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Reel Life: the phantoms of the opera



"All of us are stars. Some are greater stars, and some are smaller stars. It's like a constellation. If you're Orion, and you're the belt in Orion, then you're Mr. Domingo, or Mr. Pavarotti, or Madame(s) Caballe or Freni. But then there are the other people who fill out the heavens like the Milky Way. That's the chorus. And they are stars, too. And they're us."

That's the first voice--speaking voice, that is--heard in the documentary In the Shadow of the Stars: The Lives of Singers. The voice belongs to native Chicagoan Paul Gudas, a longtime mainstay of the Lyric Opera Chorus and a former member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, the one this film focuses on. Gudas is one of several choristers interviewed and tracked in this well-wrought film by Allie Light and Irving Saraf. Made over the course of several years, In the Shadow of the Stars offers some thoughtful insights into the rather strange world of the opera chorus.

It introduces us to the three basic types of chorister: the Diva-in-Training, who views singing in the chorus as a way station to operatic stardom; the embittered I-coulda-been-a-contender (usually an ex-DIT), whose dreams got trampled somewhere along the way; and the Happy Camper, who is just delighted to be earning something resembling a living in opera but who lacks some necessary element to make it in the precarious world of the soloist. The type of any given individual, we learn, may vary from performance to performance.

We meet Claudia Siefer, the resident diva-bitch, whose ex-husband convinced her that she was "the soprano we've been waiting for." We meet Daniel Becker, the man who has sung all four men's parts--bass to baritone to first tenor to second tenor--in his years with the chorus. ("Tenors have a reputation for being high-strung and kind of stupid--and it's true," muses Becker. "It's not a normal voice.") There's the couple who met in the chorus, who limp through a rendition of "La ci darem la mano" while their toddler screams for attention. There's the tenor who escaped the loony bin through his music, and the truck driver who warbles away at the wheel. (Curiously, the filmmakers didn't speak to any mezzo-sopranos, often the most sensible members of the chorus.)

Pathos abounds. We encounter it in the story of Christine Lundquist, who constantly saves until she can afford yet another European audition tour singing for yet another set of bored agents, and who faces the approach of middle age without career, family, or major possessions. We find it in the continuing saga of baritone Frederick Matthews, who finally gets his "big break" after two and a half years of auditioning, in the form of a tiny role with a smaller opera company. Making it as a soloist seems to require equal parts of talent, drive, luck, and knowing the right people. All the singers in this movie are lacking in one or more of these; the solo singing we hear from the choristers is pretty unimpressive.

But the choral singing is superb, and we also get to see assorted vignettes of backstage life ("How many sopranos does it take to sing a high C? Seven. One to sing it and six to say "I could have done it better"'), the secrets of convincing pants-role work (wear shoulder pads and butch it up), an opening-night party. And there is insight into the "revelations," as Becker puts it, that a performer can sometimes experience onstage--when the music lifts its performers beyond the tawdry banality of sweaty costumes, worrying about the beat, and thinking about what comes next, and opens a window onto a higher plane.

With In the Shadow of the Stars these members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus seem to have finally won some of the recognition they deserve. But except for those whose names are dropped in on-screen conversation, they remain entirely anonymous; they pour out their hearts and get no credit.


In the Shadow of the Stars will have four showings at the Film Center of the Art Institute, Columbus and Jackson: Sunday at 6 PM, next Friday, November 29, at 7:45 PM, and next Saturday, November 30, at 6 and 7:45 PM. Admission is $5, $3 for Film Center members; for more info call 443-3733.

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