Volume 6, Number 3, 1997

Prompter coaxes, covers for opera's artists

Donna Racik will never forget her singing debut at the Metropolitan Opera. It lasted all of 10 minutes during The Barber of Seville and was a complete success-although most people in the audience never knew she uttered a sound.

Racik, a pianist who attended the University in the early 1970s, performs one of the opera's most obscure jobs, at least from the audience's point of view. She's a prompter-a person who sits in a small box at the front of the stage and provides cues to the singers.

One of the prompter's responsibilities is responding to emergencies on stage. Sometimes, that means calling backstage on a telephone to notify the crew of something amiss, and, on very rare occasions, it means singing. Racik's brief, unplanned performance began with a panicked glance from a singer who had suddenly lost her voice. Without missing a note, Racik took over the singing while the woman continued to mouth the words and act the part.

"There was never a question in my mind what needed to be done," Racik recalls. "My colleagues had a good laugh about my 'debut.' "

Within 10 minutes, the backstage singer covering for the part was able to take over, first for voice and then completely.

For Racik, the incident represents what she enjoys most about being a prompter-the opportunity to draw on all of her skills to support some of the world's greatest opera singers.

"I get to conduct rehearsals and coach singers, which means I'm at the piano," she says. "I also get to use different languages, because we have people from all over the world, and I enjoy working with the many different types of personalities."

Although she didn't start out to become a prompter, Racik says her experiences provided ideal preparation for the multifaceted profession. She began taking classes at Delaware in 1972, while still a high school student, under Mildred Gaddis, then head of the University's piano studies, and later, with Michael Steinburg, professor of music. She attended the University until 1975.

A pivotal event in Racik's career took place at Delaware when she won an Austrian American Society award to study and play at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. Upon returning from Austria, Racik went on to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees from the Mannes College of Music in New York City.

While eking out a living as a free-lance musician after graduation, she was drawn to opera singers. "I like the language, movement and drama," she says. "It's perfect for my personality. I didn't want to be alone with a solo career and be on the road by myself."

In 1984, she won a Fulbright Scholarship and traveled to Italy to study opera. It was there that she fell in love with prompting, working in the prompter's box at the famed La Scala as an assistant to the prompter there. Racik poured her energy into learning opera scores and the many nuances and responsibilities of the prompter's job.

"It was a terrific opportunity for me," she says. "I saw some extraordinary things from the prompter's box."

Upon returning to the United States, she married a chemist, Behrooz Khorramian, and moved to Atlanta, where her husband worked. After a year of free-lancing around the country, she returned to New York City. Her husband followed later, and they now have a young son, Jeremy.

Once back in New York, Racik attended rehearsals and observed prompters at the Met until her break came with an opportunity to prompt La Boheme with Placido Domingo.

The following season she prompted a couple of operas, and, the year after that, she did even more. Finally, six years ago, she became one of the Met's three, full-time prompters.

Surrounded by small television monitors, speakers and a telephone, the prompter shepherds the activity on stage while the conductor leads the orchestra. For example, she might provide staging assistance or function as a second conductor to help the singers match up with the orchestra.

Primarily, she either mouths or sings (the audience can't hear it) the first word of a line before the singer comes in. The trick is to understand each singer's preferences and needs.

"You have to know how to work with each person," Racik says. "Some people don't want to be cued in a certain way, so you develop a more intuitive approach. Other people rely on the prompts as a trigger for their memory. It frees them to concentrate on their singing."

She describes the Met as a "friendly and supportive" place to work under artistic director James Levine, although the schedule can be demanding. During the season, from September through May, rehearsals run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and most shows begin at 8 p.m.

This season, Racik prompted five operas at the Met, including The Bartered Bride, Cosi Fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro, Billy Budd and Gotterdammerung. Racik was the person with the best seat in the house.

-Marylee Sauder, AS '83