(Here is a group of costumed ushers with Dorothy Warenskjold. The man in the dark suit next to Dorothy is Maestro Arturo Casiglia, director of the Pacific Opera Company. The three men in the back row are, left to right, Dorothy's escort (I think), Frank DeBellis, a major supporter of opera in San Francisco at the time, and Howard Solve, a Pacific Opera baritone who decided to come in costume although he was not an usher. Lilian is the second from the left. The photo was taken at the annual Ushers' ball (1954) where everyone came dressed as an operatic character; the opera stars who attended were asked to judge the costumes)

 Why did you become an usher? 

I wanted to attend as many performances in the Opera House as possible ---ALL of them if I could.  At the time I was a high school student with no money, and my family didn't have very much money for that kind of thing.  I heard that an usher could attend all the performances.

 How did one get that job?
 You had to apply to the man in charge of the "front" part of the Opera House, a Mr. Meade.  For at least a year it was necessary to work at all the performances other than the San Francisco Opera productions.  That meant sometimes going every night during the week and matinees on Saturday and Sunday, sometimes of the same musical that played for two or three months.  It was necessary that Mr. Meade saw you and checked you in when you arrived.  Supposedly one had to be a music student in order to become an usher.  Many of us lied about that, including me.  After Mr. Meade was satisfied that a person was going to be reliable, he issued a pass that stated the holder was a "Regular Usher" and was entitled to work during the opera season.

(Lilian with Mado Robin)

 What were the benefits?
 The big benefit was being able to attend all the performances.  There was no pay.  There was an additional benefit in the social aspect of ushering.  Most of us spent so much of our leisure time at the Opera House that nearly all of our friendships and leisure activities revolved around being there.

 How did it work practically?
 I suppose it worked very well for everyone.  We were all grateful to be able to attend opera and other musical events we could otherwise not afford.  We gave up almost all of our free time to be there.  Those who continued to usher after finishing school often had to skip dinner because there was no time between regular work and having to be at the Opera House by 6pm, but we didn't mind.  Usually we went in groups for pizza or other refreshment after a performance.  It worked equally well for the Opera House management because they didn't have to pay anyone except Mr. Meade and the three head ushers.  I think there were 40 to 60 ushers at each performance, which would have been a big expense if they had to be paid.

(Lilian with Mado Robin)

For how long did you do the job?
If I remember correctly, I started while I was in high school in 1948.  I was not able to attend all of the main opera season that year or the next.  I had to serve my "ushering apprenticeship" and "make nice" to Mr. Meade to convince him that I would be a good regular usher.  I was not a music student, so I had to fabricate something regarding my studies.  I don't remember what I said, but I guess Mr. Meade believed me.  Once I had my regular usher's pass it no longer mattered.  I ushered regularly until my marriage in 1959.

Groupies? any specific stories about this (of course I refer amongst others to the Del Monaco story but perhaps there are others?)
 There are many groupie stories.  Unlike those from other fields of entertainment they didn't all play out sexually.  In fact, most likely most of them didn't.  The Del Monaco story was an exception, as were a few others.  I don't know about all of them.  The kind of opera groupie thing that was most common was the way several of our female ushers followed singers around the country.  Licia Albanese had a huge following like that, led by the Watts sisters, Dorothy and Grace.  This group of fans would drive, go by bus and sometimes even fly when they could afford it to attend recitals and opera performances by Albanese in other parts of the country.  Albanese was always friendly and gracious with these fans, which fed their devotion to her.  It went on for years.  Numerous other singers --Ezio Pinza, Jan Peerce and Lily Pons definitely among them --had that kind of following.  The Watts sisters and their connection with Albanese always stood out.  They talked about very little else and could never find any fault with anything Albanese ever did.

 Besides the ushers that were groupies there was also the upper echelon, the wealthy society women who pursued their favorite opera stars.  The ushers were aware of them and what they did, but we simply couldn't compete.  Like Mrs. Paul Verdier and Mado Robin, many of the older society ladies hosted the singers in their homes, took them to visit vacation areas and other points of interest, and in general occupied most of the stars' free time.  A few younger socialites were most likely involved romantically with some of the singers.

(Warenskjold and Lilian Barber on her right)

*There were also a few other types of relationships, like the ongoing affair between a close friend of mine and a well-known baritone, a genuine love story about an impossible situation that went on for many years. 

 Why did you stop?
 The need to spend nearly every evening at the opera house during most of the year made it very difficult to carry on a normal life.  Married couples could only do it if both were ushers.  Fortunately, I realized that before I married my husband, who likes opera but is not insanely devoted to it.  I knew I would have to give up ushering if I expected our marriage to work.

Greatest ovation you heard?

That's hard to answer so many years later.  My memory isn't as good as it used to be.  However, early on when I started ushering nearly all the big Italian stars that were singing in San Francisco got really, REALLY big ovations and shouts of "Bravo", "Encore," etc.   The San Francisco Opera has a no encore policy, and I don't recall ever hearing one in spite of the wild ovations singers like Ferruccio Tagliavini, Ezio Pinza, Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco --and even Licia Albanese received.

