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Pistols and Falling Dresses: One Violinist’s Adventures On Stage

Theirs are the closest seats to the stage — and yet, down in the recess of an orchestra pit, musicians rarely share the same spotlight that stage performers do. Leonid “Leon” Igudesman has bridged that divide, though. In his nearly 40 years at San Francisco Opera, the Russian-born violinist has performed alongside some of opera’s greatest voices, starring in marquee productions at the War Memorial Opera House stage.

As with all live theater, the magic lies in the peril of the unexpected. A misstep, a false note or a faulty prop could derail the even most carefully choreographed production — an especially fearsome dilemma in opera, where orchestras coordinate with on-stage performers numbering sometimes a hundred or more.

Igudesman should know. During his time on stage, Igudesman found himself faced with challenges that forced the veteran musician to flex his improv skills as well as his mastery of the violin.

The Stage Is Set — for Disaster

One of those moments came in 1990 with Capriccio, the second-ever presentation of Richard Strauss’s comedy at San Francisco Opera. The opera centers on debate: A countess is pursued by two suitors — a poet and a composer — each of whom believes their art form is superior.

The libretto called for musicians to accompany the fictional composer on stage, and Igudesman was tapped to perform in the dance scenes. It was an opulent affair. Celebrated soprano Kiri Te Kanawa headlined as the countess, and the late Gianni Versace adorned all the performers in custom designs.

Igudesman was shocked to discover his shoes alone would fetch a resale value of $700. “Even in 1990, it was a very expensive affair,” he recalled.

But while he felt completely at ease in his hand-stitched footwear, some performers seemed to struggle with the couture. According to Igudesman, the rumor backstage was that mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz, who played the actress Clairon, had been warring with her dress: a strapless number meant to evoke the flapper fashions of the 1920s.

“She tinkered with that to the point where it started to come down. It was coming down, and they had to bring a chair for her to sit down not to lose it completely,” Igudesman said.

Careful Coordination, On Stage and Off

Soon, it was time to take the stage. Igudesman and a cellist were summoned on stage to play as part of a dance scene.

Not all was as it appeared, though. Tenor Keith Olsen, who played the composer, had to pretend to play the tremolo organ — but the sound he appeared to create actually came from backstage. There, Patrick Summers, an American conductor later known as the artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera, waited at the keys, listening for a musical cues to start playing, so that the sounds he made matched Olsen’s acting.

One problem, though: According to Igudesman, everyone was distracted by the drama with Hanna Schwarz’s dress. “Everybody’s glued and looking at Hanna Schwarz losing her dress,” says Igudesman.

The first dance ended, and immediately another began. But the supernumerary assigned to turn the pages of Igudesman’s sheet music had forgotten his task. His hands busy with the violin and bow, Igudesman was stuck staring at sheet music he no longer needed, unsure of what to play next.

“I started to play something by memory and partly improvise. I can only imagine what Patrick Summers, who was wearing earphones behind the curtain, was thinking,” Igudesman said. “The cellist who played near me, David Budd, also gave me wide open eyes and his mouth was open. He didn’t know what was going on.”

Luckily, as he played, Igudesman says he managed to bump the page with the first dance’s music off the sheet-music stand. Still, Igudesman was nervous. What would conductor Donald Runnicles say of his off-beat performance?

“I was ready to explain to him why the music that he must have heard was unusual,” Igudesman said. “Somewhat sheepishly I asked, ‘Maestro, how was today? How was the performance?’ And to my astonishment and amazement, he said, ‘Very good, very good, thank you.’”

To React or Not to React

Igudesman was back onstage in another Donald Runnicles-led performance five years later, this time in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yet again, he was playing the part of a musician.

As someone who describes himself as a “very disciplined person,” he was determined to get into character, to really bring texture to the the court scene he was in. Courtly men and women would be dancing around him, gesturing, interacting. He asked the stage director: How should he as a violinist respond?

“The stage director said, ‘No, no, no, just react to it.’ Well, being quite a stage person — I love to be on stage — I was very happy to hear that,” Igudesman said.

For the first performance, he was ready to put those words into action. “I tried to react of what was going around me. And at some point, Don Ottavio in the opera points a pistol at Don Giovanni. However, Don Ottavio was facing me.” His hands shot into the air.

For a split second, Igudesman — holding his arms aloft, violin and bow in either hand, making a sign of surrender — noticed Don Ottavio chuckle at his reaction rather than sing. “Nobody noticed. He composed himself very quickly.”

From Bumpkin to Nobleman

Nobody, that is, except the stage manager, who gave Igudesman a dressing down after the performance. Igudesman’s new instructions? “Be maybe more of a country musician. Don’t try to react and to counter-act with these courtly men and women. Just be a bumpkin.”

So he did. He brought his violin and bow on stage in a bucket and pretended to swig wine between his performances.

“The audience started to laugh. And again, the stage director comes to me, and he goes, ‘No, no, no. Don’t.’” According to Igudesman, his new instructions were to ditch the bumpkin act and instead be a “very refined court musician.”

So for the last performances, Igudesman unveiled his final look: a refined musician, with a prominent birthmark, a lipstick stains from a kiss on his cheek and a flamboyant walk. There was nothing for the stage director to do but laugh, he said.

The child of classical musicians, Igudesman has dedicated much of his life to opera. He was touched to learn that many San Francisco Opera ticket-holders affected by the summer cancellations chose to donate their money rather than seek a refund.

“It was an incredible act of generosity,” he explained. And it leaves him with thirsting for a chance to give back — with more incredible violin performances, and perhaps cheeky cameos, in the future.

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