The Don and Me: Chronicles of a Castleton walk-on

Gus Edwards is a “walk-on” performer in the production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the 2014 Castleton Festival. A life-long opera fan, Edwards chronicles his transition here from “gentleman farmer” to “international opera star.”

By Gus Edwards

Did I discover opera? Or did opera discover me?

Somewhere in the mists of time, I recall a music appreciation class, maybe in the sixth or eighth grades, during which a now long-forgotten teacher played some excerpts on a gray, industrial phonograph. Whatever it was — and I don’t remember that, either — it sparked my attention and got me pestering my parents to let me learn more. Though they were decidedly non-musical, it seems I’d always had an interest and, oddly, was learning to play the French horn and drums at the same time. Some say I still manifest that oddity, but in other behaviors.

Anyway, a word from my mother led to a gift from my grandfather of Milton Cross’ “Complete Stories of the Great Operas.” I was hooked. We were living in Europe at the time, in Heidelberg, Germany, where my father was stationed with the Army. We had an opera buff American neighbor, Edna Henley, whose husband was no more interested in opera than my parents were, so we worked out an arrangement whereby I (at age 12 or so) would escort Mrs. Henley, wearing hat and gloves, to the opera.

Gus Edwards
Gus Edwards

Our first outing — and my first visit to an opera house — was to see Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” a wondrously frothy confection of music and comedy that was the perfect introduction. We went several more times, but the outing I remember with the greatest pleasure was to a performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” It was a revelation. The sublime music got under my skin in a way no music had before. I decided then and there to become a musician; and not only a musician, but one whose life would be dedicated to opera — the gesamtkunstwerk.

So, how did that work out?

I recently retired from my professional working life as a Washington lobbyist, preceded by stints in government, politics, academia and journalism. But in all those years, I never wavered in my love of music and, especially, opera. I took lessons whenever I could, taught myself when lessons didn’t work out and went joyously to any and every venue for music that would let me in. As a newspaper writer about music, I even won a fellowship to study opera at the Cincinnati Conservatory.

That brings me to Castleton. My wife and I began attending the Castleton concerts years ago, when performances were limited to the jewel-like Theatre House. We thought we’d died and gone to musical heaven. What!? Here!? We’ve got this?! In the middle of nowhere?!

Well, we loved it. We couldn’t believe our good fortune that Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel had picked this place, at this time, to establish one of the most compelling centers of musicology in America. We got involved.

So, in the interest of full disclosure: I am a member of the Board of Directors of the Castleton Festival; I bought my way into the opera at the Castleton Gala; this is the most fun I’ve had since I don’t know when!

Episode II: The baritone’s winning bid

Okay, to be honest, my singing’s terrible. I’m a baritone, but you don’t want to hear me outside of my shower or my car. Yet, when it comes to opera, at least — particularly Mozart — I pretty much know all the words.

I’ve spent the bulk of my time tending to my farm in Reva since my retirement in November. I love being there and I love working the land. But every now and then, one needs a little break.

That’s what got me so excited about the prospect of appearing in “Don Giovanni” at Castleton this summer. When it was announced that a walk-on role in “Don Giovanni” would be auctioned off at the Castleton Gala fundraiser in March, I started saving my pennies. I knew it would be the culmination of my musical ambition. I wouldn’t be singing, but, by God, I’d be on the stage! And in Mozart!

So, we’re at the Gala. The walk-on role comes up for auction. I look at my wife and she looks at me and we have a “go-for-it” moment. We bid; somebody next to us bids more. We bid again; they bid more. Finally, we win our bid and two more walk-on roles are added to the production to accommodate all the aspiring performers. There’s probably no other way I’d ever have the chance to appear in a live opera performance.

It’s a long time between March and June, when rehearsals are scheduled to begin. I spend that time in agony, wondering about my role, my motivation, my raison d’étre. I hear nothing, but operate under the old assumption that no news is good news.

Finally, in late May, I get my first notification that a rehearsal is about to take place, and my presence is requested. But that’s a false start. The major players have to have their stuff together first. The principals have been rehearsing for quite a while before the rest of the cast is assembled, but that doesn’t strike me as strange. The “secondary” performers don’t have to appear until well into the production. The real call comes, eventually, and I’m at my first rehearsal.

