The Right Stiff

updated 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

USUALLY, DAVE BARRY WOULDN'T be caught dead at the opera. Yet there he was in Eugene, Ore., onstage in Puccini's one-act farce Gianni Schicchi, in an undemanding role as a recently deceased Florentine grandee.

Barry didn't win any bravos—and he probably doesn't deserve any. Last October, in his nationally syndicated column, the Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist declared that opera could be hazardous to one's health. Citing the true story of an okapi (a giraffe-like African mammal) that had died in a Danish zoo from the stress of listening to opera singers rehearsing in a nearby park, Barry said that prolonged exposure could also prove fatal to humans—and suggested that "some kind of Surgeon General warning be prominently displayed on Luciano Pavarotti."

Miffed by the tenor of the column, scores of humor-impaired opera buffs sent hate letters to Barry—many of which, he says, "used a phrase that rhymes with 'duck shoe.' " Janice Mackey, general manager of the Eugene Opera, also wrote, but her letter was more like an overture: Would Barry do a one-shot cameo as Buoso Donati? "We would hope you don't sing, move or act," she wrote, "because the character is dead before the curtain goes up."

Barry, 47, a sometime guitar player in Rock Bottom Remainders, an ad hoc rock group that includes writers Stephen King and Amy Tan, jumped at the chance. "I've always wanted to go to sleep at classical musical performances," he says, "and here I'm in a bed." Raised in Upstate New York, says Barry, "I was a pure child of rock and roll, and nobody I knew would have admitted liking opera. They would probably have gotten beaten up, and I would have helped."

Nevertheless, off he went to Eugene and, with just a half-hour's rehearsal, to bed. How did he rate his 25 minutes of inertia? "People are not going to remember it the way they remember the scene in Terminator 2 where Arnold throws the bad guy into the molten stuff," says Barry. "But I hung in there."

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