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De-Lovely De-Laurel

by Andrew Korniej

Irrepressible, incandescent Super and Florist Extraordinaire Laurel Winzler and I met for lunch at Chow, on Church Street, on a Friday afternoon in July. She had just returned from a trip to Sweden and Russia, where she had attended performances at the Mariinsky Theatre, part of the White Nights Festival. She didn't see any opera there, only ballet. Nonetheless, she regaled me with funny stories about traveling around St. Petersburg in a cab.

Like many Supers, Laurel followed �The Calling� after pursuing a different career in the arts; in her case, one in ballet and folk dancing. She has been a performer and dancer most of her life, starting as a ballerina at the age of five. Laurel came from a very musical Italian family, and grew up with siblings who all played instruments and parents who were devotees of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Laurel is the only one in her family who doesn't read music, but, ironically, she is the one who now spends much of her time around musicians.

It was as a Hungarian-Balkan-Mexican folk dancer that she found a fulfilling niche. She learned proper techniques while studying at Stanford University. At that time, they had an excellent dance department, and classes were held in a gymnasium across the street from her dorm, where she could take a class every day. Dance training left her with a wonderful legacy, an awareness of how to move, and when not to move, onstage.

Laurel joined an ethnic dance troupe while living in Humboldt County. She moved south, to San Francisco, in the mid-1980s. Frustrated by the lack of folk-dancing opportunities in the Bay Area, she heard about supering and made an appointment to meet the Super Captain, Fred Frumberg.

�I was expecting some Prussian martinet with a pencil-thin moustache,� she remembers, �and then I arrived to find gorgeous Fred.� She was cast, alongside stalwart supers such as Carolyn Waugh, Renee DeJarnatt, Traude Albert, and Susan Anderson, as a Nibelung in the first complete cycle of Terry McEwen's Ring, in 1985. She made an immediate friend in the head of the costume department, Jenny Green.

�I'm actually in awe of my fellow Supers and company members. I get very cranky when I don't get parts, because I don't get to hang with the coolest people in town!

As part of this original Ring staging, the AD, Dagmara, explained in international terms that when the lights went up on their scene, she wanted � Die Nibelungen on the rock to look like cucarachas.� After the first performance, the Supers were allowed to mingle with guests at the opening-night gala, and General Director McEwen asked them to raise their hands and identify themselves, which they did. At that point, a patroness came over to Laurel and gushed, �You all looked soooo disgusting. . . . You were like cockroaches.� Laurel hoped she would never again have to wear a costume as unattractive as that first one.

Laurel is a fearless performer with a �steady hand and nerves of steel,� and she is frequently asked to dress or undress a production's diva, as was the case during Norma, in 1998, starring SFO favorite Carol Vaness in the title role. Ms. Vaness's costume was confusing, because every article of clothing was made from the same material, making part identification difficult. While Norma sang Casta Diva and her plaintive farewell to her father and her people, Laurel and Ceci Valente bravely assembled and disassembled the difficult Druid robes with split-second timing, and with all eyes on them. Happily, they executed their mission flawlessly during every performance.

Laurel has always enjoyed working with the wigs, makeup, props, and wardrobe departments. She has been a demonstration model many times. The company built a special corset to work with this costume from Traviata, which has been employed at a number of donor events (left). When Laurel saw the corset for the first time, she noticed that it was labeled size XS. She pointed this out to Jenny, saying that the sizing must be an error. Jenny responded with, �Poppet, in the world of opera, you are an extra small.�

A few seasons ago, the company used Laurel as the form for two body casts representing Laura Aiken as the Angel in Saint Francois D'Assise. �First, the costume shop made a plaster cast of my torso (to create a shell that Ms. Aiken would wear over the flying harness she needed for her out-of-window appearances), and then the prop department made a full body cast to create a faux Angel that was supposed to fly across the stage and burst into flames. After three hours of standing in a weird pose covered with plaster and being told jokes and fed grapes and juice by the prop guys, they cracked me out of it. They created this amazing blue creature and then the director didn't like it and cut it from the show!!!!!�

The blue angel cast was upstairs in the flys in the prop storage room last I heard. I never saw it in its final form, but I heard it was quite wonderful. It probably cost the company a lot of money to build, rig, re-rig repeatedly, get fire permits in order to pull off the stunt, etc., etc. at least my time was a freebie.�

One of Laurel's favorite costumes is the cleavage-revealing, faux-nipple-enhanced gown from Act I of Rigoletto (right). During the fitting process, she was amazed by the engineering that went into building a shelf in the bodice to lift and separate. She has the strongest admiration for the backstage craftspeople and �the phenomenal level of skill and artistry that they put into their work.�

Her very favorite costume, however, was the Bob Mackie couture beaded gown from the sensational 1989 three-act premiere production of Alban Berg's Lulu (picture at top of article). Bob Mackie was at the fitting and said, �It looks as though I made this for you.� The costume was beautifully constructed, more so, even, than other costumes from the production. At one point during the casino scene, she caught the dress on a passing tenor at the roulette table. It was so well made, she didn't lose a single bead. Laurel got to wear it again nine years later for a revival of the production, and to Jenny Green's disbelief (�a triumph of mind over matter, love�), it still fit.

