Leonie Rysanek, Even More Than A Diva: One of OperaWire’s Writers Remembers the Diva From a Unique Perspective

By Lois Silverstein
(Credit: Louis Melancon / Metropolitan Opera)

A version of this piece was published in a 1998 edition of SF Weekly.

Being a Super (Supernumerary), a fancy word for “Extra” at the San Francisco Opera had been a habit of mine many years ago. Nightly rehearsals from June through August, and performances September through November, only encouraged me to juggle my professional and personal life, to accommodate the rigorous schedule. Even the call to be faceless part of a “cast of thousands” in operas from Monteverdi to Benjamin Britten. I cultivated the privilege of being as inside the music as I could be and the gift of taking part in numerous productions, largely to bask in the music and the glow from the stars who made it.

When I was chosen, however, to be the only woman Super in “Salome,” to be the slave handmaiden to the famous diva, Leonie Rysanek, I was exhilarated.

What was my job? On paper, it was merely to hand Rysanek-Salome a half-glass of champagne and help her don a long white robe for her final aria. In actuality it was to carry the cup and the robe up a ramp on a half-lit stage, to wild and pulsating music, and then to dash up beside the “the cistern” containing John the Baptist – a pit in the middle of the stage – to the waiting diva, just before her final and illustrious solo, John the Baptist’s head on a platter, a Strauss masterpiece.

I met Madame Rysanek at the first whole cast rehearsal. Glamorous, vivacious, gracious, she spoke to me in English. She asked about my well-being. She adjusted herself to me as I meticulously practiced every step of my part. I stood as she rehearsed every detail of her famous dance, of her steps before her final aria and after. Nothing was beneath her full attention, every gesture and every note, every facial expression, every musical color.

Over the course of our contact, we continued working together as “mistress” and “servant,” she never treating me as less than equal, despite the fact, that I was more than a very minor figure in the opera, and she the one around whom the whole cast and all the musicians were centered. In fact, Madame Rysanek regularly complimented me on how I handled my challenging role. It was an experience to cherish. Until the first dress rehearsal.

The Maestro, Kurt Herbert Adler – sat somewhere in the audience. The stage was set. My cue came, and out I ran, up the ramp, to my post, waited for Salome, did my job, and ran back down just as she began to sing. Perfetto!  Or so I thought. When I reached the wings, the voice of the Maestro bellowed out of the inky blackness.

“Who is that? What is she doing?” Everything stopped, music, singers, lighting crew, me. “And what is that noise she’s making?” My heart pounded. What noise? Sweat instantly turned my make-up to ooze. I clung to the curtain. “Come out here,” demanded the Maestro. “Get her out here.”

I crept out from behind the black velvet.

“Impossible!” he shouted. “Get her out of her.”

“But,” I croaked, “what…”

“I can’t have any distraction. And – stand forward, what is that on your feet?I can’t have that on your feet. Thank you very much. But no.”

I sank. Whatever my professional aspirations for life at the time, being a Super didn’t rank at the top. Getting booted from this job would hardly break me. But, oh the shame, and the disappointment. Forget the six weeks of nightly rehearsals I gave of my time. I turned to stage right, my tail between my legs, not knowing what I had done, when a melodious voice rang out at the Maestro.

“But, Cher, she’s fine, absolutely fine. Whatever it was, she’ll change it, won’t you my dear?”

It was Rysanek, to my aid.

“Yes,” I squeaked. “Of course.”

“But, Leonie…,” the Maestro grumbled.

“No, I want her,” she said, “please,” and she looked at him with pleading eyes, big with passion and conviction.

“If you’re sure,” he went on,” his imperious manner fading the longer he faced her.

“I’m sure,” she repeated. “I like her.”

I could have fallen into the cistern myself. I could have thrown myself at her feet. She liked me? What had I even done to have a star of this ilk to even notice I was alive?

I nodded my head toward her and crept off the stage, the disruption having thrown the schedule off by five minutes. They would not rehearse my scene-ette but they sure as hell expected me to perform up-to-par tomorrow.

What I learned back stage was that the noise “I made” was the gum-soled shoes they had assigned me to wear, chosen to keep me from slipping as I trod up the ramp in the near dark. What a catastrophe it would be for servant to slide into oblivion just as she aimed to serve her mistress. In a flash, those worker-shoes were traded for velveteen flats, silent and sleek. Dangerous or not, my aim was to glide up the ramp and keep my toes curled.

Needless to say, I slept not a wink that night, nor the next, nor the next. Before every rehearsal, I tracked my every breath, my step, arm movement, while the grand diva deepened her dramatic delivery. The dressers checked the slit in my skirt, and the soles of my new shoes. I checked the champagne cup, the robe, the hem of the robe, the snaps, every single one. If I made a mistake, Salome herself would be in the mud. In no way would anything I do to cause that.

Opening night. No mishap occurred on the dark stage. No mishap on the ramp. Nothing on the champagne, the robe, my shoes. When I hit the wings, my heart pounded with excitement, my face flushed with glee. Maestro, so there!

I stood off stage and stared out at my heroine standing in the spotlight, singing away, her glorious voice filling every inch of the entire opera house. Then I saw her robe, the gorgeous white robe I had slipped over her gown and snapped up in the darkness: it was snapped wrong. One-two-three-four-five, and then seven-eight-nine. Mismatched. Six was unconnected! I almost fell over. I grabbed the curtain. I buried my sob. Tears burned my eyes. Omigod!!

But, did anyone notice? Did anyone see? When a voice like Rysanek’s and the drama of Salome combined to wrap the entire audience in its perfect symmetry, who could even remember a snap? I swallowed my tears. Forget all about it. Salome triumphed. And over more than Jokannen that night, and Leonie Rysanek more than either of them. She never even peeked down at her gown.

Opera? More than magic. And the Maestro? He didn’t call for my head on a silver platter.

After the final curtain call, Madame Rysanek came over and gave me a big hug. “You did great!” she said and kissed my cheek. “Absolutely great!” In the eyes of the strong, in the eyes of the very beautiful and very fine Leonie Rysanek, for your great gifts, and your kindness, I am still more than grateful.




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