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Opera Buff

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Michael Haynes is built like Adonis, with white-blond hair and skin the color of alabaster. Wearing a tight white T-shirt and standing stock-still beneath the two-story columns of the Civic Opera building, the 29-year-old resembled a marble statue in faded black jeans.

On November 9, clusters of men of similar conformation stood nearby, all awaiting a 6:30 PM audition for the upcoming Lyric Opera production of Tristan und Isolde. The unusual size and fitness of the auditioners was more apparent inside the fifth-floor audition room. Within its confines their legs seemed as solid as tree trunks, arms and necks thicker than fireplugs, and shoulders so wide that some negotiated doorways like semis turning corners.

About 70 men showed up to try out for 20 parts as boiler room workers in the Wagner opera. The nonspeaking, nonsinging roles would require them to stoke coal, pull rope, and mimic gigantic pistons operating in the bowels of a steamship.

Three groups of men were requested to make these moves while stripped to the waist. When the first group began the piston pantomime, the rippling of various skin tones, well-developed back and shoulder muscles, and glorious pecs fell into spontaneous harmony. Applause broke out from fellow auditioners as well as opera personnel.

The turnout was unlike any other audition at the Lyric, according to stage director Herbert Kellner. "We've gotten some nice responses for auditions before, but never like this. Who would have thought so many of these guys would be interested in opera?"

Eric Eligator, the supernumerary captain, took special pains to gather enough of the right body types for the production, which, he said, suffered from a lack of muscular males when it played last year in Seattle. Eligator enlisted the help of Lyric media relations manager Magda Krance, to get the call out for hard bodies in a press release--an unusual measure, since the opera normally relies on an audition hot line and listings in PerformInk. Eligator also faxed a flyer to area gyms. "Not health clubs," he said, "because we wanted the Gold's Gym, the World Gym, and Powerhouse, places where guys go to pump iron."

They got a lot of advance publicity, said Krance. A female radio talk show host in Melbourne, Australia, became aware of the audition through the Internet and interviewed both Eligator and Kellner.

On the night of the audition, a Channel 7 cameraman and three female reporters snaked their way through the maze of big shoulders. One of the women stood on a chair to catch a better view of shirts being stripped off, 20 at a crack.

"I'd like to be perceived as someone who will be serious about opera," said Chris Field, a statuesque auditioner whose deep voice seemed to emanate from the ceiling. "I object to all this media attention, and I want to be perceived as more than just a steak head." Field, a 30-year-old Loyola University philosophy student, said he resented this objectification of males.

For all his protestations, Field was ripe for the attention, an ideal candidate for the jacket of a romance novel, with sandy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Dudley DoRight jawline. His shoulders went from block straight to slack when he realized he hadn't been chosen.

While a couple men were tactfully dismissed for being too small or obviously overweight, others with fine bodies and good looks were thanked and asked to leave. "It was not so much a question of size or muscle definition," explained Kellner, "but more a sense of similar body types, and also that they understood the movements. Some people looked great but they couldn't count it. There were so many good bodies, movement was really the deciding factor."

Age, surprisingly, was not a hindrance. One man who made the final cut is 42, with a head of hair like silver moss.

John Clark, a 37-year-old who also made the final cut, started bodybuilding 15 years ago and can bench press 450 pounds. Employed as a trainer at Powerhouse Gym, he brought along not only an attitude of cooperation and the ability to perform synchronized movements, but proof of some extra grace. He offered me a glimpse at a video camera rolling a tape of himself striking various poses in the Mid-State Classics bodybuilding competition, where he'd placed first. "Smooth as ballet," I told him, as he smiled thoughtfully behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles.

Some nine-to-fivers like Michael Haynes, a video engineer, left on their own, realizing the nine-week rehearsal-and-performance schedule would cut into the middle of certain weekdays, but not one man left in response to Kellner's announcement that the performers would be asked to shave their heads or wear bald pates for performances.

Clark already shaves his head, so it wasn't an issue, but Patrick Teubner, a 34-year-old model from LA, is growing his hair out for an upcoming photo shoot, so he opted for the skullcap. He also possessed the most clearly defined set of abs in the room. They lined up like beer cans in a six-pack--both in person and on his promotional postcards, which featured pictures of Teubner in Calvin Klein underwear, working out in a gym, shirtless in unzipped jeans, and provocatively posed wearing nothing but body oil and an American flag wrapped like a bath towel around his waist.

Does he lift weights? "No, not at all," he said. "I just keep my body fat to a minimum. I've got to stay lean or I won't fit into a 42 long."

At six foot one, Teubner was among the smaller men chosen for the role. When the call went out for men with 41-inch chests to fill a costume for an additional nonspeaking role, one auditioner muttered, "Forty-one, that's pretty small."

A man standing beside him asked, "What are you?"

"Forty-five. What are you?"

"Forty-six."

A still larger man snorted in amusement.

When the audition room emptied out at around 8 PM, Kellner and Eligator, who earlier had appeared shrublike in a forest of sequoias, returned to normal size.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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