Lulu comes to a blood-chilling climax with the eponymous character's brutal murder at the hands of Jack the Ripper. As Lulu realizes what is about to happen, she shouts, �Nein! nein! nein!� and as he stabs her, she lets out a desperate scream. It's a great theatrical moment, but the final scream in both '89 and '98 didn't come from Lulu, it came from Laurel, in her only vocal moment onstage at the War Memorial. Lotfi Mansouri had auditioned several Super ladies for the �role,� and Laurel won it with �the most terrifying sound� Lotfi had ever heard, earning her the nickname �The Screamer.� The Screamer got her own monitor and cue from the prompter's box, but, naturally, no amplification. She reprised the big moment the following year at a Symphony Pops concert conducted by Andrew Massey. During the concert, The Screamer stepped out into the spotlight in big earrings and taffeta, and after an announcement about �the sadness and drama of Opera,� out came The Scream. Of course, it warranted a mention in Herb Caen's column.

Laurel has never been afraid to show a lot of flesh, but she has never revealed all onstage. She was a part of the 1994 Ubiquitous Nude Season, appearing in Tannhäuser and Herodiade, but she declined a part in the habit-ripping finale of The Fiery Angel when she learned that there would be no body stockings. Ironically, in the summer of 2003, the body-concealing nun's costume in Trovatore �caused more than one company member to sidle up and tell me how sexy I looked in that outfit naughty Catholic schoolboys, one and all!� It earned her the handle of �Twisted Sister.�

During the 1994 Tannhäuser, a provocative photo with Super Louis Schilling appeared in the Chronicle Pink Section, and she enjoyed pointing out that it was a picture of her with her bookkeeper. In Herodiade, she appeared in three costumes in three scenes, including one as a double for the then relatively unknown Renee Fleming, clad in a bejeweled G-string. She remembers seeing a certain very famous tenor sneaking out into the audience during rehearsals (in full costume did he get a note?) to watch the scene.

That production was the last time Placido Domingo appeared in a fully staged opera at SFO. Her association with the star has continued to be a pleasure. Laurel and her sister were invited to visit him backstage after the 1999 Three Tenors concert in San Jose, and a few years ago, she enjoyed a prominent role in the scene from Giordano's Fedora that opened the Domingo Gala.

Laurel's favorite voice types fall in the tenor to bass range, and she has a string of anecdotes about singers with whom she has worked. During the Civic Auditorium Carmen, she alternated in the role of Manuelita, the Carmen-slashed cigarette girl in Act I. With each performance, the makeup gash on her cheek became gorier and gorier. During the final performance, the Don Jose, handsome Argentinean tenor Jose Cura (right), sat her down onstage and whispered, �I have a friend in the audience who is a plastic surgeon. I'm sure he could fix that.�

She also speaks fondly of Jerry Hadley (�the funniest person�), the late Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Jeffrey Wells. Of Samuel Ramey, she remembers the time they were watching a ballgame on the props department's TV during Don Giovanni . �At one point,� she recalls, �Sam heard his cue and said, �I think I have to go sing. I'll be right back.' �

But, like another recent Spearhead interviewee, Joe Harris, she has lasting but sad memories of the tenor Barry McCauley (left), who sang here in both Lulu and War and Peace. �Barry lost his voice and his career and ended up working in a dry-cleaning factory. He had four kids to support, and even though he never smoked, he died of lung cancer.�

Laurel's best �out of house� experiences have been at the Met, where she sat in the house during a final dress rehearsal of Susanna, with Ramey, Hadley, and Fleming (�a great production, it would be wonderful to do in SF�); attended a staging rehearsal of Pique Dame and laughed with Domingo over his struggles with the Russian text; and sat in the General Director's box during a Great Gatsby performance, channeling Rudolf Bing, and found a bent nail backstage to add to her collection.

As Laurel reflects on her years as a Super, she says that the hardest thing has been watching the opera become �more corporate, more stressed,� with less of the collegiality, parties, and �hanging out� that used to go on. She remembers Supers being more active fund-raisers and the time they collected money to purchase the Super Captain's computer. She misses the many Supers who have gone: �Kermit� DuVal, Ted Foster, Ian Mishkin, and especially Susan Mead, a �classy lady who called me up from the hospice to thank me for flowers that Stephanie Salter had taken to her. She ended up by comforting me.�

As this very entertaining lunch ended, and I dashed off to avoid getting a parking ticket on Market Street, Laurel started to say, �. . . and remind me to tell you about the time in dressing room . . .� but her voice was drowned out by a passing J Church bus, and the details would have to wait for another lunch and the next installment of the Super Life of De-Lovely De-Laurel.