As the house lights went down just before nine o’clock last night in preparation for the second performance of The Letter, lightning crackled in the distance and dark clouds scudded across the moon that shone down on Santa Fe. Paul Moravec pointed up and said, “Look–it’s just like the first scene of the movie!” And sure enough, it was.
Gorgeously theatrical-looking bolts of lightning split the sky throughout the first four scenes of the opera, but nary an unintended sound was heard in the open-air theater until the moment in the sixth scene when Mika Shigematsu handed the fatal letter to Rodell Rosel. “This is the correct document, sir,” Rodell sang to Jim Maddalena. Then an ominous peal of thunder rolled over the mesa. I could almost hear the packed house shuddering. Nature is the best designer, I thought, hugging myself with delight.
Nature got a bit out of hand in the last scene. A gusty wind blew through the theater, knocking several plates and wine glasses off the dinner table at center stage just before Pat Racette started singing her big aria. I was briefly afraid that it would upstage her, but I should have known better. Instead of being intimidated by the wind, Pat used it, striding across the stage with utter self-confidence, and received a well-deserved round of applause for having risen so fearlessly to the occasion.
Alas, the wind kept on blowing, and when I saw the ground cloth billowing beneath the singers’ feet, I felt sure that Patrick Summers, the conductor, would have to stop the show. But everyone kept their heads, and the opera continued all the way to the final blackout without further incident. Paul and I had been asked to take a curtain call, and we burst through the stage door just in time to see the members of the cast laughing as they waited in the wings to take their bows. “You are the greatest trouper who ever lived!” I told Pat.
If you read what I wrote in this space after the opening-night performance of The Letter, you’ll recall that I was unable to hear the applause from the wings on Saturday, nor could I see the audience when Paul and I went on stage for our curtain call. Not so last night! I had no trouble hearing the reassuring sounds of clapping and cheers and seeing the happy people in the first few rows of seats, not to mention the musicians in the pit, all of whom were grinning broadly. By then we were feeling pretty loose, and when Paul and I stepped back from the lip of the stage to join the cast for a group call, I said the only thing possible under the circumstances: “Well, we blew ’em away!” Everyone in the company was hooting as we trotted into the wings. No sooner did I catch sight of Duane Schuler and Paul Horpedahl, the lighting designer and head of production, than I fixed them both with a steely gaze and said, “O.K., guys–keep the lightning, kill the wind!”
So what was it like to watch the rest of the second performance of The Letter? On the whole, I had a lot more fun. Until the wind started blowing, I wasn’t nervous at all, and it felt this time as though I were seeing a show that I’d written. The audience laughed in all the right places and fell silent on cue, an indication that the opera was working the way it was intended to work. The only difference was that on Wednesday, we got applause during the show, after each of the three main arias and (much to Paul’s and my surprise) immediately following the central flashback. Mrs. T told me that the ovation at the end was, if anything, even more fervent than on Saturday.
I’ll be in town until Tuesday, long enough to see the third performance on Monday night, but the pressure is off. It seems clear–gratifyingly, gloriously clear–that Paul and I have succeeded in writing a modern opera that goes over with audiences in a big way, which is what we set out to do. From here on, I’m going to sit back and enjoy myself. Whatever lies in store for The Letter is out of my hands. For now, it’s time to bask in the applause and revel in the moment.