David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Education


• Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine studied under Professor Dimitri Usatov, who was sometimes very severe and even hit him with his baton. In self-defense, Mr. Chaliapine sometimes stood behind the piano, which was close to the wall. Because Professor Usatov was stout, he was unable to get close enough to Mr. Chaliapine to hit him. One day, however, Professor Usatov was so angry that he shouted, “Come out of that, you young devil! Come out! I know your game!” Mr. Chaliapine came out, Professor Usatov beat him with his baton, and then they continued the lesson. (Professor Usatov was actually very kind, giving Mr. Chaliapine voice lessons for free and even teaching him table manners.)

• Schuyler Chapin held many important jobs in the arts, including cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, and General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. He fell in love with music early. Unfortunately, he discovered that he had no talent in music composition. Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge agreed. She looked over some compositions of his, and then told him bluntly, “It’s very simple. You have no talent.” She thought that he ought to be an impresario instead. Mr. Chapin agreed. He says, “If you know you don’t have talent yourself, you try to acquire the talent of recognizing talent in others.”

• One of the people who helped develop Australian soprano Joan Sutherland’s voice was Richard Bonynge, who became her husband. He felt that she could sing higher, so he took advantage of the fact that she lacked perfect pitch. Placing her in such a way that she could not see the keyboard of the piano as she did her vocal exercises, he would play E flat and tell her that it was C, which she would reproduce. They continued in this way higher and higher, and eventually Mr. Bonynge would reveal to her how high she was singing. In this way she developed her ability to sing notes much higher than she had thought she was capable of singing.

• Every opera singer will crack on a note in public. Early in his career, while singing in Tel Aviv, Israel, Plácido Domingo cracked on two notes while singing an important aria in Charles-François Gounod’s Faust, for which he had had inadequate time to prepare. He was horribly embarrassed, and he offered to resign from the Hebrew National Opera, but the directors would not accept his resignation. Instead, they said to him, “Plácido, here you have a chance to learn, and one mistake means nothing. We trust you, and we want you to continue.” This vote of confidence, Plácido says, is “the biggest boost anyone has ever given me.”

• Mario Lanza was not good at reading music, so he learned new arias by listening to recordings by accomplished opera singers. Leila Edwards listened to him sing some arias from the role of Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and then she told him, “You learned from the [Beniamino] Gigli recording.” Mr. Lanza asked, “How did you know?” Ms. Edwards replied, “Because you’re making the same mistakes Gigli made!” (Mr. Lanza made his only appearances on an operatic stage as Pinkerton in Madama Butterflyin New Orleans on April 8 and April 10, 1948.)

• Lotte Lehmann was a glorious lieder singer. Once she gave a master class at the Academy of the West, and Anna Russell, a singer of parodies of opera, asked to sit in on the class. Ms. Lehmann taught the class, then near the end she asked Ms. Russell to come forward. Ms. Lehmann then took Ms. Russell through the comic song “Schlumph ist mein Gesitzenbaum” (German for “Dumb is my sittingtree”) and taught her to sing it much better than she had ever sung it before.

• As a young man, Mario del Monaco entered a competitive examination at the Opera School in Rome. He sang successfully and won a scholarship. Unfortunately, when lessons commenced, Mr. del Monaco became convinced that his teacher was ruining his voice. Eventually, he became so angry that he threw the score of La Favoritaat his teacher’s head!

• The singer and composer Nicola Porpora took the castrato Gaetano Caffarelli as a pupil, and made him sing for six years a single lesson based on vowel sounds. At the end of the six years, Mr. Porpora told his pupil, “I have nothing further to teach you — you are the greatest singer in the world.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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