Behind the Scenes: Metropolitan Opera
Gildo Di Nunzio has worn many hats at the Met for fifty years and counting.
by Maria Mazzaro.
Working with Pavarotti before a Met performance
Courtesy Gildo di Nunzio
THE FIRST TIME Gildo Di Nunzio retired, in 1997, he had already worked with the Met for more than thirty years. “I retired two or three times,” Di Nunzio says. “Once, when I went back to La Bohème, the guys said, ‘What are you doing here?’”
In the early 1960s, after a career as a dancer—in ballet, opera, musical theater and film, including the Bye, Bye Birdie movie with Dick Van Dyke and Ann-Margret—Di Nunzio was accepted as one of the Met’s apprentice conductors. He soon became a fulltime assistant conductor; his main job was to “conduct everything that takes place offstage. For instance, Verdi’s first act of Rigoletto is almost all banda.”
An offstage band conductor must always keep ahead of the beat, and the players need to tune their instruments a little higher, to account for the distance between stage and audience. But apart from that general concept, says Di Nunzio, “No one can tell you exactly how to do it. You have to have a feel for it. Some of the people who do backstage want to have earphones, so they can hear the orchestra. I always found it better to not hear the orchestra—to do it simply by looking at the beat” of the conductor on the monitor. However, if the monitor goes out, he says, “You are screwed! Actually, once, when I was doing the Aida stage bands, somebody walked by and their foot pulled the plug out. I was really flying by the seat of my pants for three or four bars.”
Many audience members may not realize that the muted or supplemental instrumental sounds are not coming from the orchestra pit. An exception is Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème and the banda that marches onstage during the Café Momus scene. When the production was new, in 1981, and for more than 200 performances since, Di Nunzio served as Bohème’s stage-band conductor. “You start offstage,” he says. “Finally, you walk onto the stage, giving [the players] the beat with the staff. The real challenge is, you have to look at the conductor and look at the stairs at the same time, because they’re all jagged.”
For a different Zeffirelli production—Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which opened the Met at Lincoln Center in 1966—Di Nunzio was charged with sitting in the pyramid set piece with a score and a flashlight; his job was to give the stagehands their performance cues for when to turn the set—manually. “It was meant to be on a turntable, and the turntable broke. Leontyne [Price] was stuck in the thing, which was supposed to open!” he says.
In addition to cueing stagehands, Di Nunzio gave musical cues to performers—now a role of the stage manager—which gave him “a lot of interchange with all the artists.” One of his close friends was Luciano Pavarotti, whom Di Nunzio would visit each summer in Pesaro, to work on Pavarotti’s upcoming roles. “Well, first of all, to get him to work,” Di Nunzio says. “He never had fewer than twenty people at his house for lunch every day.” When Di Nunzio did get Pavarotti to rehearse, Di Nunzio would “plunk out all the notes,” because Pavarotti did not read music. “They were building some high-rises right on the beach [in Pesaro],” Di Nunzio adds, “and Luciano would say, ‘Why don’t you buy one of those apartments? When we’re two old men, we’ll sit and look at the sea.’ He was a really good friend.”
After his most recent retirement, Di Nunzio assumed the part-time role of Italian coach at the Met. “I sit and listen in rehearsal and make notes to sort of fine-tune it. Occasionally, if someone really needs it, we’ll do one-on-one.” He works on a few productions every season, including, in 2016–17, Aida, Don Giovanni, Nabucco and Rigoletto. “This is the best way to do it—not working every day!”