Rhona Villanueva’s “Gypsy Baron” Gets the Details Right

by Memoir Mentor on March 15, 2010

If you’ve been reading regularly, you’ll know that I’ve been preaching DETAILS in my classes this term–encouraging my students to move away from general, forgettable descriptions to more carefully crafted, specific portraits. This week’s story was written by Rhona Villanueva, who was born in Estonia , fled with her family to Germany at the outset of WWII, to Chile after the war, and finally ended up in California, where she has lived with her husband for many years. She is fluent in multiple languages and speaks and writes English like a native–actually, better than a native most of the time. Her story, about participating in an operetta when she was in high school in Chile, sparkles with details that make it memorable. Rhona is a diligent student, always working to improve her writing. This story is one of her best.

The Gypsy Baron
by Rhona Villanueva

 “Hurry, go to your assigned spots, take your positions,” a hushed voice urged us on. “We are about to start,” the same voice continued. The lighting on the stage grew dim. Feet shuffled back and forth, clothing rustled and throats were cleared. Here and there a last-minute whisper, a cough, then silence. We didn’t even dare breathe. My heart pumped hard and fast and sounded loud in my ears.

On the other side of the crimson velvet curtain separating us from the audience, the orchestra was getting ready. Musicians fine-tuned their instruments, positioned chairs and music stands to their liking, and took a last glance at the score to refresh their memories and reassure themselves. Muffled sounds of a few notes and scales played on a variety of instruments reached us behind the curtain.

Rhona VillanuevaSuddenly there was applause. In my imagination I could see the conductor, dressed elegantly in tails, white dress shirt and bowtie, approach his podium in his black patent leather shoes, bow toward the audience and then turn to face the orchestra. The applause ebbed down, he raised his hand holding the baton, and the overture began.

It was opening night of The Gypsy Baron by Johann Strauss.

Three months earlier our music teacher called several of us girls as we were leaving the classroom.

“Wait, I have to ask you something. An impresario is staging an operetta in German, The Gypsy Baron to be exact. Would you be interested in being part of the chorus? They need about ten to twelve German-speaking girls.”

We looked at each other in disbelief. “You mean we would sing on a stage in front of an audience?”

“That is exactly what I mean. We will practice two, three times a week after class right here in this room. The soprano will come from Germany, a tenor from Buenos Aires, and the others are local people. We have over two months until the opening on September 20, in the opera house right here in Santiago. It will be fun. Do you want to do it? Do you want to participate?”

 We looked at each other and without hesitation nodded affirmatively. And with that nod my singing career began.

We practiced for several weeks with our teacher at the piano. He was a middle-aged man of small stature, slightly balding with pale blue eyes behind his round glasses. We learned the lyrics, sang the many songs over and over again, and he never became impatient or angry when a mistake was made. He gave us confidence. Many melodies were beautiful and also catchy and, without realizing it, I hummed them quite often during the day.

The time came when we had to rehearse with the other singers. We were introduced to the concert agent Ernesto Hall, the lead singer from Germany, Dolores Mannerheim, who was to sing the roll of the gypsy princess, the handsome tenor from Argentina, Eva Krutein, the music coach, and many more participants. At the beginning we gathered a few times in the school auditorium, and then at the opera house itself. We had to get acquainted with the layout of the theater, the stage, get used to the acoustics, lighting and side wings. We had to know where the back entrance was, since this time we were not the audience but the performers. It was all unfamiliar territory for us, our first venture into the theater world behind the curtains.

Before the dress rehearsal we were given our costumes: one set for a typical gypsy, complete with jewelry and headdress, and one for a simple farm-girl. Depending on the scene, we had to change from one to the other, and it had to be done fast.

Then they showed us how to apply our make-up. Our faces were practically re-done.

“I think I have to work on your eyebrows,” a helpful person said to me, grabbing a bar of soap. “I will cover them up with this. It’s cheap but effective,” he explained. “Gypsies and country folks don’t have such light skin as you do. We have to give you a tan,” And he applied a darker foundation to my face. “We are almost done,” he exclaimed, as he drew new arching eyebrows, added eye shadow, dark lipstick and rouge. In no time he had turned me into somebody else.

The Gypsy  Baron“Do you like it? You saw how easy it is. Now you can do it yourself.” And off he went to his next object without waiting for my reply, comment, or thank you.

The general public became aware of the upcoming performance. Articles were printed in the Condor, the weekly German newspaper. Posters, announcing the operetta, were displayed at the opera house. They depicted the German singer with her long blond hair in an exotic gypsy outfit. The sale of tickets began. We were given two complimentary ones for our parents.

The thought of being part of this event was exciting, especially when someone approached me with questions and I had most of the answers. It felt great. I felt important.

And now it was opening day. The house was sold out. I peeked through the spy hole in the curtain and saw the mass of people. It gave me goose bumps to see all the faces in the audience. It was both intimidating and challenging. Mostly everybody was seated. Only a few latecomers waited for ushers. This was it, the moment we had worked for.

We were at our positions on the stage and waited.

The overture, a musical summary of the operetta, was coming to its end. Applause again and slowly the curtain rose. The prompter sat in her box, smiling, as if to give us courage. Beyond her, the conductor was looking at us, his eyebrows raised demanding attention. The orchestra began to play. He raised his arm, held it there for a few seconds pointing the baton at the lead singer. With a swing of his baton he gave her the exactly timed entrance. 

My heart pounded, but a few seconds into the music I calmed down. All I had learned was still there. One scene, one beautiful aria, followed another. There were many nuanced feelings in the melodies, from fast and happy to slow and heart-gripping sadness. Melancholic gypsy tunes alternated with military beats and tender love songs. They spoke of gypsy girls, hidden treasures, noble heirs and pig farmers, of soldiers and fortune telling and, of course, the gypsy baron. They all sounded very much alive.

The first act was over, the second, and then the third. After the last tone faded away, there was silence and then thundering applause, turning into a standing ovation. It was proof that we had captured the audience’s imagination. There were several curtain calls and bouquets of flowers given to the main characters. And then the show was over.

Yes, the show was over, as well as my short-lived singing career. But I was filled with pride and joy for having participated in this operetta. It had been a wonderful and unique experience and will be forever engraved in my memory.