This past week I found myself uttering these words as I considered the untimely and shocking death of my first boss in the professional world and longtime friend, Chari Shanker. Dead at 55 from a severe allergic reaction and a lost epipen, Chari made a quick exit from this life – a feat she no doubt wished more opera choruses could have mastered – but leaves a lingering legacy in those of us who knew her and loved her.
Though she took her leadership responsibility seriously, Chari made going to work fun, even when the schedule was impossible. I remember long hours in the cramped quarters of the Houston Grand Opera production offices filled with laughter and seriously demented pranks. She said to her assistant stage managers that first day I came to work in 1983, “your job this season is to push me – to get there before me. (long pause) Good luck!” And then, in celebration of her first all-female staff in what had been a male-dominated world, she led us out of the basement of Jones Hall and over to a department store to shop for bras. “Basic black is a good choice,” she said, ”you’ll be wearing a lot of it.“
For a just-turned-twenty year old raised in a small Texas town, working at HGO and for Chari was a glimpse of a world that was unimaginable. I started with her as a volunteer during the world premier of Leonard Bernstein’s ”A Quiet Place“ and then as an Assistant Stage Manager during the 1983-1984 season. In just nine months, we worked with Hal Prince twice, on Candide and the opera house premiere of Sweeney Todd, and an unbelievable parade of opera legends: Placido Domingo, Maria Ewing, Eva Marton, Ingvar Vixel, Jon Vickers, Josephine Barstow and Hildegard Behrens. Francesca Zambello had her professional debut that year with a remarkable Fidelio. Stephen Sondheim dropped in for Sweeney as did Beverly Sills, who insisted we give her a ride on the barber chair just before the curtain rose on opening night. Over the headset that night, Chari cajoled, ”you break the diva, you buy the diva“.
At the time, however, there was no room to be impressed because there was so much work to do. Chari set a certain tone that was almost Budha-like. She never forgot that at its core, opera is absurd. So no matter how worked up or overly-self-important or impressed anyone wanted to get, when Chari entered the conversation, you remembered that it is just a show. And if you couldn’t get over yourself, Chari had a mat in front of her desk with two feet on it labeled ”My Tantrum Mat“. I watched a lot of famous directors and designers stand on that mat and fail to stay mad about some production snafu.
Telltale signs of her influence on me continue in stock phrases such as saying ”I lied“ after misspeaking, starting instructions with ”this is the part where“, greeting co-workers as ”pals“ as in ”good evening, opera pals“, the profligate use of the word ”swell“ and a preference to print in all caps. But mostly, Chari lives in me when I am able to make work fun and be able to put everyone at ease.
A few years back, she decided to plaster one of her favorite sayings on t-shirts and tote bags.
Unfortunately for Chari and for all of us who loved her, it proved to be true: ”life is short, opera is long“.