Our first rehearsal begins with the principals appearing to know much more about what’s going on than the rest of the cast. The “supers” feel a little lost, but eager to catch up. Then it becomes clear: The principals really don’t know any more about what’s going on than we do. A rehearsal is just that: We’ll try stuff out until the director decides what works.

Kind of reminds me of the lyrics from that song from “Kiss Me, Kate”:

Another op’nin’ of another show.
Four weeks, you rehearse and rehearse,
Three weeks and it couldn’t be worse,
One week, will it ever be right?
Then out o’ the hat, it’s that big first night!

Episode III: Practice makes perfect

There are several ways to become a major opera star, a divo, or whatever they call it. One is to study music and performance for decades until somebody finally recognizes your talent. Another is to be born with an incredible instrument that defies all human comprehension and makes sounds that, usually, only angels can produce. The other way is the one I took: Buy your way in.

I’m now a cast member of “Don Giovanni” because I paid to be one at the Castleton fundraising gala in March. I have no shame. It was worth every penny!

I’ve studied Italian against the chance that I might get to perform in an opera one day. But most of what I’ve learned has come from opera libretti, so my conversational Italian is along the lines of (translated into English) “Perfidious one, thou hast deceived me!” I recognize that probably would be useful only in addressing a Roman street vendor who has just sold me a pair of “Gucci” loafers.

Nevertheless, our rehearsals progress. I’m struck by the incredible energy generated by our director, Giandomenico Vaccari, a man of slight build and tremendous perspicacity who knows every note and every word of “Don Giovanni.” He moves about the rehearsal hall like a caged panther, pacing and thinking, his head in his hands. When the inspiration hits him, he’s on it like a drone strike. He knows exactly what he wants from his performers.

The principal singers, all of whom appear to be in their late twenties or early thirties, are as spirited and enthusiastic as any producer or director could hope. They’re personable, friendly and supportive of each other and the entire cast. And can they sing. They’ve memorized their roles — most have appeared in other productions of “Don Giovanni” — so for them, it’s primarily a matter of honing in on the director’s interpretation and learning where to be and what to do when they’re on stage.

But we’re not on stage yet. We’re still rehearsing in the Rappahannock County Elementary School gym while sets are being constructed and costumes made at Castleton. Vaccari says we’ll be in the gym for another week.

His concept for this production is interesting. The legend of Don Juan (Giovanni in Italian) has been around for centuries. He first took literary form in Spain in the mid-1600s and, later in that century, was brought to life in France by no less a playwright than Molière. The story of the his life and loves has fascinated great writers through the years and he’s been interpreted on screen by stars from John Barrymore to Johnny Depp.

Vaccari’s concept is that the Don exists through time because he manages to escape punishment and death as easily as he slips away from the women he loves and leaves. He operates by trickery and deceit, with one foot in reality and one on an otherworldly plain where spirit-like enablers help him get what he wants then get away.

Don Juan/Giovanni truly is a man for the ages.

Episode IV: ‘The Man with a Spyglass’

Rehearsals continue apace. We’re winding up our stay at the Rappahannock County Elementary School gym and next week will begin rehearsing on stage at Castleton. My anticipation is palpable.

It’s been enjoyable getting to know and work with the cast. All serious musicians, all highly professional and all quite personable, our principals also have a collective sense of fun that pops out every now and then. I had been concerned initially that as opera stars, they might be a bit, well, unapproachable. Wrong! Backstage, they talk about all the things everyone else does.

Our Don Giovanni, Javier Arrey, and his servant Leporello, Tyler Simpson, seem to have a genuine rapport, which is essential to a polished production. The ladies of the cast, Chloé Moore, Jennifer Black and Amanda Crider — as Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina, respectively — are uniformly excellent in every respect. Tyler Nelson as Donna Anna’s long-suffering fiancé Don Ottavio; Nicholas Masters as Zerlina’s betrothed, Masseto, and Chris Besch as Donna Anna’s father, Il Commendatore, imbue their roles with real character and exquisite sound.

