by Libby Malin
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away--specifically, right after I graduated from college--I worked as a Spanish gypsy, a Russian courtier, a Japanese Geisha, a Parisian bohemian, a Middle Eastern slave, a French courtesan, and a Chinese peasant.
Those were the roles played by chorus members of Baltimore and Washington Operas as they put on productions of Carmen, Eugene Onegin, Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Salome, La Traviata, and Turandot. I was one of those chorus members, happily arriving about an hour before each performance, traipsing through the stage door with makeup bag in hand, ready to be wigged and dressed.
To get ready for this backstage preparation, the women were all required to flatten their hair into pincurls and place a stocking cap over all. Then we'd head to the wig room where the loveliest hairpieces would be placed on our heads, glued to our foreheads with fine netting. Back to the dressing rooms where hired "dressers" would help us into our costumes--some of them very heavy and historically accurate with laces rather than buttons up the back. For most performances, these costumes were rented from a shop or another company's production of the same opera.
Once during my "illustrious" career, I sang in a La Traviata where the costumes were designed specifically for that production. A confection of pale pink lace and chiffon thus had a tag sewn into it with my name on it--original costumes were tagged with the names of the first persons to wear those garments. Somewhere in an opera house today, a chorus member might be wearing a gorgeous gown with the label "Elizabeth Malin" sewn in a seam.
In between all the dressing and the wigging, we'd be gluing on our false eyelashes and smearing on whatever pancake makeup was best (for some productions, like Salome, directors would specify the shade), lining and filling in our lips, placing small cutouts over our lids if we were to play Asians, and generally warming up, maybe even reviewing passages of the score that were hard to remember (chorus cues in the last act of Carmen are a bear to recall). This last task we were not required to do. As members of the American Guild of Musical Artists union, we were not expected to learn the music on our own. That's what the hours of rehearsal with the chorus master were for. Union reps were quick to pop up and remind us we had no obligation to do any work outside the paid rehearsals should a conductor tell us to "go over that on your own."
We were expected to be on time (or have our pay docked), get into our costumes, be ready to sing and act, and wait as the stage manager calmly called cues over the speaker system piped into our downstairs dressing rooms, excitement building as the moments before the first notes sounded ticked by.
"Fifteen minutes to places," "ten minutes. . ." "five. . ." "chorus to the stage, please."
The Kennedy Center stage was a world unto itself. It was large enough that the stage manager could stand in the wings calling lighting cues on his headset in a normal tone of voice, not worrying if the sound would carry into the "house."
During one production of Boheme (directed by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti), the president attended (I won't say which one or it would date me!). Secret Service staff roamed backstage and artificial snow was left out of one scene so that these dedicated personnel could more clearly see into the hall and up to the presidential seats.
Those were magical times for me. Music was my first love--I actually have two degrees from a conservatory.
But I discovered pretty quickly that I wasn't cut out for the performer's life. I didn't enjoy the traveling it would require, and I always struggled with stage fright. Writing continually called out to me.
While I didn't stay in the music field, my life has been enriched immeasurably by that "first love." My writing, too, has benefited because studying music teaches you a lot about rhythm and pacing, about audiences and characterization, about how to express passion, longing, acceptance, and even humor. I don't regret my early days in the music world at all and have recently begun singing in my church choir again.
So. . . what "first loves" inform your life and writing now? Do you ever wish you could return to them?