• Before George Cehanovsky started singing with the Metropolitan Opera, he sang the title role in Eugene Onegin. During the scene where he was supposed to shoot and kill the poet Lensky in a duel, his gun would not fire. (Later, he discovered that he and the singer playing Lensky had picked up the wrong guns — the singer playing Lensky had the gun with the blank in it.) The singer playing Lensky decided to fall over “dead” anyway, and when he hit the floor, the blank in his gun went off. Mr. Cehanovsky asked Eugene’s second, “Is he killed!” The second replied, “He died of a heart attack.”
• Early in her career, soprano Leslie Garrett appeared as Cupid in Oronteafor Musica nel Chiostro (Music in the Cloisters) in Batignano, Italy. Little money was available for costumes, and as Cupid Ms. Garrett wore only some silver cycling shorts and a strategically placed towel. At a dress rehearsal attended by local villagers, the towel somehow flew off, angering the local matrons but gladdening their unmarried sons. After that near-riot dress rehearsal, Ms. Garrett glued the towel to her chest.
• German contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink once wore a train on a formal gown while singing in a concert. Unfortunately, while walking on stage, her train caught on a steel tack and pulled loose. She responded well to a situation that would have embarrassed many singers. Ms. Schumann-Heink simply picked up the train, draped it across the piano, and said to the audience, “Vell! unt vhat doo you teenk off dot!” This endeared her to the audience even before she had sang a note.
• When Richard Burton was starring at the old Vic in Hamlet, John Gielgud stopped by his dressing room after a performance so that they could go out and have supper together. However, Mr. Burton took a long time changing out of his costume so Mr. Gielgud said, “I’ll go on ahead. Come when you’re better — I mean, when you’re ready!” In his book Acting Shakespeare, Mr. Gielgud calls this one of his favorite theatrical gaffes.
• While singing Siegmund to Birgit Nilsson’s Sieglinda in the first two performances of Die Walküreduring the 1974-1975 season at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Jon Vickers withdrew the sword from the tree with such force that the sword flew from the handle and into the safety net protecting the orchestra. Afterward, Ms. Nilsson said that if she hadn’t stepped back, she would have lost part of her nose.
• Bluesman Robert Lockwood once went into a town to look for himself. He played in Elaine, Arkansas, then went back home, where he heard that fellow bluesman Robert Johnson was in Elaine. Mr. Lockwood wanted to see Mr. Johnson, so he went back to Elaine, where he discovered that a mistake had been made. A man had seen Mr. Lockwood playing and had thought that Mr. Lockwood was Mr. Johnson.
• Rita Thunderbird performed as a human cannonball throughout the United Kingdom while wearing a gold lamé bikini. On one occasion in 1977, however, she remained in the cannon after it was fired although she was supposed to fly across the River Thames. However, this didn’t stop the show — flying across the River Thames without her was her gold lamé bra.
• In Washington DC, the stagehands let the curtain down right in the middle of a pas de deuxby Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky, leaving Ms. Tallchief in front of the curtain and Mr. Eglevsky behind the curtain. Mr. Eglevsky remained calm and simply rejoined Ms. Tallchief on stage, where they bowed to the audience and called the dance finis.
• While singing in Tosca, Plácido Domingo has had bad luck crying out “Vittoria! Vittoria!” Once, he fell flat on his nose, creating a pool of blood; fortunately, he managed to finish the opera. On another occasion, he threw his head back as he cried “Vittoria! Vittoria!” — and broke the nose of the supernumerary standing behind him.
• Tenor Franco Corelli takes music seriously. At home, Mr. Corelli became so frustrated while trying unsuccessfully to play a certain phrase that he jumped up from the piano then smashed his fist through a closet door. He and his wife were unsuccessful at freeing his arm, so they were forced to call a carpenter for help.
• The Grant food chain once attempted to create a hot dog without cancer-causing nitrates. It sent a package of the healthy hot dogs to the United States Department of Agriculture so they could be tested, but an official there thought that they were a gift, so he took them home and had a weenie roast.
• During a performance of Macbethon a very hot evening, Sarah Siddons ordered a beer. A boy went out, bought the beer, and carried it back to the theater. However, Mrs. Siddons was not where she had been. Looking around, the boy saw her acting on stage, so he walked on stage and delivered the beer to her.
• During a performance of Electrawith Birgit Nielsen at the Paris Opera, the lights went out due to a power failure. When the lights came on again, Richard Lewis picked up the performance where it had ended by singing his next lines: “Lights. Lights. Is there no one here to light them?”
• In the mid-1950s, Gene Bozzacco, who was a musician with the Metropolitan Opera, remembered a funny performance of Forzain Brooklyn. Both men about to have a duel forgot their pistols, and they were forced to run off the stage in different directions to get them.
• Filming The Texas Chain Saw Massacrewas dangerous. In one scene, Gunnar Hansen (playing Leatherface) was running with a whirling chain saw when he slipped. The whirling chain saw flew in the air and landed a few inches from Ms. Hansen’s body.
• At her all-female college, Katherine Hepburn played men’s roles in the plays the theater department put on. During one play, she put a hand in her pants pocket, sat down, and couldn’t get her hand out again.
• The Reverend Sydney Smith drank some ink by accident, then said, “Bring me all the blotting paper there is in the house.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
250 ANECDOTES ABOUT OPERA — LULU PAPERBACK