For A Song

Ben Schnitzer is serving lemon-rooibos tea and homemade biscotti in his century-old West End apartment. The prisoners’ chorus from Beethoven’s Fidelio issues from his Sony—the jailbirds are rhapsodizing over a brief interlude in the sunlight, momentarily free from the drudgery of their dark cells. Schnitzer, a 28-year-old tenor in the Vancouver Opera chorus, pours the tea, left-handed, from a pot emblazoned with Kandinsky-esque designs into matching cups. “Value Village,” he says, holding the pot up for inspection. “Who knew?”

A passport officer by day and a classical singer by night, Schnitzer—like most of the opera’s chorus members—is constantly shuttling between the exquisite and the banal. As each member of the chorus receives between two and three thousand dollars per production, day jobs aren’t optional. When rehearsals are in full swing, Schnitzer’s twin commitments add up to a 15-hour workday. The whiplash effect of vaulting from cubicle to stage can be harsh. “Sometimes you leave the stage,” he says, “and wonder, ‘Which is my real life? The moment in the floodlights or everything else?’ ”

The company as a whole does not enjoy the glamour that “opera” suggests. About $900,000 is spent on each production (last year’s run of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier cost more than $1 million), but if 70 chorus members are called for, says Schnitzer, our chorus is more likely to hire 40. The elaborate (read: expensive) work of Wagner seems perennially out of reach. Besides, as general director James Wright says, “I don’t see the point in doing Wagner when Seattle does it well and spends all that money on it.” The company must also consider its audience. Do Vancouverites demand their own Ring Cycle? Or are we satisfied with the gorgeous, yet well-worn, strains of La Bohème (which runs to May 8)? Either way, our opera produces chestnuts, mostly.

Financial pressures (exacerbated by the fact our opera doesn’t own its performance space and must rent instead) keep our opera culture pitched between high glamour and pragmatism. It’s a business, after all; not a dream. (“One does not like to sing,” says Schnitzer. “We sing because we are compelled.”) Steal backstage during a performance and you’ll see chorus members lounging in ornate costumes playing poker and chugging Diet Coke. Even soloists admit to wondering, mid-aria, “Did I remember to feed the cat?”

Over the past few years, Schnitzer has been an 18th-century courtier, a 19th-century soldier, and a 20th-century political prisoner, but his greatest role is that of surviving artist. “I feel hugely privileged to work in the chorus,” he says, pouring more tea. “For a few moments in a day you forget yourself and also find yourself.”

He has a flight in the morning to snowy New York, where he’ll spend a week dispensing résumés, haunting the Met, and dreaming of a life bolstered entirely by music. A Chopin mazurka bleeps out of his cell phone, reminding him it’s time to pack the navy Swiss Army suitcase. “I’ve decided which two scarves I need to take,” he says, holding up a dark paisley specimen. Otherwise, the bag is empty.

 The next day, Schnitzer’s plane touches down around midnight at John F. Kennedy Airport and he takes the A-Train into Manhattan. Itinerant preachers call out to him, and a physics professor gives a miniature lesson on the gargoyles of the city’s subway system. Within 10 minutes, he’s in love with New York. He speaks with more strangers than he has in seven years of living in Vancouver.

He follows directions to a cousin’s downtown apartment and promptly falls asleep. Over the next week, he sees a Verdi opera and a Gluck. He also has a private coaching session with Carol Isaac, from the Met’s music staff. She has a pixie haircut, chews gum at the piano, and gives her opinion with none of the Canadian demureness Schnitzer is used to: “It was wonderful—like being taught by Carol Burnett.” But she gives him honest, hard, and useful advice about repertoire and the work his voice still needs.

After his lesson, Schnitzer holds on to his guest pass. A performance is about to begin, so he makes his way through backstage corridors until he can creep behind the hallowed curtains. From there, he watches Plácido Domingo sing.

A week later, back in Vancouver, Schnitzer looks disconcertingly like Aladdin. Inside a drab building dominated by Intercon Security, the Vancouver Opera company rents space to lodge its costume department. Massive buckets marked “Codpieces,” “Bodices,” “Spats and Gaiters” line the change-room walls. A fleet of pirate hats swoops through the air on a string. And Schnitzer stands naked amidst it all before pulling on a pair of iridescent-violet harem pants and a blue vest that covers not much more than his armpits. “No, no, no, this is not happening.” Parvin Mirhady, head of costumes, pulls back the curtain and tugs a velvet turban onto his head. “I’m not a harlot, am I?”

Mirhady, sporting a puff of maroon hair, cocks her head to one side. “No. Wait.” She holds out a finger to call for patience. “There’s a sash, too.” For Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, she has coordinated 70 costumes with a budget of $16,000. Along a metal rack, Schnitzer’s various outfits are labelled “Rough,” “Spiffy,” and “Spa.”

“I’ve been going to the gym because of this costume,” says Schnitzer, trying to cover an exposed stomach with the lime-coloured sash.

He regards himself in the antique full-length mirror, adjusts his turban, and puts on a little frown of consternation. “Am I doing this right?”

Four days before the opening night of The Italian Girl, a dozen shadowy figures crouch in the empty aisles of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, fiddle with BlackBerries, and murmur over music stands while the first full dress rehearsal stumbles along. At one point in the opera, directed by Michael Cavanagh, a model plane is scheduled to soar above the audience. (This is the plane that crash-lands in Algiers, delivering the titular Italian Girl into the hands of “savages.”) The plane lumbers awkwardly on its wire, eventually becoming stuck and eliciting laughter from the wings.

Schnitzer walks on-stage in his mini vest. He’s playing an attendant at the local harem and dutifully scrubs the back and crotch of Mustafà (bass Randall Jakobsh). He sings with the others about life as a slave and acts broadly, as opera singers will. Props fall over. Singers find themselves stuck in shadow while the lighting team experiments. Only five souls clap after a particularly touching aria from mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy (who had her own crash landing in Vancouver after the original Italian Girl was forced by her doctor to beg off from her commitments). Denim-clad techs with headsets wander incongruously onto the stage. And when conductor Robert Wood wants to try something new, the whole 80-person machine (orchestra, soloists, and chorus) grinds to a halt; the 18 chorus members lounge on the set as casual as a construction team breaking for lunch. A minute later, at a swing of the baton, they’re back in Algiers.

When the chorus is finally given a break, Schnitzer wanders into the house and collapses onto an aisle seat with a can of pop. A false camel is dragged onto the stage, and he eyes it with resignation. “We wanted a real camel. But camels—God, they cost the world.” Now he must set off in search of his lost turban. Opening night is frighteningly close, and they haven’t yet nailed the second act.

“I tell myself that I’m just enjoying the music,” he says, “and if I get a job out of this, that’s great. Of course, that’s not how I really feel. But it’s how I reconcile myself to this stressful existence.”