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Joe Harris
and the Secrets of Room 11

The upcoming spring season marks a very significant transition at the San Francisco Opera. The performance of Doktor Faust on Sunday, July 3rd, will be the last day that dresser Joe Harris works at the Opera before leaving on retirement. To mark the occasion, the Spearhead invited Joe to lunch to gather some history and perspective on a 44-season career as dresser, confidante and friend to the leading men of the San Francisco Opera.

Anyone who has made an entrance through the stage left door has seen Joe outside Dressing Room 11 wearing “George Burns” (I was about to say “Edith Head”) glasses and beaming encouragingly at the performers about to make their entrances. He likes to think of the area outside of Room 11 as the nerve center of the Opera's activity, where everybody goes by and everything happens. Not only do the singers, chorus, and Supers go onstage from there, but well-wishers, some of them very famous, gather outside, waiting to meet their tenor idols. Room 11 is only a few feet from where the now defunct Rehearsal Department was, and Opera management and board members enter the auditorium by passing that door, discussing sensitive subjects as they go.

We met at his delightful, airy new garden apartment in Laurel Heights before moving on to the charming Sociale restaurant a few blocks away, where he is a regular patron. He moved into the apartment only three months ago, after selling the house that he and his late partner, Jay Deck, bought together during their 47-year relationship. The space is filled with autographed opera memorabilia, souvenirs of his travels, and paintings and drawings by many artist friends. Spread throughout are interesting early works by his longtime friend, the renowned painter Wayne Thiebaud, including a series of stage designs and a remarkable portrait, drawn from life, of the French actor and director (Les Enfants du Paradis) Jean-Louis Barrault.

Early Days

It doesn't take much prompting to get Joe to reminisce about working at the Opera. He told Mike Harvey and me a few stories off the record, as well as many more that were for publication. He has an obvious and deep love of his work, a tremendous respect for all levels of performer, and mischievous memories of the great characters—of the Adler years especially. Each anecdote is illustrated with humor and descriptive gestures and each ends with Joe assuming the character, expressions and voice of the subject of the story. However, he has no time for cruel or unkind behavior from his colleagues and does not hesitate to point out intolerance or grandiosity.

Joe started his career as a dresser when a friend, Jack Cook, called him in January, 1961. Jack was working for a touring company from London's Old Vic Theatre, which was in San Francisco performing Macbeth, Shaw's St. Joan, and a Franco Zefferelli production of Romeo and Juliet starring the “young and beautiful” British stage actor John Stride. Jack didn't have enough men to dress the actors so he asked Joe and Jay if they were interested. They were, even though they were both employed teaching drama—Joe at George Washington High School— they took the extra work, calling in sick at their respective schools whenever they were needed to work the matinees.

That fall, Joe was assigned to work for the Opera, dressing Supers. Jay followed a year later. At that time the Supers were dressed in the corridor that now houses the orchestra men's lockers. They had set up a long makeup table where Rex Rogers and his assistants would do the Supers and chorus. There were benches in front of the costume racks and our less pampered predecessors had to undress there, regardless of who might walk by, and leave their street clothes on the benches. The head of wardrobe in the early Sixties was a “card-carrying crazy” named Craig Hampton, and working with him was a friend of Joe's, John Blauer, who had spent some time at Goldstein's, the SFO costume makers.

Mr. Hampton apparently liked to treat our less fortunate forebears as cretins and one time had them all get into their shabby popolo costumes and form a line. “I want you all to know that you are a ragtag bunch of people, so you look good this way. Remember that these costumes belong to the company and you must take good care of them.” At that he marched off, leaving the Supers dumbstruck. John Blauer then started in a sympathetic voice “Now, you have to understand that Craig spent the war in a German prisoner of war camp … as a guard!

Jess Thomas et al.

Joe only dressed Supers for one season, although Jay dressed us until his retirement in 1985. Joe went on to work with the chorus, then the comprimari, and then moved up to the second floor where he dressed, among others, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Ettore Bastiannini, and Victor Braun. He then moved up in the world, albeit back down the stairs, to Dressing Room 11, thanks to the intervention of the great Heldentenor Jess Thomas. In 1967 Jess was singing Tristan und Isolde with mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis, a close friend of Joe's since their student days in Italy in 1951.

