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Magda's Shawl

H. Paul Lillebo

I spent some years, not so long ago, singing in the chorus of an opera company in a mid-sized California city. The oddball characters who made up my circle of friends onstage could - and perhaps will - fill a book. This motley group of theater folks - who are a separate species, as you will be aware if you've had contact with them - loved their surrogate lives on stage. In a scene we might be high society party goers, soldiers on watch, a crowd of street people, gypsies around a camp fire, or any of dozens of other roles. Whatever we were supposed to be in a particular production, the key for each of us was to “be what you are.” In other words, if you're assigned to be an undifferentiated member of a street crowd, it's up to you to decide what and who you are, and to really be that person. You create your “person.” He or she has a name, a profession, and a personality, which determines how he or she acts and interacts. The concept derives from the Stanislavski system: You must create your character, know your character and be that character before you walk on stage.

One of the chorus members whom I won't soon forget was an eastern European import - Ukrainian, perhaps - a large-chested blond woman named Magda, short for something like Magdalene, I assumed. I took her to be in her late thirties. A well-trained singer, expressive and confident on stage, backstage she was quiet and seemed aloof, perhaps because of her modest English vocabulary. A bit stiff in manner, she was not yet comfortable with the easy, jocular, irreverent banter that is a hallmark of the American theatrical company. She rarely spoke unless spoken to, and it didn't seem like anyone in the company made much effort to make friends with her. There would be nothing extraordinary to tell about Magda, really, if it were not for our production, one November, of Boïto's “Mefistofele.” But that production showed us, quite literally, a whole new side of Magda. Her devotion to her character reached beyond the stage, if only as far as backstage. Her status in the company reached mythic heights among the men, while the women's reactions, which I am unable to report reliably, were evidently different.

The director of Mefistofele had decided that he wanted to spice up the action by having a few women - three volunteers was all he could get - show some breast in the Witches' Sabbat orgy scene in Act II. It should be said that our company didn't have experience with nude scenes, so the director's decision occasioned a good deal of comment. Now the reserved Magda surprisingly volunteered to be one of the semi-nudes. As we got to the first on-stage rehearsal in costume, the three chosen ladies arrived in the dimly lit wings demurely covered with shawls, which were discarded at the last moment before they entered the equally dimly lit stage for the wild bacchanalia. The scene finished, their shawls were thrown on again before exiting the wings for the dressing room area. The rest of the cast tried to adopt a blasé air about the whole thing, the men gallantly casting occasional furtive glances to ensure that the ladies' coverage was adequate.

At the next rehearsal - the next day - I happened to be in the costume room to get a button reattached about fifteen minutes before going on for the Sabbat scene, when Magda walked in wearing her shawl. In the brightly lit room it was clear that she should have had a larger shawl to cover her 38 D's, but this didn't seem to concern her. She had come, in fact, to say she was not happy with the color of the brown shawl randomly assigned to her, though it was merely a backstage wrap. She started rummaging in one of the many bins of accessories, trying on one shawl after another at the full-length mirror. As I was standing near the mirror she asked my advice, in her broken English, on the color of each shawl as she tried them on. I wanted to say I liked her best between the shawl changes, but I avoided this evident faux pas. I did, however, retain enough composure to urge her to keep trying. To my disappointment, she finally found what she wanted, settling on a semi-transparent gold shawl, somewhat smaller than the one she traded in. It appeared that lack of adequate coverage was not her motivation for making the switch. This once-thought-modest woman showed not a trace of bashfulness while displaying her beauties to the mixed group in the room, and when she had made her selection she gaily and carelessly threw her gold shawl across her neck, and with the shawl wholly inadequately performing its intended function, and evidently already into her bacchanalean mode, she marched out to mingle with the rest of the cast waiting to go on.

