I tell my friends who want to dine with me before a show: “No—I can’t! I must prepare!” I’m a high-strung diva. I get very nervous before my performances. I want to burst out in a dramatic “Don’t you realize I’ll be on the Met stage in only seven hours? Will you be treading those sacred boards? No! You, my fat friend, will be watching SportsCenter!” I’m insufferable, on the inside. I don’t say these things, but I’m certain my dignified carriage communicates it. My posture is especially erect. My eyebrow is arched. My nostrils flare occasionally. I feel only Anna Netrebko or Maria Callas would understand. Especially Anna. I am becoming an opera monster.
My anxiety at the possibility of a big onstage disruption has been tempered a bit by the approach of the last performances. If someone makes a misstep in front of me, I won’t know if it’s intentional or not. I can’t even be sure if the disruption originated with the person in front of me or in front of them. In this way, it can continually be blamed on the ballerinos, the “officers” who are at the head of our regiment. This, too, must be the way the army works, with the enlisted men making all those officer jokes. “I’m no officer—I work for a living.” The ballerinos are never in the rehearsal room with us, so they never bond with us. They never bake any cookies, like Blue, and they aren’t around to chat as I sew my costume. Our dresser has told us we are the most domestic regiment, what with me sewing and Blue baking and groups who bring little picnic lunches to share with each other. We are also the happiest regiment. The assistant supernumerary director, whom I have pegged for a McSweeney’s reader, told us that. We clap at everything Sasha tells us.
After the very first show, Sasha told us that we marched “vell” but that there was “room for improvement.” We applauded. He told us our mission would be to close that gap with every show. We cheered “Hooray,” not in the manner of the 82nd Airborne but in the manner of Russian soldiers, with a rolling r and an accent on the second syllable. It’s a measure of our esprit de corps that, even at the seventh and eighth shows, we are still trying to close the gap. It’s touching. There is surprisingly little absenteeism during the holiday shows, but before the next-to-last show, when a tall standby—or "cover"—finally gets his break because a regular is absent, we spontaneously applaud him.
The ballerinos (whom I should call male dancers but just can’t) miss out on all the camaraderie, and so we blame them for every mishap. Unlike us, they are in many operas, we are told. For them, it is a job with a paycheck. They are professionals, and so they are not enthused about any one opera. They are less apathetic when they have some dancing to do.
Now, a confession. I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet three times in my continuing obsession with seeing Anna Netrebko onstage, if not offstage. But I find myself staring through my binoculars not at Anna but at the ballerinos in the background. My critical harrumphs at their laziness are so loud that the woman next to me asks at intermission if I’m an actor. I get to say, “Actually …,” and you know the rest. I’ve been reluctant to confess this, so I’ve saved it for the last dispatch. And I don’t want to alarm the Met or have them think they let a stalker into the fold. But when my friends heard about my auditioning at the Met they all said, “Ah, is Anna Netrebko in it?,” in the singsong way you might speak to a 9-year-old with a crush on his teacher. And I said, “Actually, her Met debut was as Natasha in the 2002 production of War and Peace, but, sadly, no …” But she is in Romeo and Juliet, and I did harbor hopes of seeing her backstage.
Typically, and completely appropriate to the themes of War and Peace, I nearly miss the big moments when they come. The first time I see Anna, I’m walking down the hallway with a couple of cinderblock-type rough customers. They look like the man who mugged me. But these men are not skells. They are nice guys. They are more than that—they are Ismailovskies. They are grousing about the low pay. One of the men is gay and one is not. I’m nodding as they gripe. This beautiful woman comes walking toward us, and one of the rough customers throws me an elbow in the “Get a load of that noise” fashion that men use among each other but rarely with me. I take note—not that I needed the nudge. I’m happy to be taken into his manly confidence. We both look at her out of the corner of our eyes but don’t make a fuss. We are Ismailovskies, after all. Professionals. I’m touched at how delicate the straight rough customer has been in not making a big show of being a wolf in front of the gay rough customer. When she is past us, perhaps thinking we didn’t make a big enough fuss, she emits a five-second aria burst that echoes down the hall. Now we all turn and check her out. We nod. “Beautiful and talented,” the straight rough customer says. “Oh my, that was Anna!” I think to myself, all aflutter, but I don’t say it, because I want to continue to be thought a rough customer.
