It takes about 25 minutes to dig a hole in the sand large enough to accommodate a man who is 5 feet 6 inches tall. Richard Gibson knows this because he has shoveled out what is called in the Marine Corps a "Ranger grave." The idea is that in lieu of barracks, you dig a hole until you can lie in it on your back, your nose beneath the ground, so that if a mortar explodes nearby, the shrapnel will explode overhead. The reality is that it's better to be lucky than a good digger.
It was March 2003 when Gibson's unit, part of the 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, rolled to a stop outside the ancient city of Samarra in Iraq. In the shadow of the structure that Marco Polo once thought was the Tower of Babel, Gibson began to dig. Sweat pooled inside his chemical-biological warfare suit, but it felt good to work his muscles after spending 12 hours behind the wheel of a Humvee.
Marines aren't trained to be idle. When everything stops, they're like a spring coiled with tension. But he had finished the hole. "Those were the darkest times in Iraq. After I said my prayers," Gibson says. "I said, 'Let me wake up.' I tried to find a happy place."
Rather than dig himself apart, he turned to music. In a hole 9 inches deep, he mentally replayed Johan Jonatan "Jussi" Björling, his father's favorite, singing "Nessun Dorma" (which translates from Italian into English as "None Shall Sleep"), an aria from the opera Turandot.
It's about an hour before the curtain rises for the very first time at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It's September 16, and the Muriel Kauffman Theatre is packed, some having paid as much $1,000 a seat for the opportunity to be the first inside the Moshe Safdie-designed building that was 16 years in the making.
Gibson, 30, is walking around backstage, stretching his legs and his voice. Gray hair sneaks in at the temples of his jet-black hair; his brown eyes burn intensely. This is Gibson's sixth season with the Lyric Opera, but the stage is suddenly a lot larger. He catches a glimpse of Broadway legend Patti LuPone and sees a tall, thin figure who looks just like Tommy Tune sans his tap shoes. It is Tune, in town to christen the stage alongside LuPone and famed tenor Placido Domingo.
"I'm trying to be cool, but it's surreal," Gibson will say later. "I just want to pull up a cot in back and sleep there."
Instead, he touches the dog tags under his pirate shirt — the Lyric Opera is performing selections from The Pirates of Penzance — and remembers that he is not just singing for himself. All too soon, the stage manager calls for places.
"As a performer that is still struggling and working, you always wonder: What type of stage is too big for me?" Gibson says.
He steps out from the wings to discover the answer.
Snow was on the ground when the Gibson family arrived in central Minnesota. The family of six had traveled more than 8,000 miles, emigrating from Grahamstown, South Africa, with just $8,000 to their name. It was two days before Christmas. Richard was 5 years old.
Soon after their arrival, Richard's father, Hugo, took a position at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Kansas City. He left the family in Minnesota while he taught and studied for the boards, which would allow him to practice in the United States. By Christmas the following year, Hugo was able to move everyone to Lee's Summit.
Growing up, Gibson seemed to be doing one of two things: singing or fighting. The first was by choice; the second was a result of the fact that he wasn't one to compromise.
"He was always an intense young man," his mother, Judy, says. "I remember when he had friends over to our house. He made sure nobody took the Lord's name in vain. He was a really passionate young man, and I guess that's just carried over."
The youngest of four children, Gibson left South Africa at an early enough age that he didn't speak with much of an accent. But bullies are never picky, their targets only having to be a little bit different. Gibson marks the passage of his childhood with dust-ups — and moments onstage.