I play the role of “The Man with a Spyglass,” although it’s never been made quite clear why I carry a spyglass. Our patient, supportive assistant director, Dan Rigazzi, tells me that our Italian director Giandomenico Vaccari went back to the original 17th century sources of the Don Juan legend and discovered a number of ancillary characters, the Don’s “family” and “friends,” who served as enablers of his hedonism. I’m one of them.

So is my sidekick, Cliff Mumm, another local “gentleman farmer” and fellow Castleton board member who also successfully bid on a walk-on role at the festival’s fundraiser. Cliff plays “The Man with the Broken Violin.” The reason for the violin is as enigmatic as that of my spyglass. But, we’ve become partners in the Don’s crimes and are known among the cast by the wonderfully unitary and mellifluous appellation bestowed on us by director Vaccari: “Cleefangoss.”

A week of rehearsals passes and we’re finally in the Castleton Festival Theater. Everything is different. A three-dimensional, two-story set has replaced the basketball court. The tape lines on the gym floor have become real boundaries. The orchestra pit yawns before us like the maw of a great cetacean. (Too dramatic? Okay, how about “an open grave” — which it would be if any of us fell into it!)

The rehearsal progresses slowly, very slowly, as we adjust, readjust, reverse and invent new business to fit the new space. We have our basic blocking down, but when we’re in the actual house, sightlines are altered and what seemed to work smoothly in the rehearsal hall looks awkward here. But we know all those things can be fixed as we move through our paces. Sometimes, though, it feels like the Army: Hurry up and wait! Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, we have faith. It will come.

Thursday is a red letter day as “Cleefangoss” get their costume fittings and makeup. Our costumes represent the various periods through which Don Giovanni has survived, so Cliff looks a little like the “Poor Richard” of Benjamin Franklin’s Almanac and I come across as, well, the title character in the original “Wizard of Oz” film. But it’s all good. I wonder aloud to Cliff if he hasn’t become overly fond of the eyeliner.

Friday is another big day. We rehearse for the first time with the full orchestra and Maestro Maazel is there to give pointers. Until now, we’ve had only piano rehearsals. I feel a little frisson of excitement with the sound of the musicians tuning up. Suddenly I think, “My God, they’re so loud! How will anybody hear the singers?” Of course, our singers have been rehearsing all along with half- or quarter-volume to preserve their voices for opening night. I know it won’t be a problem.

The final week of rehearsals is intense, with one or two full run-throughs every day, Monday through Thursday. And the adjustments continue. We have Friday, the Fourth of July, off and on Saturday, we’re there. The curtain is at 7 p.m. This is it.

To be continued . . .

Episode V: The big night

Gus Edwards (center) during a July 3 dress rehearsal of "Don Giovanni." Photo by E. Raymond Boc.
Gus Edwards (center) during a July 3 dress rehearsal of “Don Giovanni.” Photo by E. Raymond Boc.

The Big Night is upon us. At 7 p.m., weeks and weeks of rehearsal, staging and restaging will be put to the test by an actual live, paying audience that expects to see a high quality world-class production. Pressure? Nah!

Although it’s my professional stage debut, it’s not like my future as a baritone or the fate of Western man hangs in the balance. I don’t have to sing and I don’t have any lines to remember (or forget!). All I have to do is to be in the right place at the right time and carry out the stage business our director assigned to me. Piece of cake.

I am feeling something, though. Not nerves. Not butterflies. I suppose it could be called giddiness. I think my kids call it “a natural high.” There’s a lot of horsing around in the men’s dressing room; laughing, joking and general silliness among the chorus members, like a high school football team’s locker room.

A couple of the principal singers, though, still have their noses buried in the musical score and are looking serious. I’m thinking, “By God, if they don’t know it by now, they never will!” But they’re just reassuring themselves that they do know it.

My giddiness amplifies as I get into my costume and makeup. “This is a hoot,” I’m saying to myself. “It’s fun and I’m going to have a great time. I hope.” The call, “Places, everyone,” comes over the backstage intercom at about 6:55 p.m. And we’re off. From backstage, we can hear the chattering audience and the musicians tuning up in the orchestra pit. It’s a heady combination of sounds.

