Maestro William WEIBEL remembered by Mike Leone

Maestro Weibel was an assistant conductor at the Met during the 1960s. The first Met broadcast I ever heard was the 1963 Ballo with Nilsson, Tucker, and Merrill, conducted by Santi, and it was likely the first time I ever heard Milton Cross say the words "And the prompter is William Weibel," a phrase I would hear numerous times throughout the next half-dozen years or so. I got so used to hearing his name that on those rare occasions when he announced somebody else as the prompter, I would look at the radio and yell, "Where's William Weibel?"

I left for college in 1969 and my opportunities to hear Met broadcasts (and Mo. Weibel's name) dwindled after that point. No matter because he was off by that point doing other things such as working with Karajan, a conductor he thought very highly of, at the Salzburg Festival.

Back in 2003 or so, I found out through opera-l that Mo. Weibel was now in Houston and was the artistic director at Opera in the Heights. I somehow managed to get his AOL address, possibly through a post he sent to opera-l where he used to be a member, and sent him an instant message (remember those?) one Sunday morning when I saw that he was online. I'm sure I shocked the hell out of him, and he was very gracious. After we had chatted briefly a few times, he gave me his home phone number and I called him. Among the things he told me in that first conversation was that he never had the chance to conduct at the Met--hence his name is not in the annals anywhere--although he did come close once. I meant to ask him the details about that and never did.

My first time to see him conduct was at an Opera in the Heights Lucia, in the spring of 2004. I didn't go down to greet him afterwards as I had planned because he had so many well-wishers around him. We continued to chat online from time to time.

I joined the OH chorus in September of 2005, which actually turned out to be my first time to meet him. We worked together from 2005 through 2010 and I never failed to be impressed by his knowledge and love of the music.

I wish he had told more anecdotes over the years, because, having spent a decade at the Met, he had to have had plenty. A few that I remember:

He told me that during the 50s he never missed a del Monaco performance at the Met, and that he was just as loud onstage as he was on records.

He was Joan Sutherland's choice to be the conductor to spell Bonynge during the 1965 Australian tour, and he can be heard conducting brief excerpts of Faust on one of the CD sets that have been released in Australia of excerpts of performances from that tour. He obviously had a good rapport with Dame Joan because he was able to get away with telling her once that he didn't understand why she didn't just sing all of her music to "ah" since her words were incomprehensible anyway. Her response was simply "Oh, Billy." Also about that tour, he said that at the first performance of L'Elisir, an opera Sutherland was not performing but that did have Pavarotti, who was unknown at the time, there were only about twelve people in the audience.

He felt that Corelli ruined his voice by taking on roles such as Roméo and Werther that he wasn't suited for, to the point that when he tried to go back to his big Italian roles, he couldn't do them justice any more.
When we did Falstaff, he mentioned that, through a friend of a friend of Giuseppe Valdengo, he was able to sit in on one of the rehearsals for the Toscanini broadcast. Since Toscanini played in the orchestra for the premiere, our performances were in a direct line back to the first performance of the opera.

One time during a rehearsal when the fun was starting to get out of hand, he mentioned having worked with Callas and Gobbi when she returned to the Met in Tosca, and how they had fun when it was time to have fun, and when it was time to work, they completely turned to the work and the horseplay was forgotten. I would have enjoyed a more colorful anecdote and still this was a reminder of how he had worked with so many the singers who were my idols when I was growing up.

Eleanor Steber mentions him in her autobiography, saying that he was a big help to her when she was preparing Minnie for her brief return to the Met in 1966. I asked him about that after I read it, some three or four years ago, and he talked about it as though it had just happened the weekend before, including that the performance was on a Monday night. The big comment I remember from that conversation was "The Met really threw her to the wolves." He worked with her as much as he could that weekend, but obviously there wasn't time for her to thoroughly relearn the role in a weekend.

He also gave me the chance to sing a few small roles with the company during his time there, allowing me to fulfill a lilfelong dream (the Guard in Rigoletto, the Registrar in Butterly, the Sergeant in Bohème, and Sciarrone/Jailer in Tosca).

He could have a wicked sense of humor. I had the silent role of the organ grinder in Tabarro when we did it, paired with Pagliacci. The director just wanted me to cross the stage and back; I was terrified because I was afraid I would be getting in the way of the action going on behind me, so I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. He said, "Mike, you're like an old woman up there!" I told him of my concern of getting in the way of the others, and he said, "You're an actor! Act!" So I gave it my all; I danced around in circles and just had as much fun as I could with my 45 seconds of stage time. He asked me at one point how it was going because once the performances started, he couldn't really see me (the orchestra is off to the side of the stage at OH). I told him it was going fine. Then one night, he said, "Oh, I saw you up there tonight grinding your, the organ."

Probably my proudest moment working with him came during a rehearsal for Ballo. The chorus director was out of pocket when we came to the offstage music for the men after the love duet. So I conducted the men from backstage. After that, he mentioned to the chorus director that he thought that was a good tempo for that music, and I raised my hand and said, "Ta-daaaa." He said, "Oh, that was you? That was good." Since this came from a former assistant conductor at the Met, I considered it high praise.

I hope that those of you who are in touch with singers who appeared at the Met during the 1960s will let them know of Maestro Weibel's passing.

As for me, I felt very privileged to have several years' opportunity to work with Mo. Weibel, especially since I had known of him for several decades before I actually met him.

Mike Leone
Ecco il Leone!