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What I Did Last Summer: My Nights at the Opera



The whole experience came out of the blue. I never expected anything remotely like this to happen. I was a theatrical novice by most measures, but everyone was extraordinarily gracious. I was cast as an extra, but received as a full member of the company.

The Adventure

  It went this way: At my gym, the Santa Fe Spa, John Montoya at the reception desk got my attention and told me that someone from the Santa Fe Opera had asked if he knew of any men that fit a certain description. “Art, I thought of you.” John handed me a small piece of paper with the name Richard Gaddes, and a phone number. “Give him a call if you want.” 

I do admit I had maybe the barest inkling of what might be going on, but for the most part I wondered how I could ever be the someone who was going to be calling the opera. Was it the Ray-Ban knock-offs I often wear?

A day or so later I did call the number and left a message at the office of the man who turned out to be the General Director of the Santa Fe Opera. Mr. Gaddes then left me a detailed message: “We are looking for a supernumerary—someone to play a Roman guest at the court of Herod in the opera Salome by Richard Strauss—we are looking for a man who is older or could look older, and with something of a belly—kind of a character. There would be daytime rehearsals and three evening dress rehearsals and five performances scheduled in July and August. Would you be interested? There would be an honorarium. Give me a call if this sounds interesting to you.”

I was at a loss and felt disbelief at this seemingly incredible offer. I also realized in the same moment that whatever might be coming to me, it was not because of my pipe dream of my dashing masculinity or panache. They wanted a character, and one “with something of a belly.” Oh well…I returned the call and got through to Mr. Gaddes. Could he go over some of the details again, and what exactly is a supernumerary, I asked? (It is an actor employed to play a walk-on.) Mr. Gaddes again methodically set out what the part required. Did I think I would like to try? It would be fun.

I explained that I am employed as a therapist at a Santa Fe mental health clinic, and I could attend rehearsals, but only if I could have a fairly set schedule. Believe me, rehearsal hours were indeed prearranged, as was everything I was about to experience at the Santa Fe Opera. It was a place of high professional stagecraft with split-second timing, precision of movement and artistic mindfulness being the very air that everyone breathed. Little did I know that what I was about to begin would indeed be fun and more than fun. A ‘greenhorn’ was about to enter a world of modern high opera, acting and dance, surrounded by the historic, western mountain desert of New Mexico. But I would also be greeted and included in the whole venture of the opera season in a manner that I could not have imagined. I was given a company card. The company extended every courtesy to me and I felt welcomed at every turn.

The talk with Mr. Gaddes had gotten my attention. I said I would be willing to try out. But I wondered to myself if I could make the grade in an opera. But what the heck, “Nothing ventured…!”

Mr. Gaddes then referred me to Brad Woolbright, Artistic Administrator. We spoke by phone. Brad referred me to Bruce Donnell, stage director of Salome. After a phone call to Mr. Donnell, we set a time and place for the interview—the Santa Fe Spa, where this all started. Mr. Donnell had a workout schedule in the mornings, and it was a convenient meeting place.

(Maybe not so coincidentally, the man cast to play the executioner of John the Baptist was also found at the gymnasium—Matthew Peterson. During the run of the opera, he was featured on the cover of the local paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. The headline: “Opera Buff,” and in contrast to me, he was not an older man with something of a belly. Matthew is a personal trainer and body builder, tall and totally built. He was a perfect fit for his part.)

Mr. Donnell went right to the point and explained that I would play the eldest of four Roman guests at the court of Herod. The three younger Romans would be apprentice singers. Each apprentice stood six feet or taller, and they towered over me. The four of us, in our togas of earthen colored slub-textured silk, would make a striking visual statement in the background of the action. As the eldest, I was leading my young diplomats on a tour of the provinces. Herod sings a reference to the gift of wine we have brought to him from Caesar. We four would sit on a rich carpet up-stage, reacting subtly to the goings on of the dysfunctional family before us. I wondered why Romans would sit on a rug. This, explained Mr. Donnell, was the Near East.

As the violence of the royal family escalates, our part called for us Romans to rise to our feet, hesitate a moment and then exit stage left in shock and revulsion (though we were not unaware of equally, if not worse, scandals in our own imperial households).

Mr. Donnell explained that Strauss based his opera on the play by Oscar Wilde. My mind flashed back to my teen years as a member of the Wilmington Drama League, Delaware. I was cast as a slave boy in a lectern-drama production of Wilde’s Salome. How deja vu all over again.


Originally publishedAugust 22, 2011 at:



My first rehearsal was called for a Saturday. The day before, I found a message on my voice mail: “Mr. Panaro, this is Matthew Principe calling from the Santa Fe Opera. Your call for rehearsal tomorrow is for 11:00 am at Styrene Orchestra Rehearsal Hall. Thank you and goodbye.”

