When you ask Dominic Derasse, the first trumpet in the South Pacificorchestra, why his instrument is painted a highly unconventional bright orange, at first he gives a pretty matter-of-fact answer. "The black-lacquer surface was starting to fade, and I needed to have it re-done."
But if you press Derasse further, the question of color becomes, well, more colorful. "It was just before the 2007 Tony awards," he says. "I asked the guy who does the lacquer for me if he could do any other color. He said, 'Sure. Just bring me a chip from the paint store, and I'll match it.' So I looked at all the samples, and a bright-orange one struck me as the happiest."
But Derasse, who grew up in Nice, France, proceeded with caution. "At the time, I was playing in the band for 110 in the Shade, on Broadway. The musicians all wore black. I went to Paul Gemigniani, the music director, and said, 'Paul, I've got this orange trumpet now, but I don't want to distract from the stage. What do you think?' He saw and loved it and said to feel free to use it."
Derasse has seen a lot in his music career. (He played his first professional job, with the Nice opera, in 1974, at the age of 15, and moved to the United States permanently in 1985.) But the response to the orange trumpet was unusual even for him. "After each performance of 110, the musicians had to come down from the side balcony, where we played. People would stand in the audience and wait for me. The funniest question - and I get it a lot - was, 'What's your horn made of?' Well, of course, it's a trumpet, and trumpets are made of brass, but people thought it must somehow be something different."
There are fewer questions from the audience at South Pacific. "I sit in the orchestra pit nearest the exit," Derasse remarks, "so I'm gone before the audience can make their way down to ask questions. But other members of our orchestra have been asked about my trumpet's color."
Midway through my conversation with Derasse, I discovered that orange wasn't chosen just because it's cheerful. There are more personal associations. He is a volunteer member of New Jersey Search and Rescue, part of whose mission is to provide emergency services to people who may be lost or injured in remote areas. "The main part of the organization's uniform is orange," Derasse says.
And then there's the color's athletic connection. "I've coached my kid's soccer team," Derasse says. "A couple of years ago, before a season started, we went to the store to buy new sneakers. The only pair in my size was bright orange. I was hesitant to wear them at first. But when I did, people would comment, 'Those are great. Where did you get them? I want a pair.'"
Derasse says his foray into orange has convinced him of the need to break down black and brown's hold on the orchestra -- the instruments and the attire. "We need to find more ways to convince people that hearing music live is different from just sitting at home at listening to CDS or iPods. We need to jazz up the experience a little."
Still, Derasse says he can't imagine coming to the theater dressed entirely in orange. "Then the trumpet wouldn't stand out as much. I'd have to have it painted again." Does he have any notions of the next color? "I suggested to one of South Pacific's trombonists that he paint his horn lime-green. That could work for a trumpet, too."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com