Articles

THE UNKNOWN STAR OF THE MET

Otello Ceroni sticks his pale face out of a hole in the Metropolitan Opera stage and tells the stars what to do and when to do it. He is unknown and unhonored hut Ezio Pinza calls him “the Toscanini of the prompters"

MORTON HUNT March 1 1951
Articles

THE UNKNOWN STAR OF THE MET

Otello Ceroni sticks his pale face out of a hole in the Metropolitan Opera stage and tells the stars what to do and when to do it. He is unknown and unhonored hut Ezio Pinza calls him “the Toscanini of the prompters"

MORTON HUNT March 1 1951

THE UNKNOWN STAR OF THE MET

Otello Ceroni sticks his pale face out of a hole in the Metropolitan Opera stage and tells the stars what to do and when to do it. He is unknown and unhonored hut Ezio Pinza calls him “the Toscanini of the prompters"

MORTON HUNT

NIGHT after night, during the glittering season of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company, a plump small grey-haired man does his evening’s work at the edge of the stage, right in front of the critical eyes of thousands of operalovers who never see him.

He knows more scores, note for note and word for word, than any performer or musician at the Met, yet his name never even appears in the program notes. In the midst of pomp and pageantry he has one of the loneliest jobs in town; in the midst of cheers and bravissimos he earns never so much as a nod of the head. For he is the prompter—the man in the little tin box at the front of the world-famous stage.

Otello Ceroni, senior prompter at the Met, has a job second in importance only to that of the conductor; often the success or failure of the performance is in his hands. He is a musical encyclopedia: his personal repertoire of operas

totals 182, which is six or seven times as many as

the average singer gets to know, and a lot more than even the veteran conductors know. In 28 years of prompting he has rolled up more than 3,000 performances, which puts even Lauritz Melchior in the shade.

In spite of all this Ceroni is truly the forgotten man of opera. Few people on the paying side of the footlights have ever heard of him. For that matter, many a great artist has come to the Met, stepped onto the stage for her first performance, taken her orders all evening from the face in the little hox, been saved by it from making a dozen nervous blunders, and then gone home in triumph and glory without ever meeting the little man or learning his name.

Yet unapplauded Ceroni is, in spite of his anonymity, the opera stars’ best friend. Any one of the great stars of the Met Jan Peerce, Eleanor Steher, John Brownlee, Leonard Warren—may perform as many as five or even 10 different roles during a single season. Each role can average the

length of a straight dramatic part in a play; yet in addition to all the words of his role the star must remember every subtlety of music, timing and staging. He cannot fumble for his words or hesitate so much as a moment. The music marches on inexorably; it will not wait for him to remember. There is only one answer: he must have a spare

memory, in the form of the cue-master in the little tin box.

Ceroni is more than a cue-master. He is, he says, “the chief of staff to the general,” the general being the conductor. As second-in-command it is Ceroni who tells the singers when to begin every line, and with what words. He doesn’t trust anybody to remember anything.

One soprano who has heen at the Met 15 years has to say “si” at one point in a certain opera; it is her only word in 10 minutes of music. In 15 years Ceroni has never yet failed to whisper “si,” pointing his finger at her, a few seconds before she is to sing the one word.

‘‘ís not so strange,” says Ceroni with a benign smile. “Because when artist is on the stage he has plenty of jobs, no? He must have somebody who help him. I do this. I protect him all the time.” His pale intelligent face takes on the beneficent look of a rich man who is showering money upon beggars.

America’s minor opera companies often work without prompters. A Met contralto was performing in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” for a company in Newark not long ago without benefit of prompter. A soprano, who was also on the stage, forgot to sing at one point. The Met star repeated her line to cue the other; still no answer. There was an ominous pause from the orchestra, where the sweating conductor was stretching out a measure of silence.

“Go ahead,” whispered the contralto fiercely. “You’re supposed to come in with your 'E si amoroso’ now.”

