Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As an opera star, I worry about hemorrhoids

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Maybe someone could hand me a tissue because I'm feeling just a little bit sad.

That's because tonight marks the final time I will have to sneak out of the house with my wife's economy-size bottle of camomile gentle eye makeup remover hidden inside my gym bag.

Sadly, the curtain drops tonight on the final performance of Manitoba Opera's spaghetti western version of Don Pasquale, wherein I have been playing the vital role of the sleeping cowboy, the operatic equivalent of a houseplant.

It has been very exciting. When I'm onstage, I spend about an hour squatting in a corner, slumped against a wall, hidden under an itchy Mexican serape and a sombrero the size of a recreational vehicle, pretending to be asleep.

Offstage, I spend several hours in the bathroom squirting my wife's makeup remover into my bloodshot eyeballs in an attempt to remove several pounds of operatic goop professionally applied to my face by makeup artist Theresa Thomson.

It is a thrill to be snoring in an operatic manner in a corner of the stage while some of the best voices in the world are singing loudly in Italian, but the real eye-opener has been hanging out backstage with the men and women in the chorus.

I had assumed that, what with being a newspaper columnist who spends most of his time stretched out on the couch, no one could match my natural gift for remaining motionless.

It turns out I was a fool. I say this because one of my buddies in the chorus, George Nytepchuk, a semi-retired physiotherapist by day and six-shooter-toting opera cowboy by night, confessed he once dozed off in the middle of a performance.

"It was during Carmen, the scene where a bunch of smugglers are running guns through a mountain pass," recalled George, who has raised his voice in the chorus of local operas since 1990. "We stop for a rest and while the lead singers were doing their arias at centre stage, we had to lie down and pretend to sleep.

"I took my resting role a bit too seriously and fell asleep. I was lying on some guy's belly. Hey, I was tired and we had people singing beautiful music. Fortunately, I got startled awake in the nick of time and we carried on with the opera."

Then, in an effort to make me feel better about the fact I accidentally put my opera pants on backwards before one show, another of my chorus buddies shared the story of his own onstage wardrobe malfunction.

"It was in the first scene and second act of the Gondoliers, a Gilbert and Sullivan musical," chortled Fred Simpson, a retired music teacher who has been in the chorus since 2007.

"I realized partway through that my fly was open.

"Luckily, EVERYTHING I was wearing was black. But it kind of takes the edge off."

While she was dabbing at my face with brushes and sponges, Theresa Thomson, an aspiring actor as well as a makeup pro, told me one of her recent roles was, in the most literal sense of the word, a knockout.

It was the dramatic point in a production wherein a male actor, overcome by theatrical emotion, was supposed to plant a kiss on her, but instead accidentally walloped her with a thunderous head butt.

"It was kind of like in the cartoons," she said. "I saw stars and everything."

The point I am trying to make is being in the opera is kind of like being in a big wacky family at a wild Thanksgiving dinner, except everyone is in costume and, even if you make a really bad mistake, no one whacks you over the head with a casserole dish full of mashed potatoes.

While the lead singers come from all over, the chorus is local. They're teachers, students, bus drivers and everything in between. They do it because they love to sing and make music with their friends. It's not always easy.

"It's not just standing and singing onstage," explained Donnalynn Grills, a manager with a local financial IT firm who plays Conchita, the Mexican maid. "There's lots of clowning around and we're often the main movers of the props. It's my hobby. I love it."

Even the stars aren't above sharing helpful hints. Waiting for the curtain to go up, Peter Strummer, the famed bass-baritone who sings the title role of Don Pasquale, casually sidled over to my corner and whispered an operatic health and safety tip.

"You know, Doug," Peter pointed out, "They really should give you a cushion, because you're going to get hemorrhoids."

Which would definitely sting, but probably not as much as this (bad word) eye makeup remover.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2013 A2

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