When Hal Prince called to ask me about being the choreographer for his new production of Don Giovanni at New York City Opera, I actually thought he was an old friend calling as a prank. I had just met Hal the night before at the Vineyard Theater and was in complete awe of him. I had grown up seeing his name on the covers of my Broadway show albums. I felt like I was meeting Prince Hal instead of Hal Prince.
I knew Hal had seen And the World Goes ‘Round and now, Flora the Red Menace. He looked just like his photos and caricatures – he even wore his glasses on the top of his head! He shook my hand and said, “Well done, Kiddo!” The next day I excitedly told all my friends I had just met Hal Prince. Later that afternoon, the phone rang. I answered and a voice said, “Hello, Susan, this is Hal Prince.” I thought for sure this was my good friend and jokester John calling, so I laughed and flippantly replied, “Sure it is.”
There was a long, long pause and again the voice said – more emphatically this time – “This is Hal Prince”. Right away I knew I had made a terrible mistake and apologized profusely. He again complimented my work and said, “How about joining me on Don Giovanni up at New York City Opera?”
Without hesitation, I told him I would love to. He responded, “Good. I will pick you up tomorrow in my car and we will drive out to Brooklyn to look at Rolf Lagenfass’s set. How’s 2:00pm?” I said that would be fine and he hung up. Clearly, he was in a hurry so my faux pas at the top was not good. I froze standing there by the phone, waiting and thinking, “What if that really was my friend John pulling my leg?” I immediately called John to ask if he had just rung me. When he told me he hadn’t, I screamed and giddily said, “Well guess who just called me?”
I was nervous about doing an opera, and even more nervous about doing an opera in Italian. This was new territory for me. There isn’t a lot of choreography in Don Giovanni, and I wanted to be ready for anything. I immersed myself in the piece, making sure I understood every moment and every lyric. Don Giovanni is regarded as one of the most famous operas of all time – the music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is glorious.
The plot is based on the legend of Don Juan and it has a unique combination of drama, comedy, and the supernatural. The character of Don Giovanni is an arrogant playboy who has spent his entire life seducing women until he meets his fateful end and is dragged to Hell for eternity. The role was richly sung by the handsome bass-baritone John Cheek. He was the perfect dashingly cocky nobleman. Hal put me in charge mostly of the comedic moments that involved the characters Leporello (Jan Opalach), Zerlina (Erie Mills), and Masetto (Dean Peterson). All were great fun to be around and seemed to appreciate the idea of theater folk coming into their world.
This was my first opera and I was amazed by the power of their voices. I had never been near such dynamic singers. Being that close to an opera singer during a run-through and hearing the resonance of their voice filling the hall is enthralling – the sheer athleticism required to perform operatic repertoire is astounding. And, unlike our singers in the musical theater, they don’t use microphones!
I was hooked. And I have Hal to thank for introducing me to the world of opera. I loved working with him. I learned so much about my craft just by having the chance to watch him at work so early in my career. That phone call, which I still remember so well, led to a long collaboration and a lasting friendship of over 30 years.