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Driving Miss Diva


Otello was one distressed Russian tenor: Unable to patch his broken bridgework with Super Glue, he'd placed an SOS call to Joanne Tolle of the Opera League's artists' hospitality committee, confiding, "Desdemona laughs whenever I threaten to kill her."

Tolle called her dentist in Palos Verdes, who put the artist back together.

Visiting soprano Catherine Malfitano ("Madama Butterfly"), a vegetarian and fitness buff noted for dancing Salome nude, had a different wish list: Where could she find a health food store?

Albanian soprano Inva Mula, who'd been rehearsing, "Hello, my name is Inva" on her flight to Los Angeles, was bowled over when met at the airport by the committee's Mary Romano, who spoke Albanian before Mula could speak English.

The red carpet is rolled out for L.A. Opera's guest artists. Whether they need pots and pans for their apartment or a baby sitter for their children, this committee can do.

At a recent orientation meeting at her Hancock Park home, Chair Ann Mosser welcomed new members, briefing them on what to expect of divas and others. And on what this is not about--"asking for autographs, pictures or tickets."

Basically, a volunteer is on call to an assigned artist during the six weeks he or she is usually here. One planned a shop-till-you-drop excursion for an artist's wife who, she recalls, knew only four words of English--"Nordstrom, Beverly Hills and Porsche."

Typically, duties begin with airport pickup. "Diva" and "traveling light" can be terms of contradiction, former Committee Chair Eva Grant found when it took both her BMW and her husband's Oldsmobile to accommodate the woman's 500 pounds of luggage.

Other tips, offered by volunteer Alma Guzman: "Make sure you have plenty of gas. [Yes, it has happened.] And no dog hair all over. You are representing the opera." It goes without saying that cars must be smoke-free.

Mosser suggested that, at the gate, volunteers hold up a sign. "The pictures [the artists] send may be unrecognizable." And, "bring a bottle of water." Those pricey vocal cords have just endured a long, dry flight.

What to talk about? Some artists, including many Eastern Europeans, do not speak English, which sort of solves the problem. One artist sang all the way to his hotel. "I talk about politics, what's going on in L.A.," Mosser said. "The last thing they want to talk about is what they've been doing." And this isn't about getting up close and personal.

Beforehand, the volunteer should have checked out the artist's hotel room or apartment--possibly at the Grand Promenade downtown or the Oakwood in Toluca Lake--and left fruit and wine, made sure the phone works and stocked the fridge for breakfast.

"Once you get the artist, and they're settled, please call us so we're not in a cold sweat," Mosser added.

And, Opera League President Deborah Tokarski reminded volunteers: Don't be discouraged if you don't get called to pick up a superstar. "Our first duty is to the company," she says.

For some volunteers, there'll be no more contact until the artist leaves town. Others will entertain visitors in their homes, take them to the market or sightseeing.

What do volunteers get in return? For one thing, enduring, continent-crossing friendships.

Many committee members are lifelong opera buffs. Joanne Tolle's father once performed locally as Enrico Porta (nee Porter). Wendy Darby, who frequently baby-sits artists' offspring, began going to the Met when she was 6.


During the month of rehearsals leading up to two weeks of performances, the artists may be scarce. But most wouldn't miss the backstage dress rehearsal dinner hosted during each opera by another committee, the hospitality committee. Begun nine years ago as sandwiches and lemonade, these feasts have evolved into poached salmon, pate and patisserie.

On a recent evening, we joined in as cast members of "Norma," now alternating at the Music Center with "Pagliacci," took a 45-minute break.

Volunteer Cat Pollon of Studio City, who'd brought bottled juices, allowed that her outfit--Valkyrie headdress with blond braids and a Three Tenors T-shirt--"isn't very dignified, but it's lots of fun." And, it always gets a nod from Placido Domingo, currently conducting "Norma" and singing in "Pagliacci."

There's ham, chicken, salads, veggies; food enough for the 100-plus cast and company. Getting to watch rehearsals is a major perk and some of the committee came early, bringing food in coolers.

The cuisine gets raves. "It's like the best church potluck," says soprano Sally Wolf, an Ohioan appearing as "Norma." "For those of us who travel a lot, it's great."

Surveying the scene, Opera League founder Alice Coulombe says, "We have rules. Nobody's got cameras, so the performers can really be themselves." Along one wall, an army of sandaled Romans sits, chowing down.

Soon, dress rehearsal will resume, but this hasn't affected appetites. "They're huge eaters," observes one volunteer.

Argentine tenor Jose Cura is agog over L.A. hospitality. "It's good to feel the people in a city care about you. They're going to spoil me."

American mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer agrees that L.A.'s special. "In Europe, they don't even call to see if you've arrived safely. They just assume you're going to show up."

"We get a skillion thank yous," says Committee Chair Adri Barr Crocetti. "We have a ball. Our members get a real sense of being part of this."

As the Druids don their moss-colored robes, the volunteer chefs take their dirty pans to the restrooms for makeshift cleanup. There is no kitchen.

Then, foil pans in hand, some head back upstairs to catch the rest of the rehearsal.

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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