Adventures With Nazis, Communists, and the Metropolitan Opera

      It was a spirited September in New York in 1965, with anti-war protests, the Black Power movement and mini-skirts dominating the front pages. I was a newcomer to the city. Less than a year had passed since I toured the U.S. with the Warsaw Philharmonic, snuck out the backstage door of Carnegie Hall with only my cello, and defected from Poland. And now I was entering the stage door of the old Metropolitan Opera House. The Met’s Polish-born orchestra manager Felix Eyle, in his bookish sweater-vest, greeted me behind impenetrable dark-rimmed glasses.
            He spoke in my native tongue and the first words out of his mouth were, “May I see your union card?”
            He examined the front and back of my card carefully and then said, “The orchestra is rehearsing and you cannot audition without the concertmaster and the principal cellist. Please warm up outside my office.”
            Eyle shoved a chair into the hallway in a narrow pocket of space between instrument cases and clutter, and left me alone. There was barely any room to maneuver amidst the remnants of past productions stockpiled haphazardly, like discarded parts in an abandoned hangar. I put my bow on the strings of the cello very quietly, hoping not to disturb anybody.
            A few minutes later, a petite, sylph-like figure emerged from the end of the dim hallway. Wearing an elegant silk robe and ballet slippers, she started to dance to my music, her long hair and the shimmering fabric of her dress floating freely, like an exotic butterfly. She was utterly gorgeous and I stopped playing to look into her dark eyes as she approached.
            “Are you here to audition?” she asked, and leaned in close to whisper in my ear, “I have a feeling they are going to hire you!”
            Then she kissed me on my forehead. I could no longer remember why I was there; I just wanted to pull her into my arms in a passionate embrace. But she eluded me, fluttering away. She coyly glanced over her shoulder with an irresistible smile, and I stood up, trying to stop her.
            “I am Leshek. What your name is?” I yelled after her in my laughable English.
            “I am Teresa. Teresa Stratas.”
            Not wanting her to escape, I asked quickly, “You are dancer?”
            In the distance, she said with a giggle, “No, no. I am a singer,” and scampered toward the stage chirping, “Good luck, good luck.”
            As soon as Raymond Gniewek and Yves Chardon, concertmaster and principal cellist, showed up, Eyle led me inside his office, pointed to the back of the room and in a firm voice said, “Practice for a few minutes while we talk business.”
            Playing my repertoire off in the corner felt odd, but I pretended no one was there.
            Eyle finally stopped me and said, “We heard enough. You are a good cellist and we would like to call you from time to time to play performances as a substitute.”
            I was confused. That was my audition? They didn’t want to hear any opera excerpts? I had taken some strange auditions over the years, but this was one of the strangest. At least I got a toe in the door of the great Metropolitan Opera. Teresa, whoever she was, must have been my good luck charm.
            With a stiff handshake and a modest attempt to crack a smile, Eyle said, “You will hear from me.”
            Gniewek and Chardon invited me for coffee afterward and I couldn’t wait to ask, “Who enchanting singer is with name Teresa Stratas?”
            Grinning knowingly Gniewek said, “She is ethereal, isn’t she? Her fans adore her! They call her “The Baby Callas,” because she’s so tiny, and she is considered one of the greatest singing actresses of the century.”
            He explained that the company was rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) for opening night, and the soprano star of this new production was none other than Teresa Stratas. The performance would be conducted by the magnetic, and extremely handsome Thomas Schippers and feature world-renowned, Canadian tenor Jon Vickers and legendary mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik. My brief, but magical, encounter with Stratas sent me into a reverie about a future life with the Met.
            Eyle called a couple of days later and hired me to play Pique Dame the following Tuesday night.
            It was pouring rain that evening, and when I entered the stage door and bounded down the slippery concrete stairs to the lockers, I almost slid the whole way in my wet shoes. A Polish violinist, Henry Kaston, grinning from one oversized ear to the other, greeted me and introduced some of the orchestra cellists, including Carlo Pitello, who would be my partner on the last stand. The pit was so crowded, the string players had to adjust each chair very carefully to have enough room to move freely without poking a neighbor in the eye with the tip of his bow. One of the double bassists actually took out a tape measure to make sure his colleagues didn’t have one inch more space than he did. His neighbors rolled their eyes. Apparently, the tape measure made a regular appearance.
            In the middle of an aria, a Metropolitan Opera resident cockroach suddenly crawled across the page of the music. Pitello, with his bow, swiftly sent the bug airborne toward the first violin section.
            As soon as we broke for intermission, Gniewek and Pitello ushered me out the stage door, into the rain and across the street to Blecck’s Bar—pronounced “Blake”—which was the hangout for personnel from the Met, International Herald Tribune writers, and performers from the big Broadway theaters. The bartender was standing behind the forty-foot long bar and delivered drinks to my colleagues immediately. They didn’t even have to order. I watched them lubricate their spirits, while I declined. I could not believe we were performing in the most venerated opera house in the world and these guys were drinking during the intermission! Ten minutes later we raced back to the orchestra pit.
            Before the second act began, and after the double bass player again measured the distance between the chairs, I had a moment to look out at the massive chandelier that lit the theater’s resplendent ceiling. Playing in that orchestra and listening to my enchantress Teresa Stratas singing on the stage, my spirits were so high I could have somersaulted over the moon.
            By the time we got to the third act, my nerves had given way to a giddy joy. I loved every moment. I loved New York, loved America and loved everything and everybody around me. Jon Vickers, with his characteristic vigor, sang Gherman’s most famous line, “What is our life? A game,” and I wanted to cry out, “Life is but a fantastic game!”