Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part II

The Divine Miss Dalis

At the same time that I became arts editor at the Spartan Daily, I began to hear about Irene Dalis, a San Jose native who starred at the Met for 20 years, then returned home to begin an opera workshop at San Jose State. I set up an interview, and spent almost two hours in her office, talking about her life. She wasn't at all what I expected from an opera star. She was certainly refined, with a thick head of silver hair and sharp Greek features, but she had a definite blue-collar edge, and smoked cigarettes, which probably contributed to the gravelly edge of her speaking voice. She heaped upon me an overhelming amount of information about opera. In that way characteristic of opera singers, she kept referring to title roles, and expecting me to naturally know the corresponding opera. Being a young journalist, and not wanting to appear as uninformed as I was, I said nothing and figured I would look them up later. Before I left, she handed me a half-dozen gorgeous, mythic-looking black-and-white head shots from various roles during her days at the Met.

I was a little tired from all this listening and questioning, so I retired to McDonald's to take in a couple burgers. I returned to my table to find my book bag missing - and with it the cassette tape containing 90 minutes of Irene Dalis interview. I spotted a homeless-looking dude walking outside with what looked to be my book bag, and, motivated by the thought of reconstructing that whole damn interview from scratch, I pursued. I thought I had lost him, but took a lucky turn at the corner and found him in a vacant lot, just standing there with my bag.

"Hey! I said. "That's my bag."

"Oh," he said, looking at the bag that had magically appeared in his hand. "Sorry." And handed it back to me.

This was not the way I had expected it to go. I wondered if I should call the cops. But the guy left, and I was just so grateful to have that interview back that I let him go.

A couple weeks later, my article appeared in the entertainment supplement of the Daily, with all six of those head shots on the cover. It was quite cool. And little did I know that I would spend the next 25 years covering Irene Dalis's opera company.

After graduation, I just wanted to find some gigs. I was going the freelance route, and hoping the flexible schedule would allow me to work on my first novel. I got an internship at Good Times magazine in Santa Cruz in the summer of '84, and they decided to send me out to review some theater. I was apparently not entirely bad at it, and after my internship became the regular theater critic. Feeling my oats, I pursued the same job at a new alternative weekly Metro, in San Jose, and got that job, too. One of the groups I would cover was Opera San Jose, created out of that workshop that Irene Dalis had started at San Jose State.

A little side story: a couple years before, the San Jose Symphony decided to put on Rigoletto, with lead singers borrowed from the San Diego Opera and the chorus culled from our choir. It was quite fun: I got to wear a cape, participate in an abduction and gang rape (don't you love Verdi?) and learn some snappy Italian choruses that still come back when I see the show. I also came terribly close to losing my virginity at a post-show party. I was admiring a cleavage-wrapped tattoo on a signorina, and she invited me to come to a dark room and take a closer look. We were about to attempt the coup de grace when one of her idiot friends told her she was leaving and needed a ride home. Alas! I had to hang on to the virginity another year (cursed wench!) But don't say opera ain't an inspiring artform.

I was a little intimidated about actually reviewing opera, but I did have enough musical education to discuss the qualities of different voices, and enough sense to talk about the show when I didn't know enough to actually critique it. I also made regular intermission visits with the Opera's marketing manager, Larry Hancock, who is such a font of opera knowledge he should have Grove's tattooed somewhere on his person. I was delighted to find old choir-mates across the footlights. Julia Wade, a paralyzingly good-looking redhead who somehow ended up on my lap at a choir party once (I had no idea what to do with her). Elaina Lappaleinen, the untouchable soprano blonde goddess who I would interview years later when she played Lulu at San Francisco Opera. Ravil Atlas, my tenor-pal; I met him in the hallway outside Dr. A's office at my freshman audition. He would eventually go on to an international career, and is now in London, composing his first musical. Another tenor was Stephen Guggenheim, who hosted the post-opera party at which I almost lost my virginity, and who would soon make the jump to San Francisco Opera's prestigious Merola Program.

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