by Jennifer Johnson, music librarian
Mariko Anraku is living a harpist’s dream.
Poised with her instrument, she is ready to perform in the Metropolitan Opera House – but not on stage. She’s actually a flight of narrow switchback stairs, two sharp turns, and one long, windowless corridor away. There are no sparkling chandeliers here, in this cramped practice room. But across from her is renowned former Met Principal Harpist Reinhardt Elster.
Anraku, a harpist with the Met since 1995, holds the century-old “Meistersinger harp” – a miniature model used exclusively for Wagner’s Die Meistersinger – and questions Elster about its history.
“This is what you played on, right?” asks Anraku. “Did they change the soundboard on it?”
Elster examines the harp. “I don’t think so,” he says.
Anraku flips through her music and shows Elster a page. “Are these your fingerings?” she asks.
Elster studies the weathered material. It’s difficult to say whether the penciled markings are his. The part has been used since the late 19th century, by a dozen different Met harpists. Also, it’s been almost three decades since he’s seen it; Elster retired in 1986.
And he is 100 years old.
For Anraku, talking with Elster about his old part is like showing Joe DiMaggio the last bat he used before leaving the Yankees. Or questioning Betty Grable about the upkeep of her Million Dollar Legs. It’s like asking Orson Welles, “Mr. Welles? Why ‘Rosebud’? Why not, say, ‘Flexible Flyer’?”
Except that DiMaggio? Grable? And Welles? Kids! All born three months to two years after Reinhardt Elster.
Elster is at the Met on a day trip from his home in Western Massachusetts – his first visit since the late ‘80s. He is dressed comfortably, in a dark blue zip-up sweater, loose gray pants, and well-worn tennis shoes, and he has a soft, white bucket hat in his lap that he periodically pulls over his head for warmth.
Since Elster was here last, his voice has become scratchy, and he’s lost reliable use of his legs. He has several caregivers now; today’s is Mary Adams, who carefully pushes his wheelchair and returns his one-liners with quick quips of her own. But his face is the same, his half-inch beard neatly trimmed, and his blue eyes as sharp as in photographs taken decades ago.
Elster’s tenure at the Met began in 1948, following a months-long tug of war with a flautist friend in the orchestra, Harold Bennett, who pestered him with phone calls until he agreed to audition for Principal Harp. Elster was working as a freelancer at the time, making good money through radio shows and recordings.
“I love opera,” he told Bennett. “But it’s too hard. I’m not interested.”
Bennett won the battle: Elster auditioned (“so he’d get off my back,” he says with a laugh), won the position, and stayed for 38 years.
At the start of those almost four decades, the company was still six years away from inviting an African-American to sing on stage, and the only women who had ever appeared on the orchestra’s roster were a handful of harpists. The string section was a mix of homegrown American prodigies and European immigrants, including several Jewish musicians who had escaped the Nazis just a handful of years earlier. Future music director James Levine was five years old. Luciano Pavarotti had just turned thirteen.
By the time he retired, Elster had played in thousands of performances. He’d heard the first notes of Marian Anderson’s racially groundbreaking debut in 1955, and the last phrase that the iconic Lily Pons ever sang at the Met in 1960. He had watched workers lay the foundation for the current opera house in Lincoln Center, and witnessed conductor Leopold Stokowski’s futile plea to save the old one.
Those decades brought celebrities: Leonard Bernstein at the podium, Maria Callas on stage, and Jacqueline Kennedy in the audience. They brought Elster his own fifteen minutes of fame, in a surprise onstage Gala of Stars harp-vocal duet of “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” with Marilyn Horne. They brought tours – too many to count – by smoke-filled train, and later by charter flight, and city-crippling blizzards that the Met powered through, and a sudden dark night when JFK was assassinated. They brought unrelenting finger calluses, and even a rap on the skull, forever preserved by the Associated Press, after Carmen lead Risë Stevens kicked a prop stool into the pit, where it “glanced off the head of harpist Reinhardt Elster.”
38 years of harp tunings: thousands upon thousands of them. Multiple, often aggravating re-tunings for just a single performance, especially in the old Met Opera House – the original one, that opened in 1883 down on 39th and Broadway – where open loading dock doors blew cold air into the pit, fiendishly unfurling the pitch of the harp’s 47 strings.
Between the tunings were the births of Elster’s children. His grandchildren. Then, over two decades after Elster’s final performance – years after he sold his instruments and moved up north – a great-grandson: Shaffer Helfer.
Shaffer is also at the Met today, with his parents, Lewis Helfer and Jennifer Elster, who is Elster’s granddaughter. Shaffer is five, and when he stands next to Elster’s wheelchair, his shoulders and his great-grandfather’s are almost level. Like Elster, he is wearing blue: a blue button-down shirt and a navy blazer with gold buttons. Framing his face are masses of light brown hair that spill past his collarbone in gentle waves and brush his cheeks when he tilts his head to study his great-grandfather.
