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Operatic icebreaker

Debut so much more than holding a spear in a non-singing chorus

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You are probably wondering how I became a big opera star.

The truth is, I did it the old-fashioned way -- I slept with the head of the opera company.

Ha ha ha! I'm not kidding. A few months ago, Larry Desrochers, CEO of Manitoba Opera, and I took part in the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ's CEO Sleepout, wherein business and community leaders slept under the stars at Portage and Main to raise cash and awareness for the homeless.

Before we hunkered down in our sleeping bags on the cold, hard ground, I explained to Larry that, in my opinion, opera was missing a vital cultural component, by which I meant myself.

"You should put me in one of your operas," I told Larry.

I assumed he would give me a blank look and slowly back away, but instead he smiled and said: "Sure, we can do that."

So Larry put in a good word with director Rob Herriot, who -- and here is another big surprise -- agreed it would be a brilliant idea to cast me in the upcoming production of Verdi's Rigoletto, which opens Nov. 24 at the Centennial Concert Hall.

"There's a big scene at the beginning of the show in the Duke's castle," Larry told me. "He's a bad dude and hitting on girls. You'd be in the big party scene as one of the courtiers."

As I understood it, that meant I would be performing the challenging, non-singing role of 11th Guy From the Left Holding a Spear. As it turns out, I was an idiot, but I'll get to that in a minute.

First I visited the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's wardrobe department Wednesday morning to try on my costume, which consists of short black pants called breeches in the opera world, a pouffy, see-through, pirate-style shirt like the one immortalized on Seinfeld, an awesome black velvet jacket with gold embroidery and an equally awesome cape. I also have a goofy hat and may have to wear a wig.

I felt extremely dapper when, in full costume, I strolled out of the changing room so the wardrobe staff could check me out. I wasn't so smug moments later when one of the lovely women eyeballed me and, in a sultry Russian accent, helpfully pointed out: "You have pants on backwards!"

Roslynne Manson, the costume boss for Rigoletto, said I shouldn't be too embarrassed. "It happens more frequently than you'd think."

Later that night, wearing my regular pants, I found myself in the basement of Westworth United Church, ready for my first rehearsal.

When I arrived, I discovered director Rob Herriot had decided, for fun, I would be front and centre in Act 1 and that instead of holding a spear or a sword, I'd be holding an actual woman and behaving in the sort of frisky manner we normally don't discuss in family newspapers.

"When that curtain rises, you're not going to be missed," Rob promised with a grin. "The first act is basically an orgy. It shows what court life was like. You're one of the gang, a highly sexed courtier who isn't going to take no for an answer."

Next, I was introduced to the courtesan I latch onto like a lamprey, the lovely Bonita Reimer, who, like me, has never been in an opera before and who, like me, assumed she'd be able to safely hide in the background and blend in with the scenery.

Instead of blending, what happens is I scoop Bonita up and then paddle her on the posterior region to demonstrate I am a fun-loving 16th-century kind of guy. This is not easy to do in front of a bunch of people you have never met before.

Nervous but determined, I reached down and hoisted Bonita over my shoulders like a feisty fireman trying to lug a reluctant woman out of a burning building. This drew big laughs until two singers kindly stepped forward to demonstrate a better technique, wherein I carry Bonita like a sexy Santa lugging a large sack of squiggling toys.

Next, I stagger around the stage, eventually dumping my partner on the floor where, while everyone else is singing in Italian to convey they are (a) very happy, or (b) very angry, we begin -- give me a minute to find the right word -- canoodling, if you catch my operatic drift.

There is a lot of canoodling in Rigoletto, so if you are smart you will order your tickets right now. As a journalist, eventually I asked how Bonita felt about my operatic pickup technique.

"Let's just say it was a bit startling," she said as politely as possible. "It actually made me laugh. I felt better knowing it was you, because you have a good sense of humour. That reduced the tension."

I stood there, sweating profusely. "I wasn't told it was an orgy scene," Bonita finally whispered, before happily adding: "I guess it's a good way to break the ice."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2012 A2

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