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Best seat in the house is mine

Sleeping Cowboy role a perfect fit for my talents

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Manitoba Opera's comedy Don Pasquale, featuring stuffed squirrel Papas Fritas, opens Saturday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba Opera's comedy Don Pasquale, featuring stuffed squirrel Papas Fritas, opens Saturday. Photo Store

At the risk of sounding like a snob, I have developed a fascinating point of view about the opera.

I would describe it as a ground-level point of view, because pretty much the only thing I have been able to see during two weeks of rehearsals with Manitoba Opera is the ground.

This is because I have been cast in the role of the Sleeping Cowboy in the company's spaghetti western version of Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale, which opens Saturday night at the Centennial Concert Hall.

As the Sleeping Cowboy, I spend the vast majority of the opera slumped in a corner of the stage like a potted plant, pretending to catch 40 winks while wearing an itchy Mexican serape and a sombrero the size of an extra-large pizza.

In reality, what I am doing is secretly peeking out to see what exciting operatic action is going on around me, but, thanks to the tilted sombrero, my view is restricted to the action taking place on the floor, such as a pair of faux tiger-skin rugs and feet encased in cowboy boots and jangling spurs.

On those rare occasions when I am allowed lift my sleepy head, the first thing in my field of vision is a creepy little stuffed squirrel wearing a tiny gunbelt that is perched atop a huge wooden desk in the middle of the stage.

I am not precisely sure what operatic concept the stuffed gun-toting squirrel is meant to convey to the audience but I am getting the sense his role is somewhat more vital than my own. I say this because even a crusty columnist like me gets a little misty-eyed during the scene where Don Pasquale, as portrayed by famed bass-baritone Peter Strummer, sings to the squirrel with the kind of passion and gusto few rodents ever get to experience in a major operatic production.

Director Rob Herriot assured me the Sleeping Cowboy is just as important as the squirrel, despite the fact that, instead of singing to me, Don Pasquale displays his affection by kicking me in the shins and whacking my tilted sombrero.

"He kicks you, so you get attention just like the squirrel," Rob pointed out in an effort to soothe my bruised ego.

Here's an inside secret for you opera fans: The squirrel has a name. "I named him Papas Fritas," Rob confessed before the first full rehearsal this week at the concert hall. "It's Spanish for french fries. When I was unpacking him, he was in a McDonald's box labelled 'french fries.'

"Our stage management has been taking him everywhere in Winnipeg and taking his picture, kind of like that garden gnome. They took pictures of him at Costco."

Let me stress I am not at all jealous of the stuffed squirrel, because I am apparently doing a bang-up job in my role as the operatic version of a non-singing traffic cone.

Whenever I finish sleeping in a particular scene, my friends in the chorus typically shower me with praise, shouting encouragement such as: "You are a natural!" Or: "Where'd you learn to sleep like that?"

When I asked Rob whether he was satisfied with my ability to essentially do nothing, he declared: "I love what you're doing. You're like an 18-year-old with mono."

Those kind words meant a great deal to me, as did this assessment of my performance from Larry Desrochers, CEO of Manitoba Opera: "I think that was some of the best sleeping I have ever seen. A few times I thought: 'Ohmygawd! He's actually asleep.' "

Larry went on to say my natural ability to sleep is not the only reason I was cast in Don Pasquale. "Having somebody like you involved in the show takes the stigma off the idea of opera -- a regular person can be involved in it and you can have fun," he said.

"Most of the chorus people are just regular people with day jobs who love to sing and put on a show for the public. The principals are wonderful, approachable people, too. The image of the opera diva is vanishing over time."

Anyway, I'm guessing some of you think sleeping through an opera would be a piece of cake. As usual, you could not be more wrong. It is almost impossible to nod off because everyone around you is singing loudly in Italian to convey the notion they are either very happy or very sad.

A few times during rehearsals I have been tempted to shriek: "QUIET DOWN! I'M TRYING TO SLEEP!" But I haven't done this, because apparently it's frowned on.

The important thing is everyone within the sound of my voice -- which is one thing you won't hear in the opera -- should run out and buy as many tickets as they can because the music is awesome and the show is hilarious.

I believe I speak for Papas Fritas when I say it would be nuts to do anything else.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2013 A2

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