The house lights dim; the conductor enters to applause, and now there’s really no going back. This production has a pre-overture prologue during which the main characters are introduced and the scene is set. My fellow supernumerary (that’s what walk-ons or extras are called in opera), Cliff Mumm, and I appear in the prologue and our job is to spirit away Don Ottavio, the romantic tenor lead, off stage so he does not see Don Giovanni put his moves on Ottavio’s fiancée, Donna Anna. Then, the overture begins.

Backstage, Cliff and I congratulate ourselves for not tripping or falling into the orchestra pit. We listen to our soloists who are now singing with their full voices. They had been held back during rehearsals in order to save them, and we’re stunned by the beauty of their sound and the music. It’s glorious. Cliff and I are by now so familiar with the music that we often sing along and parody what’s happening onstage.

Let me say something about the backstage staff: They’re marvelous. Our stage manager, Karen Oberthal, is just about the most unflappable professional I’ve ever seen. Her assistant stage managers (stage right and stage left), the folks who handle the scenery and props, the costumers, electricians, gaffers — everybody — are thoroughly professional. They work hard and they take their jobs seriously. Delightfully, though, they don’t take themselves quite so seriously and are immense fun to work with.

The production rolls on flawlessly. At intermission, there’s a backstage phone call to the stage manager. Maestro Maazel, who was ill, couldn’t be in the house that night, but called to say he’d been watching on closed circuit and was absolutely thrilled by the performance. We were all elated.

Finally, toward the end of Act Two, Cliff and I have our big scene in the graveyard where Don Giovanni and his servant, Leporello, have hidden to escape their pursuers. Cliff and I come in and help the Don off with the disguise he has worn to evade capture. We’re then to walk warily through the graveyard and watch as the Don orders Leporello to invite the statue of the Commendatore, whom the Don murdered in Act One, to dinner. We flee in fear and horror when the statue comes to life and accepts the invitation.

At the point when we’re helping the Don dress, he’s supposed to appear to be making small talk with us. But tonight, the Don says with a hint of desperation, “The knife! I need the knife!” Cliff and I look at each other, puzzled, thinking it’s some new small talk bit. “Yeah, the knife,” we say, “uh-huh.”

I turn upstage to begin our walk through the cemetery. As I approach a tomb topped by an angel, I’m supposed to take a swig from a flask and offer it to Cliff. I turn around and there’s no Cliff. He’s nowhere to be seen. I think, “What the . . . !”

I know I can’t wait because the action is continuing down stage and I need to be all the way stage left to watch Leporello confront the statue. I get to my spot and a few seconds later, I hear clomping footfalls coming up behind me. It’s Cliff. He made it and we finish our business and exit, stage right, as if nothing had happened.

Turns out that, somehow, the Don had come on stage at the beginning of the scene without the dagger he uses to threaten Leporello. Cliff realized the Don wasn’t kidding when he told us he needed the knife, so unknown to me, Cliff had run offstage to the prop table, grabbed the first knife he saw and ran it back to the Don. It caused me a moment of panic, but nobody in the audience had any idea that wasn’t part of the show.

Laughing about it later, our stage manager said, “Welcome to live theater!”

And so, the curtain fell. It was a magnificent performance by the soloists, chorus and orchestra. I think we supernumeraries even held our own. It was an evening — an experience — that will be with me forever. We have two more performances left, and I hope my giddiness never leaves me.

After I wrote this final installment, word reached us about the death of Maestro Maazel on July 13. I don’t think any of us truly sensed he would not be back, so engaged was he even from his sick bed. But the immediate feelings of loss and great sadness gave way to a determination that the show must go on, just as he would have wanted it.

And not only go on, but be taken to new heights in tribute to his vision and his devotion to young artists. If he literally gave his life to what he called “more than a labor of love, a labor of joy,” at Castleton, for which he gave up everything, then we have a sacred duty to continue that labor and build a permanent legacy to honor this remarkable human being.

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