Back then there were no electronic paging systems and no call sheets. Cues were kept by an “electronic genius” by the name of Sandor Maibaum, who hand-wrote them in a notebook. The Room 11 dresser, at that time a Mr. Annini, was a member of the Merola family and probably held the job on the strength of that connection. Both of these men suffered from poor physical health, so Joe spent a lot of time running up and down the stage-left staircase, paging people and checking cues.

Jess Thomas was a very commanding figure, and he felt that the current dresser would not be up to the challenge of dressing him so, on Irene Dalis' recommendation, he insisted on Joe, and there he has remained, working both Opera and Ballet seasons.

Jess Thomas and Joe remained friends until Mr. Thomas' death. His last performance in opera was at the War Memorial on December 6th, 1981. General Director Kurt Herbert Adler called him one Sunday morning at 11 to take over the role of Siegmund in a performance of Die Walküre —starting at 1 that very afternoon! The scheduled singer had suddenly been taken ill. Mr. Thomas protested that he hadn't even shaved, but was “ordered” to do so on the way into the city from his home in Tiburon. He arrived, got into costume, and the curtain went up as scheduled.

As a dresser, Joe was sometimes privy to some very unfortunate scenes. When Maestro Adler swept in to talk to a tenor who had been ill-prepared to sing the role of Lohengrin, Joe feared the worst. “You always knew there was trouble when Adler began with 'I'm sorry but …' " He tried to leave the room, but couldn't. Adler told the hapless tenor that he “was finished—your contract is null and void—we will pay you off—just get out of this House!” and left the would-be Swan Knight cursing him en français.

Mr. Adler was not without some helpful advice, however. One particularly memorable tip was how to get on the good side of Birgit Nilsson. “Take some beer to the curtain calls for her.” Joe did and the Hochdramatischer Sopran immediately fell in love with him.

Wardrobe Malfunctions

Joe witnessed, and salvaged, quite a few costume failures, one of the most memorable being Geraint Evans' Papageno costume in Die Zauberflöte, composed of thousands of feathers. As the costume gave way in the back, shedding feathers and revealing a white t-shirt, Mr. Adler stood in the wings panicking, but Joe calmly reassured him and skillfully managed to patch the plucked birdcatcher.

During a performance of The Merry Widow, Dame Joan Sutherland made her entrance down a very grand staircase to much inappropriate laughter from the audience. She began her aria, but the laughter continued. She finished singing and headed back up the stairs, gathering up the unraveled parts of her costume as she went. She had caught the costume on a rough edge during her entrance. Upon exiting the stage, she used her favorite expletive and, while people threw safety pins in his direction, Joe made enough repairs to the back of the costume to get her back onstage.

Joe fondly remembers Joan as a trooper taking these things with good humor. During a performance of Trovatore he remembers her coming offstage after her difficult Act One aria and confiding to him “That's really hard for a little old coloratura soprano.”

Then there was the time that Joe was dressing tenor Nicolai Gedda when his Manon co-star Beverly Sills put her head around the door and advised, “Nick, remember that when you get out on the stage I'm the big redhead on the swing …”

Balletomane

In Room 11 Joe often had to work with touring ballet companies such as ABT, including the period when Mikhail Baryshnikov was dancing with them. “Baryshnikov was always fun to work with, in contrast to Nureyev, who was certifiably crazy.” On another High Drama occasion, Rudolf Nureyev was flown in for a Swan Lake with Natalia Makarova, neither having danced with each other in three or four years. There was no time for rehearsal and Nureyev no longer remembered the choreography. Joe was told to meet him as he came offstage in one scene—but no one knew which side that would be. He ran from wing to wing—trying to follow the dancer as he leapt in one direction after another—carrying a “cigarette girl” tray of sewing materials around his neck and Rudolf's eight-pound, solid gold wristwatch (a gift from a Greek shipping magnate) which the star refused to leave in the dressing room. Either by chance, or his instinctive good judgment, Joe ended up on the same side of the stage as the Temperamental One when he finally made his exit.

