We have good nights and bad nights. If you were in the audience, whatever you thought of the show, I can tell you that, from our perspective, Nights 1, 4, 5, and 7 were good nights. Nights 3 and 8 were OK. Night 6 was bad, and, from a pure marching perspective, wouldn’t be seen in Great Moments at the Met. But Night 2 was a disaster.
Usually, the audience can’t tell. After Night No. 2, for instance, I happen to run into an elderly tourist, who tells me she saw War and Peace the night before. “Well, then you saw me!” I say, brightly. “Though you wouldn’t know it,” I add with the humility common to opera greats. “I was the sixth Russian from the left.” And I explain. This scene takes place in the echoing hall of a different classical-music venue, where I volunteer as a “music ambassador,” to welcome tourists and share enthusiasm for classical music. When she says she enjoyed the performance, I ask what she thought of the marching regiments. She says they were impressive. I’m sure she’s just being kind, so I explain to her how terrible the marching, in fact, was. She says she didn’t notice, and that she was more focused on the singing than on the marching, which, despite all I said, looked very grand to her. I insist that it was very, very bad, and go into some detail about how it should have disappointed her, had she been paying attention. She starts to get a little annoyed. She insists that it had looked fine. I strongly imply she isn’t the opera expert she thinks she is. We part in icy silence, our last heated words echoing off the high ceilings. I look around the hall to see if my supervisor witnessed the undiplomatic exchange.
My anxiety about the final three performances is different from all of my previous anxieties, which have been surprisingly varied. But the opera is now a mighty locomotive nearing the inevitable end of its journey, carried on by its own momentum. And the conversation with the tourist tells me that anything short of falling into the orchestra pit will go unnoticed. So why the unease?
The worst, after all, seems to happen in Performance 2. First, as the dresser predicted, William’s poorly constructed pre-glasnost pants drop to the ground during Act 1, Scene 2, just as he is getting ready to kneel before the general. Then, our parade march turns into a train wreck when a helpful chorister kneels down to fix a carpet lip on our rubber battlefield. Soldiers stop and bang into each other, so as not to kick the villager. She brings the whole Russian army to a halt.
Just before the chaos begins, as my regiment marches in place offstage right—we are the third to enter—we see the ill-omened tide rippling toward us. Where the villager is kneeling is precisely the point at which we are supposed to switch from our regular march to our high-kicking parade march. This is where Sasha gives his command of “Levee!” Some soldiers are on their left at “Levee!,” some on their right. Some are shuffling indistinctly. When we reach that mark, we’ll have to decide whether to follow the beat of the music, listen to Sasha’s command, or go with the prevailing tide. We certainly have no confidence that we can turn the tide. Like the demoralized Russian troops at the Austerlitz defeat, we are braced for disorder. This is the crucial moment of “Change!” (and it occurs to me that this is what old Kutuzov was screaming about), when we change to the parade march in the center of the stage, in full view of the audience. There is that dog-eared flap in the rubber stage. Our good form—the soles of our feet brushing the floor—is what is causing the trouble.
The regiment has a beehive mentality, and, as in battle, failure is infectious. We know we will fail before we get to the point of failure. We’re not even off the stage—we’re still goose-stepping—as we begin muttering to each other, “Well, that sucked,” and “Boy, that blew.” Or just “Fuck!” None of this in Russian, and it’s said while only a few yards from the edge of the stage. They should teach us Russian curses so we can suck in character.
We regroup when we’re offstage. We complain bitterly about the ballet dancers, who are always on the wrong foot. Some Ismailovskies complain that an army should never stop to allow a peasant woman to tidy up the battlefield. It looks ridiculous. We should “marsh” when we are ordered, even if we must step on a chorus member. Tough talk. She’s bigger than me.
The worst is not over. Because, as we wait for our last entrance, the horse comes offstage and, no doubt relieved to be done, drops three poops, just missing me. We scatter briefly to avoid the stuff, but are ordered back into formation. Then comes the overpowering stench. We can’t move, because we’re about to march on for the big final tableau. So we endure the smell for 10 minutes. I’m no drama critic, but let me say this about the horse’s performance: she could use more fiber in her diet. The Met forbids cologne for fear of irritating their singers’ olfactories—but now the singers are choking and holding handkerchiefs to their noses. As we begin to march onstage, relieved to get away from the smell, we find the horse didn’t wait for her exit to begin pooping. There are squishy horse pats on the stage, and the lines bend around to avoid them. Like our hero, Sasha, we are unflappable veterans now.
