• Very early in his career, John McCormack made a record titled “Killarney” for The Gramophone Company. Later, when he was a very famous opera singer, Mr. McCormack would play the record for distinguished visitors, saying that the recording was of a singer who wanted his advice about whether he ought to pursue singing professionally. Mr. McCormack said, “Without exception, everyone of them, including such an excellent critic as my friend Dr. Walter Starke, said, ‘Oh, Lord, John, don’t advise that poor boy to study singing. It is too pathetic for words.” Then Mr. McCormack would show the listeners his name on the record and laugh and laugh. One person who appreciated Mr. McCormack’s voice was fellow tenor Enrico Caruso. Mr. McCormack used to greet Mr. Caruso, “And how is the greatest tenor in the world this morning?” Mr. Caruso would reply, “And since when, Mac, did you become a baritone?” By the way, one of Mr. McCormack’s funniest reviews appeared in the Melbourne Australianafter he gave his first-ever concert at Exhibition Hall: “If this Irish boy is not known in a very few years as one of the greatest tenors in the world, it will probably be because a careless builder dropped a warehouse or a terrace on him as he was passing.”
• Italian tenor Enrico Caruso knew and liked Irish tenor John McCormack. Geraldine Farrar remembered that Mr. Caruso was kind to Mr. McCormack: “When McCormack was having a particularly bad attack of stage fright, before his cue to go on, Enrico would go up to him, as he stood nervously in the wings, and say something funny to him to cheer him up and make him forget his nervousness.” According to Ms. Farrar, Mr. Caruso “was always doing things like that. He was nice to everybody — he never acted the great tenor.” Mr. Caruso could be humble. In St. Petersburg, after he had sang the part of Rhadamès in Verdi’s Aida, he was surrounded by the other members of the company, who kept praising him for his magnificent performance, but he said simply, “Don’t praise me. Praise Verdi.” One person who was resistant to Mr. Caruso’s charm was Mr. McCormack’s little son, who told Mr. Caruso, “You’re only the greatest Italiantenor in the world, but my father is the greatest Irishtenor.”
• When soprano Beverly Sills was pregnant with her second child, she received a telephone call from Sarah Caldwell asking her to play Rosalinda in a production of Die Fledermauswith conductor Arthur Fiedler. Ms. Sills was so excited by the offer that she immediately said yes. But when she hung up the telephone and told her husband, he asked her, “What are you planning to wear?” She replied, “Costumes,” and then looked at her pregnant belly and realized that she would not be able to perform. She immediately telephoned Ms. Caldwell and told her, “Miss Caldwell, I’m terribly sorry but I can’t do your Fledermausbecause I’m pregnant.” Ms. Caldwell paused and then asked, “Weren’t you pregnant five minutes ago?” By the way, Ms. Sills got her nickname — Bubbles — because when she was born, she had a huge bubble of saliva on her mouth.
• 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.
• Soprano Rosa Ponselle sang for herself after retiring from singing for opera audiences. When Rosa was approaching her 80th birthday, Washington Postmusic critic Paul Hume dropped by her house and heard lovely singing and thought, Rosa’s found a wonderful pupil. Actually, Rosa herself was singing. Of course, she was wonderful on the stage and could wonderfully express emotion with her voice. At one time, getting a divorce was very difficult, but a divorce would be granted if either the husband or the wife had committed adultery. After English music critic Ernest Newman heard Rosa sing her first Amore dei Tre Re (The Love of Three Kings), he said, “If as a divorce-court judge I had heard her one ‘Ritorniam’ breathed to her lover, I would have given her husband a divorce without hearing further evidence.”
• Igor Stravinsky lived in the days before trifocals. According to opera soprano Marilyn Horne, he wore three pairs of eyeglasses: one on his nose, one on his forehead, and one on the top of his head. He would switch his eyeglasses so he could see whatever it was he wanted to look at. By the way, Ms. Horne attended lectures on music given by Aldous Huxley. She remembers that he loved the word “extraordinary.” In one lecture, he used that word 50 times — his record. Also by the way, after one of her early auditions, an agent said about her, “Die kleine Dicke wird etwas sein,” which means, “That little fat one is going places!”
• Opera is known for its divas. For example, soprano Kathleen Battle of the Metropolitan Opera of New York once rode in a limousine in which the air conditioning was set too high. She telephoned her manager to request that she telephone the chauffeur and order that the air conditioning be turned down.
• Throughout his career opera singer Hans Hotter stayed in character as Wotan, king of the gods, even when appearing before the curtain and accepting the audience’s applause. A critic once wrote about him at such a time, “Hotter looks as though the audience was a nasty smell.”
• “Opera is where a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of dying, he sings.” — Robert Burns
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
250 ANECDOTES ABOUT OPERA — BUY THE PAPERBACK