“Don’t move a muscle,” said the stage director. “Don’t even blink.”
I was standing on a rehearsal stage in Salzburg, staring lifelessly into the auditorium. Mechanically, I lifted one arm, jerking my fan away from face in a single robotic movement. Then I began to sing, “Les oiseux dans la charmille…” I was singing the role of Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, an opera by Jacques Offenbach, and my character was a life-sized doll. It was my very first role at the Mozarteum and I wanted to prove myself. So I worked hard to control my muscle movements. By the end of the rehearsal period, I could pop off high E’s without moving … or blinking.
But on the day of the Hauptprobe, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. I had never practiced my aria while standing in the spotlight. (I usually love to be in the spotlight. But that’s because I’m usually allowed to blink.) This time, as I gazed out into the auditorium, my
vision suddenly went fuzzy. The spotlight was drying out my contact lenses! But I said nothing and stoically sang my aria… until my right contact lens popped out and landed on my cheek. Now I was singing half-blind and with a piece of plastic stuck to my face.
Fortunately, the role of my ‘father’ and creator, Spalanzani, was sung by my talented colleague, Thorsten Buettner. Without dropping character for a second, Thorsten leaned towards me with all the gentleness of a genuine dollmaker and delicately removed the contact lens from my cheek. He then passed it on his fingertip to another amazing singer, Mathieu Abelli, who dunked the poor shriveled lens into a chalice of water. It was not until
we were all safely off-stage that we dissolved into laughter.
After that, I resolved to blink just once, but at the dress rehearsal, the same thing happened again. It became a routine: Lindsay loses contact lens; Thorsten rescues lens from Lindsay’s face; Mathieu rehydrates lens in the nearest stage prop. It was now part of our blocking! But the stage director didn’t like it. So on the night of my first performance, I decided to go without my contact lenses.
Right before the show, I informed the conductor that I am a little nearsighted and that I would be singing without my contacts. He looked panic-stricken. “What do you want me to do?” he asked darkly. “Nothing much!” I replied. “Just make the first downbeat a little larger than usual. I’ll be fine.”
As Thorsten led me onstage that night, he asked if I could see everything. “Oh come on, I’m not THAT blind,” I said. I landed precisely on my mark and looked up into the light. I was relieved that there was nothing in my eyes. My voice felt good. Everything was perfect. Robotically, like a good doll, I dropped my jaw and took a breath.
The conductor, whose movements had been small and precise, suddenly lifted his baton two feet above his face before swinging it down to his waist like a firebrand. It was by far the biggest downbeat I had ever seen. For a terrible moment, I thought that I was going to laugh out loud. But then I felt a wonderful calm descend on me and I began to sing, “Les oiseaux
dans la charmille…” At the end of the scene, I cascaded up to an (unwritten) high G# as I walzed blindly off the stage. The nearsighted performance had been a success.
I have since learned that Maria Callas was terribly nearsighted and that she refused to wear contacts or glasses onstage. Because of her myopia, she had to memorize the layout of the stage before each production.
Of course, I’ve experienced many other stage mishaps since that first performance of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Like the time that my wig almost fell off during a production of Carmen. Or during a contemporary staging of the Marriage of Figaro, when Cherubino’s skateboard almost rolled off the stage and into the orchestra pit! Or the time that the children’s chorus missed their entrace for their gypsy dance in Il Trovatore, forcing the adult singers to re-choreograph the Anvil Chorus in front of a live audience! Good times.
But because Olympia was one of my first roles, the contact lens story is one of my favorite. So remember this my friends: if you find yourself in the spotlight, it’s ok to blink