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opera anecdotes : randolph magri-overend and the contact lens

You may have heard stories about how I used to be an actor with Opera Australia.  Well, I am here to set the record straight.  They are mostly true and even those that are not, are probably based on fact.  Like the time I lost a contact lens on stage when performing in Lucia di Lammermoor.

 It is the middle 80s and John Copley has requested I be available for a special role in Donizetti’s opera.  There is not much money in acting with the national opera company, but it beats slaving away 12 hours a day, 6 days a week as a taxi-driver wondering whether the next drunk will be sick in the back seat. Or do a runner after being sick.  Or not be sick and just do a runner.

Times are tough.  I have joined the opera company on an ad-hoc basis in the hope that someone will notice my dashing presence and perhaps offer me a more substantial stake in the entertainment business.  Except for the pay I felt at home surrounded by such luminaries as Robert Gard, Donald Shanks, Glenys Fowles, John Pringle, Gordon Wilcox and many others. 

I am taking singing lessons and being coached by Simone Young (yes, THE Simone Young!) who has just finished her studies at the Sydney Conservatorium, has not yet joined the staff at the Opera House and is contemplating a career as a music teacher.  Even she is finding it hard to make ends meet.  Occasionally, I manage to smuggle free opera tickets for both her and her husband.

But I digress.  In case you are unfamiliar with the plot of Lucia as hatched by Sir Walter Scott, Enrico, Lucia’s elder brother, hates Edgardo who loves and wants to wed Lucia.  But Enrico wants Lucia to marry Arturo and Lucia doesn’t.  So they get together and sing simultaneously and as there are six of them, it’s called a sextet.  Exhausted, Enrico forces Lucia to marry Arturo who kills him and promptly goes into a fit of madness and creates a scene.  Lucia dies and Edgardo finds out and kills himself, not surprisingly really, because he has just sung a killer of an aria.  

The cast included John Fulford as Enrico, Jennifer McGregor as Lucia, Anson Austin as Edgardo and Graeme Ewer as Arturo. I discovered that  the role Copley has earmarked for me is that of Edgardo’s falconer.  The first scene takes place in a mist-shrouded forest with Enrico chasing Edgardo but discovering only me.  Dragging me to the edge of the stage he proceeds to berate me and finally in utter exasperation slaps me about the face. 

Which is all very well but we soon discover that John Fulford is a gentle soul and hates any form of violence, even the facsimile kind.  So we work out a way of simulating the violence without compromising the effect it will have on the audience.  By placing the palm of my down-stage hand over my upstage cheek (with me so far?) John is able to slap away to his heart’s content without causing any permanent damage to either of us (see it wasn’t that difficult). 

But then we discover another problem, John cannot co-ordinate the singing with the slapping and keeps missing my cheek.  In fact, on several occasions, his flailing fingernails skim the tip of my lips and there is the unseemly but realistic sight of blood on the stage. Mine not his.  Eventually, we come up with a scientific solution.  By using John’s arm as a golf club and my cheek as the ball, he can smash me for six as many times as he wishes and, despite his handicap, still maintain a par round.

Everything goes swimmingly after that.  The only problem occurs in one of the last performances of the season when John hits me so hard he dislodges one of my contact lenses. As I am dragged offstage in simulated unconsciousness I unwittingly blink and the lens tumbles out.  The next interval finds me on stage and with the aid of another actor we actually find the lens.  Of all the gin-soaked incredulities in this world I actually find something I had thought I had lost forever.  But I might just as well because thereafter, try as I might, my sight continues to be out of focus –  even after inserting the lens.

It is only years later I realise I had found someone else’s lost lens!



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