Keeping My Head Above Water: The Night I Held Hands with Marian Anderson

by Leslie Dreyer, violinist (ret.)

Les Dreyer retired after playing for 46 seasons in the MET Orchestra. Over the span of his lifetime, he has become particularly known for his writings, many of which appeared in the New York Times. This is this first post in a new series that features some of his remarkable storytelling abilities and commentary on the arts, entitled "Keeping My Head Above Water," after his traditional response when greeted with the platitude, "How ya doin', Les?"

This article originally appeared in the November, 2005 issue of Classical Singer Magazine.

To fully understand the present, we must have an understanding of the past. Our Met violinist takes us down memory lane as he reminisces about his final evening in the pit at the old Metropolitan Opera House. The great singers of the past laid a great foundation for those who follow.

I have always harbored a mild contempt tempered with genuine pity for name-droppers, idol worshippers, and celebrity chasers. How empty their lives must be if they feel compelled to beg a celebrity for an autograph, or queue up after a performance to invade the dressing room of an exhausted artist, where they opt for a handshake, a brief chat, and maybe even a snapshot of the trapped superstar, which they then have signed and inscribed to them so they can frame it, hang it on a wall, and casually remark to anyone who notices it: “Ah, yes, so-and-so is a personal friend of mine.”

Opera fans in particular may consider my attitude arrogant. They may resent a second-fiddler in the Met orchestra pit scoffing at a mass audience deprived of the privilege of socializing with superstars at rehearsals, recording sessions, receptions, and on tours. Fans are the ones who determine whether artists succeed or fail. If fans didn’t attend their performances or buy their CDs, they could not survive. Besides, what makes me imagine that divas and tenors don’t actually thrive on this near idol worship, even when their hands ache from autographing programs, and carelessly flung bouquets of flowers land on their heads?

True, I have known opera superstars who relish having an adoring admirer grovel at their feet, begging for a kiss or a hug. And I assume there are performers who, like many perfection-seeking craftsmen, appreciate constructive criticism from a fan—though I cannot think of a single one at the moment, particularly among the tenors and coloraturas. (I dare any opera fan to inform a tenor in his dressing room that he sang a little flat, or held the final high note of a cadence too long!)

Now I must confess that in my youth I myself was guilty of idol worship and celebrity chasing. In the ‘50s, while fiddling at Radio City Music Hall, I used to spend time between shows in the penthouse cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art. One September afternoon, I noticed a lady, sitting alone at a table in a corner of the half-empty cafeteria, who looked vaguely familiar, even from a distance. She wore a wide floppy hat, a gray tailored suit, and clunky oxford shoes. She was nibbling on a salad while smoking a cigarette and reading a book at the same time, which seemed more appropriate for a Parisian sidewalk café than a museum cafeteria.

Curious, I approached her, holding my cup of coffee. She glanced up from the book and our eyes met briefly. My hand trembled and coffee splattered all over my tux shirt as I beheld my movie idol, Greta Garbo! She appeared greatly amused by my clumsiness, but her smile faded to a deadpan look when she realized I had recognized her.

I stammered some nonsense about Ninotchka being my favorite film, or was it Anna Karenina? Trapped, her anonymity blown, she smiled again and beckoned me to sit down at her table. She offered me her napkin to blot up some of my spilled coffee, but I could only grin like an idiot and sink into a curved fiberglass chair. She asked why I wore a tuxedo in the afternoon. Was I a waiter? I told her I was a violinist.

“Eet ees my favvorrite eenstrrument,” she intoned, “and I seemply ad-doorr classical moosick!” This remark tempted me to inquire why she dumped maestro Leopold Stokowski, a former beau of hers, but I just sat there, tongue-tied, and as the conversation had suddenly died, I assumed she wanted her privacy back. I apologized for intruding on her solitude, and made some feeble reference to her reputed famous remark, “I vant to be alone,” which she denied ever saying. As I was leaving she tossed me a farewell half-smile similar to that unforgettable one she made while watching her lover’s ship vanishing over the horizon in “Karenina,” which made me suspect that she appreciated me not asking for her autograph.

Other than this bizarre encounter with the legendary Garbo, I have borne my share of celebrity shoulder-rubbing with equanimity. For a professional musician to accompany or record with a superstar is no big deal, as my teenage daughter would say, especially since dad has been fiddling in the Met Opera orchestra for most of his life. Still, I cannot deny the excitement I felt playing chess with Pavarotti during recording sessions, or playing shows at the old Copacabana for everyone from Nat King Cole to Tony Bennett, while patrons like Cary Grant, Judy Garland, George Raft, Frank Sinatra, and a multitude of other stars and Mafia capos ate and drank at tables a few feet from my bow arm. I even had the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of playing a show with my other favorite female movie idol, Marlene Dietrich, at the Concord Hotel, with Burt Bacharach as her pianist and bandleader. This name-dropping could go on forever, so before the reader yawns and sighs “so what?” I shall conclude this list of memorable encounters with one that I will take to Valhalla with me, or wherever old opera musicians go when the final curtain rings down.

It happened at the Gala Farewell Concert at the old Metropolitan Opera House on April 16, 1966. Sentimental opera buffs were already snipping swatches of velvet from the seats, and even screws and doorknobs were disappearing from the washrooms before wrecking crews could begin demolishing 83 years of opera history, in January 1967.