I go online and print out the password-protected rehearsal schedule for Romeo and Juliet, trying to determine how I might increase my odds of running into Anna. I’m beginning to think of her as the Natasha to my hapless Pierre. Pierre is married to a harridan, you see, and the ravishing Natasha is unapproachable. And in a big speech (in the book, the movie, and the opera) he says to her, “If I were not myself but the handsomest, cleverest, and best man in the world, and if I were free, I would be on my knees this minute to beg for your hand and your love.” My wife is aware that I find this speech very affecting. She is less moved by it. She is aware that our trip to Vienna last year had something to do with Anna Netrebko. She was humiliated as I stood in a crowded hallway at the Vienna Opera, hoping to get a picture of Anna and her autograph. “You know you are going to be on Vienna state television,” she says from the corner, avoiding the frenzied crush. She knows of my obsession because there’s photographic evidence. Last year, at a public CD signing at the Met, when I was just a fan and not an opera employee, I asked Anna to autograph a CD “Dear Rob, You are so cute!” Her worried security detail inched toward me to examine the inscription. As they closed in, I explained to them and to Anna, in turn, “It’s a joke … for my wife … to make her jealous!” Anna smiled. They relaxed. In the photo, I’m in midplea, arms outstretched, the security is hovering, and, best of all, Anna is smiling up at me.
So it’s no surprise when I “forget” my day planner in the rehearsal room on a day when the R&J principals are supposed to be rehearsing. I really am a spy and feel guilty that I’m breaking a Met rule in using my treasured all-access pass card to swipe myself in when I don’t have rehearsal. But as I hover outside the rehearsal room, pretending to look for my planner, I see it’s only the new tenor playing Romeo that is getting rehearsed. Someone is standing in for Anna.
One week later, just after my rehearsal, I’m waiting at the stage door, where we get to exit as if we are actual opera stars, and where Daniel, the joke-stealing death-practicer, has even signed the programs of unsuspecting patrons waiting for an actual performer. I’m standing at the door, my mouth messily full of apple. A beautiful woman with glossy black hair in a ponytail is bounding toward me. Truth be told, she looks a lot like my wife. I’m trying to chew and swallow the apple, but it’s not going down. The woman locks eyes with me and says brightly “Hello!” before passing in through the stage door. I can’t spit out or digest the apple. I’m chipmunk-cheeked for my big moment with Anna. I feel she has recognized me from having “seen me around the Met.” Not from the stalking, you understand, because we are colleagues. I miss my big moment.
My only pleasure at having been unprepared for my big moment twice is when another extra is telling Rough Customer how much he worships Anna and how he hopes to see her backstage. I walk over and say, “Well, Rough Customer and I have both seen Anna.” And now I fill him in, and Rough Customer joins me, contributing details, and we are both savoring the thing as we torture the poor jerk who missed Anna. None of this is lost on my wife, mostly because I tell her everything. She’s not a harridan. She surveys my puppyish chasing after Netrebko, and I know she expects nothing more from me. She isn’t upset or worried. She’s not even on the East Coast for the final performances.
My wife, in fact, is in Los Angeles. She went for 10 days, and then extended it another five, perhaps when she realized there were two more shows left. She’s actually visiting her Cuban mother, a doctor, who didn’t have much respect for her “pequito” son-in-law before she saw pictures of him dressed like a toy soldier and now has absolutely none. I joke that instead of fighting the Cubans this Christmas, as I usually do, I’m fighting the French. My mother-in-law demands to see pictures, because she doesn’t believe I’m not visiting because I’m in an opera. I’m sure it loses something in translation, but it doesn’t sound true, even to me. So I e-mail my wife the pictures. My mother-in-law believes me now, but says I look "old"—certainly too old for the uniform. I know she has official grounds for despising me.
My wife is taking tango lessons in Los Angeles (shades of the Richard Gere remake of that Japanese movie). My mother-in-law accuses her of taking tango lessons so that she can meet a man, which I take to be not so much a joke as advice. That’s the point at which my wife extends her stay. When she calls, I am, as usual, at a Starbucks near Lincoln Center, reading Anna Karenina—only seven hours before the performance. Her mother is driving her crazy. She’s talking about her mother’s medicine not arriving or some such nonsense calculated to shift the spotlight, distract me from my preparation, and the diva is rising in me. I’m at first tempted to say “Don’t you realize that in seven short hours I will be treading …” But instead I listen to her talk about blood work. Here comes the diva in me. I imagine myself saying, “My good woman! Have you any idea of the agonies that afflict my soul?!” I’ve taken to talking like Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, Anna Karenina’s sad-sack husband, just before—it strikes me—Anna Karenina dumps him for the no doubt tango-dancing Vronsky. I wonder if there’s a Vronsky in L.A.: a mustachioed ne’er-do-well. Actually, he wouldn’t have to be mustachioed or all that dashing. He’d just have to not dress like a wooden soldier. And be there in L.A.
