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Tom Reed, chorister extraordinaire

by Tom Carlisle

"Tom Terrific" was born in Newport, Rhode Island, and raised in Westchester, Pennsylvania, a town of over 18,000 approximately 25 miles due west of Philadelphia. He actually grew up on the outskirts of town in the beautiful wooded rolling hills we associate as Andrew Wyeth country, where there are Pennsylvania Dutch, covered bridges and fox hunting. (Foxes would sometimes ran to him for solace and comfort.) These formative years must be why Tom today is such a friendly, smiling and open individual.

Tom acquired his love of singing from his parents, though neither were professional singers. His father was a very good vocalist and guitar player, while his mother had a lovely voice, but didn’t have the courage to sing out. She had been discouraged in school when told at an early age just to mouth the words. It was his mother who loved his voice and encouraged Tom to sing. He joined the church choir when he was six as a soprano (unusual, in that tenors generally start out as altos.) He also had a vibrato, again unusual for a child. It was his father’s last and greatest joy, just before he passed away, when Tom told him that he had been accepted as a chorus member of the San Francisco Opera. Tom has one sister now who teaches in the field of applied psycholinguistics at Boston University, and who has just published a textbook on pronunciation for teachers and students of English as a second language.

After high school Tom went to college for one year in Opa-Locka, Florida, just north of Miami, studying history before he joined the Navy. His service time took him to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Pensacola, Hawaii, and eventually Vietnam. His training was in advanced electronics, but he was also singing in the Navy Blue Jackets Choir at Great Lakes Naval Station, where he was also a soloist. Because he believed that his future would always be in electronics, Tom never sought professional vocal training. He is just doin’ what comes naturally!

After the navy, Tom moved to San Francisco in 1972. That year he started to sing with the chorus of Saint Mary’s Cathedral while working at a wide range of jobs, such as at Wells Fargo Bank, a residence club, and at a railroad company called the Pacific Fruit Express (“giggle!”). It was in 1974 that a fellow choir member told Tom about being hired by the San Francisco Opera and actually being paid to sing. Tom had absolutely no knowledge of opera at the time – having only seen one performance in his life – when he auditioned for the chorus in 1975. Therefore his choice for the audition was rather bizarre, a soprano aria from Fauré’s Requiem in Latin, no less (not at all appropriate for opera). However the Gods were smiling down on him at the time, for he found out later that the then chorusmaster, Bobby Jones, was a former monk! Tom was accepted into the regular chorus in 1975. He also continued to sing with the St. Mary’s choir as a cantor and soloist for a total of nine years.

He loves singing in the chorus because, as he says, it’s just like being back in school, except this time he is popular and is doing well. Tom never wanted the life of a soloist. He only wanted to find love and to settle down, which he has now done successfully, sharing his life with his partner Ed Miller for two decades.

With the opera chorus, Tom is a second tenor, the lower of the tenor parts. He once auditioned to be a cover in Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse In Patria in 1990 and got it. But he prefers the many character roles he has had over the years, such as the innkeeper in Falstaff, Papa McCourt in The Ballad Of Baby Doe, and the idiot policeman in Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk under the demanding direction of Johannes Schaff. Tom claims that he is always cast as the idiot something or other.

He is crazy for Russian opera and has loved every one we have ever done, as well as the standard repertoire of Verdi and Puccini. He also loved Philip Glass’s Satyagraha in 1990, a killer to sing, and also last year’s Le Grand Macabre. One of Tom’s most memorable roles was as a male stripper-nun in BerliozLa Damnation De Faust in which he wore prosthetic boobs and butt that got ripped off during the performance (on purpose).

Tom does not like to be in operas with a lot of bravura posing, which he says makes him look silly, nor operas where the chorus is only filler, though he may like to watch these works. Once he was supposed to rape one of the ballerinas in William Tell as part of the action, and all she did was giggle. Tom loves being one of the Lehrbuben in Die Meistersinger, and describes himself as “the oldest ‘Lehrboob’ in the biz.” He can do perky! One of the most challenging roles to sing in the operas we have offered to date was in the aforementioned Satyagraha, which required all the tenors to sing staccato high A’s continuously and where one’s throat would lock-up (clamp down). They all experienced this and some had to drop out of the musical phrase for a while to adjust before coming back in.

His hardest physical stint was in the Lohengrin at the Civic Auditorium, standing (as many of us did) for one-and-one-quarter hours at attention, and in part of that with a 6-foot-long trumpet resting on his shoulder and playing in his ear. Another of his favorite operas is Peter Grimes, particularly the production of 1976 with Jon Vickers bursting into the tavern scene and scaring the daylights out of everyone on stage.

As for unusual things happening to him on stage during performances, Tom remembers when he drew loud gasps from the audience for an unscripted fall in a production of La Forza del Destino. In a war scene, the chorus men were instructed to race across the stage, which was covered with straw. Several of them fell down, including Tom, who was carrying a flag. For the next performance, the costume shop put gunk on the bottoms of their shoes for better traction, except that this time, instead of falling they all picked up the loose straw on the bottoms of their shoes and were practically running on bales of hay by the time they got to the other side of the stage.