I have before me a photo of the 57 opera stars and 11 conductors onstage, on page 83 of Paul Seligman’s out-of-print book Debuts & Farewells. Sir Rudolf Bing is standing behind a microphone. As usual, he is impeccably attired in tails and white tie, addressing the audience. Behind him sits a who’s-who of opera stars, past and present. Yet someone on the vast stage is missing, and I recollect how it bothered me at the time, while I was gazing up from the pit and scanning that crowd of venerable celebrities. Where was the legendary contralto Marian Anderson?

Suddenly I spied her, sitting in the first-row orchestra section, almost directly over my left shoulder. The elegant lady was wearing a simple purple gown, adorned with an ivory cameo pin. She was almost 70 at the time, and could not walk without the aid of a cane. I wondered why she couldn’t be included onstage in a wheelchair, but it occurred to me that perhaps she chose not to be remembered by the opera audience as incapacitated.

Throughout the first half of the program, I could not take my eyes off her for long. She nodded graciously and smiled when she noticed my upturned head, and whenever I waved my violin bow at her during long rests in the music. Oddly, some of my older European colleagues did not seem to share my excitement, clucking their tongues and wagging their heads over my undignified behavior. I heard someone behind me hiss, “sit still!” Yet my stand-partner, a cultured Neapolitan codger of 80, whispered into my ear that my idol’s 1955 Met debut as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera was veramente maraviglioso, and despite my limited Berlitz-level of Italian, I believe he told me to ignore the chiding of those jaded Philistines behind us.

Only a true opera buff can imagine the mass hysteria and unabashed weeping that burst forth from the audience after Birgit Nilsson’s Wagnerian war whoops, or Leontyne Price’s rendition of “D’amor sull’ali rosee” (Il trovatore), or Roberta Peter’s “Una voce poco fa,” or the duet of Franco Corelli and Renata Tebaldi (while their beloved pet dogs whined in their dressing rooms).

Leopold Stokowski led off the evening with the “Entrance of the Guests,” from Tannhäuser. The guests of honor - almost 40 retired, legendary Met artists - hobbled down the orchestra center aisle, following the 57 current singers and 11 conductors to the side doors leading to the stage. Marian Anderson and Lotte Lehmann were given a standing ovation, but while Madame Lehmann ended up sitting onstage, Marian Anderson, as I noted earlier, wound up in the audience.

At intermission, when everyone dashed off for champagne (and the musicians and stagehands uncorked some bubbly backstage as well), I lingered in the pit, already feeling a bit nostalgic about never seeing that musty pit again. I was stunned to see that Marian Anderson had not joined the lobby festivities and was sitting alone, and we were practically the only ones who had not left the auditorium. She was peering upward at the proscenium of gilt-coated dead composers’ heads, and seemed deep in melancholy thought, her noble brow knitted into a frown.

At that moment, an insane idea seized me. I did something so impulsive, so outlandish and brazen, that if any musician attempted it today, he would be dismissed on the spot: I stood on my chair, a wobbly typist-variety with a precarious swivel base, and found myself face to face with the great contralto!

She smiled, a somewhat reserved yet expansive smile. I felt suddenly foolish telling her that I cherished her recordings of German lieder as well as her famous spiritual series, and how I wished I could have been in the pit for her Met debut. Still, I meant every word of it, and she nodded slowly, as if to assure me that she was not displeased with my ravings. Then I hooked my right arm over the pit railing and extended my hand.

Her hands were folded over the head of a wooden cane. They were magnificent hands, mottled and heavily veined, yet slender and not gnarled from age. She grabbed my hand with a surprisingly firm grip, and for several minutes of sentimental bliss I held her right hand in mine, squeezing it with adoration. (Needless to say, there were tears flowing, on both sides of the pit railing.)

Meanwhile, a few of my colleagues had returned to the pit and gawked at my balancing act on the chair. Fearing that I might fall on my head and create a vacancy in the second-violin section, they summoned our orchestra manager, Felix Eyle, to lure me down from my perch. Yet when he spied Marian Anderson still holding my hand, our elderly manager (who had been concertmaster at her debut), removed his glasses, fished out his handkerchief, and blew his nose noisily to mask his own sobbing at the maudlin sight.

I never saw Marian Anderson again. She died in 1993, and many great singers of the golden era of opera followed her to the grave in the nineties. In 1999, at a Met Roundtable broadcast, I began to enumerate my favorite opera stars during my long career in the Met orchestra pit, until Martin Bernheimer, the moderator, signaled me that we were out of time.

May the name-dropping of my anecdotage resume? I invariably start with my first season, 1960-61, when night after night, singers like Licia Albanese, Milanoff, Renata Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, and numerous others thrilled a young fiddler with his senses wide open, a neophyte to the magical world of opera. Then came the debuts of Moffo, Pavarotti, Domingo, Sutherland—and let me not forget Callas in her twilight years, as Tosca, and Franco Corelli and Birgit Nilsson in Turandot, and...

Forgive me, dear reader, I cannot possibly proceed with this nostalgic name-dropping. My eyes are clouding with tears and a lump is forming in my throat as I recall the most emotional event of my four decades in the pit, when, during a Met intermission on that final night in the old opera house, with no one singing onstage, I held the hand of Marian Anderson.

Photo by Sedge Lablanq

Photo by Sedge Lablanq