Joe's involvement with the ballet, extends beyond dressing its stars. He has written librettos to four ballet productions. Three were for Ballet West in Salt Lake City, including White Mourning, set to Mahler's treatment of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, and Ophelia, an adaptation of Hamlet which ended with Ophelia's death by drowning. In February 1991 he wrote the libretto for a new SF Ballet production of Stravinsky's Pulcinella. Joe set the ballet (originally designed by Picasso for the Ballet Russe) in a contemporary Italian railway station; it received outstanding reviews.

Three Tenors and Other Celebrities

As Joe says “you never knew who was going to knock on the door of Room 11. One time, a young Italian tenor was making his debut and had attracted the attention of the Italian Consulate. There was a knock on the door, I opened it, and there was Giulietta Masina.

During another season, Joe was dressing Pavarotti for Bohème, and while they were waiting for his Act 3 entrance, there was another knock and a voice outside saying “There's someone here to see Mr. Pavarotti, and I think he won't mind.” The door opened and “in swept Ginger Rogers in a full-length mink coat. She immediately fell to her knees in front of Luciano and thanked him for all the pleasure he had given her and millions of others. She swept back out, and Luciano turned to me and said 'Was that who I think it was?'”

Later in that same run Joe mentioned that Paul Newman was outside, and would Luciano mind having a photo taken with him? Celebrity-struck Pavarotti beamed and replied “But of course” stepped outside and graciously posed with a long-time Super and Newman namesake (right).

It was also during Bohème that Pavarotti celebrated his 34th birthday. During the Café Momus scene, Kurt Adler (supering in a waiter's uniform) presented him with a bottle of real champagne onstage and wished him a Happy Birthday. Pavarotti was noticeably shocked. Joe had been informed that the boys' chorus would be outside Room 11 waiting to sing “Happy Birthday” after the curtain calls, so he went ahead and gently opened the stage left door so that the great tenor wouldn't knock over some unfortunate boy soprano in his hurry to get back to the dressing room.

Joe qualified as a bona fide Super when Jose Carreras, appearing as Gustavus in a 1977 restored-to-Sweden Ballo, insisted that he be his costumed onstage dresser in one scene (right). He reluctantly agreed and, as a Super, Joe's dresser was, of course, his partner Jay.

Joe was on duty, naturally, for Opening Night of the 1983 Season, the night Placido Domingo (shown at left with designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle [L] and Joe [R]) was flown in from the East Coast on a few hours' notice to sing Otello when the scheduled tenor (can anyone remember his name?)* fell sick. “Fortunately," said Joe, “Placido's costumes were still around and hadn't been altered, and he hadn't gained any weight, so they were just brought over for us and they worked. The curtain didn't go up until 10:30 at night, the performance ended at 2:45 am, after which there were the usual Opening Night parties and then Sunday's Opera in the Park. Probably nobody went to bed at all that night.”

And when asked “Who is Joe Harris' favorite tenor?” he reflects for a few minutes as though running through the names of the hundreds of great performers he has worked with and contemplating decades of great memories, before settling, eventually, on “Placido: He is very macho, very Spanish, and though he would never be physical in front of other people, as soon as there's no one else around we just throw our arms around each other.”

Of younger, post-Adler generations of tenors, he qualifies this selection by saying “I love and feel really close to many other singers, too: Marcello Giordani, David Daniels (right)—he calls me every week and really went out of his way to make sure that I got the VIP treatment at Glimmerglass one year—and Frank Lopardo (whom he is looking forward to seeing again during the spring Bohèmes), Juan Diego Florez, and especially Richard Margison. Then there is Jay Hunter Morris, who always calls himself ‘Your Jay.' "

Joe is approaching retirement with a little trepidation, afraid that he won't have enough to do. However, right now he has plans to “work on a book, not a kiss-and-tell, though,” and to take a Mediterranean cruise. He goes to the JCC gym three times a week, is dating again, and recently worked as an artist's model. As we walked back from the restaurant, Mike and I were able to reassure “Dresser Joe” that having enough to do would not be a problem.

~ Andrew Korniej


* OK, trivia buffs: it was Carlo Cossutta, who did sing several performances during the run.