Greatest boos you heard?

Not much, really.  American audiences are much more polite than the Italians in that respect.  You rarely hear any boos in a U.S. opera house except possibly a few isolated ones that are mostly drowned out in the applause from the rest of the audience.  People are more likely to show their displeasure by witholding applause and not shouting (we refer to it as sitting on their hands) if they don't like something very much than actually booing.

Greatest voices you heard?

Over the years there were many.  Tagliavini, Tebaldi, Del Monaco, Leonard Warren, Schwarzkopf, Richard Tucker, Tito Gobbi, Kirsten Flagstad, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Giulietta Simionato.  It's a little difficult to separate the ones that were actually considered to be the greatest from my own personal favorites.  The ones I just mentioned, I believe, are both.

Biggest voice you heard (in terms of sheer sound power)?

I would say Nicola Rossi-Lemeni.  The San Francisco Opera House has excellent acoustics and voices come across, for the most part, as big as necessary.  Rossi-Lemeni's was bigger than life, though.  He was a particular favorite of mine, and I will never forget his portrayal of Boris Godunov.  It was as if the role had been created for him.

Smallest voice you heard?
Among the biggest stars --probably Lily Pons.  However, the marvelous acoustical design of the War Memorial Opea House was very good to her.


Singers you met and your experiences with them?

 (Mado Robin surrounded by ushers)

You already know about Mado Robin and Dorothy Warenskjold.  Those were the most remarkable experiences I had with any of the opera singers I met over the years.  I had conversations with many others, often because I took pictures of them and then asked for their autograph and gave them copies of the photos.  For a short time I was "official", as a part-time reporter and photographer for Opera and Concert Magazine, but mostly I just followed my passion for being "connected" with opera in some way and the only way I could find to do that was through photography.  I was very shy when I was young and somehow I saw a camera as being like a shield.  If I had a camera in my hands, I felt I could approach anyone and start a conversation by asking if I could take their picture.  Sometimes the answer was "No!".  However, most singers are a little bit vain and they enjoy having their picture taken.  Often they didn't like the results, as these were not retouched and manipulated studio shots.  One of my subject --I don't remember who it was, but it was a male singer --ripped the 8 x 10 print I showed him out of my hand and tore it into little pieces.  More often, they thanked me politely for the photos whether or not they liked them.  Quite a few of my pictures later appeared in print in various publications. 

(Lilian with baritone Frank Guarrera, Usher’s ball 1954)

One of the friendliest, nicest of the big time opera stars was Jan Peerce.  He had the ability to remember nearly everyone with whom he ever had any contact --at least their first name.  Since the San Francisco opera season coincided with the Jewish High Holidays and he was very religious, he attended the same synagogue my parents and I went to.  I was about 14 the first time I noticed him a few rows ahead of us.  I hated to go to services but once I realized that Jan Peerce was there too, it became more interesting.  A few years later I took some pictures of Peerce at an outdoor concert just before the opera season.  After his first performance I waited at the stage door and handed him several photos when he came out.  He shook my hand and asked my name.  A year later he greeted me in the foyer of the opera house with a very cheerful, "Hello, Lilian!  Have you taken any good pictures lately?"  He used to attend nearly all performances and always recognized people and talked with them.  One year his wife was with him and he introduced her to me.  It was always as if we were old friends, and everyone with whom I spoke about Jan Peerce felt the same.
Singers who attended a performance on a night when they weren't singing usually did not have tickets and the ushers always tried to help them find seats.  Most were very appreciative.  Only a few felt that they were owed these favors and treated the ushers like servants.  Peerce was always extremely gracious
In the early 1950's I finally had saved enough money to go to New York on my vacation and attend a few performances at the Met.  I told Jan Peerce during the San Francisco season that year that I was planning this trip.  He immediately gave me his home telephone number and said I had to call him and maybe we could have lunch one day.  Unfortunately, he was busy with rehearsals the entire time I was in New York, but he sent his wife to take me to lunch at the Russian Tea Room, which was at that time the #1 lunch spot for opera aficionados.  Alice didn't think I had warm enough clothing for the New York winter --after all, I was a Californian --and a day later a package containing a warm sweater appeared at my hotel, from Jan and Alice Peerce.

I wish I still had my collection of candid camera shots, most of them autographed, of literally hundreds of opera singers.  Not only was it a valuable collection but it could jog my memory regarding some other singers and incidents surrounding them.  However, at a very low point in my life (years later, I would not have considered my life to be such a disaster, but when I was very young I was inclined to overreact to things that later on wouldn't seem so important) I decided to take a totally new approach to the future and felt the only way I could do that would be to completely break off my connection with the life I had been living.  I gave the collection to a friend who had been after me for a very long time to let him have it if I didn't want it anymore.  He told me that if I ever wanted it back to just let him know.  Shortly after that, he and his wife moved to the Eastern part of the U.S. and I never heard from him again.  He passed away a few years later and I wrote to his widow to ask if I could have my photo collection back, but I never received a reply.

(Two singing legends Mado Robin and Dorothy Warenskjold)