stories worth a thousand words #7



Written: December 10, 2004

“I’m going to have to stop you right there, Jeff. I have to tell you right now, here, in front of all your classmates, that I’m seriously considering replacing you in the final production. You seem to be talking to yourself up there, you are not at all animated, and in all my time putting on these operas I have never seen a more unconvincing villain. Am I being unreasonable in what I just said? No, I didn’t think so.”

If I had to choose a Catholic priest that I had met in my life up to now for whom I could say I had utmost respect, it would definitely be the late Fr Jarlath Dowling, who was head of music in Willow Park School. Every year he would produce, direct and almost single-handedly choreograph what he called an “opera” but was actually an operetta, on the stage in the gym hall. He was fiercely passionate about his work, and demanded a similar dedication from all involved.

I was in “first year” and thus a senior boy in WPS (around 13 years old) when I was picked to play the role of Count Kareshka in that year’s offering “The Gypsy Baron” which was an adaptation of Johan Strauss’ Der Zigeunerbaron. I haven’t a clue what the plot was except for that it dealt with a bunch of Hungarian travellers, but I was cast as the bad guy. It was my fourth year of involvement and I was extremely honoured to be considered good enough to be a “principal”.

To say rehearsals with Fr Dowling were intense would be a gross understatement. My most vivid picture of him in my mind would be standing alongside his piano having had to stop playing on account of some kind of non-compliance from the young performers before him. He was a short, stout man in his sixties with a comb-over, and the image of him in a rage would not be complete without mentioning the copious amounts of steam that would rise from his head as he bellowed!

I would say he had been staging these Willow Park Operas for a good twenty years by the time I came along, so by then he had the whole process down to a fine art. The chorus were maticulously separated into sopranos, mezzos and altos; I could pretty much hold my own at all levels which meant I had to join the short-numbered alto section. Fr Dowling even took the time to prepare cassette tapes for each individual part and make copies for everyone to bring home and listen to “three times a day after meals”.

Considering all of this, you can imagine how low I felt when I was singled out at the dress rehearsal in front of my peers, many of whom thought the whole thing was laughable anyway. It was easy enough to poke fun at other kids who were done up in weird costumes and sported makeup without being made a mockery of by the director to top it all! I guess I would be forgiven had I decided to throw in the towel at that stage.

Though I fully expected Fr Dowling to take me to one side and first apologize for embarrassing me, then explain that I had in fact been replaced, he never said a further word to me right up to opening night. The next feedback I was to receive from him was from the front row, about two minutes after my first appearance on the stage. When I finally chose to look out to the audience, only one face stood out, and it was his, sporting what can only be described as a look of surprised joy.

Something took a hold of me that night, and didn’t let go until the curtain fell at the end of the third. It was hardly an Oscar performance, but I received much praise for my portrayal of the evil Count, so much so that each time when taking my bow I was soundly booed by the audience!

The most harrowing part of the ordeal was when the zipper broke on my trousers while between scenes and my being forced to go out and sing hoping against all hope that the shirt I was wearing covered the open fly! I sweat easily enough at the best of times – that night it had the make-up worn off me and no amount of adhesive would make my moustache stay on!!!

Despite the few calamities, my experience turned out to be the perfect illustration of the adage “it’ll be alright on the night”. My grandfather went each time, and of course said I was the star of the show. Fr D offered a much bit less biased perspective, but still described it as an “outstanding performance”.

You would have thought if my reviews were that good I would have gone on to star in the productions put on by the senior school in the following years. You would have thought a lot of things may have happened to me those days!!! The operas put on by Blackrock College were always done in conjunction with a girls school, more often than not Mount Anville. Since I was well into my terrified-of-all-things-female stage, there was no way I was going to go near the drama department!

For the record, I have performed only once on stage since that night in 1982; at a summer party put on by Champion Sports about fourteen years later in the Russell Court Hotel on Harcourt Street downtown. I was cajoled into getting involved in the karaoke night by fellow manager Bernie Dolan, who in her evil wisdom chose the song “Rockin Robin” for me. Once again I am told I produced an accomplished rendition; I clearly recall the Buying Director Eddie Rigney saying to me afterwards; “Jaysis Jeff you must be on some amazing drugs!!!” How did he know Dave and Sarah had been sharing joints with me all night?

© JL Pagano 2004



fairygirl701 said…
i enjoyed the story--glad it turned out well. He was awful to embarrass you that way.
Buffalo said…
Motivation to excel......good tale, Jeff
Anna said…
Great story as always... missing the stuff with Maura. Hope Prudence didn't convince you to quit altogether!
JL Pagano said…
Thanks everyone, and point duly noted, Shan.

I have been giving her time to expand on her reaction to my last offering way back on Paddy's Day, as she said she would do "when (she) had time".

I actually have an email rarin' to go, but the longer I leave it, the more impact it will have. I think it is almost time, but maybe just one more day so she can stew over it for the weekend (cue evil laugh)...
Anonymous said…
Jeff, thanks for the tale, I was in that very production myself, and I do remember your preformance, it was memorable, honestly you were great, I could not share your high views of Fr Downling, but it was nice to remember. All the best - A Barr

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