A singer from Minneapolis writes about his favorite encounter with Michael Steinberg:
"Every summer the Minnesota Orchestra has a festival they call Sommerfest. It’s been around for thirty years or so, first headed by Leonard Slatkin back in the day. It gave him the chance to chat with the audience from the podium; one time, he chatted with them out on Peavey Plaza, where a large screen had been set up, and everyone sat there and watched What’s Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville. But I digress…
"I’m not sure how, but somehow, Michael Steinberg ended up being in charge for at least one summer. It had been (and still is) tradition to close the festival with a concert performance of an opera. In 1990, Butterfly was the choice; I was part of the cast as Uncle Bonze. Now the Bonze is a thankless role (a friend once described it by saying, "If you can still phonate when you walk off the stage, you haven’t done it with enough terror…"), but it can make an impact, and I had a good night. At the dinner after the concert, I was sitting across the table from Christopher O’Riley, who was very gracious and told me he thought I had done an amazing job. So I must have done well, but the Bonze is still a short role, and by the last act, most people have forgotten him.
"In the middle of dinner, Michael stood up to say a few words. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember this: during his brief remarks, he told the group that he needed to thank the singers for their work, and he then did exactly that, by mentioning every one of us by first name. Mind you, he had no notes, he just went down the list, from Cio-Cio San, Pinkerton, the whole gang, down to the Bonze and the Imperial Commissioner. Many an impresario wouldn’t be able to do that without notes AND a prompter. And he obviously meant what he said! It was something very simple, but so very rarely done, that it was actually quite touching. I’ve never forgotten that.
"A few years ago, we did a concert with Helmuth Rilling, and Jorja Fleezanis (Steinberg’s wife, who has played under Rilling for years) led the pick-up orchestra. During one of the rehearsal breaks, I went over and said hi, asked about Michael, and told her my story, just so she could tell him I still remembered his generosity over fifteen years later.
"So there you have it. Nothing flashy nor earth-shattering, but something I wanted to pass along. He was one of the good guys."