“Like a Renaissance painting” is how Elster describes his great-grandson. And, perhaps reminded of the great works of art hanging in the Met’s lobby, he suggested several months ago a trip back to New York City. He wanted to show Shaffer where he spent so many years of his life.
In the practice room, Anraku asks, “Can I play something for you?”
“Of course!” says Elster. He sounds delighted.
Anraku strums a few warm-up notes, and then launches into the solo harp part from Meistersinger.
“Is that okay?” she asks.
“Yes, very good,” says Elster. “It’s a little slower than we did it.”
“Oh, you played it faster?” questions Anraku. “So, like this?” She plays the section again, at a quicker tempo.
“Yes,” says Elster, “and we used both hands.” He is referring to fingering technique. Anraku was playing the passage using the fingers of only her right hand, rather than switching from right to left, as Elster used to do.
Elster points to a passage. “And right here: duh, duhduhduhduh, dee dah dee dah,” he talk-sings. “Sometimes I alternated hands here, too.”
Elster hasn’t put his hands on a harp in years, but he still uses them to communicate, punctuating his speech with a mix of choppy and graceful gestures reminiscent of an orchestral conductor. He studied conducting briefly, as a high school student at the Interlochen Arts Camp, and his fingers are so long that it looks as though from the podium, he could reach down and pluck the violinists’ pizzicatos himself.
That is, if it weren’t for the arthritis. It crept into his hands while he was still performing, creating difficulties that are easy to imagine. Then came the unimaginable: the erosion of Elster’s lifelong absolute (or “perfect”) pitch. Since as long as he could remember, when he saw a written note, he could automatically hear it in his head. As he grew older, the clear tones that he knew like family became so distorted that they sounded like different notes altogether.
This change occurs frequently in aging musicians with absolute pitch; the internal pitches that were once spot on can start to sound unfamiliar, resulting in dissonance between what a musician hears in his head and what sounds on his instrument. It makes performing a bit like pulling up to a stoplight and seeing orange, brown, and blue instead of red, yellow, and green, and having to remind yourself that what now looks like orange is actually what you used to see as red, and so on, and then mentally transposing every color you see while also navigating traffic and making the proper turns.
At the time, Elster didn’t know that his problem was common. He was horrified. He decided to retire.
On this trip back, when he tells his former colleagues about how he’d struggled with changes in his absolute pitch, they are all surprised. They’d had no idea, they say later; his playing was always so beautiful, right up until the day he left.
As Elster sings through the melody and explains his technique, Anraku’s earlier question is answered: “So, those must be your fingerings [written in the music],” she says. “Should I play a little more and see what you think?”
She plays on from where she stopped before, and Elster says, “That’s very good. There was a bit of a buzz [a sound caused by a string vibration], but it’s okay, because it’s a funny part, and he’s a character, you know?”
He is talking about Beckmesser, the old curmudgeon portrayed in the solo.
“Yeah, he’s funny,” agrees Anraku.
Elster says, “So you get little noises like that.”
A musician has slipped behind Elster, and gently interjects. “Reinhardt?” he asks. “This is Jim Ognibene. I don’t know if you remember me. We were together my first season. I’m a bass clarinet player.”
Elster remembers Ognibene. Of course he does; his memory has already proven astonishing to a stream of former colleagues who sought him out earlier in the day. After 28 years, they wondered whether Elster would remember them, and, as though awakening from amnesia, said hello with question marks after their own names:
“Steve Norrell? I play bass trombone?”
“Trish Rogers? I’m a bassoonist?”
“Reinhardt, it’s Bob Sirinek? Do you remember?”
He did. Every time.
Earlier, over lunch in the cafeteria, Elster caught up with each of them while his bowl of corn chowder grew cold.
Trish Rogers spoke of how he had accompanied her in Donizetti’s famous L’elisir d’amore harp and bassoon duet the very first time she performed it. Bob Sirinek, trumpeter-turned-Personnel Manager, informed Elster, with regret in his voice, that their former, adjacent lockers had been cleared away years ago to create a lounge area.
Mary Adams prompted Elster to tell his audience about how he had helped found the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), an influential organization that improved orchestral working conditions and continues to thrive today. But the surrounding hubbub from Elster’s visitors and the swarm of singers and stagehands eating lunch meant that hardly anybody could hear her.
Adams tried again. “Weren’t you a founding member of ICSOM?” she shouted across the sizable cafeteria table.
“Yes. Yes, I was. I was one of the original guys,” Elster said. “And I made a newsletter for them for a couple of years.”
Then, barely taking a breath, he resumed telling another story that he had started before this interruption.
“He’s on Skype, you know,” said Adams to the people around her. “You can talk to him more about any of this on Skype.”
Violist Marilyn Stroh came by, too. Stroh, the oldest member and longest tenured musician of the MET Orchestra, said, “I was 50 pounds thinner when I first came into the orchestra, so you might not remember me.”
The two reminisced about their colleagues: who retired, who passed away, and who was extremely kind to Stroh during the tense years when she was one of only two women in the orchestra. When Elster asked, Stroh assured him she still had a while to go at the Met.