But now there’s a rumor circulating that there are saboteurs among us—malcontents who are determined to disrupt the performance. The soldier who tells me this, himself crazy-eyed and quite insane, says that he had to threaten the chasseur (of course!), who has been doing small things to purposely screw up those around him: intentionally marching on the wrong foot, stopping short, that sort of thing. Now he’s vowing to do something “really big” to derail the performance. My friend, the crazy soldier, vowed to “hurt him” if he tried such a thing. Personally, I haven’t seen any saboteurs, although I have noticed that some have been seeking to enlarge their parts by adding business. We’ve been explicitly instructed not to freelance—as, for example, the death-practicing Daniel does, by adding a Camille-like death to his retreat.
But the rumor of saboteurs proves true. It happens during the French retreat of the seventh show. We are less regimented in this scene, and are straggling across the stage in groups of eight. My stage business is to pick up a fallen comrade, who always falls in a designated spot. Of the seven times so far, I have only failed to pick him up once, when I was run over by the dead-horse cart and nearly killed myself. So, I’m pretty reliable.
But tonight, halfway across the stage, as I’m trailing my about-to-fall comrade, keeping a wary eye out for the dead-horse cart, I feel a tap at my back that signifies I don’t know what. And then a cape-wearing French soldier is running at full speed, pounding across the stage, stumbling over my heels, and throwing himself to the floor, nearly landing on my fallen comrade. He makes a loud boom as he hits the stage. He immediately bounces back up, breaking every rule of naturalistic drama; he zigs and zags like Emmitt Smith, pushing soldiers to the left and right, and sprints offstage and up a side stairway to avoid identification. This must have been the saboteur chasseur, staging the disruption my fruit-loops friend told me about. I expect the next one will be bigger, and wonder if I should report what I know to Sasha.
Even in uniform, I’m a worrywart teacher who wants the troublemaking kids in the back row of class to behave. When I tell people about how worried the running soldier makes me, no one responds appropriately. My mother asks if he was naked. “What?!” I say. “Why would he be naked?” “You know, streaking.” “No, he was just running.” “Well, what are you worried about, then?” Others say, “Well, he had his 15 minutes of fame.” No, death-practicing Daniel wants fame. This soldier wants mayhem.
Now I feel bad for Daniel. I bring in and give him my New York magazine because it ran a picture of the back of his head and a portion of his nose (he was caught shaving in the bathroom). Now he’s carrying the magazine around, showing everyone. Bored soldiers barely glance at it. He thanks me until I feel bad for ever making fun of him. He says he’s going to run out to buy more. His sad, Cecil-the-cartoon-turtle eyes nearly brimming with tears, he says it’s the first time his picture has been in a magazine. Though once, he adds, he saw a picture of someone who looked like him.
Daniel’s harmless vanity for some reason makes me angrier at soldiers seeking attention through mayhem. Offstage, Sasha, for the first time ever, is angry. He says a French soldier’s uncontrolled fall pitched him backward. If he had been less sure-footed, he might have been knocked off the stage. Meanwhile, some grenadiers lost their hats, which rolled off the stage and into the netting. They’re laughing about it, like it was nothing. I want to give them detention.
I worry that the saboteurs in French uniforms, emboldened by the caped runner, will do something more dangerous on closing night, when there is less to lose. I tell this to a salty 70-year-old woman with whom I volunteer at Carnegie Hall, and she says, “What are you afraid of?,” in a tone that suggests she’s barely repressing the “you big sissy” at the butt end of the question. “It’s not your problem if it’s disrupted,” she says.
But I still imagine that any potential disruption would most likely land me in the French-horn section. Because that’s my luck. If a nose is broken in a touch-football game, it’s my nose. But beyond that I’m just a worrier, and I want everything to look smart. The boys have been talking about reviews, some of them bad, in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Daily News. I’m sure I’ll find that the intrepid reviewers looked past the 250 others onstage to single me out for criticism.
But once I slip out the stage door after midnight, past the autograph seekers that Daniel hopes to indulge, and onto the No. 1 train, I know I’ll revel in my anonymity no matter what my notices are. But I also know I’ll be staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. tonight, as I have for the last six shows, too excited to sleep, too thrilled by my secret life onstage.