“No I’m not,” whispered the soprano. “You sing ‘Che dite’ first.”

‘Don’t be ridiculous,” said the contralto. “I know this opera.”

“Don’t tell me I’m ridiculous,” said the soprano. “So do I.”

From the orchestra pit the conductor suddenly bellowed out ‘E si amoroso’ in a voice the whole audience could hear. The soprano paled, straightened up. and the log-jam was broken. So was the mood of the whole scene.

Two days later the same contralto walked onto the Metropolitan stage in a regular evening performance. She glanced down affectionately to where the expressive face and beating hands of Otello Ceroni appeared above the floor. “Buona sera, caro Ceroni," she whispered in greet ing. “Boy, am I glad to see you, pal.”

Even the greatest of the stars cannot be expected to remember all their words and music all the time. Every reputation would be tarnished were it not for the attentive ministrations of prompters. The incomparable Kirsten Flagstad, according to music critic Howard Taubman, even fell asleep on stage one time and was only saved from disaster by a watchful prompter. It was in “Parsifal,” an opera which, being five hours long, could put anyone to sleep. Flagstad had to lie quietly on a dark stage for a long while before doing her singing. The prompter inot Ceroni) saw her looking quiet and breathing deeply. One minute before her first line he began to whisper, snap his fingers, and call softly. About 10 seconds before her cue he pounded the floor and she awoke with a start, just in time.

Neither the thousands who attend opera, nor the millions who have laughed at cartoons dealing with prompters in their boxes, have any clear idea what the man does. It is nothing like the job of a prompter on Broadway. Ceroni doesn’t wait for a pause or slip; he dare not. Instead, he always whispers or speaks out the first few words of each line a few seconds in advance of the right time, and even sings it out if the pitch of the note is difficult to find. As he gives the cue he points to the singer in question. When, as often happens, there are three, four, five or six lead singers all bellowing away at the same time Otello Ceroni is an extremely busy man.

Coming in with cues ahead of time is no easy matter; it’s like trying to dance deliberately offbeat. Also, to find and keep an eye on the singers, who may be wandering around anywhere on the huge Met stage, is itself no mean trick. Yet this is only half the story. For Ceroni is, after all, only chief of staff, not general—and so he has to conduct the singers in accordance with the wishes of the conductor, who is about 20 feet back of him, across the orchestra pit.

It’s all done by mirror. Ceroni’s first job, when he crawls up the iron stairway from the basement and squirms his way into the small wooden chair mounted on it just under the metal hood, is to unpack his rear-view mirror, his only contact with the conductor. It is a little wrought-iron stand about a foot and a half tall with a round convex mirror on top. He stands the thing on stage, just to one side of his . Continued on page 47

The Unknown Star of the Met

Continued from page 21

box, where it is barely noticed by the audience. In it he can see the conductor about as well as you can see a motor-cycle cop catching you on the highway, which is well enough.

Next Ceroni takes up a one-foot section of the stage floor in front of his chest and moves it into a slot a few inches below, making a sort of slanting worktable on which he lays his musical score. With a few inches to spare above his head, and just room enough for his gesticulating arms on either side, he is ready to work.

Once the music starts, Ceroni could well use three sets of eyes. Ehrst he must keep the conductor in view all the time. Second, he must keep his eyes on the score in front of him, since he cannot trust himself to remember the several thousand details of any one score, let alone of all the several dozen scores he works with during the season. Third, he has to keep his eyes on the singers who sometimes are milling about in crowds that run as high as 100 to 200 supernumeraries, hoi ses, carriages, assassins, dancers, and possibly a spare stagehand or two.

A Kiss Is Encouragement

Normally the singers don’t keep their eyes fixed on Ceroni, though they’ll watch him from the corner of an eye in any difficult part. But Ceroni, who by now is semi-psychic, can tell when a singer is heading for trouble almost before the singer knows it.

