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The Diva and the Maestro

For LAUREN FLANIGAN, observing the rapport between Richard Bonynge and Edita Gruberova was a life-altering experience.

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© Antoni Bofill 2015

In the fall of 1992, I was awarded my first of seven important cover assignments, understudying Edita Gruberova as Anna Bolena at the Liceu in Barcelona with Richard Bonynge. Up until then, life had been a confident and headstrong mix of day job, small role debuts, a few Donna Annas, a Violetta and auditions, auditions, auditions. I had no idea that I would be stepping into a privileged world of divas and maestros that was equal parts terrifying and prayer-inducing and was destined to change me forever.

During that Barcelona assignment, I lit a candle and prayed to God every day to keep that woman well and healthy and onstage. I was already terrified of the stage director, Giancarlo Del Monaco, who shouted “Eeedeeeeta” from the back of the darkened theater. I was slightly less afraid of the conductor, Richard Bonynge, until, at an orchestra rehearsal I had been asked to step into, the maestro jumped up and down on the podium, flung a pencil at my head and stopped the rehearsal, shouting at me, “Stop acting! Stop acting! For God’s sake, stop acting!” And so, out of respect for the maestro, and to ensure that I would never have to take over any of Gruberova’s rehearsals or performances, and “for God’s sake,” my prayer evolved into something like, “Dear God, Please keep Edita happy and healthy and onstage, and for your sake alone, God, stop every acting impulse raging within me.”

What is essentially odd about that whole scenario is that as an understudy — no matter how much you like or admire the person whose performances you are covering — you always want to go on. You start to crave the interaction and the acknowledgement of the artists whose work you have been watching and admiring and hoping to emulate. 

But in this case, I didn’t. No cravings. I was very happy sitting, praying, watching and listening. It is hard, even now, for me to articulate how I knew that I was in way over my head.

Gruberova is slightly built. I remember her as small and very girlish and lithe. I loved the fact that every time Bonynge called to her from the pit, she lit up. She would stop whatever she had been doing, turn her head toward him and walk to the edge of the stage. She never hesitated. She never made him wait for her. He would often ask her to repeat a variation, and without pausing, she would oblige him. He would always offer a suggestion about phrasing, which she repeated to him. Afterward she would giggle a bit, nod, turn around and go back to her place. Sometimes during the repetition of a scene, she would sing the corrected phrase in the uncorrected way, and before he could react, she was facing him and acknowledging the error. It was as though they were reading each other’s thoughts. Their musical intimacy scared me. They were clearly trying to communicate a musical story that was unique to them.

This was a language I did not know. I had grown up in the world of “the director,” in which all those “notes” just confused everyone and had to be cut. And because of this, for most of the 1991–92 season, I was a theatrically tormented, musical mess of a coloratura. This was a very big year for me: I was making my Met debut in The Ghosts of Versailles, singing a few other premieres and understudying some of opera’s greatest sopranos — Millo, Cuberli, Devia and now Gruberova. Their smallest turn of a phrase would have audiences shouting and screaming for more.

I remember the ease and precision with which Gruberova delivered Bolena’s first aria, “Come, innocente giovane.” She was by turns girlish and direct, vulnerable and overbearing. I was shocked at how much of the drama I didn’t need to see played out in front of me, because her voice was compelling me to pay attention and listen. I was hearing the full range of Bolena’s human emotion and trusting what I heard. It was remarkable how much I understood about the character simply through musical gesture. It was thrilling, and I wanted to learn how to do it.

At the end of the aria, Bolena sings an impossibly high note, holds it forever and exits the stage. The audience erupted immediately into shouts and screams, calls of brava and all kinds of noisy chaos. It went on and on and developed into rhythmic clapping and calls of “Bis!” I remember clasping my hands as the shouts crescendoed, bowing my head and saying to myself, “Please come back onstage. Please come back. Because your singing is changing my life, and I need to see you and acknowledge that.” And then it happened. She actually walked back out onto the stage. She walked out holding onto the stage-left curtain and stood there while the place went wild. She bowed her head very slowly, raised her eyes up and out to the audience, and then just as she had done in rehearsal, she giggled a bit, nodded to the maestro and went back offstage. It was the most unforgettable sixty seconds of my life. 

There is a coda to this episode: Joan Sutherland was sitting in the theater the day of that terrifying rehearsal. I spotted her when I was leaving. The hallway was narrow, and there was no avoiding her and the maestro; we were going to meet up. As I drew near, Maestro Bonynge introduced us, and she winked at me. I apologized for my mistake onstage, and she leaned in my direction and said, “Oh, Ricky’s bark is much worse than his bite — but not at all as sharp as his pencil.” spacer 

LAUREN FLANIGAN, an internationally acclaimed soprano, is founder and director of Music and Mentoring House, a unique residency program for opera singers studying in New York City. 

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