David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes

Lucrezia Bori of the Metropolitan Opera had surgery to remove some nodules from her vocal chords; unfortunately, the operation was not a success and she lost her singing and her speaking voice. Internationally famous Australian opera star Nellie Melba visited her and told her about the time that she had strained her voice by trying to sing a Wagnerian role that was not suited for her voice. For three months, she had remained completely silent, and she had recovered her voice. She added, “You are not yet thirty. Have patience. Wait and watch and work mentally. You will have a great future one day.” In fact, that is what happened. Ms. Bori had another operation, and after lots of rest and silence, she was able to recover her voice and have a second career singing at the Met. When Ms. Bori returned to the Met, Ms. Melba was there. Before Ms. Bori’s performance, Ms. Melba sent her a large basket of flowers, and after the performance, she told her, “You sang beautifully tonight. You are more marvelous than ever.”

Opera singer Lillian Nordica was shocked by a young woman who had been singing with an opera company in England. Ms. Nordica wanted her to audition for the Metropolitan Opera, where she was sure the young singer could get the role of a page in Romeo and Juliet. However, the young singer replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t sing a secondary role.” Ms. Nordica felt that the singer was making “a great mistake. To sing well one beautiful aria on the same stage with such artists as the two De Reszkes and Madame Melba would do her more good than to sing the first roles in a poor company.”

Enrico Caruso was not satisfied with the quality of many of his recordings because he felt that they did not offer a faithful reproduction of his singing. One day, he offered to play his newest recordings for a group of friends, all of whom assured him that the recordings were excellent and in fact were the best recordings he had ever made. However, Mr. Caruso then said, “No more — please! It makes me too sad. These are not my records at all. They were made by an unknown tenor who is not even included in the catalogue of the better artists!”

Some opera fans can’t afford the more expensive tickets that allow them to sit down, so they buy the cheaper tickets, stand for the first part of the opera, then move into the seats of people who leave the opera early. On evenings when the opera is well attended and well enjoyed and audience members are sticking around for the entire opera, people who have bought the cheaper tickets sometimes complain — good-naturedly — during intermissions to their richer compatriots, “Why don’t you people go home so we can sit down?”

When Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, was eight years old, her father, who was also a writer, took her to see the opera Madama Butterfly. Unfortunately, the opera had an unhappy ending, shocking the young girl. Shortly afterward, her father took her to see another opera, I Pagliacci, and she asked, “Father, does this opera have an unhappy ending, too?” When he told her that it did, she started crying and kept on crying. Eventually, her father took her home—even though the opera had not yet started.

Tenor Lauritz Melchior did his best to make soprano Helen Traubel laugh on stage. Sometimes, as she was singing an industrial-strength tragic aria, he would mutter to her, “For God’s sake, Helena, hurry it up! I’m hungry and I need a beer!” In addition, when Ms. Traubel was onstage singing a tragic aria, Mr. Melchior would sometimes be in the wings dancing a hula while wearing a grass skirt and paper flowers, trying to make her laugh. Or he would wear a derby and a bearskin while dancing a Highland fling.

Opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink learned just how famous she was when she visited what she called “a tumble-down hotel in a little one-horse town not even on the map.” A resident asked her, “Say, ma’am, ain’t you that big, fat, famous female singer whose face we’re a seein’ all the time in the newspaper?” (Remarkably free of pride, Ms. Schumann-Heink readily admitted that she was a big, fat, female singer, although she was surprised at being famous so far from a city.)

Feodor Chaliapin admired Enrico Caruso, and as a tribute to him, he once wrote a glowing appreciation on the walls of Mr. Caruso’s dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, this was greatly prized by the Metropolitan Opera, and for years the tribute was not touched — when the room had to be painted, the painters painted around the tribute. Eventually, however (and unfortunately), the tribute was painted over. What is new is not always an improvement.

John Coveney was an artists’ relations manager, and he participated in the quiz segments of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Mr. Coveney was known for his quick wit. For example, when he was asked what he most liked about the new house for the Met, he answered, “Not seating latecomers.” And when he was asked what he least liked about the Met, he answered, “Not being able to get to my seat when I’m late.”

American soprano Grace Moore allowed no one to upstage her. Singing Mimi, she appeared with Jan Kiepura as Rodolfo. When Ms. Moore started singing “Me chiamano Mimi,” Mr. Kiepura moved to a position that partially blocked the audience’s view of her. The people in the audience, including Lanfranco Rasponi, author of The Last Prima Donnas, long remembered how Ms. Moore shoved Mr. Kiepura aside — forcefully.

Sir Thomas Beecham definitely had his opera scores memorized, although he might forget other things. At Birmingham, where he was a guest conductor, he calmly smoked a cigarette before a performance, then as he walked to the podium to conduct, he asked the theater manager, “By the way, what opera are we playing tonight?”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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