David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Audiences


• Geraldine Farrar and Enrico Caruso once performed together in the opera Carmen. Ms. Farrar had recently acted in a movie version of Carmen, and she incorporated a bit of business from the movie into the onstage opera — she slapped Mr. Caruso with her fan — not hard enough to hurt him — in the last act. Mr. Caruso was a good sport, and during the curtain call he rubbed his cheek as if he had been hurt. He had not been hurt, of course, but was merely joking. However, members of the audience were convinced that Ms. Farrar had really hit Mr. Caruso hard, and reporters were soon asking Ms. Farrar why she had struck Mr. Caruso. She knew that the reporters wanted a good story, and she gave them a good story — she denied nothing. Soon, Mr. Caruso called Mr. Farrar and said, “What is this? The reporters — the many reporters — say I am very angry because you slap. I not like. I worry.” Ms. Farrar told him, “Stop worrying. Deny nothing. Do you know what’s going to happen? Next week, when you and I repeat Carmen, everybody will want to see whether I slap you hard again. The house will be packed.” Ms. Farrar remembered later, “That’s just the way it was. The next week Enrico and I did Carmenagain. The house was packed.”

• Early in his career, American-born tenor Richard Tucker had to grow used to the customs of other countries. In Verona, Italy, he started to sing softly at a rehearsal, not aware that in Verona many people come to rehearsals. As he sang softly, he heard a commotion from the audience, and conductor Tullio Serafin explained that the people in the audience had not heard his records, which were not then available in Italy, and so they were wondering whether he could sing. Mr. Tucker then sang full voice, and the audience stormed the stage and kissed him. At the actual performance of the opera, Mr. Tucker did not know that audience members light candles to show their appreciation of exceptionally well-sung arias. Therefore, he was astonished to suddenly see hundreds of candles being lit in front of him. At the conclusion of the aria, the audience starting shouting, “Bis! Bis!” (“Bis!” means “Twice!” or “Encore!”) He thought the audience was shouting “Beast!” at him. After the opera, he asked his wife, “Sara, what happened?” She explained to him that he had scored another huge success. (21)

• Early in the history of opera, candles lit the theaters. Members of the audience bought librettos, which indicated when favorite arias would be sung, to read during performances. Frequently, instead of waiting for a favorite aria, members of the audience would go out for a bite to eat, then return later, in time for the aria — or they would visit with other members of the audience as they waited. It wasn’t until the invention of the electric light that theaters became dark — and audiences became silent. In fact, early in the history of operas, the overture was written to alert the chattering audience that the performance was about to begin — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gioacchino Rossini often wrote overtures that began with a few loud chords to get the audience’s attention. 

• Critic Erica Jeal saw the famous Three Tenors in concert at Wembley Stadium on July 6, 1996, but she did run into a problem: “The gentleman in the seat behind me found, to his delight and my despair, that he could sing along to half of the numbers.” This was especially a problem because listening to a concert of the Three Tenors — Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras — was very expensive although the Three Tenors concerts had a reputation of bringing opera to a non-elitist and non-exclusive audience. Ms. Jeal says pointedly, “For the price of my press ticket for Wembley [a British sports stadium] I could have seen at least 40 performances at the Coliseum [British opera house] — who’s being exclusive now?” (23)

• Hans Hotter made his operatic debut in Vienna, Austria, in the role of Jochanaan in Salome. After the debut, his mother, who had been present, overheard two teenagers — a male and a female — who had separately seen him perform and who were talking about him. The girl said, “Have you heard that man — the naked one [Jochanaan’s costume was only a camel skin] with the huge voice?” The boy replied, “I don’t know about the voice, but did you see those great arms which he stretched out when he was pronouncing the curse? My word, he would be the right member for our Danube rowing club!” 

• Carlo Bergonzi, following the wishes of Giuseppe Verdi, sang softly the final B flat of “Celeste Aida” at the Teatro Regio, Parma, in December 1959. Unfortunately, the audience was displeased, not being used to hearing that note sung softly. After the opera, an audience member approached Mr. Bergonzi to ask why he had varied from tradition. Of course, Mr. Bergonzi explained that Verdi had written the note that way. Unfortunately, the audience member was still not satisfied, remarking, “So Verdi was wrong, too!” (

• Audiences have various ways of showing disapproval. In Mexico, during a very poor performance of the opera Trovatore, a tenor mangled “Di quella pira.” Following the song, the audience did not applaud, but instead made the sound “SHH!” In 1969, at a performance of Rigolettoin Edinburgh, Scotland, the singer playing the Duke of Mantua mangled “Parmi veder le lagrime.” Following the song, the audience showed its displeasure by remaining absolutely silent and absolutely still. (26)

• At the end of the Second World War, Galiano Masini was performing as Cavaradossi in Toscaat the Teatro Verdi. Unfortunately, he struggled vocally for the first two acts, and the audience loudly and persistently criticized him. However, Mr. Masini performed a marvelous “E’ lucevan le stelle” in the final act, and the audience reversed itself and shouted for an encore. Mr. Masini strode to the footlights, glared at the audience, and then told them (presumably in Italian), “Up yours!” 

• Baritone Antonio Tamburini was a versatile singer. During the carnival season in Palermo in 1822, the audience came armed with noise-makers such as drums and trumpets. The prima donna was frightened by the loudness and rowdiness of the crowd, so Mr. Tamburini performed and sang both his part and her part — for the duets, he sang his part with his normal baritone and he sang her part with a falsetto. The audience loved it. (28)

• In the old opera house, members of the Metropolitan Opera Guild gathered in a box. A rule of silence was imposed in the box during performances, but the rule was ignored in the case of Guild member and retired Met tenor Giovanni Martinelli. While attending the opera, Mr. Martinelli was accustomed to hum throughout the performance — and occasionally to criticize it. 

• Jean de Reszke sacrificed for his art. For example, while appearing as Siegfried to Nellie Melba’s Brünnhilde (her sole appearance in that role), he sacrificed his mustache. However, his fans were outraged by its non-appearance, and Mr. de Reszke restored it when he sang Siegfried in London in future appearances. 


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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