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Guys, try tugging on some pantyhose

Wardrobe emergency precedes opera rehearsal

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If you asked me to name the single biggest challenge I have faced so far in my burgeoning career as an opera star, I'd have to say it was the pantyhose.

This unnerving encounter occurred Wednesday night as I struggled into my costume for the first dress rehearsal of Manitoba Opera's production of Verdi's Rigoletto, which opens Saturday night at the Centennial Concert Hall.

It was the dramatic moment wherein I am transformed from a middle-aged newspaper columnist into a middle-aged newspaper columnist in black velvet garments with a great deal of fancy gold embroidery.

I assumed, being 56 years old and possessing several university degrees, I would be fully capable of dressing myself, but it turns out I was a fool.

I would still be naked as I write these words were it not for the heroics of dresser Noel de Leon, whose job includes helping the army of "supernumeraries" -- the operatic word for extras -- get decked out in their fussy 16th-century outfits.

With Noel's guidance, I squeezed into opera breeches and suspenders, pouffy opera shirt, brocaded opera jacket and cape and spiffy opera hat, but then a wardrobe emergency erupted -- I did not have long opera socks to cover my hairy, pasty-white legs.

Noel disappeared, then returned moments later with, as you have already deduced, an extra-large pair of black pantyhose, which I tried valiantly to stuff my overstuffed body into. As beads of sweat dripped from my forehead, the guys in the chorus offered helpful tips, such as: "You should put your feet into them first." Or: "Try scrunching them up and hopping around a bit."

(Note to male readers: If you are ever waiting for a person of the female gender to get ready and she needs a few more minutes because of a pantyhose emergency, just sit back and be patient.)

At the last second, Noel tracked down some extremely stretchy black operatic leggings, so I was saved and it was time to march down the hall in my black-velvet getup to have a professional makeup artist "put my face on."

You'll be surprised to hear this, but I have never had anyone put my face on before. When I plopped in a chair in front of a mirror surrounded by blinding lights, famed theatrical makeup artist Alice Wiebe began frowning at me.

For you non-opera stars, this is not a good sign. It became clear my regular face was not going to cut the operatic mustard. So Alice went to work, dabbing me with brushes and sponges and issuing a rapid-fire stream of directions I found hard to follow.

It sounded like this: "OK, look up. Look down. Don't move your head! Now you're a bunch of wrinkles. OK, look left. No, the other left. Now turn yourself around. Do the Hokey Pokey. STOP TALKING!"

The hardest part came when Alice realized that, in opera terms, I have no neck. "Don't worry," she declared, "I'll give you a wonderful neck." And she did. Finally, she made me close my eyes and stagger down the hall while she stood in front and sprayed me with a magical mist to prevent my makeup from melting onstage.

Speaking of which, my brief appearance in rehearsal went smoothly, other than the fact it is difficult to fling a beautiful woman -- as portrayed by fellow opera rookie Bonita Reimer -- over your shoulders when you are both sweating like Butterball turkeys under hundreds of pounds of makeup and costumes.

In the raucous party scene at the duke's castle, I managed to scoop Bonita up, spank her in a lecherous 16th-century manner, stagger around and then plop her on some comfy pillows, but our attempts to engage in operatic canoodling fell short in the sense we looked like two drunk people who had become trapped in their living room drapes and were fighting to get out.

Later, in the dressing room, I peeled off my stretchy leggings and shared opera war stories with William Jordan, 25, one of the four chorus guys who bravely guard a door onstage while carrying awesome Wizard of Oz-style spears.

Resplendent in his conquistador-style helmet and breastplate, William said he loves doing opera whenever he can. "During Carmen," he recalled, "they brown-faced us so we would look Spanish. I have a beard and long hair, so I ended up looking exactly like a Klingon. I felt like I was on Star Trek. The costume was bright pink. I was a picador, but I felt like a gay Klingon."

The best thing about the opera, William told me, is that no matter how small your role, you get treated like a star with a sweet costume and awesome makeup.

But you can check that out for yourselves. I think you'll be blown away by my operatic debut, because, thanks to Alice, my neck looks totally amazing.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2012 A2

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