David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes

• Very early in his career, in the late 1920s in Italy, tenor Joseph Benton, aka Giuseppe Bentonelli, had costumes made up for the part of Faust. He had his housekeeper sew buttons on each pair of tights so he could use them for his suspenders. (He did notice that the housekeeper looked surprised at the request, but he didn’t figure out why she looked surprised until he performed in the costume.) All went well during the performance — at first. Unfortunately, one suspender broke in two, and then the other suspender strap broke loose, too. Just as Faust took the lovely Marguerite in his arms at the conclusion of the opera, his tights fell down! The audience loved the mishap, and during the curtain calls the audience brought Mr. Benton back on stage for many bows. The headline in the local newspaper’s review the next day stated, “FAUST TENOR LOSES PANTS ON STAGE.” Following the debacle, Mr. Benton stopped using suspenders and learned how to tie his tights with bias tape so that they wouldn’t fall down.

• Although Jon Vickers had made a name for himself as a tenor in Canada, his career was not advancing internationally, and so he decided to get out of opera on June 30, 1956, unless he had made a major breakthrough by that time. In the meantime, he went to New York to work with coach and accompanist Leo Taubman, who frequently invited colleagues to listen to Mr. Vickers sing. This led to a few good offers to sing in New York Town Hall, in Philadelphia, and in New Orleans. More importantly, on May 9, 1956, Mr. Vickers received a telegram inviting him to sing in Covent Garden — this telegram saved him from a too-early retirement. (Ironically, because of previous engagements, he was unable to go to Covent Garden immediately, as the telegram requested. Instead, he went to Covent Garden a month later, sang two auditions, and was offered a contract.)

• Early in his career, tenor John L. Brecknock was determined to get himself out of his own jams — not always with good results. While singing a love duet on stage with Catherine Wilson, he had a mental blackout and could not remember the words. Ms. Wilson whispered the correct words to him, but he was so concentrating on getting himself out of the jam that he did not listen to her. She repeated the words, and this time he whispered back, “I know what I’m doing.” After a few more seconds, he remembered the words and recovered. In his autobiography, Scaling the High Cs, Mr. Brecknock writes, “… if I had allowed myself to be guided by someone who knew better, the situation could have been resolved within a couple of bars of music, rather than a couple of pages — and without making the conductor pull his hair out in the pit.”

• Sophie Arnould, who was noted for creating the roles of Eurydice in Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice(1762) and of Iphigenie in his Iphigenie en Aulide (1774), once hosted a dinner party for several guests. Apparently, some of the guests were controversial since following the dinner party a police lieutenant wanted the names of all who had attended. Ms. Arnould, however, claimed not to remember the names of any of her guests. The police lieutenant was not amused, saying, “But a woman like you ought to remember things like that.” Ms. Arnould smiled and replied, “Of course, lieutenant, but with a man like you, I am not a woman like me.”

• Opera fans really, really wanted to hear Enrico Caruso sing. On the days when he was scheduled to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, lines began to form very early, and no tickets would be left for those fans standing at the end of the line. Therefore, Mr. Caruso would often buy 100 tickets for standing admission, although these tickets were normally sold beginning at 30 minutes before the performance. (No one was going to say no to Mr. Caruso!) He would then take his 100 tickets, go to the end of the line, and start passing them out, saying, “Here — with Caruso’s compliments. And I hope you enjoy!”

• Opera singer Helen Traubel suffered from stage fright, as did violinist Jascha Heifetz. Before performing at a New York concert, they compared notes. Mr. Heifetz asked Ms. Traubel to feel his hands. She did — they were like ice. She told him, “I can’t have you feel the inside of my throat, but it’s the same way.” Ms. Traubel was relieved to learn about Mr. Heifetz’ stage fright — she had thought that she was the only scaredy-cat in the music business.

• Tenor Hugues Cuenod sang the part of Styx in Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworldwith Teresa Stich-Randall at the Grand Theater in Geneva. During celebrations for New Year’s, Mr. Cuenod decided to make a play on the names “Stich” and “Styx,” so he sang, “Listen, if you marry me, you will have almost nothing to change on your calling card!” Both Ms. Stich and the audience enjoyed the joke.