And this - a seeming eagerness to show that in one feature, at least, she exceeded the other ladies in the company - became Magda's personal trademark during the three-week run of Mefistofele. Each day she would appear out of the women's dressing room about twenty minutes before the Sabbat scene, her gold shawl day by day more carelessly arranged, tending more toward one shoulder than the other, so that the company, after a few days, had gained a close aquaintance with the lady's impressive bosom. Finally, on about the fifth day, Magda appeared with her shawl insouciantly tossed over one shoulder and with this decidedly asymmetric coverage left any pretence at modesty behind.

Now Magda's habit quickly altered the habits in the men's dressing room as well. Where we had been used to lounging there until the stage call for the chorus, now the dressing room emptied out at twenty minutes before the Sabbat scene. It was clearly Magda's dramatically displayed gold shawl - and it was a beautiful shawl - that piqued the men's artistic curiosity. The shawl, draped randomly over one shoulder - now the left, now the right - attracted a growing crowd of male admirers, who stumbled over each other in their eagerness to complement Magda on her fine accoutrement.

And what was not to admire? Every man can appreciate a rack in the upper thirties, and even the displayed half was plenty to hold our attention. I naturally felt a special kinship with Magda, since I had been, so to speak, “present at the creation” of this avatar. I naturally resented the rest of the fellows trying to get chummy with this woman who they hadn't given a thought to before she began to bare her bosom. There was something prurient in their interest, I thought. My own interest in Magda was of a different sort, deeper and more genuine. Well, I liked tits as well as the next man, but I felt the bosom was just a sort of icebreaker that awakened in me a real interest in the inner Magda. So, like a protector knight, I claimed each day the escort position on her downshawl side. There were times when I had to fight for it, but there are things worth fighting for.

Once we got on stage, a whole new battle developed. The staging was fluid - we were, after all, reveling witches and demons waving our arms wildly, though in slow motion - and even in the dim red light three distinct clumps of chorus men were evident on the stage, reminiscent of male guppies in an aquarium. I'm a sturdily built man, and managed to maintain my position at the center of the largest clump, properly waving my arms wildly, though not so wildly that they didn't tend to seek in the direction of Magda, whom I managed to keep within reach. A bacchanale is not the time for deep thought, but I remember thinking how much the occasional feel of soft flesh helped me to act the transported reveler, thus improving the production. The other guys must have had the same thought, because it's a wonder Magda's boobs weren't black and blue by the end of that scene. As it turned out, we had plenty of time to ascertain that, since she had taken to hanging around about twenty minutes after the scene as well, before retiring to the dressing room, her much-admired shawl demurely covering one selected gland. Naturally, most of the women were quickly into the dressing room, while the men lingered to admire the shawl.

All things must of course end, and I began to dread the close of the production, but worse, there were signs that I was losing my favored spot by Magda's side. I noticed she had begun to smile coyly at one of the chorus men, a swarthy bully named Viktor - also a European import - and more often now I found myself consigned by force to her upshawl side. Now on stage, my wavering hands reaching out for softness found Viktor's sinewy tissue in the way, while his swinging hands too often landed a solid blow somewhere on my own anatomy. I found myself having to admire Magda's undulous body parts from a short distance, and I didn't doubt that the resulting loss of transport on my part must have dulled the operatic experience for the audience, an outrage for which I blamed this blasted Viktor. I've always been concerned above all with the art and my contribution to it.

Before the Mefistofele production ended, I heard that Magda had moved in with Viktor. Of course it was a blow, but I had seen it coming and took it relatively well. Now, he may have her in the flesh, so to speak, but I have my solace. I stopped by the costume room on the last day when no one was there, and I knew which bin to look in. There, in a pile of scarves and shawls, I found what I was looking for. Still now, some years later, each night as my head descends to my pillow it is followed by my pilfered gilded treasure, floating gently like a wind-filled parasail onto my expectant nose and lips. As its golden glory spreads over my face I slowly breathe its aura. It's my own moment with Magda. I am truly transported, I wrinkle the sensitive tip of my nose against the golden lace and I live for a minute a heavenly existence as her upshawl 38 D.

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© H.Paul Lillebo 2011