David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes

American-born tenor Richard Tucker greatly impressed Pietro Moranzoni, retired conductor of the Chicago Civic Opera. Sitting with theatrical guru Danny Newman, Maestro Moranzoni listened to Mr. Tucker for a while, then asked Mr. Newman, “Theesa tenor, he ees Eetalian, no?” Mr. Newman replied, “No, Maestro, he’s American.” Maestro Moranzoni listened a while longer, then he asked Mr. Newman, “Eesa poppa and mamma, they Eetalian, ah?” Mr. Newman replied that Mr. Tucker’s parents were Romanian Jews. Maestro Moranzoni listened yet a while longer, then he asked Mr. Newman yet another question, “Eesa stody in Eetaly, ah?” Mr. Newman replied that Mr. Tucker had studied in New York City. At this point, Maestro Moranzoni said, “Ah donta care, eesa the best Eetalian tenor ah ever hear!” By the way, Luciano Pavarotti stated in his foreword to the book Richard Tucker: A Biography, by James A. Drake, that the career of Mr. Tucker definitely showed that even non-Italians could become “great Italian tenors!”

José Carreras discovered opera when he was a child. He saw the movie The Great Caruso, which starred Mario Lanza in the title role, and he started to sing the arias that he had heard in the movie. As a result, his family bought a record player and the soundtrack from the movie. Of course, as a child Jose did not sing as well as he did years later as a star of opera. He sometimes had to sing his favorite aria, “La Donna è Mobile,” in the bathroom. Still, sometimes he performed in his mother’s salon, and her customers gave him small tips that he used to buy small toys and candy. As an adult, Mr. Carreras made his debut at La Scala as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. The great tenor Giuseppe di Stefano saw him in rehearsal and noticed that his costume did not fit well. Mr. di Stefano took him to his own vast costume collection and gave him a costume that fit him better—it was the same costume that Mr. di Stefano had worn in the same role when he performed at La Scala.

Eileen Farrell was a favorite opera soprano of flutist Donald Peck, and he once performed with her. Afterward, he went backstage and complimented her on her singing. She was very nice and said that she was surprised by his big flute tone because his body was so slim. He replied, “But Miss Farrell, you have such a huge voice!” She joked, “Yes, but I am as wide as you are tall!” By the way, a young cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra did not realize that opera singers will often not sing in full voice during rehearsal, and so he was unimpressed with Ms. Farrell during rehearsal and remarked, “So, what’s so great about Eileen Farrell?” But during the actual performance, she did sing with her full voice, and the cellist was properly impressed and remarked, “I can’t hear myself. Am I playing?” This was a charming way of admitting that he had been mistaken earlier.

Every opera singer will crack on a note in public. Early in his career, while singing in Tel Aviv, Israel, Plácido Domingo cracked on two notes while singing an important aria in Charles-François Gounod’s Faust, for which he had had inadequate time to prepare. He was horribly embarrassed, and he offered to resign from the Hebrew National Opera, but the directors would not accept his resignation. Instead, they said to him, “Plácido, here you have a chance to learn, and one mistake means nothing. We trust you, and we want you to continue.” This vote of confidence, Placido says, is “the biggest boost anyone has ever given me.”

In 1935, opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy, and his first critic was the doctor who delivered him. Hearing the infant scream, the doctor marveled, “Such high notes!” The ability to produce high notes under stress came in handy in 1969, when he was singing on stage in La Boheme in San Francisco when an earthquake struck. According to a 1979 article in Time, Pavarotti “gripped the hand of his Mimi, Dorothy Kirsten, a little more tightly, but kept on singing at full voice and never missed a beat. The earthquake drew to a peaceful conclusion and so did the performance.”

Tenor Rolando Vallazón was discovered—in a way—in the shower. At age 11 or 12, he was singing a song by Baloo from The Jungle Book in the shower when the director of the Academy of Performing Arts heard him and knocked on the door. He asked Rolando’s mother, “Who’s singing up there?” She replied, “I’m sorry. I’ll tell him to shut up.” He objected, “No, no. We’re starting a program for young people, and maybe he’d be interested in singing.” Rolando went there, he discovered that he enjoyed being on stage, and now he has an international career singing in opera.

As Plácido Domingo was warming up and really opening up his throat as he was being driven to the Metropolitan Opera, he noticed some people in the car next to his laughing at him. He rolled down his window and asked where they were heading. When he heard the reply, “To the Met,” he said, “Don’t laugh, because you’ll be hearing me in a few minutes!”

While singing for the Metropolitan Opera during the 1950s, soprano Lucine Amara ran into a problem: New York was a dirty city, and in the days before air conditioning dust settled everywhere in her apartment soon after dusting. She once cried, “I long for home! Even our dust is clean in San Francisco!”

Lilli Lehmann and Lillian Nordica once left the Metropolitan Opera at the same time on a rainy day. Ms. Lehmann looked at Ms. Nordica’s carriage, then revealed her boots and said, “You ride? I walk,” before setting out into the rain.

Robert Merrill sang opera at the Met in New York. In addition, he frequently sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before New York Yankees home games. The Yankees gave him his own uniform, which sported No. 1 1/2.

For a while, the Met had two African-American sopranos: Martina Arroyo and Leontyne Price. One day at the Met, Ms. Arroyo was mistaken for Ms. Price. She replied, “I’m the other one, honey.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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