David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes



Adam Pernell once provided piano accompaniment for David Howard’s class when Rudolf Nureyev was taking it. Mr. Pernell was feeling depressed, so he started playing music that was appropriate to his mood — the death scene of Violetta in La Traviata. Mr. Nureyev danced the appropriate steps, but as he danced he mimed Violetta’s consumptive cough. From that beginning, a game developed between Mr. Pernell and Mr. Nureyev. Mr. Pernell would play music from an opera, and Mr. Nureyev would dance the steps as the character from the opera would dance them. Each time, Mr. Nureyev got the opera and the character right. Afterwards, Mr. Pernell left class in a wonderful mood.

A man named Bertani once wrote Giuseppe Verdi a letter in which he complained that Verdi’s opera Aida lacked quality, despite having heard it twice. In the letter, he enclosed a statement of the costs of hearing the opera, including the price of his opera tickets, the cost of the railroad tickets, and the cost of his evening meals after hearing the opera. Finally, he asked Verdi to reimburse his expenses. Verdi agreed, but he first extracted the promise that the man would never attend one of his operas again. In addition, he refused to pay for the cost of the evening meals, saying, “He could have perfectly well eaten at home.”

Soprano Frances Alda was backstage, getting ready to sing the role of Lady Harriet in the opera Marta. She was especially looking forward to singing, in English, the song “The Last Rose of Summer.” Unfortunately, a thoughtless assistant conductor told her, “You know, Patti said that was the most difficult song in the world.” Because Adelina Patti had been one of the greatest coloratura singers of the late 19th century, this announcement shook Ms. Alda’s confidence, and it took many, many performances for her to sing the song as well as she had sung it before the thoughtless assistant conductor had spoken to her.

Operatic tenor Leo Slezak was known for his practical jokes during rehearsals. During a dress rehearsal of Tannhäuser, several horses were brought on stage, and all of them proceeded to relieve themselves, filling the stage with dung. After the rehearsal, Mr. Slezak in a hurt voice told the conductor of the opera, Herr Hertz, a man vehemently opposed to his practical joking, “You see how unjust you are. You don’t say a word to the horses, but if I had done it, there would be the usual complaint — Slezak is interfering with the rehearsal!”

In Vienna, Alfred Piccaver and Elizabeth Schumann gave a joint recital, the program of which promised that they would sing a duet from La Boheme. Unfortunately, the pianist brought the wrong music, so they sang a duet from Madama Butterfly instead. Nevertheless, the audience declined to go home until they had heard the Boheme duet, so the house manager asked the audience, “Is there a Boheme [score] in the house?” A person in the gallery answered, “I’ve got one.” Borrowing the score, the pianist played the duet and the audience was able to hear Mr. Piccaver and Ms. Schumann sing it.

The inaugural performance of the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center was an opera by an American composer: Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Unfortunately, the performance was critically panned. Even before the performance, Sir Rudolf Bing knew that the production was likely to be a failure. When he met soprano Leontyne Price’s mother just before the performance, she said, “I had envisioned you as a much larger man.” Sir Rudolf replied, “Until a week ago, I was.”

Warren Beatty played a rich kid for a while on the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Once he was locked in a dressing room near where the director was shooting and no one would let him out. Mr. Beatty stayed calm. He waited until the next scene was being shot, then he started singing opera at the top of his voice. He was quickly let out of the dressing room.

As a young man, Italian baritone Tito Gobbi really got into his roles. After playing Scarpia for the first time in Tosca, Mr. Gobbi took his parents out to eat. At the restaurant, Mr. Gobbi behaved exactly like Scarpia, snapping his fingers to get attention from the waiters and in general making a nuisance of himself. His father leaned across the table and said softly to him, “Come back, Tito — the opera is over.”

In the early 1900s, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal was considered scandalous — clergymen felt it was improper for a theater to stage religious drama. However, very quickly the scandal was forgotten and many theater-goers looked forward to seeing Parsifal annually on Good Friday.

Maria Callas once sang in Norma in Paris, but unfortunately her voice broke on a note, with the result that the audience booed her. She held up her hand for silence, asked the conductor to start the aria from the beginning, and this time reached the note — to the very great applause of the audience.

African-American diva Martina Arroyo remembers some very under-rehearsed performances in Europe. Once, in Frankfurt, she walked onto the stage in the role of Aida without knowing which singer on stage was playing Aida’s father — until the baritone playing the father started singing.

Theater director Tyrone Guthrie was a fan of opera — and especially of Verdi’s Requiem. Often, he would sing along with his recording and shout, “Yes! Yes!” His wife, Judy, occasionally asked him, “Tony, can we just listen to it?” Mr. Guthrie always replied by shouting, “No — get involved.”

The first time soprano Kirsten Flagstad heard Tristan und Isolde, she was very bored and could barely keep awake. Later, she became famous for her singing of Wagnerian roles, including the role of Isolde.

French-born soprano Lily Pons learned her first American slang from comedian Jack Oakie — “Scram!” According to Mr. Oakie, Ms. Pons was the Metropolitan Opera’s “Top Line Canary.”

The favorite opera of King George V of England was La Boheme. When asked why it was his favorite, he replied, “Because it’s much the shortest.”

“Opera is where a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of dying, he sings.” — Robert Benchley


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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