“I take care of the singer like baby,” he says. “ Is when I see that look around the mouth, I know is trouble ahead.” Ceroni instantly summons the singer’s attention by making a kissing or squeaking sound with his mouth, somewhat as you would call a cat, and strongly whispers out the words or music the singer is about to forget. He calls this “encouraging the artist,” for he is a man of great tact and sweetness.

Ceroni’s good nature is remarkable, not only because he is never publicly praised but also because his working conditions are fairly grim. Jammed into his little box like a tail-gunner, with draughts and stage dust blowing in his face and the heat of the footlights broiling the metal hood on both sides, he has to remain at a peak of attentiveness all evening long. In contrast, the singers come and go, and have time to rest in the wings or in their dressing rooms between appearances on stage. He never complains about this at all.

“The whole wonderful stage is right in my lap,” he says, glowing with pride at the thought that he« has the nearest and clearest view of anyone in the whole opera house. But position isn’t always an advantage.

In the second act of “Carmen” the Toreador swings his cape grandly around during his famous song, sweeping clouds of dust, grit, and old carpet tacks in the direction of the footlights. Ceroni in self-defense has learned to bob down his iron ladder just before this.

Once in San Francisco during a performance of “Boris Godounov” an unruly horse almost stepped in Ceroni’s face. Ceroni, taking no chances, ducked. Unfortunately the box in the San Francisco opera house is narrower than the Met’s and he cracked his head on the edge of the stage. He missed the rest of the opera that night. The singers nervously carried on without him, rolling up a fine box score of errors.

In Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” a group of disgruntled characters are

supposed to pul1 all the dishes out of a closet. One time this past season the whole load of dishes (all made of pewter and tin) crashed down toward the footlights, two of them scoring a bull’s-eye in the prompter’s box. In spite of several bruises Ceroni kept on without missing a single cue.

In a performance of “Hansel and Grete!” some seasons back soprano Thelma Votipka had to wield a broomstick against the two children of the title. In her zeal she sides wiped a heavy cup of milk on the table and it flew off", bashing poor Ceroni in the mouth and sending him down his ladder bleeding freely. Votipka says she still doesn’t know how she managed to finish the act without bursting into tears.

Just a few months ago, in a performance of “Salome,” tenor Set Svanholm, as Herod, ripped a wreath off his head and flung it to the ground. It bounced and Ceroni got it right in the face. When it isn’t wreaths, plates, and cups, Ceroni has to remember to guard his fingers from the feet of leaping ballerinas. Basso Italo Tajo, in one aria in Mozart’s “Figaro,” takes a particular joy in flinging his cape over the box, shutting off Ceroni’s view, and delivering his aria to the audience with one foot planted on top of the box. Were Ceroni a lesser man he might easily give Tajo a hotfoot, but he has resisted all temptation.

Apart from such incidents Ceroni’s work is serious, difficult, and demands the ability to think fast. Usually he corrects a situation by just tossing cues and conducting with his hands, but occasionally the remedy is moie drastic.

Some years ago, in the “Barber of Seville,” a basso was impatiently waiting in the wings for a musical cue which would bring him on to sing his aria. A singer on stage got befuddled and leaped to a similar part of the music which should have come five minutes later, and another followed suit. Ceroni immediately knew that it would be impossible to get them both back without serious difficulty, so he cued the other artists in to that spot. The conductor followed suit immediately, everything went off smoothly, the audience saw not the least ripple of uncertainty, and everyone felt pretty well pleased at the recovery of the fumble. That is, all except the basso, who never did come on stage.

The Great Are In His Lap

Though no one has ever praised Ceroni publicly all the artists at the Met know him to be a peerless craftsman. Ezio Pinza calls him “the Toscanini of prompters.” Yet he has never taken a bow, never received honors in the newspapers, and never appeared at a white-tie function of the Opera Guild. None of this distresses him.

