• 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
250 ANECDOTES ABOUT OPERA — LULU PAPERBACK