For young opera buff, job and hobby become one

July 02, 1992|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

When Mike Svec's Annapolis High School orchestra performed Mozart's bubbly, rollicking overture to "Cosi fan tutte" a few years back, one of his young violinists, Robin Pomerance, fell in love with the music and wondered what the rest of the opera sounded like.

She wasted no time finding out. Before long, the opera bug bit as only the opera bug can.

Now a 24-year-old graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, Pomerance is in a wonderful position to indulge her passion for Verdi, Puccini and Mozart as a rehearsal department assistant for the San Francisco Opera Company.

As Pomerance explains her duties at one of America's premiere opera houses, it is clear she is one of those lucky people whose vocation and avocation have become one. The San Francisco Opera, with its 10 productions a year and lengthy roster of internationally acclaimed singers, is a very interesting place for a young opera buff to work.

An opera house is one set of logistical nightmares after another. In a "cast of thousands" opera, for example, where does the cast assemble to go onstage -- and where do they go when they get off? How do foreign singers who speak no English get acclimated to their American surroundings and follow a rehearsal schedule they might not be able to read? Some operas require a children's choir. Who rounds them up?

Who arranges for medical care if a star -- God forbid! -- gets sick and an entire production hangs in the balance?

That's where the rehearsal department assistants come in.

"It's a cryptic title for a job," says Pomerance, "but we do anything and everything to help make the productions run smoothly.

"First of all, we get people to their rehearsals, which isn't as easy as it sounds. Every night, we call all our singers and give them the next day's schedule. But we also have to see to it that they get to all their fittings for costumes and wigs and things.

"And in San Francisco, we might have three operas being offered at the same time we have two in rehearsal. Some singers can actually be cast in two or three productions simultaneously. Then it becomes a matter of making sure they're at the most important rehearsals."

In the San Francisco production of Prokofiev's epic "War and Peace" alone, there were 40 principal singers to keep track of. With scores of singers and two horses on stage, back-stage space was scare.

"The French army had to dress two blocks away and march through the city to the theater," chuckles Pomerance. "It was a sight. But somehow it all came together. The staff just looked at each other and said, 'Good grief! It actually worked!' "

Last season, Pomerance and her colleagues must have thought they were working for Blue Cross instead of an opera company.

"Our Zerlina in 'Don Giovanni' sprained her ankle, our first Carmen got the flu, our second Carmen broke her foot, and one of the Russians we brought over for 'War and Peace' had to have surgery here. It never stopped. The whole staff just wondered what the next disaster would be."

Since Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Puccini's "Tosca" and "Boris Godunov" by Mussorgsky are on tap for next season -- and all three require a boys choir -- it was Pomerance's task to organize and oversee auditions for the young men.

"Sixty-one kids," she says with a groan. "It was an interesting experience, but sometimes I think I'd love operas even more if they didn't have children in them."

Of course, rehearsal staffers are also great fans, and it is exciting to meet the greats of the opera world -- almost all of whom get to San Francisco at some point -- up close.

The great mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is a favorite, says the former Annapolitan.

"She is the nicest, most professional person we know. She doesn't act like a great diva even though her stature is such."

Samuel Ramey, the terrific bass-baritone, is another notable acquaintance, Pomerance says.

"He's quite a character," she says, "but a very nice guy."

And what of the grand divas who act the part with a vengeance?

"Well, some of them do need a lot of TLC," she says diplomatically. "But for some, it's the only way they know. In their adult lives, they've never not been a star. Besides," she concludes, "if you can't handle the egos, you don't want to be in this job.

Familiarity hasn't bred contempt for Pomerance, whose love for opera is stronger than ever.

"My office is just five steps off the stage," she says. "I can sneak into the wings and hear someone like von Stade -- the definitive rTC Cherubino of our generation -- whenever I want to. It's very exciting."

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