His name never was Baseball Plishka. But some opera fan out there in radioland once thought it was.
How nice that your parents named you after the national pastime, the fan wrote. Then it dawned on her: On the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, the announcer always referred to him as “bass Paul Plishka.” From across the room with the volume a little too low, it must have sounded like “Baseball Plishka.”
That will not happen again after Saturday (except when the broadcast is a repeat). Mr. Plishka, 70, is retiring after 1,600 performances and almost 45 years at the Met.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he said, pulling a hearing aid out of one ear. “It could be dangerous on the stage.”
As if he has not had some dangerous moments already.
For Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” in 1970, starring Renata Tebaldi as Minnie and Frederica von Stade as Wowkle, he was cast as the Wells Fargo agent Ashby, a rootin’-tootin’ type, so of course a horse was involved. Mr. Plishka was supposed to lead it onto the stage and sing. Then he was supposed to lead it to the back of the stage, where there was an exit ramp.
Lead a horse across the stage? To a John Wayne fan and Roy Rogers fan, Mr. Plishka said, “this was not macho enough.”
He had the horse saddled in rehearsal and climbed aboard. He taught it to walk downstage, turn and go to the ramp.
“I sang my line nicely,” he said.
He also sang his line nicely on opening night. And then he tugged the reins and held his 10-gallon hat high. The horse reared back — “I could have killed half the orchestra” if he and his mount had tumbled into the pit — and took off. “As he got to the ramp,” Mr. Plishka said, “he was running.” Somehow, they made it out uninjured.
Mr. Plishka had another close call a few years later in “Il Trovatore.”
He was supposed to go up a flight of stairs and, out of sight of the audience, down a second flight. But no one pushed the second set into place.
“I jumped 14 feet,” he said. He walked away with only a twisted wrist.
For a production of “Carmen” with Jon Vickers, he practiced dueling, as called for in the stage directions. Then there was a cast change, and Mr. Vickers’s replacement did not want to rehearse the duel. “He’s just singing his lines,” Mr. Plishka said. “I’m getting furious — he’s ruining my big moment.” Mr. Plishka flung the scabbard across the stage and brought the sword down so hard a piece of the blade went flying into the orchestra pit. His costar fell to his knees, cowering, his hands over his head for protection.
“He thought I was crazy,” Mr. Plishka said, “and he’s supposed to win this duel.”
Mr. Plishka seems to have a million stories like that. He was born in Old Forge, Pa., and when his family moved to Paterson, N.J., he joined the high school chorus. He joined the student production of “Oklahoma!” The music teacher was forming an opera group, and its musical director, Armen Boyajian, became his voice teacher.
He joined the Met’s national company in 1965, and in 1967 the Met offered him a contract to sing in New York. He made his debut in “La Gioconda.”
A few years later, he was covering a part in “Norma” — “I knew it well enough to fake my way in rehearsal,” he said. But when the call came to go on a few hours later, he put the score on the steering wheel of his car and worked his way through it as he drove to Manhattan.
He has memories of cross-country tours. He and Charles Anthony, a Met tenor who retired at age 80 in 2010, were fishing buddies who found time for excursions as the Met traveled through Atlanta, Memphis and Dallas. Once their canoe capsized in Cleveland. And in Minnesota, they caught a pike in Lake Minnetonka. The plan was for the restaurant in their hotel to cook it. It figured in a bit of behind-the-scenes drama instead.
Somehow, the fish was left outside, so it went uneaten. But Mr. Plishka said that the trombone player was having a feud with someone else in the Met orchestra. The trombonist took the pike and put it under the other player’s pillow.
That player got his revenge by putting the fish, now more rotten than ever, into the trombone player’s case on Saturday. The instruments were packed up during the night and taken to the next stop on the tour, Detroit. The musicians followed, but not until Monday.
Mr. Plishka said he was nowhere nearby when the trombonist opened the case.
For his final performance on Saturday, Mr. Plishka will sing the role of the Sacristan in “Tosca.” The first time he sang that role was in 1971, he recalled: “I was maybe 30 at the time, and the baritone said, ‘We can’t start, there’s no Sacristan.’”
Someone pointed to Mr. Plishka. “He said, ‘That’s the Sacristan?’”
Fast forward to seven years ago: The same opera, a different baritone. “This one looked at me and said, ‘Now that’s a Sacristan.’ It only took me a little more than 30 years to grow into that role.”