Well, except for the parts I’m going to tell you! No names of course. LOL.
Seriously, performers have to be able to trust orchestra librarians to handle backstage situations with professionalism, courtesy, discretion, and, above all else, help when they need something. It wouldn’t be right to betray that trust, so I won’t — the last thing artists need is some star-struck librarian to “kiss and tell.”
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun and entertain you a little about the kinds of things that happen backstage. Rituals, wardrobe malfunctions, logistical snafus, nerves, you name it. Because it can be quite the trip. And just when you think you’ve seen it all something happens that is a complete surprise.
Take wardrobe issues……..You can always tell if a dress is going to be dangerous for the diva during her arias, be it for breathing or bowing, and I’ve been asked more times than I can remember to pin up, zip up, scoop up, fix straps, check hooks, whatever. The operations people and librarians are the last to see the artist(s) before they walk on stage, besides the stage crew and conductor. And it’s usually at the very last moment when that look of “OMG, what am I going to do?!” calls for some fast action. This is precisely why I always keep a mending kit in the library trunk by the stage; recently I had to clip off the sales tag from a soloist’s blouse before she went out. Of course, she’s telling me to “hurry, hurry!” when, uh, a little checking after buying the duds and putting them on would have been in order!
For the guys it’s the fly-check. Oh my. Men, can I just say, if you are going to be all exhibitionist about this part of your dressing routine would you please do it in the DRESSING ROOM?? I really don’t need to see the more, um, personal displays, which, I swear, some of you are doing either to get attention or because of a pre-performance nervous ritual. I mean, I understand the pre-performance rituals — I have my own, most notably always checking with one last look that I actually did put the conductor’s score out [this subject requires an entire blog post of its own], which invariably is preceded by a spike in blood pressure. So I know you have to do whatever it takes to make yourself ready to Go Out There. But does it have to be such a grand gesture? I find it interesting that when the women check their flies they are very subtle about it, quiet, quick, done. For the men out there who are also trying to be discreet, I thank you, from all the librarians in the world.
Not that librarians, male or female, can be squeamish about this stuff. Again, it goes back to trust. The conductors and artists need to know that we understand the concert hall is a theater, and you just can’t get worked up about people in various stages (pun intended) of getting ready. Librarians are all the time having to go to the artists dressing rooms to get their scores, or ask and answer questions, and while you’d think those therein would wait to invite you in until they are actually completely dressed, it just slows everyone down so nobody worries about it. Of course, I’m not talking about anything truly untoward. Just life in show biz.
There are countless other rituals that performers do, not unlike athletes preparing for a game or race. Some are famous in concert world lore, like Bernstein kissing his Koussevitzky cuff links before he walked out. People cross themselves, knock on wood, stretch, jump up and down, make jokes, or just go into a Zen zone of their own. I try to respect this process quietly unless asked for something, but some actually want a little conversation and companionship before they perform. It’s important for the librarian to judge the artist’s mood accurately and not do anything that will get them off their game. It may be old-fashioned, but I always stand at the entrance to the stage before the conductors and soloists go out. It’s my way of showing support and respect, and staying available if they have any questions. I also like to think they appreciate being with a musician who understands what they are about to embark upon in their performance.
As everywhere else in life, there are some artists who go too far with pre-concert antics. We had a conductor a number of years ago who completely shocked us all by horking up a huge glob of phlegm and spitting it on the floor before he walked out, stepping on it like someone puts out a cigarette, then taking a giant step over it as he went onstage. Apparently this maneuver was lucky for him. I’m sorry, but that’s disgusting and next time you come around, mister, I’m going to tell you so. This is where we are different than ball players — it’s a concert hall, not a field! And, BTW, can anyone say Germs?? Forgive my detailed description, but I wanted you, dear readers, to have a full understanding of this particular ritual, just in case you know the guy and can set him straight that it is really UNCOOL. You can also tell him that great rolling of eyes ensues when someone is that grandiose and gross. Not to mention, it’s gets around.
Then there is the subject of performing from memory. I understand why performers want to. It was pounded into us as youngsters that we needed to memorize our concerti; one did not use the music. I suppose it’s still expected for the standard solo repertoire, but the days are long over when everything has to be memorized. Especially for contemporary music or premieres. This goes for conductors too. May I suggest that, unless you really, really know the piece cold, it would be better for all concerned if you used the music? If you go out there without it, and have a serious memory slip, the audience is going to remember the memory slip more than anything else. But if you use the score and give a tremendous performance, they are only going to remember that it was fantastic. They aren’t even going to think about whether or not you used music. No loss of face in that at all. I have witnessed moments of private terror, and have even, at times, offered a score to someone who clearly wasn’t prepared to do the work from memory. Do yourself a favor. Take it next time!
So, there’s your little slice of backstage life for today. Very glamorous, indeed, eh?