected what awaited her, but she immediately communicated that she had not made the Gypsy her own only to abandon her to the vagaries of a regional production.

That is not to say that Resnik was "difficult" or that she behaved in a manner other than should be expected from a serious professional. Unlike some visiting divas, Regina Resnik clearly cared for the quality of the total production, not only for her own performance. It was artistic generosity and the teacher's instinct at work that caused her to admonish me to "stop waving" my hands about in the Act I duet with Don Jose, and allow my "very expressive face and voice" to carry the meaning of words and music. Carmen and Micaela appear together onstage only in the Act III scene where Micaela defeats her fear to find Jose in the smugglers' mountain den and beg him to return to his mother, who is dying. The first time we rehearsed the scene, I noticed that Ms. Resnik was singing, sotto voce, my part and the others in the scene-- every word and note! I assumed it was artistic self-defense, since she did not know how musically dependable we were, but I felt I had shown that I was musically prepared, so I was mildly offended. At the next run-through, the "marking" continued. I caught her eye and gave what I intended as a respectful, questioning lift of the eyebrows. The great singer smiled slightly, and stopped singing my part. Her respect for my feelings gave me a thrill of confidence, but I made doubly sure not to miss a cue after that!

Jacquelyn Giles' Micaela (wearing her "Gretel-like wig") made the cover of the March 2, 1969 issue of Omaha's Sunday World-Herald
Regina Resnik's insistence on her personal high artistic standards taught me another valuable lesson. Opera lore says that, in the first Carmen production, Micaela was sung by a German soprano who was determined to show off her own blonde locks. Micaela is described in the libretto only as wearing a blue skirt and having braided hair. Thanks to "tradition", I made my entrance on opening night with flaxen braids flapping and garbed in un-peasant-like blue velvet, with a little basket of "goodies" for Don Jose dangling from my arm. Next morning, the local critic praised my singing, but said my costume and blonde wig made me look like a fugitive from a production of Hansel and Gretel. He probably expected me to drop bread-crumbs from my basket to find my way around the stage. That review made me furious-- with myself. I had hated that wig from the beginning and I had suffered for heeding too well the conventional wisdom advising young singers to be "co-operative". After I calmed down, I realized that Resnik wouldn't have let herself be got up as Goldilocks in the first place!

When the hairdresser appeared in my dressing room the night of the second performance bearing the freshly "dressed" wig, he was aghast that I had done my own hair. Five dollars and a trip to Woolworth's for a single light-brown braid had turned Gretel into Micaela. After a couple of "but...buts", he reluctantly took away the offending hair.

Backstage, Ms. Resnik sought me out and, as we were in a French opera, spoke the French equivalent of the Italian, "in bocca lupo", or "break a leg"-- "merde", and feigned to spit over my shoulder. Stepping back, she nodded approvingly, "I'm so glad you got rid of that wig!" she said, and added that she hadn't said anything about it on opening night as she wished not to upset me before the performance. I thanked her, and as I went to take my place in the wings, I met the conductor, Joe Levine. He hugged me and asked, "Have you heard? There's a critic in the house from Opera News."

In November of 1998, Regina Resnik taught a Master Class at the University of California at San Diego. Sitting silent in the audience, I felt I participated as fully as any of the students who sang. Though some were more vocally gifted than others, she instructed each one with frankness and a desire to help, as she had done for me thirty years before.

As the class ended, I joined those waiting to speak with the great artist and teacher. Reaching her, I mentioned our shared experience. She instantly remembered the Omaha "Carmen" and her expression conveyed she recalled it, "warts and all". I then corrected an omission of thirty years before, and asked for her autograph on my Carmen program, which she graciously gave. Inspired by the "class" of this master teacher, as well as by her Master Class, I went home and sang the best I have in months. Thank you, again, Ms. Resnik.

- © 1999 Jacquelyn Giles. All rights reserved.

Regina Resnik with certificate of appreciation after teaching a Master Class in San Diego, California

Photo: © FanFaire 1998


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