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
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
|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.
Giles. All rights reserved.
Regina Resnik with certificate of appreciation
after teaching a Master Class in San Diego, California
Photo: © FanFaire