David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Gifts and Good Deeds


• Giuseppe Campanari acted and sang the part of Kothner the final time that Anton Seidl conducted Die Meistersingerat the Metropolitan. Kothner appears in the first act but does not afterward appear in the opera until very much later in the final act, where the character waves a flag and sings a few notes. Mr. Campanari asked Mr. Seidl for permission to go home after the first act, thinking that in the final act a member of the chorus could very well wave the flag and sing the few notes. Mr. Seidl, however, replied, “No. Remain for the master’s sake! [The master, of course, is the composer of Die Meistersinger: Richard Wagner.] Go to your dressing room, and I will send you something to keep you company.” Mr. Campanari did retire to his dressing room, and Mr. Seidl sent him two cigars and a bottle of champagne with his compliments. Mr. Campanari writes, “At the proper moment, during the last act, the original Kothner appeared and thus Wagner’s dignity was upheld at the expense of Mr. Seidl’s purse.” By the way, Mr. Seidl celebrated Christmas with a huge Christmas tree, and presents for his dogs — each dog got a sausage — hung on its branches.

• In 1969, when opera singer Beverly Sills made her debut at La Scala in Milan, Italy, she and her daughter, Muffy, stayed in a hotel on a street that was famous for its flashily dressed prostitutes, all of whom carried large handbags. Muffy was very impressed with the glamour of the prostitutes, and she asked her mother, “Mama, how do you say ‘beautiful’ in Italian?” Ms. Sills answered, “Bella, bella.” The next evening Muffy went over to a prostitute and told her, “Bella, bella.” The prostitute was so pleased that she reached into her handbag and pulled out a gift for Muffy: a piece of chocolate.

• Bass singer Feodor Chaliapin once spent the night with a young woman, and the next morning he said, “I shall give you tickets for the opera this evening.” Hinting for a different kind of gift, the woman told him that the opera tickets would be of no use to her as she was poor and hungry. Mr. Chaliapin replied, “If you wanted bread, you should have spent the night with a baker.”

Good Deeds

• When he was a very young man who had just graduated from Harvard, future music critic Henry T. Finck decided to attend the first Beyreuth Festival, with Richard Wagner himself conducting. He arrived several weeks before the festival began, and he wanted to attend the rehearsals of the great works of opera written by Mr. Wagner. No one was supposed to be admitted to the rehearsals, but he found a convenient keyhole and put his ear up to it. Someone discovered him doing this and said, “Nobody is allowed in here.” Henry pointed out that he had spent a great amount of money for tickets to all the public performances of the festival, but to no avail. The attendant said, “I am extremely sorry, sir, but I have strict orders to make no exceptions. Fortunately, Henry met Mr. Wagner himself. He took the opportunity to ask the great man to allow him to attend rehearsals. At first, Mr. Wagner declined, thinking that Henry was a critic. (Henry became a critic — as which he was a defender of Wagner — later.) Henry said, “But I am not a critic, only a young man of 22 who has come simply to describe the new works.” (True. Henry could write, and he had arranged to send articles about the festival to the New York Worldand Atlantic Monthly.) This pleased Mr. Wagner, who asked him, “Have you a Patronatsschein?” Henry replied, “Three!” Mr. Wagner then did a good deed. He said, “I had made up my mind to admit no one to the rehearsals, not even Liszt. But he has gone in and I have admitted a few others, so you might as well come, too.” Mr. Finck wrote in his autobiography that he “had the time of my life watching the great master superintending every detail of the performances.”

• Lucrezia Bori of the Metropolitan Opera had surgery to remove some nodules from her vocal chords; unfortunately, the operation was not a success and she lost her singing and her speaking voice. Internationally famous Australian opera star Nellie Melba visited her and told her about the time that she had strained her voice by trying to sing a Wagnerian role that was not suited for her voice. For three months, she had remained completely silent, and she had recovered her voice. She added, “You are not yet thirty. Have patience. Wait and watch and work mentally. You will have a great future one day.” In fact, that is what happened. Ms. Bori had another operation, and after lots of rest and silence, she was able to recover her voice and have a second career singing at the Met. When Ms. Bori returned to the Met, Ms. Melba was there. Before Ms. Bori’s performance, Ms. Melba sent her a large basket of flowers, and after the performance, she told her, “You sang beautifully tonight. You are more marvelous than ever.”

• When Ivan Jadan, the premier lyric tenor of the Bolshoi Opera from 1928-1941, escaped from the rule of the dictator Josef Stalin in November of 1941, he walked west with a group of other artists and their families. As they neared an overturned German truck, one of the children in the group started crying. Hearing the child, a German soldier inside the truck stuck his head out of a door. The one member of the Russian group who could speak German asked in what direction they should travel. Although the Russians were supposed to be the enemies of the Germans, the German soldier saved their lives by warning him about a minefield directly ahead of them. Hearing the child cry had made the German soldier realize that these Russians needed help, and he gave it to them.

• During World War 1, opera tenor Enrico Caruso visited a hospital for wounded veterans. He learned that a soldier who had lost his legs in the war was traveling through New York on his way to Washington, DC, for artificial legs. He also learned that the soldier wanted to see New York City. No problem. Mr. Caruso simply requested, “Put him in my car.” Mr. Caruso and the veteran had lunch together, and then Mr. Caruso went to a rehearsal and his chauffeur took the veteran around New York and showed him the sights. Afterward, Mr. Caruso received a letter from the veteran: “Many thanks for your great kindness to me. When I get my new legs from Washington, I am coming to hear you sing.”

• An impoverished German student once wrote Jenny Lind, the 19th-century singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, begging for a ticket and promising to pay her for it when he received his allowance. Ms. Lind not only sent him two free tickets, but during the concert she made sure to smile in the direction of those particular seats.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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