In the hall, I passed soundproof rehearsal rooms in which singers were practicing. As I entered the rehearsal space, I felt self-conscious, and discovered 60 to 70 men and women talking together or sitting in groups. The conductor, John Fiore, was working with the pianist.

After a short time, a stage manager asked my name, then led me to join the three apprentice singers who would play three young Romans to my elder Roman. I was given a large name tag to pin on my shirt—“Panaro—Roman guest.” Mr. Donnell was leading the players through their action within spaces that had been marked out on the rehearsal floor with masking tape—the set of the palace yet to take shape on stage.

Mr. Donnell was conferring with Herod, sung by Norwegian tenor Ragnar Ulfung. Mr. Donnell gestured in the direction of the Roman guests and it was Herod’s first time to see us. Mr. Ulfung, possibly seeing me as a senior like himself, remarked to Mr. Donnell within earshot, “He has a good face.” On closing night, as the cast awaited the call to take our final bows, I went to Mr. Ulfung to bid him farewell, and got up the courage to embrace him. He smiled with the word, “Caesar.” I was touched by his good humor. 


Once it became clear that I was in the cast, I got a call from the costume director, David Burke. My measurements were needed and an appointment was set. When I arrived, I was ushered into a small room near the main work room.

Two seamstresses hovered about me, and from the great workroom I heard a voice ask: “Is that Arthur Panaro?” The question sounded as if I were a well-known personage, whereas it was probably only curiosity about the addition to the cast from Santa Fe. Do I sound stage struck? You bet I was!

Various costumes and wigs for the other productions were hung and stored throughout the dressing rooms. A tag was sewn into my costume with my name and “Roman Guest,” and I was listed with the “additional performers” in the opera program.

The dressing room of the male apprentices (including me) was designed with room-length mirrors above a counter top, with stools for each performer and his name at each place. Above the mirror ran the traditional strip of bare light bulbs that you have seen in every movie about theater—the movies being as close to this scene as most of us get.

Before each performance, our freshly laundered undershirt and flesh-colored tights would be placed at each of our stations. The Romans wore sandals with knee-high leather straps. Two apprentice costume designers, Danny Davila and Carrie Varney, assisted with the straps and gave final approval that the costumes looked right.

One evening, I was escorted to a room in which a photographer was waiting to take an official picture of my character in costume. The thrills never seemed to stop. I was even given a 35 mm slide for my own, with a typed note that the other pictures would be included in the official archives of the 50th anniversary season.

I was amused to discover that even in the rarefied atmosphere of the opera, the banter in the men’s dressing room was sometimes indistinguishable from men’s locker room lingo. This put a very human face on the players and contrasted greatly with all the majesty and glamour—though opera, come to think of it, can be quite bawdy.

Another one of my realizations, coming from being so up-close-and-personal in the company, was that men in opera are not all Madison Avenue types, not trim athletes. The men came in all sizes and shapes—mesomorphic, ectomorphic and endomorphic. There were bald men, balding men and men with full heads of hair. The women apprentices were attractively feminine. But ah! What magic do costumes, make-up and wigs work! In the end, however, it is not the look of the body in opera that is important. It is the voice.

When we went to performance evenings, Mr. Principe’s calls became a magical summons from the Opera’s aesthetic heights, from the dry and rolling sands of the desert just north of Santa Fe. On opening night, Mr. Donnell left a note, in his own hand, at each performer’s place. “Dear Art, I am happy that you have been part of Salome. Have fun tonight and all the best. Bruce.”

The Set

Neil Patel was the scenic and costume designer. The floor of Herod’s palace was built as a huge disk tilted at a good angle into a raked stage setup on the main stage floor. The disk served for three scenes to be played out. Scene One: the garden with three tall torches burning in the night. Next, in the garden was the large circular grating covering the dungeon from which John the Baptist entered the action. And finally the whole stage morphed into the royal chamber, as slaves entered with the regal chairs, rugs, pillows, great plates of fruit and flasks of wine. A sloped ramp, painted black, stage left, was built as a backdrop to the disk. Entrances and exits were made from the ramp, which was reached by eight wooden steps off stage left so that we players could climb to the high end of the ramp.

The design of the set from the audience’s point of view would be a circle and a diagonal line. It was a stunning, abstract design.

The stage disk was of tremendous weight, covered in small ceramic tiles. After the performance, the highly adept stage crew, using an elevator as large as a ballroom, moved it off stage as if it were featherweight to make way for the next opera’s set. The sets are stored below stage.


Originally published August 30, 2011 at:


Open Air Theater

The theater is built on a rise in the landscape. The audience sits beneath a great sweep of canopy, and there being no walls left or right, there are vistas of the desert hills and twinkling lights in the dwellings far off.

Neither is there a wall at the back of the stage. This makes possible the inclusion of the landscape stretching beyond the theater, which can figure into many scenes.