Confirming my paranoia, I feel, is an Invasion of Body Snatchers_–meets–_Stepford Wives dream I had this morning. The trouble begins as I’m driving my “wife” to the subway for work. She demands that I drive her to a railroad station much further away and in the opposite direction of work. Suspicious, I refuse. Showing unusual strength, she commandeers the car and leaves me in a strange town. Later, Meryl Streep, who plays all the roles in the dream (she’s superb!), informs me that the woman who I thought was my wife—but who was behaving erratically—was in fact a robot. “Didn’t you notice how long her neck was, or how her head resembled a light bulb?” the incredulous Streep asks me. “No,” I say. I only noticed that she stole the car and left me stranded. I take this dream as a sign, of something.
All in all, going to war might seem like a plausible solution to my troubles, if it weren’t the cause of them. But it’s a phony war, and it has to end sometime.
It’s been a busy holiday season, what with pushing the French out of Russia, which I did right up until January 3, when they were gone completely, at least as far as I’m concerned. Anna is back in Vienna. My wife is back home, and my busman’s holiday is seemingly over for good. Sasha has complimented us on our professionalism, and told us that “vhen ve look back on this, you will know it is an unforgettable experience and you all vill be able to be proud of a job vell done.” Just before we march onstage for the last crossover of “the 16,” the no-nonsense stage manager who looks like Roy Scheider pats me on the arm as he moves up the line, and he says, “Bravi, gentlemen, bravi!” I’m satisfied that this will be a fond, once-in-a-lifetime memory. It’s already getting a little hazy.
Soon, I’ll be back on the broad, flat plain of my life, without the immediate and definite challenges of the stage. There will be no dispatches from my actual life, which I must admit is less interesting to me than the time I spent in the Napoleonic Wars.
But, at the last performance, we are told casting for Carmen is coming up, and the best among us will be called. I’ve never missed a rehearsal or a show, and I wonder if my sheer dedication has shone through. Have I risen through the ranks? Am I thought of as reliably adequate if not “the highlighted best”? We are also told the American Ballet Theatre’s call for supernumeraries goes out in April. The supers who’ve done both say that that duty is much easier than War and Peace has been, and that the supers get to “mix” with the ballerinas backstage! I think of mixing with Irina Dvorovenko backstage and nearly faint. I walk up to the assistant supernumerary director, who I fear reads McSweeney’s, and make a big show of filling in the sign-up sheet for those who would like to be called for a future audition.
I put the pen down and step back, smiling at her. I am the recipient of a stink-eye that has no precedent on or off the stage, and is, indeed, operatic. I’m sure she’s a McSweeney’s reader.
So it turns out I’m not cast in Carmen, and I hear it in the worst possible way: from a giggling group of 10-year-old girls in pink dresses and black patent-leather shoes on the No. 1 train. They have little barrettes in their hair. They don’t mean to break my heart about my not getting cast. They are on their way to see a dress rehearsal of Carmen with their teacher. Which means, I guess, I won’t be getting a call and I wasn’t among the best.
I’m at a performance of Hansel and Gretel in primo seats that I received as a fringe benefit of War and Peace, when I hear a voice I recognize. It’s Oscar. “A fellow Ismailovsky!” he says. It’s been three weeks since our last show, and the nostalgia is strong. We clap shoulders like old comrades. We comment on how weird it is to be in the audience and not onstage. He introduces me to his wife, who made a stir when she came to visit the regiment downstairs in the rehearsal room.
She’s pretty, but in the all-male atmosphere of the mustering room the men surrounded her, like men at war. For we had not seen a civilian woman in three hours! We had ceased to count the dressers as women because they were “with the regiment.” But this pretty, petite wife of Oscar’s, in her ostrich-feather-accented dress! William whispered that having ostrich feathers backstage was bad luck. But the men weren’t thinking about feathers. They surrounded her, and clamored to be introduced.
Now, in the audience at Hansel and Gretel, I say to her, “We’re old army buddies.” He says, “We survived the wars.” We exchange cards. His says that he’s a director of an investment bank. As I look more closely at him, his bespoke suit says the same. I promise to send him the picture I took of us together. It’s bittersweet when we return to our seats and ignore each other for the rest of the show. I haven’t written him yet.