Opera: The Inside Story
Saturday, December 28, 2002

(GK: Garrison Keillor; SS: Sue Scott; TR: Tim Russell; FN: Fred Newman; RF: Renée Fleming; MB: Maria Bamford)


GK: Time now for----


RF: My name is Renee Fleming and I have a dream about once or twice a month in which I'm sitting at home in the evening, reading a book and the phone rings (RINGING, PICK UP)----

SS (ON PHONE): Honey! Where are you? Did you forget??

RF: Forget what?

SS (ON PHONE): I've been frantic. Calling everywhere. What happened? You're on stage in half an hour!!

RF: Tonight???

SS (ON PHONE): Listen, there's a helicopter on its way----

RF: And the helicopter lands in my garden and (FOOTSTEPS) I dash out the door ----

TR: Watch your head, Miss Fleming----

RF: I climb in and (CHOPPER UP AND AWAY) we fly off to Lincoln Center----

TR: Be there in two minutes, Miss Fleming.

RF: You don't know which opera they're doing tonight, do you?


RF: And the helicopter lands on the roof of the Metropolitan Opera House and I climb out and---

SS (OFF): Hey, it's Renee Fleming! Look!

RF: The patrons wave to me from the terrace-----

SS: Big fans of yours, Miss Fleming! This is my husband's favorite opera.

RF: Really--- Which one is it?

SS: This is my second husband. My first one didn't care for opera at all. (MUSIC, RUNNING FOOTSTEPS)

RF: And I head backstage and there's old Pops, the

TR (GEEZER): Evening, Miss Fleming.

RF: What're we doing tonight, Pops?

TR (GEEZER): Huh? Whazzat?

RF, LOUDER: What're we doing tonight??

TR (GEEZER): I'm doing fine, thanks for asking.

RF: And they hustle me down to the dressing room----

SS (MICHELLE): Oh, am I glad to see you! (OFF) Get the make-up! And the green gown. And tell the stage manager to hold the curtain. (TR ITALIAN) Here's the hairdresser. (TR FRENCH) (COMMOTION OF VOICES, DOORS OPEN AND CLOSE)

FN: Make-up, coming through----


RF: Michelle, could you tell me one thing----?

SS (MICHELLE): Where's the green gown??


RF: What opera am I singing tonight?

MB: Miss Fleming, I'm Jean from the office. We're going to need your social security number. (LAUGH)

SS (MICHELLE): We have two minutes, people! Two minutes!!


MB: I need you to fill out this W-2 ----


SS (MICHELLE): Excuse me, honey, we've got to take this dress off you---- (BIG RIP)


FN: Look up at the ceiling---- (SWOPPING AND MOPPING OF MAKE UP)


SS (MICHELLE): What are you gawking at? Haven't you ever seen a soprano before?? Get out of here! (TR ITALIAN)

RF: Will somebody tell me which opera this is?

MB: Coupla more forms we have to fill out. This is a release form, and you'll want to read the small print.


SS (MICHELLE): Here comes the green gown!!!

FN: Hold still! Gotta do the eyebrows! (SQUOSH, SQUISH)

RF: I look at the costume for a clue ---- it looks sort of French, but it has puffy sleeves that make me think Italian peasant girl, and yet there's a Wagnerian aspect to it, too.


SS: Two minutes!


FN: Close your eyes, Miss Fleming. (TR FRENCH) Can I have absolute quiet for one minute? Please, people. (TR ITALIAN) Oh shut up.

MB: This part there, you're surrendering your right to sue in the event of injury from aerial stunts.

FN: Turn your head that way----


MB: I know you're busy, but ---- when was your most recent dental checkup?

SS: I hear the overture---- thirty seconds----

FN: Look up----

SS: Where's the stagehand with the dog?

RF: Would someone mind zipping up my gown?


MB: This will just take a moment: is the address on the driver's license correct?



RF: It's an opera with a dog?


RF: Is it "Marriage of Figaro"?

MB: How about a home fax number? Area code first----

RF: It's not Rosenkavalier, is it--- (TUMULT OF VOICES ENTERING, SHOUTS, RUNNING)


MB: Just one more signature here--- and there----

RF: Is it in French?

SS (MICHELLE): Don't worry, you'll be fine. You're going to be just great. This way-----(TR RUSSIAN)

RF: Is it something I've sung before?


MB: And if you could sign right here. Thank you for your patience.

SS (MICHELLE): You go out there and let them love you, honey. Go out and be a star-- (WOOFING) shut up!


SS (MICHELLE): There you go---- break a leg----

RF: And I walk out onstage (FOOTSTEPS) as the curtain rises (SQUEAKING AND RUMBLING) and it's a long walk (FOOTSTEPS CONTINUE) with a huge dog on a leash (GROWLING) and --- there is no applause--- absolute silence (FOOTSTEPS) --- the audience sits there breathing in and out --- and it's about a hundred yards out to the middle of the stage where there's a tree trunk, a peasant's cottage, a sundial, and a guy in leather shorts holding a big silver hammer. (FOOTSTEPS STOP)

TR: Hi.