Makeup and Wigs

Most of the singers, being young, had their faces streaked with dark makeup to age them a bit or give them character. I got only black eye liner, and Ms. Jamie Stewart, one of the several makeup artists, applied it for me.

The wig master was renowned New York theater magician, Tom Watson. Some years ago, I took a backstage tour of the Santa Fe Opera and one of the guides said that everyone in the opera wears a wig. Not so for me. In the first dress rehearsal, Mr. Watson moved at a brisk pace through the dressing room, observing, adjusting and judging the look of the players. On my own I had pulled my hair forward toward my forehead in the Roman style. Mr. Watson passed me and remarked, “You’re OK,” meaning, I took it, that my styling looked authentic. Not taking him at his word, I then dipped into some hair gel and plastered my hair back. Mr. Watson, passing by again said, “Oh no.” I responded, “Well, you do it…” He approached and gently pulled the hair forward again in the Roman style. At the next dress rehearsal I adjusted the hair as Mr. Watson had done, and when I encountered him, I asked, “How do I look?” He smiled and responded: “Fabulous…” My first ever “fabulous” in show business.

The Performances

Santa Fe is 7,000 feet above sea level in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Summer is the rainy season. If there are no rain showers at day’s end, sunsets in New Mexico come in huge banks of billowing white clouds and are lit with the setting sun’s gold, red and yellow lights against a blue background. Audience members, walking about the theater plazas and lobby, would stand still in awe at the wonder of the sky. Backstage, the cast, waiting for the light to go and the opera to begin, were equally stunned and meditative, sometimes taking pictures, just prior to the spectacle about to be performed.

But often, after a brilliant sundown, there would follow lightning and thunder in the summer dusk and night. These were natural complements to the somber music and staging of Salome.

Strauss’s music is music of the shadow. To the natural dimness of the desert twilight, the lighting designer, Duane Schuler, added his deft touch. The orchestra tuning up would compete with the growing volume of the gathering audience—then “places please,” and the art of nature would now bow and withdraw before the forces of human art. 

The orchestra and cast were now ready. As if out of nowhere comes the soft, clear voice of Jennifer Good, Production Stage Manager: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Santa Fe Opera.” The conductor enters. The house lights dim. The opera begins at nine pm. Anticipation. At last the music and the performance begins. The space of stage surrounded by proscenium arch becomes awash with light—singers, light, music and audience surrounded by the dark and cave of night.


What more can I write about the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the company, which to me is still as extraordinary as the entire totality of the summer? I was surprised from time to time that various company members approached me, as did Brad Woolbright with: “How are you doing? Are you having fun?” His question caught me off guard because I was not in the habit of considering work to be fun, and really it was all more fun than I had had in a long time.

Before one performance, as I was entering the stage door on one of the audience plazas, Arlena Jackson, a veteran usher (and a social worker in her day job in Santa Fe), introduced me to two patrons with whom she was chatting. She then suggested they might want my autograph in their program. I gladly wrote my name, and could not help feeling I was getting much more attention than I deserved, but I got a big kick out of it. 

Another case in point: the choreographer Sara Rudner and the diva Janice Watson, who played Salome, both sat with me at lunch in the Cantina one rehearsal day.

Another example of this good-natured camaraderie happened during the second rehearsal, held under a tent in the hot July sunlight. Tenor David Cangelosi, who played First Jew (rabbi) of Herod’s court, offered me his chair in the shade. The tent sits in the gardens of The Ranch—the name of the original adobe hacienda, now serving as the Opera offices.

Justin Peterson, apprentice baritone, was also a personification of all this conviviality. Without fanfare, he played a guardian angel to my thespian inexperience. He would be the younger Roman walking and sitting to my left throughout rehearsals and performances, and I felt I had a professional ally.

My brother, Adrian Panaro, a New York photographer, marveled at the egalitarian attitude I kept reporting to him. One of the apprentice singers explained it simply (Jennifer Forni of the 2009 season): “You can’t put on an opera in a bad mood.”

In the midst of a world going rather mad as usual, I asked myself what I was doing in a grand opera? But then I decided that humankind needs art. If so much time is being spent on war madness, by all means we need the antidote of people working for the sanity of beauty and the joy of creativity. So bring on more opera, and music, and poetry. Let us have as much as we can.

At the party closing the season, I encountered Mr. Gaddes who asked how the summer had gone. I replied that I had loved it and would tryout again in 2007. He responded: “Oh, you don’t have to try out. We’ll just put you in.” I had done well enough! And indeed it happened that way. I was cast as a waiter and street sweeper in the 2007 and 2011 productions of La Boheme, and a villager in the 2009 Elixir of Love

But it all started in 2006, and as I drove away from the opera grounds along the winding frontage road at the close of that magical summer, I re-entered my customary life. I was astonished that it had all happened as if in an evanescent dream.


Originally published September 30, 2011 at:



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