David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Conductors


• Opera singer Nellie Melba noticed a youth who stared at her and followed her around during a time she was singing Faustat Covent Garden. She finally asked him who he was, and he replied that his name was Landon Ronald and he had just been engaged as répétiteurat Covent Garden. (Répétiteursplay piano at rehearsals and coach singers.) She asked, “Are you any good? […] Do you know Manon?” (This opera was also being performed at Covent Garden.) He replied, “Yes,” and she said to him, “Very well. Come to my hotel tomorrow at twelve o’clock, and I’ll see what you are made of.” He showed up, and he played the opening bars of Manonwithout any music in front of him. Ms. Melba said, “Not so fast. You have studied this. I haven’t. I want the book.” They went through the first act, and Ms. Melba said to Mr. Ronald, “You play beautifully, and you seem to have a wonderful memory. Have you studied Manonfor long?” He replied, “No. I borrowed the score after the performance, and sat up learning it all last night. I had never seen it before.” Of course, the young Mr. Ronald became a world-renowned conductor and composer. Ms. Melba said about this example of Mr. Ronald’s work ethic, “And that is why Landon Ronald is Landon Ronald!” Of course, he did make mistakes when he was young. Everyone does. He once got in trouble while Giuseppe Campari was singing before a large audience. Mr. Ronald was unable to bring the orchestra and the singer together. Fortunately, Mr. Campari good-naturedly said, “I think we’ll begin again.” This time, all went well. And once Mr. Ronald played the accompaniment for Ms. Melba in the wrong key and she said to him, “Landon, please try the other key. I’m not a contralto yet!” (He had played the music for a contralto the previous night, and absent-mindedly played in the same key for Ms. Melba.) Ms. Melba believed that in cases of a mistake it is better to acknowledge it than to try to keep it secret from the audience. She said about Mr. Ronald’s wrong key and its correction, “I need hardly say that every audience adores a little scene like that!”

• Anton Seidl could be cutting in his wit. He once listened to a young woman sing, but the young woman lacked vocal talent. When she asked him for his advice, he replied, “I advise you to marry some rich old tradesman.” She did. And when he wanted to conduct Richard Strauss’ tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the price for doing so was exorbitant, he said, “I know that Zarathustra spoke a great deal. But he didn’t say that much.” Mr. Seidl loved Wagnerian opera. When he was with the Neumann Company, he was scheduled to conduct Die Walkürein Italy. The King of Italy promised to attend, and the Italian custom was to stop the performance of the opera when the King, who apparently was always fashionably late, walked in. The orchestra would play the Marcia Reale(the Royal March) and then resume the opera. Mr. Seidl absolutely declined to do this, and for the performance that the King attended, the assistant conductor took over and observed the Italian custom. By the way, the German operatic tenor Max Alvary greatly respected Mr. Seidl’s conducting. A lesser conductor once criticized Mr. Alvary because he had not started singing when the conductor had indicated that he should come in with his first beat. Mr. Alvary replied, “The first beat! I am an actor! I have no time to watch your beats! I was waiting for the big wall of sound to plunge into it with my voice — but the wave never came.” Mr. Alvary told music critic Henry T. Finck, “When Mr. Seidl conducts, these waves of sound, be they large or small, never fail to rise.”

• Richard Strauss had a rocky relationship with his wife, Pauline, and often he experienced senseless scenes with his wife yelling at him. Once, the Strausses and Lotte Lehmann were having coffee in a garden when rain suddenly arose, upsetting Pauline so much that she began yelling at her husband. Ms. Lehmann tried to defend him, saying, “But, Pauline, how can your husband stop the rain?” However, Mr. Strauss was used to bearing his wife’s outbursts patiently and told Ms. Lehmann, “Don’t defend me — that always makes it much worse.” While conducting Die Walkürein Vienna, Mr. Strauss kept making faces. Ms. Lehmann thought that he was making faces at her because he didn’t like the way she was singing, so she confronted him with an outburst after the opera. However, Mr. Strauss told her that he was making faces at a musician, and then he added that her outburst had amused him because it showed that not just his wife was capable of such senseless scenes.

• In 1943 in Zurich, Switzerland, Sir Georg Solti first heard Hans Hotter, who was singing in a performance of Die Walküre. Sir Georg was impressed: “The intensity of his characterization, stage presence, musicality and the sheer vocal power was simply wonderful.” Four years later in Munich, Germany, Sir Georg conducted his first Die Walküre— Mr. Hotter sang the part of Wotan. Later, they recorded the Ringfor Decca. Sir Georg asked Mr. Hotter to sing in a particular way a passage in Walküre. Mr. Hotter said, “I don’t think I have ever tried that before.” Sir Georg replied, “I learned it from you!” By the way, throughout his career Mr. 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.”

• Arturo Toscanini grew up in Parma, Italy, where the workers sang arias from the famous operas they loved. Unfortunately, mistakes occasionally crept into an aria due to the faulty memory of a worker. When young Toscanini heard his first opera, Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, he thought that the opera singers were singing it incorrectly because the workers he had listened to had sung an aria differently. Young Toscanini stood up and yelled, “No, no. You are wrong!” Then he sang the aria the way he thought it was supposed to be sung.

• As is well known, Arturo Toscanini conducted from memory because of his poor eyesight. A musician once told conductor Karl Böhm that he had told Maestro Toscanini, “Of course, you know exactly how it goes, but you don’t know each individual part by heart.” Maestro Toscanini replied, “Give me a test.” The musician said, “Write out for me, with the bar rests, the bassoon part from the fight scene in the second act of Die Meistersinger.” This was a remarkable test — but Maestro Toscanini passed it.

• Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor, once was having a hard time getting along with soprano Grace Moore during a rehearsal of Louiseat the New York Metropolitan Opera. During a break in rehearsal, Sir Thomas began to speak of other performances that he had conducted. At one, the tenor complained that the soprano was dying too soon. Sir Thomas’ reply to the tenor was, “My dear Sir, no soprano ever dies too soon.” This story caused Ms. Moore to laugh, and the two got along after that.

• Arturo Toscanini was known for his fabulous memory, and he often memorized scores. At a performance of Tosca, he was seen consulting a score. During intermission, a couple of surprised music lovers asked one of the musicians if Toscanini was losing his memory. The musician replied, “No, the maestro is just running through Tannhauserfor tomorrow night.”

• The great conductor Arturo Toscanini knew more than music. Once, he became greatly upset by a set design for a scene in Faust. He cried out, “Shame! Shame! This is no Elizabethan house. You know nothing! Read Shakespeare! Study Verdi! Then you will know what to do.” He then declined to hold any rehearsals until a new, better set had been built.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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