Late in Act II of Mozart's "Die Zauberflote," a dejected Papageno contemplates suicide because he feels that without the woman he loves, his world will crumble.
As Papageno in New York City Opera's production Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, baritone Stephen Dickson had the entire audience momentarily convinced that that was exactly what was happening when a 5.0 earthquake struck.
"Right in the middle of the suicide solo--what a way to go!" a slightly shaken Dickson said after the performance. "At first, I thought people were moving sets backstage. Then I thought it was an airplane flying very close to the building. Actually, earthquake never entered my mind. . . . In this case, ignorance is bliss."
Audible gasps and chatter rippled through Segerstrom Hall as people realized that the rumbling was a quake, not a special effect. But there were no signs of panic and all remained in their seats until it subsided after a few seconds.
The quake's brief duration left most opera-goers more startled than panicked, and shortly after the performance ended, Center President Thomas R. Kendrick commended the crowd for keeping its cool.
"The audience was wonderful," Kendrick said, adding that Wednesday's jolt was the strongest he had felt at the Center since moving to California 3 years ago from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. No damage to the Center was reported.
If a major earthquake did occur during an event at the Center, Kendrick said, "we would advise people to remain seated and wait for further instructions. This is a rugged building, and it is designed for (withstanding) earthquakes.
"The worst that could happen is that the house lights would go on and the standby systems would activate," Kendrick said. "We have doubly redundant emergency systems here, so it's not like we wouldn't be able to address the audience."
Dickson said that he has weathered countless mishaps during performances and that he once fell off a stage into the orchestra pit after slipping on Styrofoam balls. But before Wednesday night, he said, "there have been no natural disasters--nothing quite like this."
Indeed, what brought the Center its only rock 'n' roll to date was a quake centered 8 miles south of Malibu in Santa Monica Bay, according to seismologists at Caltech in Pasadena.
When the building began to shake at about 10:55 p.m., Dickson was singing Papageno's solo in which the comic bird-catcher decides to hang himself because he has been separated from Papagena, the woman he loves. He postpones a decision, pleading with the audience to talk him out of it. As he waited for a response, the hall began shaking and audience members whispered and nervously checked with neighbors to verify that it was an earthquake. There was no break in the music, and after the disturbance ended, Papageno sang his next line: "All is quiet."
While many opera buffs were startled or unnerved by the quake, one member of the audience merely seemed disappointed.
Backstage a few minutes after the curtain dropped, Opera Pacific general director David DiChiera told Kendrick: "I wish you would have waited until we did 'Samson and Delilah.' "
The quake stirred up little notice at other Orange County arts organizations because it occurred after performances had ended or they were closed for the evening.
"Just your usual swinging chandeliers," said Juliette Christian, receptionist at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, where "The Road to Mecca" on the Mainstage had finished and a Second Stage production of "Talley's Folly" was in technical rehearsal with no audience.
At the Laff Stop in Newport Beach, "The show was pretty much over," said Melissa Winter, director of promotions. "Just management was here."
Comedian Robert Schimel, an Arizona native, had left the club after his set, which ended about 10:30 p.m., and has voiced no reluctance to return for the remainder of his engagement.
Spokespersons at major art museums in Orange County reported no damage. "Most of us didn't know it happened," said Maxine Gaiber at Newport Harbor Art Museum.
\o7 Times staff writers Mark I. Pinsky, Cathy Curtis and Chris Pasles contributed to this story. \f7