David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Critics


• Criticism can be funny, it can be devastating, and it can be educational. (So can insults.) Sometimes the accompanist is much better than the singer: Henry Bird once told a singer, “Young lady, I have tried playing for you on the white notes, I have tried playing for you on the black notes, but I simply cannot play in the cracks.” At first, cellist Emanuel Feuermann received bad reviews of his concerts in London — he even thought of no longer playing in London. After reading one review of his playing, he told accompanist Gerald Moore, “If a pupil of mine received that notice, I would tell him to give up the cello.” While Feodor Chaliapin was rehearsing Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Mozart et Salieri, he wanted the orchestra to play at the tempo he wanted, so he gestured at the orchestra and stamped his feet in the tempo he wanted. The conductor said to him, “Kindly remember that I am the conductor,” and Mr. Chaliapin replied, “In a garden where there are no birds, a croaking toad is a nightingale.” The insulted conductor left the building, and the rehearsal ended. Gerald Moore accompanied Mr. Chaliapin during concerts, and they respected each other. Mr. Chaliapin was never impatient with Mr. Moore, but he did criticize him when he felt that criticism was needed. During one rehearsal, he said to Mr. Moore after he played the long pianoforte introduction to the classical French love song“Plasir d’amour” by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini, “Not just the notes. Not just the notes.” In Am I Too Loud?, one of his autobiographies, Mr. Moore wrote, “It can be so beautiful if played thoughtfully and expressively but my uninformed strumming made it sound commonplace. I took it home to think about it and ever since that episode I have devoted more time, more practice, more concentration to the music that looks easy. The average accompanist, I am afraid, only practises with diligence that which looksdifficult.” Of course, some critics can be partial. After a concert by contralto Astra Desmond, her 10-year-old son told a bunch of taxi drivers outside the concert hall, “My mother is the greatest singer in all space.”

• After a performance, Leontyne Price greatly enjoyed hearing praise from members of the audience and she greatly disliked hearing criticism from members of the audience. After one performance, she was speaking to a line of members of the audience and one man near the end of the line started waving at her. Ms. Price thought that here was one man who had greatly enjoyed the performance and was going to tell her how great she was, but when the man finally spoke to her, he asked, “Miss Price, did I detect a slight strain on your B-flat in the aria?” Ms. Price smiled at him and said, “Would you do me a small favor and get quietly out of the line so the other people can tell me beautiful things about my B-flat?” (Actually, she admits that she was “rougher than that” on the man. She told an interviewer, “I’ll never tell what I said to him. It was bad — straight to the jugular vein.”)

• 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.

• Violinist Jascha Heifetz and tenor John McCormack once sailed together on a ship to Monte Carlo. They got together in a cabin and had a fun time singing and playing music. Suddenly, they realized that it was dawn! Unfortunately, not everyone had had the fun time that they had had. Their neighbor complained to the room steward, “What the devil was going on all night? One gent caterwauling and another gent scraping a fiddle. I never got a wink of sleep.” The room steward told him, “That was Jascha Heifetz and John McCormack.” The irate man replied, “When I get home, I’m going to smash every d*mn record I own of either of them!”

• Musician and impresario Maurice Strakosch once took opera singer Adelina Patti, before she was famous, to sing to Gioachino Rossini. She sang for him a song from Rossini’s Barber of Seville: “Una vove poco fa.” However, Mr. Strakosch had embellished the song greatly with fancy “improvements.” Mr. Rossini kept praising the singing: “Brava! Bravissia!” After Ms. Patti had finished singing, Mr. Rossini said to her, “Beautiful voice! Excellent method!” Then Mr. Rossini, a master of sarcasm, added, “And what a brilliant and effective song! Pray tell me the name of the composer.”

• Opera singers sometimes have jokes that they play on stage. While singing opposite Siegfried Jerusalem in a performance of Tristanat Bayreuth, soprano Waltraud Meier shocked conductor Daniel Barenboim by substituting a line from an operetta for a line from Tristan. She says, “I’ve always wanted to sing that — once! It rhymes better!” In addition, Ms. Meier says, Siegfried Jerusalem, who was singing the role of Tristan, sang about spaghetti in the second act. By the way, he says that no critic noticed.

• Richard Barthelemy, the voice coach and accompanist of Enrico Caruso, was aware that many opera patrons had little to no knowledge of opera. He was invited to lunch with one such high-society opera patron the day after a new Italian opera premiered. He asked her for her opinion of the opera, but she replied, “It’s impossible to give you an opinion — I haven’t yet read the reviews in the morning papers.”

• Rudolf Bockelmann, a German dramatic baritone best known for his roles in Richard Wagner’s operas, did not read English, but he closely examined his critical notices in London newspapers. Classical record producer Walter Legge wrote that Mr. Bockelmann would search for the word but: “If he found it, he grunted in German, ‘It’s all sh*t anyway.’”

• Early in her career, soprano Rita Hunter read a review that stated, “If Miss Hunter persists in singing her top notes with such abandon, she won’t have a voice at all in two years.” Thirty years later, she still had her voice. She also still had the review — which she displayed on a wall in her bathroom.

• When press releases announced that the petite Lily Pons would make her debut in the title role of Carmen, the critic of the Boston Transcript, H.T. Parker, said, “Thank God! At last we’ll have a Carmen who weighs less than the bull!”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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