While I was working in Ulm, my life was completely absorbed in the theater. I would get up in the morning and get Chris ready for school—he went to the German public schools the whole time we were there.
Then I would drive my Volkswagen beetle downtown and park it in the lot behind the new white theater. Ulm has a very nice modern theater with good facilities for the staff, courtesy of allied bombing in WWII. On the way in I would check the Spielplan pasted on the glass to see if my name appeared. I did both solo and chorus, and would need to read both the names of the operas and operettas, and also the cast lists to see if it said “Baker” or “Femar”, the other mezzo I was usually cast with. I was cheaper, so usually it was me. "Guten Morgen, Frau Baker," the Pfortner would greet. On the wall inside was the rehearsal and coaching schedule.
I had breakfast in the kantina every day: coffee and a ham sandwich.
The working day started around 10:00, and a lot of different things might be going on. Every morning the ballet did a workout in the ballet room. If there were no stage rehearsals, the chorus would rehearse in the chorus room.
I learned the German theater vocabulary:
Sitzprobe—this is a rehearsal with the orchestra, but without movement. This terminology shows up in American theaters.
Buehneprobe—this is a stage rehearsal which might involve piano only, but would have movement.
Hauptprobe—the main rehearsal before the performance, with orchestra, costumes, lights, alles.
Requisite—props. Also a line from Fledermaus where it means the same thing.
I was fascinated to find that left and right are the opposite of left and right in American theaters. In America left and right are as you stand on the stage. The director will say “exit stage left.” In a German theater left and right are as seen by the director sitting in the middle of the audience. If he says go left, he means your right.
In addition to rehearsing with the chorus, when I was preparing a role, I would be scheduled for sessions with the coaching staff, in my case both the musical and the language coaching staff. My German pronunciation, trained in America, was not felt to be up to German theater standards. I remember in Pique Dame, where I sang Pauline, I was supposed to sing the word “Fuesschen” (little feet). Ach! Bisschen I could manage, but Fuesschen completely eluded me. It came out like shush, which is totally wrong.
I had a piano at home and would try to get as far as I could on my own, but they were fully prepared to do the whole job of preparing me for a role had this been necessary. Coaching is good.
I was not allowed to say anything on the stage. Toward the end of my time there I was allowed to speak the words “O wie schoen!” This was a great honor.
If the chorus was not needed, we sat around in the kantina for endless hours drinking. Knitting was done. Skat was played. This is where I learned to speak German. Social status required that I sit with the chorus. Orchestra members sat with other orchestra members. Soloists sat with each other. I know that the San Francisco opera doesn’t allow alcohol backstage, but the Ulmer Theater kantina dispensed beer and wine. There were two refrigerators—one set to exactly the right temperature for white wine, and the other to the perfect temperature for beer.
You could have lunch in the theater kantina, but it was necessary to order it at breakfast time. These lunches were very nice, but I had a child and would go home to eat with him. After we were finished rehearsing, I would go shopping. At the time that I lived in Ulm there were no supermarkets. The closest thing to an American style supermarket was in the basement of one of the department stores downtown. I know when I go to Zurich there is a store called the coop near the train station that is exactly like an American store.
German school was mainly in the morning. Chris would come home with stories of what his teacher, Herr Butzenhart, had said that day. Herr Butzenhart was full of sage advice and wise sayings.
After lunch I would take a nap. It is a wonderful thing to take a nap every day. Life is somehow different. I learned there is an optimum length of nap—45 minutes. If you sleep for any longer, you don’t quite wake back up again. 45 minutes leaves you refreshed and ready to start again.
I liked to walk around in Ulm in the afternoon. There is a wonderful old town, and of course the Ulmer Munster, a famous church in the center of town. Ulm is on the Danube with beautiful paths along the river.
I didn’t work every evening. Christmas was the only holiday, but the opera shared its space with an acting theater with its own performers. We were required to appear on performance days by no later than 7:30, as I recall. I went to my assigned seat in the chorus dressing room and put my clothes in my locker. I sat between a mezzo from Austria who did very fine mother in Hansel and Gretel and a German soprano called Mariechen. Dolores sat at the end of the row. There were staff to sort out the costumes and help you change into them. There were different staff to put on your makeup and any wigs you might be wearing. There were lots of wigs, and your hair had to fit under them. Then there was more sitting around and more drinking. Lots of drinking. I know I never drank so much as then, and I definitely lost weight. You could also have dinner while waiting--hot dogs and potato salad.
We would sit and wait for the voice on the intercom: “Die Damen und Herren des Chores.” The stage manager had this cue marked in his score.
In the night after the performances were over sometimes there were parties in the kantina. I remember that Ursula had a large party for her 30th birthday. A few times very late in the night I would get very drunk, and I would smoke. Cigarettes and cigars. I found that I preferred cigars. I never have hangovers, but the taste of cigarettes lingers for a long time.
Sometimes Chris would come. He loved Fledermaus and went to several performances of that. It was a life, a better life than working for Bechtel. There, I said it. I am part of the staff of the hated Bechtel Corporation, builder of nuclear power plants and buyer of South American water systems. So why did I leave Germany? I couldn’t honestly say. I hadn’t finished my dissertation and taken my final oral exams, so I needed to finish that. And after that, who knows? Who knows why life plays out the way it does. My path was not leading to glory. I think of them often, always with love.
SF Opera's 2019-2020 Season
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