In 1986, I was well established in a career in government surveillance, flying as many as six United Airlines flights for work each day, but I was a young, passionate opera aficionado as well. I wanted to be completely immersed in opera.
The near-perfect solution was to be a supernumerary, the opera version of a film extra. However, airlines, weather, and scheduling weren’t in complete alignment with my priorities.
I absolutely adored Italian soprano Mirella Freni. So when I found out that San Francisco Opera was staging Eugene Onegin that autumn, I was over the moon. I had to be part of the production. The opportunity to be on stage with her, along with my near-namesake, baritone Thomas Allen—my full name being Thomas Allen Taffel—was simply too irresistible. I considered the lighting director on the production, Thomas J. Munn, my own personal guru, and the whole production was studded with luminaries, including production designer John Copley and conductor Richard Bradshaw. Plus, the two sponsors of the show were dear friends: Phyllis Wattis—my “princess”—and Thomas Tilton. As the old jazz standard goes, “Who could ask for anything more?”
The supernumerary casting went well: I got a part, no problem. And the blocking and first rehearsal went smoothly too. But then, some pesky, non-operatic factors arose. For the next three rehearsals, I was out of town for work, and thanks to unpredictable Alaskan weather conditions and missed connections, I had to forfeit one rehearsal after another. So, in the best interest of the production, I reluctantly withdrew from my plum supernumerary role, resigned to instead attending as many performances as possible.
Sunday, November 16, was the perfect cool and crisp day to paint the chimney on my home in San Francisco’s St. Francis Wood neighborhood. At 11 am., while on the roof covered head to toe in paint, I heard the phone ring. My partner shouted up to me that the Opera needed me immediately. I let it be known that I was precariously perched on my roof, completely covered in paint, and that I was rather indisposed. Furthermore, I was not rehearsed for the part. “Come anyway!” was the plea on the other end of the phone line. They needed someone desperately, because the supernumerary who replaced me had yet not shown up.
Still splattered with paint and not certain what I was expected to do, I arrived back-stage at the opera house, only to be greeted by the captain of the supernumeraries—and the very same supernumerary I had been called in to replace. He had overslept.
They felt so badly about the mishap, they insisted I still go on stage. The two supers reassured me they could talk me though the part. It was so tempting to share the stage with Mirella Freni—but I couldn’t. I deferred to my embarrassed, but better-rehearsed, colleague.
Since I was already there and the opera was in progress, I asked if I could stay behind the proscenium arch and listen to Freni’s grand aria, popularly known as the Letter Scene. There I stood, in complete darkness, just six inches below the edge of the raked stage, caught up in the rapture of the moment. I was so entranced that it barely registered when Freni completed her aria and began walking off stage—directly toward me.
I could see that the lights were in her eyes, and the backstage area was steeped in a heavy darkness. There were no stagehands beside me to help her off the sloped stage. As she approached, I eagerly extended a hand to assist her. In a charming voice, she thanked me and said I was “very kind.”
I drove home ecstatic, euphoric, and still covered in paint. I finished my chimney with a song in my heart. I had heard Mirella Freni sing like never before.