In Norma in 1977, Tom was carrying a flaming torch while standing near Joan Sutherland just as she began singing the "Casta Diva." The torch went out (the old model) and fell in on itself and started to smoke, which of course headed straight for Dame Joan. He didn’t know what to do, stay on and pickle her or go off and upstage her. He stayed until the end of the aria. Just before the next performance, Paula Williams drew him aside and said she had a message for Tom from Dame Joan. If the torch began to smoke again he had Sutherland’s permission to leave the stage.

In other fun bits of stage action, not pertaining to him, would include the 1984 Ernani (a crushing bore, he found), in which the entire male chorus was unimaginatively lined up in two straight lines clear across the stage on two risers. Upon a musical cue, they were all to take one step forward and raise their swords. Unfortunately, the tallest chorister stepped just two inches too far and fell off the platform, landing hard on the main deck – his sword banging loudly into the stage floor. He quickly composed himself and stepped back up onto the riser, but left a shoe on deck below. The entire chorus, still trying to stand at attention, was breaking up with laughter and unable to sing.

By far the wildest event that I have heard occurring on stage during a performance sounds as if it were right out of an episode of I Love Lucy. It seems that in the 2001 production of Arshak II there were eight chorus men preset on a balcony center stage where a tarp would drop from the wall, revealing the eight saluting King Arshak with their swords. They were dressed as satraps with huge black turbans which had bushy black hair sewn into them. They looked ridiculous enough to start with, but during one performance the falling tarp caught and whisked off the turban of one of the choristers, exposing a completely bald head. He was heard exclaiming quite audibly, “Oh Jesus Christ” as he ducked down behind the balcony wall to retrieve his hat. This would have been funny enough, but then he popped back up just as they were about to sing, with the turban on the wrong way around and the fuzzy black hair in his face. Even members of the orchestra were pointing and laughing at the spectacle, as the eight struggled for a seeming eternity to maintain composure.

As noted earlier, Tom is a great admirer of the fabulous tenor Jon Vickers, as well as Montserrat Caballé. Her Turandot in 1977 with Pavarotti was mindblowing. She once adjusted Tom's costume backstage before going on, and when he said, “Oh, Miss Caballé! What an honor!”, she replied, “Oh, don’ beee theeeley” in her shimmering Castilian voice. However, Tom is also in awe of any famous singer who can remain humble, accessible and just a plain decent person in spite of all of the accolades.

Tom is deeply appreciative of the Supers and enjoys working with them. He says that in them he has a captive audience for his bizarre sense of humor. They amaze him with their commitment to the long hours and the hard work with little compensation for their efforts, and he is always pleased to see a scene where the Supers have special action and are really involved in the work.

I am afraid I stumped him when I asked about his hobbies, and he finally admitted to gardening, hunting gophers, and downing carbohydrates. But his real and most valuable (to us) hobby is writing marvelous and insightful reviews and backstage goings-on for "The Reed Section." The idea popped into his head about 10 years ago, when at first it was just jokes from rehearsals, off-the-wall things, ridiculous yet with a sense of truth, which he sent online to a few friends. Today it has grown to full opera reviews and goes out to about 110 people all over the world but mostly in the U.S.) Sometimes it gets a little too political and he was recently asked by one person to be dropped from the list. Tom has also written an article for last season’s Der Fliegende Holländer program as requested by Claire Myers of the PR department. It dealt with the rehearsal process for the chorus and how they handle the memorization and staging of the operas. It was done with a bit of humor, but also again with truth. For example, in one opera the curtain went up with the chorus trying to balance themselves on one knee with one arm extended, followed by so-called “operobics” to music.

This brings us to the outstanding article he wrote about his experiences getting a marriage license with his partner Ed Miller in February 2004 at City Hall. His friends on the e-mail list wanted him to publish it immediately, and Stephanie Salter suggested that he submit it to the Chronicle. It turned out to be just what they were looking for. You can still read it on the Chronicle website.Tom was expecting to find the paparazzi swarming outside his front door the morning that it was published when he came out to pick up the paper, but says he was greatly disappointed to find only a soggy newspaper in the rain. He then slipped and fell on a banana slug.

As for the future, his only wish is to be able to retire at his own discretion before they kick him out. Tom is excited about the possibilities suggested by our new General Director designate, David Gockley, when he, David, talks about expansions. This could mean new seasons, new venues, new recordings and telecasts or other concepts that haven’t even been thought of. There are so many of our productions that should have been telecast in the past, says Tom.

Looking forward to the fall season, Tom believes there is some great music to be had. Doctor Atomic is really quite listenable, at least as far as he can tell from the chorus parts with piano. It is sometimes quite chilling to sing or declaim the actual historical dialog of the planning sessions for the bombing raids, as in one scene in which they are discussing the bombing of the city of Kyoto, which was the primary target ahead of Nagasaki, but later changed. Tom has been to Kyoto, and it is hard for him to imagine that the Golden Pagoda and all of the other ancient temples might have been long gone. Yet on the other hand, Tom’s father was with the Marines in the Pacific, and had the war not ended when it did, his father might have died in the invasion of Japan, and Tom would not be here today to think about it.

Tom thinks about his 30 years as a member of the chorus and the many people, choristers, principals, Supers and all of the others who have at some point in time appeared on this stage in so many marvelous events in such a confined space. He says that in some other dimension, that small stage must be very large indeed.

Some of Tom's many onstage characters can be seen in this gallery.