In commemoration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s birthday on March 18, 1844, OperaWire has the great fortune of collaborating with famed conductor Gerard Schwarz to share a special memory about his very first operatic encounter with the composer.
It is very interesting to think of the wonderful composers who are known primarily for a single work: Pachelbel – Cannon; Dukas – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice;” Orff – “Carmina Burana;” Ravel – “Bolero;” and Rimsky-Korsakov – “Scheherazade.” The list could go on but because Rimsky’s birthday is approaching and I love his music so much, I would like to focus on him and my first exposure to his opera “Le Coq d’or.”
One could make a strong argument that Rimsky was primarily an opera composer. He wrote 16 operas, which was by far his largest output in any area of composition. With the encouragement of Klaus Heymann of Naxos Records, I recorded four CDs of Rimsky’s music and became thoroughly aware of his greatness as a composer, and not just of “Scheherazade” and “Capriccio Espagnol.” Among the works I recorded were five orchestral suites from his magnificent operas.
My first exposure to any of his operas was a production of “Le Coq d’or” conducted by Julius Rudel with the New York City Opera at the New York State Theater in 1971. I was a young trumpeter at the time and the opera begins with a short trumpet fanfare and includes a few other trumpet calls played in the theater. There were two of us and Maestro Rudel asked us to meet with him a few days before the dress rehearsal. We arrived, played the opening, and Maestro Rudel looked at me and said, “You play.” To the other player, he said, “You, hold up your instrument and pretend, but don’t play.” I felt terribly for the other guy. The rehearsal lasted about five minutes, and the next time we would be together would be at the dress rehearsal, which was with a full audience.
I was to enter on the audience right about halfway between the opera-goers and the stairs up to the stage, walk to the front, climb the stairs to the stage, walk to the center of the stage, hold up my trumpet with a flag hanging from it, and play the fanfare. I was in full costume, some green number with tights, a first for me. Just before I entered, they told me I couldn’t wear my glasses. I couldn’t see without my glasses, so I was more than a little concerned. But what could I do? The show must go on. When I entered the theater it was completely dark, and I couldn’t see a thing. I could sense there were many people in the audience for this “rehearsal,” but between no glasses and the pitch-black hall, it wasn’t going to be pretty. I walked with trepidation, with one hand on the sidewall until I banged into the steps, literally. I couldn’t see the steps, so I crawled up to the stage. This all took much longer than it should have, and at the moment I started my walk to center stage, Maestro Rudel looked up at me and started to conduct me—the opening of the whole opera. I didn’t even have my trumpet up to my mouth, let alone being anywhere nearby the right spot. At the downbeat no one played since the other guy, who was in the right spot, was only pretending to play. Of course, since it was the beginning, the Maestro stopped, tapped his stand, looked up at me like he wanted to kill me, and began again. The second try was perfect, and luckily, all the performances after that were as well. I became used to seeing nothing and hurrying.
What a first introduction for me for “Le Coq d’or,” but what a fabulous opera. Years later I got to know Julius. I loved and respected him. He was a great, innovative conductor who accomplished so much with the City Opera.