NEW YORK, N.Y. - Paul Plishka thought back to Sept. 21, 1967, when he made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Monk in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda" alongside Renata Tebaldi, Sherrill Milnes and Rosalind Elias.

"These were idols. They were all gods for me," said Plishka, who grew up paying $2 for a standing room ticket to watch performances at the old Met. "The thing I remember is my costume. I remember under my arms, I was so nervous the perspiration came flowing out like a fire hydrant."

Now 70, the bass calls it a career on Saturday with his 1,642nd and final performance, the ninth-most in the company's history. He goes out singing the Sacristan in Puccini's "Tosca," a role he performed during his first season — and also on the night conductor James Levine made his debut in June 1971.

Plishka said that during rehearsals for those 1971 performances, baritone Peter Glossop pointed to the inexperienced singer and said sarcastically: "That's a Sacristan?"

Now a veteran of 88 Met roles, Plishka said that during a recent rehearsal a colleague he couldn't recall said enthusiastically: "Now that's a Sacristan!"

"It only took 40 years to grow into the part," he said.

For many seasons he has sung comprimario, or supporting, roles. His burly frame, big smile and evocative eyes stood out in comic parts like Dulcamara in Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love)" and Bartolo in Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)."

But he also took on all three bass roles in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," Philip II in Verdi's "Don Carlo" and for his 25th anniversary with the company the title role in Verdi's "'Falstaff."

"As great as 'Don Carlo' was, the 'Falstaff' really leaves everything in the dust because of the personality of the character and the music. For me, that was the top of the hill," he said. "I love what I've done over the years. I sort of jokingly say it beats working for a living."

Away from the stage, he's had a turbulent personal life. In 2009, his son Jeffrey was charged with the 1991 killing of a 24-year-old camp counsellor near a Poconos waterfall. He was acquitted the following year.

In 1984, his 33-year-old brother, Dr. Peter Plishka, was found dead in his Bronx apartment from what police said appeared to be a self-inflicted stab wound.

All the while, he kept making the five-hour trip from Virginia to New York, where he kept an apartment. In a company where stars fly in and out, sometimes for only a performance or two, he was a steady presence.

He had thought of retiring a decade ago, "but the Met kept making these offers I couldn't refuse."

While he won't be singing on stage, he'll be warbling to a different tune.

"I've been taking guitar lessons, and I really enjoy singing cowboy songs," he said. "To help keep my brain working."

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