David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Alcohol and Animals


• Opera singer Clara Doria once was seasick during a voyage and was unable to eat, but the wife of a clergyman declared that she was suffering from starvation, not from seasickness. The clergyman’s wife recommended that she drink a gin cocktail with Angostura bitters, and when Ms. Doria did, her appetite immediately returned and her seasickness vanished. Ms. Doria told this story to her friends, and when she left on another sea voyage, many of her friends got her quart bottles of gin cocktail as a farewell gift. Some of her friends went separately to a man named Billy Pitcher to buy quarts of gin cocktail, telling him that they were gifts for Ms. Doria, and he was amazed and asked, “Good Lord, what sort of woman is Ms. Doria? Does she drink cocktail by the gallon, or does she take a bath in it?”

• Opera singer Kirsten Flagstad enjoyed drinking, but she didn’t like to drink before noon. Therefore, she and her accompanist, Edwin McArthur, would sit and watch the clock slowly move its hands toward noon. However, during one of their train trips from New York to San Francisco, Mr. McArthur occasionally would get tired of waiting, so he would say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, in New York it’s already nearly two — we can start.” Then he would pour two glasses.

• The great tenor Enrico Caruso occasionally took a drink during the rigors of recording opera. He once disappeared for a few minutes while recording a duet from Madame Butterflywith Geraldine Farrar. When he returned and they started recording again, Ms. Farrar mischievously added these words to her part of the duet, “Oh, you’ve had a highball!” Mr. Caruso in turn sang these words: “No, I’ve had two highballs.” The recording is now a collector’s item.

• During a 1964 performance of The Magic Fluteat the Glyndebourne Festival, two free-standing triangular pillars (and the stagehands inside them) on stage toppled and fell to the floor. The performers on stage, Heinz Blankenburg and Ragnar Ulfung, looked at each other, then walked backstage and righted the pillars, all the while ad-libbing in German about how effectively Guinness (an alcoholic beverage) builds strength. The audience cheered.

• Soprano Giulia Grisi (1811-1869) strongly believed in the restorative power of beer. While performing in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, she was required to fall on the stage and lie there, so she arranged for a glass of beer to be handed to her through a trapdoor in the floor of the stage. With her back to the audience and the glass hidden from the audience’s sight, she guzzled the beer to gain strength to continue her performance.


• Ivan Jadan, the premier lyric tenor of the Bolshoi Opera from 1928-1941, lived in the Virgin Islands for the last part of his life. He swam nearly every day, and in 1957 he made a friend of a black angelfish with five gold bands. Often, he crushed a sea egg and fed it to the angelfish. One day, he discovered the angelfish in an old, abandoned fish trap. Mr. Jadan knew that the angelfish would die if it stayed there, so he crushed a sea egg in his hand, then put his hand into the trap’s intricate opening. The angelfish swam to the food, Mr. Jadan moved his hand away, and the angelfish followed the hand and food to freedom. Mr. Jadan didn’t name the angelfish until 1993, when he told his great-niece Anna about the pretty little angelfish and announced that its name was Anna Angelfish.

• Nineteenth-century impresario Colonel James H. Mapleson once needed tenor Luigi Ravelli to sing in Carmen, but Mr. Ravelli sent him word shortly before the opera began — much too late to change the opera — that he could not sing that night. Arriving at Mr. Ravelli’s hotel, Colonel Mapleson was surprised to see that Mr. Ravelli appeared to be in good health, even though he was in bed. He tested Mr. Ravelli’s voice at the piano, and discovered that Mr. Ravelli was in good voice. It appeared that Mr. Ravelli would sing that night after all, but unfortunately, Mr. Ravelli placed great trust in his favorite dog, Niagara. He asked the dog if he should sing, the dog growled, and Mr. Ravelli went back to bed.

• Soprano Geraldine Farrar once held a live goose while taking a curtain call after a performance in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Die Koenigskinder. The goose honked, and the audience applauded. Tenor Leo Slezak noticed all the attention Ms. Farrar was getting, so he said that he would carry a swan with him for his curtain call after his next performance of Lohengrin. “Go ahead,” she said, laughing, “but you can pinch your swan all you want — he won’t squawk because he is stuffed.”

• Maria Jeritza appeared with Enrico Caruso in Carmen. Often animals are used in the production of operas, and often the animals are not house broken. A horse once befouled — and befouled — the stage during a performance, and when the climatic moment came when Mr. Caruso “stabbed” Ms. Jeritza, she refused to die. Under his breath, a shocked Mr. Caruso said, “Die! Fall, will you?” Ms. Jeritza whispered back, “I’ll die if you can find me a clean place.”

• Sir Peter Ustinov introduced his young daughter to opera by way of a performance of Aida. Unfortunately, late in the opera, several animals (including horses, camels, and elephants) began to relieve themselves on stage. Mr. Ustinov’s daughter — a polite young lady — tapped his shoulder and asked, “Daddy, is it all right if I laugh?”

• Animals are occasionally used onstage during operas. Once, Sir Thomas Beecham was conducting the Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s Aidawhen a horse relieved itself on stage. Sir Thomas told the audience, “A distressing spectacle, ladies and gentlemen, but what a critic!”

• Franco Corelli’s dog was well trained. While Mr. Corelli was on stage singing, his dog was in Mr. Corelli’s dressing room. If anyone entered the dressing room and reached for Mr. Corelli’s paycheck, the dog bit him.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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