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Opera Has Been Verdi, Verdi Good to Him

When Tom Carlisle was just ten years old, he was sent on a bus trip from Columbus, Ohio, to Cincinnati to visit his grandmother. She took him to the Cincinnati Zoo Opera--the �zoo� referring to the location of the venue (a tent within the municipal zoo) rather than the performers. (It was a quite reputable company and featured, over the years, such stars as Lily Pons and Ezio Pinza.) Little Tom�s grandmother, a �skinflint,� made them sit outside and then sneak in at intermission. Here a lifetime passion was born.

Tom was graduated from Ohio State--after a year at Tulane University in New Orleans--with a degree in architecture. He then volunteered for a three-year stint in the Army, getting into their language school and spending the next year in Monterey, California, learning Czech and visiting our opera company on weekends. Towards the end of his tour of duty he was sent to Germany to monitor the Czech airwaves, and stayed in Europe an additional four years, attending the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna which had, of course, the premier opera company. Tom saw operas in �over 150 cities, each with their own companies,� including Munich, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, and Bayreuth. He estimates he saw about 100 operas a year for the four years he remained in Europe.

Having fallen in love with California in his Monterey stint, he came back to San Francisco in 1963 and got a job with an architectural firm, and served with several others until his retirement in 1995.

Tom�s supering career began a few years later, in 1969, when a friend recommended him to Super Captain Madeline Chase, but that year he only did two performances of Aida as an alternate. Two years later, a friend from his Vienna days was scheduled be one of the Meistersingers. Tom wanted to surprise him onstage, and did so during the first rehearsal.

Since those days, Tom has supered in forty-four different operas, often in several distinct productions, including, he remarked, �every single Boh�me, save one.� One of his favorite operas is Boris Godunov: Having begun as a log-roller, he was promoted to a priest in a subsequent production (Tom has played many a cleric) and worked his way up the ecclesiastical ladder, reaching a climax in the �92 production when he played the Patriarch (picture at left).

Some of his favorite roles include a staged St. Matthew�s Passion (Spring Opera, �76) where he was a Pharisee; Werther where he was a minister who gave a sermon behind a stained glass window (the director wanted him to recite the same text every night so Tom obliged by memorizing Cyrano�s �nose� monologue--in French!); Khovanshchina, as one of the �old believers� attached to Robert Lloyd, and a Luisa Miller where he was shot on stage. Other memories include Dame Kiri Te Kanawa once stroking his hair offstage during an Arabella (he was the headwaiter) and once during a rehearsal quite literally bumping into Dame Joan Sutherland on the bridge between the stage and the auditorium.

The few lowlights of his career: the costume he was forced to wear during a long-ago Faust, �goggles and a rubber mask, carrying a flaming torch and trying to find my way up the crowded stairs from below stage when no one could see where they were going�; and once, in a Stern Grove Butterfly, as a servant carrying Pinkerton�s luggage, kicking off a sandal--which landed in the orchestra pit.

All this led up to his signature role--none other than Giuseppe Verdi himself! Somewhere around January, 2001, while manning the switchboard, he was noticed en passant by either Paolo Gavanelli, who was to play the title role in Simon Boccanegra, or its director, David Edwards (accounts differ). Alerted to the possibility by Lotfi Mansouri (�Don�t cut your hair or shave. We may need you in Boccanegra�), Tom (who even without makeup bears a startling resemblance to his hero) got to portray the esteemed composer during the Verdi Celebration in the summer of �01. After several weeks of special rehearsals with David Edwards, Tom began appearing onstage. Many of the cast and crew reported feeling goosebumps when they first saw him in costume and makeup, as he was the very incarnation of the Maestro. Although his entrances were eventually cut from ten to three, they were indelibly memorable moments for both him and, most importantly, the audience. Tom particularly remembers his final moments onstage during Boccanegra�s death scene, as Gavanelli would look up into his eyes, which often brought Tom to the point of tears.

Tom has also been very active with the Super Committee and the Opera. He started out doing some volunteer work in the mailroom in �96, which eventually led to a paid part-time position running the switchboard. He has served on the Committee for three terms, which included being the editor of the Spearhead (print edition) for the last six years. Tom has run a few Bake Sales and is famous for his extraordinarily creative assemblage of the Super Scrapbook, a project begun after the �96 Boh�me at the Orpheum. His own personal scrapbook goes back to his Vienna opera-going days and is quite voluminous. He also collects opera recordings, both vinyl and CD.

Tom�s all-time favorite diva is Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, whom he has heard perform here in this house, in Vienna, and, on a golden long-ago day, in Columbus.