RF: What opera is this?

TR: I donno. I'm not a singer. Just an extra.

RF: You don't know which opera it is?

TR: Nope. Just hired for three hours. This act and the finale.

RF: You don't pull a sword out of a rock?

TR: Nope.

RF: Is there a poisoned goblet around?

TR: Haven't seen one.

RF: How about a chorus of Masons?

TR: Nope.

RF: Was there some sort of a name on the slip you got from the union?

TR: Just my name.

RF: Hold the dog, would you? (FOOTSTEPS) ---- Maestro?


RF: Which opera, Maestro? Wo ist das libretto, mein schatz?


RF: And just below me in the pit are the woodwinds and there's music on their music stands and I lean forward to see what's written at the top and---- (CRY OF ALARM) I fall into the pit. (CRUNCH OF WOOD) Onto a violist. (FN WHIMPER OF PAIN) And that's when I wake up.

GK: Interesting. And it's always basically this dream?

RF: Yes.

GK: And in the dream you never find out what you're singing ----

RF: Sometimes I walk out on stage and the conductor says----

TR (OFF): Tiramisu………by Mascarpone!

RF: I never heard of it.

GK: So in the dream you never know which opera it is?

RF: Never. There's a horse in it sometimes (HORSE WHINNY) or a swordfight (SWORDS). And sometimes I jump off a parapet. (PLUMMETING SFX AND BOUNCE) And at the end I walk out for the curtain call (TAPE: APPLAUSE) and there's the tenor and the baritone and the mezzo ---

FN: Beautiful.

TR: Bravo.

SS: I never heard anything like it.

FN: I never heard you sing like that before.

RF: Neither did I. What was it?

SS: Look! They loved it!

RF: And then the conductor comes out onstage--- (FOOT STOMPS)---

TR (NAZI): You were brilliant. Perfect intonation, phrasing, everything. Perfection. And the violist whose arm you broke was one I've been trying to fire for years. I owe you a debt of gratitude. And your German ---- ach---- it is to die for. Bravo. Bravo.

RF: And the orchestra is on its feet, clapping---- and an old bassoonist looks up at me and he cries out----

TR (JIMMY STEWART): That was some singing you did, sister. By golly, I been tooting this here bassoon for forty years now and ---- doggone it, now it feels like there's a purpose to it all.

RF: And up in the President's box, sits the President.

TR (OFF, GEORGE BUSH): You sure took care of them evil-doers, kid. Proud of you.

RF: And Queen Elizabeth comes out to give me a corsage---- (FOOTSTEPS, YIPS OF CORGIS)

TR (QUEEN): We wish you to have these flowers, and also these small irritating dogs, and this large ugly purse.

RF: And the entire defensive unit of the New York Giants comes out---- (HEAVY CLEATED FEET, MANLY GRUNTS, BIG CLACK OF SHOULDER PADS BEING SMACKED TOGETHER) ---- and they carry me on their shoulders to my dressing room, the one with the gold star on it---- (MURMUR OF VOICES, HANDCLAPPING, OOHS AND AHHS) ---- and I smile and I go in the dressing room (DOOR CLOSE) ---- except it's actually the door to the street (TRAFFIC) and I knock on the door (BANGS ON BIG METAL DOOR) and nobody opens and finally I have to catch a bus (AIR BRAKE RELEASE) ---- and the driver is Placido Domingo. (TR TENOR NOTE) And I don't have correct change.

SS (OLD BROAD): Here. Lemme help you, kid. (DINGS OF COINS IN COINBOX) (TR TENOR NOTE) There. I'm going down to the financial district. Tetrazzini's the name. Maria.

RF: Maria Tetrazzini? I saw you in Carmen when I was five years old. You were touring in Carmen. I got your autograph.

SS (OLD BROAD): Really.

RF: You were fabulous.

SS (OLD BROAD): Hey. One day you're fabulous and the next day you're scrubbing floors and doing walls and windows.

RF: What happened to you?

SS (OLD BROAD): What do you mean, what happened? I got old, kid. That's all. I got old. (REVERB) I got old. Got old. Got old.

GK: And then the dream ends?

RF: That's the end.

GK: And you have this every couple weeks. Interesting.

RF: What do you think it means?

GK: It means that your life has become too controlled, too predictable. You're rebelling against yourself in your dream and you're having a great adventure that you can't allow yourself in your waking life.

RF: Hogwash. (POOF) (CHICKEN)

TR: You---- you turned that man into a chicken.

RF: I did. And I can do it again.

TR: But why? --- (CHICKEN)

RF: There isn't always a Why. That's one thing we learn from opera. It goes into our subconscious lives and ----- (HOWL, OFF) shows us things we didn't know we knew. (SWAN HONKING, WINGS FLAPPING, APPROACH) Excuse me, I've got to catch a swan. (SWAN GOES FLAPPING AND HONKING PAST) Giddup! (SHE WHOOPS) (MUSIC)

GK: This has been---


GK: The secret life of Renee Fleming.


© Garrison Keillor 2002

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

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