MATTHEW PECKHAM commences a new series of articles, looking at some of the performers he worked with over the years. He has titled these informal and random memories The View from Prompt Corner. In the first instalment, he meets the fiery Spanish soprano Victoria de los Ángeles, who toured Australia in 1995, her fourth visit down under.

Victoria de Los AngelesCover of the 1995 Australia and New Zealand tour program. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.Theatre demands that we suspend disbelief, so we see and hear what is presented, not what is, and only this makes theatre possible. Many operatic characters are presented as irresistible heroes and heroines, embodying physical attributes seldom shared by the singers who portray them. Rare is the tenor with a matador’s silhouette, rarer still the tuberculosis patient whose bosom holds the respiratory apparatus demanded by the last acts of La Traviata or La Bohème.

Victoria de los Ángeles was a Spanish soprano whose fabulous career began at eighteen, with Mimì in La Bohème, covered all the great roles from Carmen to Mélisande and culminated at the closing ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics fifty years later. Hers was considered, after Callas and Sutherland, to be the greatest female voice of the 20th century. A tour in 1995 brought her to the Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University, where I was Technical Manager.

The tour Rider advised that Señorita de Los Àngeles would arrive with her manager and her répétiteur for a sound check three hours before the performance.

The Steinway was to be placed onstage and tuned to concert pitch not less than three hours before their arrival.

A registered Steinway technician was to be present at the sound check and throughout the performance.

Señorita de los Àngeles was well in her sixties and we were informed, only days before her appearance, that she had suffered a fall and was unable to use stairs, so the need for a dressing room at stage level was added to the Rider.

The hall’s dressing rooms were all in the basement, acoustically isolated from the stage by long staircases and thick concrete, but a precious and pampered harpsichord lived in a climate-controlled room at stage level. It was unfurnished and the décor spartan, but access to a props and scenery store enabled us to dress the harpsichord store with rich velvet drapes (complete with bullion fringes and massive tassels), a Louis XIV-style chaise longue with matching dressing-table and a door with a gold star on it.

Señorita de los Àngeles and her party arrived as scheduled. She was small, rather ordinary-looking; wrapped in a dark fur coat, her silhouette suggested luxury, not grace.

 Her manager was tall, saturnine and aristocratic and if he spoke English at all he was too proud to admit it. The répétiteur was timid, slender, almost waif-like, but spoke some English.

I showed la Señorita to the dressing room, where she clapped her hands in delight. Nearby, she caught sight of the chairs that comprised the Graduation Furniture, best described as colossal. She asked me to place one on stage. Though Venue Policy forbade it, I complied, and she sat enthroned while her señores commenced the sound check. Her manager took a position in the centre of the stalls, while the répétiteur played a few chords on the piano. A rapid exchange in Spanish followed, and the repetiteur asked us to move the Steinway downstage by a metre or so.

He played; we moved the piano another metre; he played again; the Manager went to the back of the stalls; he played … the piano moved … he played …

This went on for some time while Señorita Victoria sat listening, absorbing the hall’s character and its echoes, occasionally adding to the conversation in Spanish.

Finally, she rose, stood by the piano, and sang. Only a little, no words, just notes—almost birdsong. Some more Spanish, another piano move (it was now almost exactly where it began).

Señor Manager went to the balcony, first in the front, then at the back, while Señorita sang more notes—stepping away from the piano, then towards it again. Finally, everyone said bueno—they were satisfied.

Victoria de los Àngeles inhaled deeply, audibly, through her nose, and began to sing. I stood only a few paces from her, and it seemed that an immense vessel had been opened, pouring out pure music. She sang a verse from the O mio babbino caro, and some others I didn’t know, something by Mozart, I think, with so many notes in it the score must look like an ants’ nest.

I looked at Peter, the Steinway technician—he was blinking, open-mouthed.

I stood there, her magnificent voice washing over me, and a small, ordinary-looking woman vanished as the music brought to life an irresistible romantic heroine.

There are moments when you know you are in the presence of true greatness—this was one of mine.