“I’m only 78,” she said.
You should eat, somebody suggested, and Elster agreed. As he prepared to sample his chowder, he announced, “I’m dying to taste this. It looks great.”
“There’s no dying here, okay?” Adams playfully scolded.
* * *
The harp session in the practice room is winding down. Anraku needs to go pick up her son, and Elster and his family have yet to see the rest of the backstage.
Elster has a few more stories to tell, though, which he relays with a dry sense of humor. Still in Meistersinger mode, he talks about the time that the Met was on tour, and a newspaper reviewer gave the singer performing Beckmesser full, glowing credit for both the harp melody and the vocal accompaniment – not realizing that the harp part was coming from the pit. And he tells anecdotes about famed conductor Fritz Reiner, a notorious grouch, who liked Elster’s playing in Meistersinger so much that when he descended from the podium after the second act, he used to push his way back through the cello section to shake Elster’s hand.
“It’s been quite a life,” Elster says.
Anraku, a native of Japan, gives Elster a gift of some Japanese tea, and he tells her about the Met’s tour there in 1975; about the country’s beauty, and the multitude of Japanese books he studied before traveling. He still has those books at home – around ten of them, maybe.
Anraku asks if they can keep in touch – if she can come visit him sometime.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Elster.
From the practice room, Elster and his crew head to the Costume Shop on the second floor. Jennifer Elster and Shaffer explore rows of sewing machines, headless mannequins, and half-finished ball gowns while the elder Elster holds court near the entryway, telling his dress-up story – about the time a friend got him work as an opera supernumerary (i.e., a costumed, non-singing extra) in Chicago in the late 1920s, when he was in his early teens.
Back then, Elster had no idea that the harp would become his career. He started studying the piano at around seven, and transitioned to percussion a couple of years later. In very little time, he was winning competitions and soloing on the xylophone. It wasn’t until he was fifteen, when his high school purchased a harp and he began sniffing around it, that his future at the Curtis Institute, as a student of the legendary Carlos Salzedo, became a possibility.
As the tour progresses to the Met’s basement, the family piles into an elevator, and a stagehand squeezes in with them. He’s been working at the Met for 50 years, he tells the group. Looking at Elster, he says, “I remember you. I used to lug your harp all over the place.”
The elevator doors open to reveal the final stop of the day: Scene Storage – a subterranean cavern located so far below the Met’s stage that if you dig a few inches you may very well surface in China. The space feels like a giant’s garage, with a massive, poured concrete floor, dim lighting, and 30-foot ladders. The Elsters meander through a path lined by towering slabs of backdrops and pause at a life-sized pavilion exterior for The Merry Widow. The structure is painted in soft shades of blue, with straw-colored window casings and a fake glass roof. Moss appears to creep up pillars and into crevices, but up close you can see that the squishy green growth actually is artfully applied smudges of paint. The piece is freshly created, but it looks 100 years old.
At this juxtaposition of old and new, Elster and his younger generations pose for some photos.
The day has lasted several hours longer than anticipated, and Elster’s driver is waiting. To exit, the group must navigate a circuitous series of halls, plus two separate elevators. Along the way, on a sterile, gray corridor floor, Shaffer spots a feather. Jennifer lights up. Finding a feather is lucky, she tells her son, and it makes sense that one has appeared on a day like today.
Jennifer’s family collects lucky feathers. “Can he keep it?” she asks.
Two minutes later, a small miracle occurs. Maestro James Levine, Music Director at the Met since 1976, and the subject of countless Elster recollections, whizzes by on his motorized wheelchair. When Levine is at the Met, he is almost always in a rehearsal, and a spontaneous sighting of him is as rare as a feather on an interior hallway floor.
“Is that…?” asks Jennifer. And she takes off running.
“Mr. Levine!” she shouts several times, as she chases after the conductor through the Met’s ornate Belmont Room. Her mad dash succeeds. Levine stops his wheelchair and backs it up. Mary Adams pushes Elster toward his former musical collaborator, and as the two wheelchairs park next to each other, the men clasp hands.
It is a moment that nobody has expected, and its significance startles the chatty group into a respectful hush. “I think of you often,” says Levine, and the two men converse quietly for a few minutes until Levine has to leave.
The family finally makes it to the exit and bundles up to step outside into the cold December air. Somebody asks Elster whether he plans to come back.
Elster has fended off this question all afternoon. Earlier, he evaded several musicians’ entreaties to return by vaguely referencing the mortality that is surely on every centenarian’s mind. In one moment of candor, he said, “I’m going to have to see if I can survive a few more months.”
But throughout this afternoon of colleague reunions, spirited stories, and a family tour through the backstage passageways that used to be his second home, Elster appears to have become energized rather than fatigued. For the moment, age seems not to be on his mind.
And now? Will he return?
“Maybe I will,” he says. “Maybe I will.”
Many thanks to Sam Neuman and Silja Tobin in the Met’s Press Department for coordinating the Elsters’ tour, and to the Metropolitan Opera Archives for assisting with research materials.