“Ah, my dear,” he says, “is the theatre, no? 1 have only to do my work well, is all. Is my duty.” He has no particular desire to receive public applause; the pleasure of having the world’s greatest opera stars perform almost in his lap and take their orders from him is more than enough reward.

“Elven when I’m tired,” he says, “so soon I get in the box I feel just like boss of the whole stage. I enjoy so much is amazing. Is make me very proud of my work.”

The history of operatic prompting is still unwritten. It arose as some kind of cross between stage prompting of the type used in Eluropean repertory theatres (where a man does, in fact, inhabit a box at the front of the stage) and musical rehearsing by the con-

ductor. Prompters entered opera two centuries or more ago and audiences have been complaining or jesting about them ever since.

One Englishman wrote to the St. James’s Chronicle in 1764, asking: “Would it not be better to let every Performer have their Parts separately printed in a large Type? . . . (For then) the Audience need not with greedy El y es look for the Place from whence the croaking Voice springs forth, more disagreeable than the Midnight Scrieching of an Owl.”

Otello Ceroni, too, sometimes gets complaining letters and postcards from opera-lovers who have heard his cues picked up by the microphones of the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of Met performances. In Boston a music critic, reviewing the Met, wrote not long ago, “In general, everyone was in good voice last night, including the prompter.”

“Still,” Ceroni says, “if the artist cannot hear me, is all no use« anyhow, no?” .

Ceroni arrived at this strange occupation more or less by accident. He was born in Ravenna, Italy, in 1892. His father, Eduardo Ceroni, was a trombone player in the Ravenna orchestra and a tailor on the side. The elder Ceroni fell so in love with Verdi’s opera “Otello,” first heard in 1887, that he decided to name his next son in honor of it. Young Otello Ceroni was appropriately enough a musical child and studied the French horn under a great, though now forgotten, horn-player named Angelo Zanzi.

Horn Player in the Infantry

While Otello was still a boy, he met at school a lad his own age named Ezio Pinza; but since Ezio was not then specially musical they didn’t become very close at that time. Ceroni’s father, however, had the privilege of equipping the future greatest basso of the world with his first pair of long trousers.

Ceroni finished his studies as horn player and went to Rome in 1909 where he played in an orchestra until World War I. He had some desire to rise above this station by conducting, but his shy retiring nature made it impossible. Between 1914 and 1920 he served in the Italian infantry. By then he was 28 years old, nervous and weary, and thoroughly glum about his life and future. He returned to horn-playing, but with no great joy.

One day he was in the pit with the orchestra during an opera rehearsal. He heard the conductor say to the singers on the stage, “I beg you, ladies and gentlemen, pay more attention, especially to the prompter. Take your orders from him, please.”

“Right then,” says Ceroni, “I think myself, this must be a very important job, though I have never seen what is on the other side of that tin box. I decided to study and get myself a job as prompter.”

For many months Ceroni perfected his knowledge of the scores and watched singers rehearsing with conductors. He told the Ravenna orchestra conductor of his ambitions. On a tour of several small towns the next year there suddenly was a vacancy for someone to prompt the opera “Tosca,” which Ceroni knew quite well, and he got the job. He snuggled into the box at the first rehearsal, opened the score, and started cueing the singers. It was as though a whole world opened up before him.

“I realize right then,” he says, “I have finally found myself, and this is the kind of job I can do.”

In 1924 Ceroni was preparing to prompt a performance of “ Mefisto fele” by Boïto in the town of Carpi. He

noticed a familiar name on the program, in the title role: Ezio Pinza, basso. The two old schoolmates met, jabbered away at each other in outlandish Romagnola dialect, and soon became fast friends. They made an odd pair Pinza, the tall, dashing, handsome star; and Ceroni, the short, mild, quiet, forgotten man of opera.

