Arts & Events

My First Walkure

By Bill Beckerman
Friday December 29, 2006

I was a sophomore to opera 25 years ago in 1981. It was early December and an opera friend, Alice, called me to offer a ticket to use her box seat at a performance of The Walkure. I knew only three things about The Walkure: It was long, loud and the costumes were strange. 

I was now a new opera fan and had some wonderfully influential people guiding me into the life—the world of opera. I eagerly accepted Alice’s offer for an afternoon of opera at the War Memorial Opera House. Who knew that this first performance of the Walkure would also turn out to be legendary in the annals of San Francisco Opera History? 

Yes, this is a day that all the old timers at the Opera Company still remember. This was the Sunday matinee in which the scheduled tenor, James King, called in sick at the last minute. What happened to resolve this potential catastrophe, ended up being what I call the “opera” of opera; The dramas that ensue behind the scenes at the opera house that add a second dimension to the high drama of opera. Back in those days it was said that only about four or five singers were capable of singing a respectable performance of the role of Sigmund in The Walkure. And one of those people happened to be at home on vacation nearby.  

You see, opera singers travel the world all season long; Their idea of vacation is to go home. And Mr. Adler knew that the famous tenor, Jess Thomas, lived nearby in Tiburon. In a matter of an hour, Mr. Thomas managed to finish his morning ablutions, find his way to San Francisco, get fitted for his costume, work out a few stage directions, and was singing the strenuous tenor role of Sigmund. The headlines in the paper the next day would read, “Jess Thomas’ 11th-Hour Rescue for ‘Die Walkure’ ”, and all I knew was that I was going to a Sunday matinee of an opera that I’d never seen before.  

The corner box, where I sat, in the square-shaped opera house create a vast amount of space in the back of the box and besides, there are a few steps in this box to get to the rear seating area. Happy me, the steps have courtesy lighting to help see them and they are bright enough to read the print in the libretto if you are seated on the steps. Since I found myself alone in the box that afternoon, I eschewed the elegant chairs and instead sat right down there on the carpet so I could follow along with the dialog.  

It’s very interesting to contemplate myself as I was there that evening. Only partly understanding what was happening on stage with the complicated relationships between the characters, I was also clueless about what was happening back stage with the suiting up of the surprise guest tenor, Jess Thomas. 

I saw the silhouette of a woman entered the box as the lights were dimming. I didn’t know who she was, but it was certainly not for me to question that she belonged there. I barely belonged myself, living above my station for that afternoon as a guest in the opera house. I was intrigued that she, too did not avail herself of the elegant seating available. She positioned herself on her knees and draped herself over the railings in the very front of the vast box.  

She was about ten feet in front of me and there was no way for me to miss her antics. She was in my line of sight as I alternately watched the stage and followed the dialogue in my libretto that was carefully held opened on the step where I sat. I looked up and she was leaning so far forward, I thought she was about to fall and tumble right out of the box. I looked back at the libretto and glanced up again to see her arms waving all around over her head. I swear, from the shadows where I sat, it looked more like she was watching a football game then the opera that I was watching. 

The first act ended, the lights came up and she turned to look at me. I suppose she thought she was alone in our box, but I also don’t think she cared how she appeared to me. She gave me a nice smile as she exited through the curtain out to the lobby.  

The first intermission came to a conclusion as the lights dimmed and my mystery friend, practically the only other person I could see from my floor perch, reappeared through the entrance of the box and resumed her post at the railing of our shared vantage place. While act one is dominated by a long love duet, the second act is more contentious. Husband, Woton, and his wife, Fricka, argue a lot. His demigod daughter has to announce bad news of the impending death of her mortal charge, Sigmund. The daughter appears to Sigmund in a dream-like state and yet ends up so moved by his passion that she gives him a reprieve. This reprieve is short lived and vetoed by Wotan with the abrupt death of Sigmund.  

Of course, I’m still watching the silhouette of the mystery lady rooting and cheering in the dark until the action ended. Act II was now finished and the lights came up again for another intermission. I could finally figure out who my mysterious companion was as she exited through the curtain after the second act.  

She said to me emphatically, “My husband is dead, I won’t be back!” It was the famous tenor’s wife, Violeta Thomas!