Ex-Met lighting director still gets kick out of stagee

February 22, 1998|By DON AINES

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

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Bruce KatzmannEx-Met lighting director still gets kick out of stagee

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. - "A Night at the Opera" is a movie. Five thousand nights is a career.

"Replacing lightbulbs. It couldn't get much more basic than that," Bruce Katzmann said of his first job with New York's Metropolitan Opera. He started in 1955, working his way up to lighting director and electrical superintendent over a 40-year career.

He worked 200 performances a year during his first 25 years before getting promoted to positions that didn't require him to work every night.


Katzmann, 65, and his wife, Mary, moved to Penn National Estates in Fayetteville after he retired, but he's still doing stagework. On March 17, he starts teaching a six-week class for the Cumberland Valley School of Music called "Behind the Scenes: Stage Technology."

He'll also do the lighting for Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" at the Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg next month.

"My grandfather was a property master ... He worked on a lot of classic stage productions, 'Guys and Dolls' being one of them," Katzmann said last week. He showed off a copy of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" that the playwright autographed for Robert Katzmann in 1946.

"I later worked many of those shows as revivals," when the Met took its summer hiatus, he said.

The New Jersey native became an electronics technician in the Navy and began working at the old Metropolitan Opera on Broadway.

"The first three years I worked during the day and performances at night."

Katzmann returned to school, still working at the opera at night. After college he became a high school English teacher, still working evenings to supplement his salary.

"Even in those days it was bare subsistence," he said of a teacher's pay.

After a year he was back at the Met for good. There was plenty of time on the road each spring as the Met loaded up more that 30 tractor-trailers and toured major cities.

He met Mary in Atlanta, where she was traveling with a bowling team from Michigan. When the Met hit Detroit, he called her up.

The old Met, which opened in 1883, had no air conditioning, but plenty of history. Enrico Caruso not only sang there, he left graffiti behind.

Katzmann said the legendary tenor was a talented cartoonist who drew charcoal sketches on the backs of scenery flats that were still there decades later.

"Unfortunately, none of us had the foresight to save them," he said.

"Lawrence Tibbett fatally stabbed a guy on that stage," according to Katzmann. It was accidental, a case of an actor getting a bit too much in character.

The new Met opened at Lincoln Center in 1966. He said the new opera house had seven stage elevators, huge wagons to move scenery and a turntable to rotate sets.

The Met is more than a building. Katzmann said it takes 1,100 people to bring a production to life. It's not just singers and musicians, but hundreds of craftsmen making scenery, costumes, props and everything else that goes into a show.

"There were 47 electricians alone," he said.

"I worked under a master who originally came from Broadway," Katzmann said of Rudolph Kuntner, who taught him the intricacies of stage lighting.

"The biggest change that came during my tenure was the change from painted backdrops to projected backdrops," Katzmann said.

There's more to lighting than making sure the audience can see the actors. It's special effects like the backdrops and setting a mood to complement the music.

Katzmann recalled one demanding conductor, Herbert Von Karajan, who "would require the lights to be very carefully synchronized with the music."

While working on a production of Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold," Karajan had an assistant conduct the orchestra while he conducted Katzmann in the light booth.

Katzmann worked with opera's biggest names: Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavoratti and Placido Domingo among them.

"He has a warmth that is lacking in some other voices," he said of Domingo. "He's also a guy that's completely unimpressed with himself."

"She stole my coffee pot and put some kind of noxious stuff in it to keep her vocal cords supple," Katzmann said of the late Maria Callas.

"This may be heresy, but I don't think it did her much good," he added.

Katzmann declined to name the most unpopular diva he encountered.

"She was in a limousine and used the car phone to call her manager so he could call the chauffeur to tell him to turn the air conditioner on," he said of one incident.

"Ultimately, she was canned by the managing director. That raised the morale of the entire company," he said.

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