• Nella Melba appreciated applause. While touring in Otelloin the United States, her performance as Desdemona won her many ovations. When the applause was especially gratifying after her character was strangled, she would rise, motion for a piano to be wheeled onstage, then play and sing “Home Sweet Home.” After the song, she would “die” again until the end of the opera.

• Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s opera titled Russlan and Ludmillawas a failure. In fact, it inspired the grand duke Mikhail Pavlovich to come up with a unique method of punishment — he forced offending officers to sit through the opera.

• This anecdote may not be true, but it is a good one. One day, tenors John McCormack and Enrico Caruso met on the street. Mr. McCormack asked, “How is the world’s greatest tenor?” Mr. Caruso answered, “And since when have you become a baritone?”

• Adelina Patti was well paid; in fact, she earned in one evening as much as the then-President of the United States earned in one year. When this was pointed out to her, she was not apologetic, instead replying, “Let him sing.”

• From the gallery at Covent Garden, the young Irish tenor John McCormack watched the great Enrico Caruso, and he vowed to his wife, “If I ever get my foot down there, it’ll take a hell of a lot to get it off.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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davidbrucehaiku: cherry blossoms



three days of beauty

followed by decay and fall

someday you will die


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Free eBooks by David Bruce (pdfs)


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davidbrucehaiku: just round the corner





Just round the corner

Something good or something bad

What are you seeking?


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davidbrucehaiku: illness





Illness is a sign

That someday we all will die

It does not feel good


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Friday Poem: The Taxi

The Cheesesellers Wife

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?

by Amy Lowell, 1874 – 1925  

This is the first of a Friday series of poems selected from my poetry shelf

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Voltaire’s CANDIDE: Chapter 29 – In What Manner Candide Found Miss Cunegund and the Old Woman Again

Chapter 29 – In What Manner Candide Found Miss Cunegund and the Old Woman Again

While Candide, the Baron, Pangloss, Martin, and Cacambo, were relating their several adventures, and reasoning on the contingent or noncontingent events of this world; on causes and effects; on moral and physical evil; on free will and necessity; and on the consolation that may be felt by a person when a slave and chained to an oar in a Turkish galley, they arrived at the house of the Transylvanian prince on the shores of the Propontis. The first objects they beheld there, were Miss Cunegund and the old woman, who were hanging some tablecloths on a line to dry. 

The Baron turned pale at the sight. Even the tender Candide, that affectionate lover, upon seeing his fair Cunegund all sunburned, with bleary eyes, a withered neck, wrinkled face and arms, all covered with a red scurf, started back with horror; but, not withstanding, recovering himself, he advanced towards her out of good manners. She embraced Candide and her brother; they embraced the old woman, and Candide ransomed them both. 

There was a small farm in the neighborhood which the old woman proposed to Candide to make shift with till the company should meet with a more favorable destiny. Cunegund, not knowing that she was grown ugly, as no one had informed her of it, reminded Candide of his promise in so peremptory a manner, that the simple lad did not dare to refuse her; he then acquainted the Baron that he was going to marry his sister. 

“I will never suffer,” said the Baron, “my sister to be guilty of an action so derogatory to her birth and family; nor will I bear this insolence on your part. No, I never will be reproached that my nephews are not qualified for the first ecclesiastical dignities in Germany; nor shall a sister of mine ever be the wife of any person below the rank of Baron of the Empire.” 

Cunegund flung herself at her brother’s feet, and bedewed them with her tears; but he still continued inflexible. 

“Thou foolish fellow,” said Candide, “have I not delivered thee from the galleys, paid thy ransom, and thy sister’s, too, who was a scullion, and is very ugly, and yet condescend to marry her? and shalt thou pretend to oppose the match! If I were to listen only to the dictates of my anger, I should kill thee again.” 

“Thou mayest kill me again,” said the Baron; “but thou shalt not marry my sister while I am living.”


Source: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Candide

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