The great lesson of War and Peace is that no amount of preparation or “dispositions” will ever ensure victory—success depends on chance. And, of course, the best-laid plans never survive the first encounter with the enemy. This gloomy thought preoccupies me at the next rehearsal, our first on the famous Met stage. The stage, it turns out, is the enemy.
It’s thrilling to stand in the vast wings of the stage. There’s an enormous trampoline, used, someone says, for the death leaps in Tosca. “And Swan Lake,” I add. As we await our entrance, the Ismailovskies are saying they are amazed the Russians burned their own capital. “Actually,” I say, “in the novel, it’s unclear whether the Russians did it or if it the fire was a result of French campfires left unattended in a largely wooden city.” A rough-looking cinder block of a soldier says, “Oh, yeah?”—in a way that isn’t at all curious. There’s silence. Someone breaks it, idly asking if the opera is faithful to the movie. One soldier says he didn’t watch the movie, because it was too long. Another says the History Channel version is good enough for him.
We pass by the dead prop horse lying legs-up in a cart. I see my chance: “Well, the interesting thing is that the eight-hour Bondarchuk film seems to be based on the opera, and both opera and movie agree on the key dialogue from the novel. Like General Kutuzov’s saying, ‘I will make the French eat horse flesh.’ That’s in the film, the opera, and the novel.” I shyly point to the dead horse. It takes me about 45 seconds to reel this out. In this way, I realize, I’m making all the men hate me. Not just the Cossacks. I try to shut up. I can’t wait to be marching.
The stage for War and Peace is an inverted wooden bowl. For the last four weeks, we’ve been drilling on a flat gymnasium floor. This stage is a jigsaw-puzzle hill, arching 4 feet up, with troubling 3-inch gaps where you can see through to the floor. It’s covered in rubber mats. We all collectively understand the biggest War story we’ve heard: During the 2002 production, one of the supernumeraries, playing a French soldier, tumbled off the steep stage into the orchestra pit. It dominated the reviews of the opera. It would be a French soldier who pitched into the orchestra pit—running from us Russians, no doubt. Losers! Morons! Later, we find out that we play the French soldiers, too.
For now, we march up the hill—a 30-degree angle—and, worse yet, goose-step down the hill toward the lip of the stage. My stiff left leg is coming down, searching for the floor, and the floor is 5 inches lower than it should be. One misstep and the only place you could land is the orchestra pit. Plus, if the parade march is executed correctly, the back foot drags along the floor until it swings up like a pendulum. When we drag our feet, the “battlefield” mats keep flipping up like a living-room rug.
When we aren’t marching, we spend a lot of time standing around at attention while something else is happening. There’s a lot of singing and music in this opera. It’s like the real army—so I’ve heard from actual soldiers. We have plenty of time for jokes, because of all the “hurry up and wait.”
We pause until Samuel Ramey is done singing. He’s 5 feet from me, gravely emoting in his basso profundo. This is a thrill I want to share with my opera-loving friend, Steve. When I tell my non-opera-loving friends, they say, “Cool! You mean the Evil Dead guy?” After I tell them that the opera-singing Samuel Ramey is the singer in this opera, not the filmmaking Sam Raimi, they lose interest. I store up stories about being this close to Ramey and the soprano Marina Poplavskaya. If that fails to impress, and it certainly will, I’ve seen Plácido Domingo in the hallway! Maybe I’ll see the gorgeous superstar soprano Anna Netrebko, who is somewhere in the building rehearsing, but this will do for now.
Meanwhile, there are adjustments to be made to the chorus, to the principal singers. We wait. You would think that all this standing around during four-hour rehearsals would be annoying, but it’s not like waiting for a bus. While we wait, we are relieved of the responsibility of what happens next. We are only infantry. Our superiors will tell us when to march, when to stand.
I am a tiny part in an immense machine: hundreds of singers, dancers, soldiers, stagehands, horses (“dead” and alive), a goat (yes, a goat), and a chicken. I am less important than the chicken. He gets his own call to stage. The stage manager intones over the loudspeaker, “Chicken to stage right. Goat and dog to stage left.” Did I mention the dog? She is a flouncy white Shih Tzu with a bow in her topknot. A total bitch, backstage gossip has it. But being so insignificant is glorious! I must stand still and wait for my next order. There’s freedom in that suspension of will. I can’t be grading a paper if I’ve been ordered to stand at attention by my commanding officer. And the best part is that I’m not really in the army and I get to go home at 9:30 p.m.!
The courtly Sasha directs the soldier next to me to adjust his musket (“Pull strap taut,” he says quietly) and I feel the relief of not having been singled out. I straighten my rifle anyway. I remember the first time Sasha corrected me—I was in midstep. I was, of course, stepping right as he said left. He grabbed my left thigh with both hands and said, “Levi (left) foot!” I felt so exposed. As the hand reaches past to someone else, I breathe a sigh.
After a stress-free few hours, the severe Russian choreographer, General Kutuzov, returns. He watches us march on the dome, which the men are now calling “the moon,” and he is not happy. Not that he’s ever happy. But he’s even more aggrieved than usual. We aren’t marching in time to the orchestra or in tune with each other. He bends over, looking closely at our legs as we kick past. Then, he runs up behind inept marchers and yanks them out of the line by their rifle straps. Yoink! They’re gone. The Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky, who is directing the whole production (he also directed the 1980s movies Tango & Cash and Runaway Train), is present, and I think General Kutuzov is showing off. This man directed Stallone!
Kutuzov dives into the middle of a column, knocking good marchers to his left and right to get at the bad one. This is terrifying and humiliating. Not to mention dangerous on this ski slope. What becomes of these men when they get yanked? We all look down at the steep angle, watching out of the corner of our eyes for the Mad Russian running up behind us. We’re nervous wrecks on every run across the unstable, gapped moonscape.
I escape his notice—I’m not removed, or even yelled at. I must have achieved marching excellence. Or at least competence. Good enough! Acceptable! I’m flush with success as I get off the No. 1 train in the Bronx, on the way home from practice. My head is filled with the glory of my rugged Russian exploits, and I’m certain that, with only a couple of rehearsals left, I have finally secured my place in the Ismailovsky Regiment and will make my Met debut! I break into my severe parade march, as I’m wont to do when excited. This is probably why I don’t see the mugger until he is right in front of me.