Pinza not only liked Ceroni personally, but found him to be a prompter without peers. He wrote a rave letter and got Ceroni hired by the famous Teatro Costanzi in Rome. A few years later, after Pinza had come to the United States, he talked the Met’s manager, Gatti-Casazza, into bringing Ceroni over hen* in 1929 to start prompting at the world’s greatest opera company. With one brief period of absence, during which he was back in Italy prompting, Ceroni has been at the Met ever since.

Pinza has remained Ceroni’s closest friend. For quite a few years they lived in the same hotel in Manhattan and Ceroni always dined with the Pinzas, who had a fine Italian cook.

“He is the truest friend I have,” Pinza said to an acquaintance recently. “ But still, when 1 was in the opera and I made a mistake, he would have bad word for me, his old friend, and he would get very red in the face because I did not pay attention to him. But he was wonderful when I have to act with my whole being in some great role like’Don Giovanni.’ Then I always knew Ceroni will be my ear for me: 1 can forget the conductor and everything.”

When Ceroni first arrived at the Met the roster of singers appearing before his very nose was truly glittering, and sounds today almost like a hall of fame. Giuseppe De Luca was still there; Beniamino Gigli was in his prime: the great tenor Giacomo LauriVolpi was ageing but still active. Frances Alda and Lucrezia Bori were there with the great Amelita GalliCurci and Louise Homer. Among the younger singers were Pinza, Tibbett, Melchior, Gladys Swarthout and Rosa Ponselle. Ceroni’s first job was to prompt Gigli and Ponselle in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine.” He had arrived at the prompter’s heaven and he hasn’t stopped enjoying it yet.

Aside from Pinza, Ceroni’s best friend among all the singers has been Thelma Votipka, an excellent soprano who prefers to do secondary roles. They understand each other, Votipka and he, and both are equally earnest and serious about their work.

A few' years back Votipka was singing Martha in “Faust,” and Pinza, as Mephistopheles, tickled her devilishly w'hen she fell into his arms at one point. Ceroni almost fainted for fear they would disgrace themselves.

Once, however, Pinza managed to make Ceroni laugh. He was to enter, again in “Faust,” and present Votipka with a delicate little flower. At a performance in Ottawa he came on stage bearing, instead, a colossal sunflower about 12 inches across. Ceroni and the audience -roared: Ceroni, in fact, scrambled down the ladder out of sight until he had regained control of himself. Since then the gag has become a standard part of “Faust” tradition.

Few people realize how hard Ceroni works. Though he is not the only prompter at the Met, and does few of the German performances, he had 90 performances in Newr York and 40 more on tour this past season, which gives him twice as many as any singer and more than twice as many as any conductor. He prompts all the French and Italian operas, plus an occasional German performance. Not content with all this he goes to the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires for the summer

and there prompts in German, Spanish, English, and Russian. He knows not one word of Russian, though he is fluent enough in the others; he pain fully transcribes the Russian words into Italian phonetic equivalents.

In the more than 3,000 performances he has prompted Ceroni has seen every great name falter and almost err -and has kept every such incident a secret.

Most secret of all are the notations in his own scores where he marks down that tenor X never can get this part right by himself, contralto Y always gets panicky right here, or baritone can’t get the pitch of this entrance.

In the main, Ceroni’s life is one of quiet dedication. He supports several relatives in Italy and has never married. As he works so many nights he has little time for leisure pursuits and seems to want nothing more than occasional

evenings with a few friends, a handful of magazines and books, and once in a while a trip to some special restaurant. He is passionately in love with sunshine and the countryside and rushes off at the end of the opera season to refresh himself with a few weeks in sunny Italy before heading for Buenos Aires.

Like most men who are essentially solitary he walks a lot. As the last crashing chords bring down the curtain at the Metropolitan, and the brilliantly costumed singers appear on the apron to smile and bow to the cheering audience, Maestro Otello Ceroni slips down his ladder and drifts quietly out the rear way, unseen and unrecognized, to walk slowly home up Seventh Avenue to his hotel room, completely alone amid the crowds and lights of New York. iç