Years ago, after my stage debut in — The King and I at UNL — I was asked by Roger L. Stephens to pay the cameo role of Harry in the silly Benjamin Britten opera, Albert Herring. Here’s a brief plot synopsis of the show:
Lady Billows is organizing the annual May Day festival and desperate to find girls for the coveted position of Queen of the May. However, it turns out none of the girls in the village are virgins – disqualifying them. Thus, Lady Billows and Superintendent Budd decide to select a May King instead of a May Queen. Albert Herring, a virgin, is the perfect candidate. Comedy ensues when after winning, Albert disappears. Everyone assumes he is dead when in fact Albert simply took the prize money and went to look for trouble!
I loved the music and to this day, I can still sing the following food bits with perfect pitch and a rangy smile:
Quickly, quickly, come along, come along!
Time to try our festive song
Last time through before they come!
Seedy cake! Seedy cake!
EMMIE, CIS, HARRY
With icing on!
(placing them in line)
All stand neatly in a row,
Head back, fingers so.
One deep breath and off we go!
EMMIE, CIS, HARRY
In a big bowl!
I loved singing in the opera and I was wild about the show. The trouble, however, came in the form of the other singers in the opera. Opera singers — if you don’t already know — are neurotic and difficult and they worry about their throats and their bodies. They also like to be the center of attention.
The old W.C. Fields chestnut — “Never work with animals or children.” — was never truer during that production of Albert Herring and I fear I was the unwitting instigator. We had a smart, tough, and brutally honest local theatre reviewer in Lincoln named Holly Spence who could make or break your show. We lived for her reviews in the Lincoln Journal newspaper.
When the review for Albert Herring was published, I was singled out for special mention, even though I only had a cameo role. The Holly said I was — “Especially bright and pleasing” — which I appreciated, even though I understood she was throwing me a bone because I was the only child in the production.
The rest of the cast didn’t take that review that way. They accused me, a fourth grader, of trying to “steal the show” and of trying too hard to get the attention of the audience. I was dumbfounded because I had no idea what they were talking about or what they were saying I did because I was only performing my part as I had done for six weeks of rehearsal. I remembered how Richard Grace, the musical director and conductor of the show, had tried to toss me from the production after the first week of rehearsal because I couldn’t sing the part.
When director Stephens took me aside the night the review was published and told me to “stop making faces” during the food scene, I was crushed and devastated because I had no idea what I was doing that was so awful — “making faces while singing?” — and I felt the joy and the delight of being in the show draining from my body.
I toughed out the remainder of the run of the show — making certain to repress my personality and my want to smile while singing about delicious food on stage — and I never performed in another UNL opera after that “not so” bright and pleasing experience. When director Stephens called a few months later and asked me to take a role in his UNL production of “Carmen” — I turned him down.
Harsh, David — that the cast would be that mean to you so unnecessarily. What a loss to the world of Opera that surely was if you were being reviewed so well at an early age.
Ha! I’m not sure if I were meant of a life of opera, but I certainly was confused and disappointed that I was being blamed for how I was directed to act on stage. Lesson Learned: Sometimes People Do Not Mean What They Say.