David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Husbands and Wives, and Wives and Wives

Husbands and Wives, and Wives and Wives

• In 1997, Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton, both opera singers and both lesbians, performed together in Verdi’s La Traviatain Santa Fe. They had not known each other before, but they did meet at a party before production started on the opera. Ms. Racette remembers, “It was pretty clear that there was a lot of energy there. And then we got together in the summer and we started our staging, and it was lots of fireworks. It was pretty palpable. It was just a matter of time — let’s put it that way.” It didn’t take much time. In the opera, Ms. Racette played Violetta, and Ms. Clayton played Flora, Violetta’s best friend. In the opera, Violetta falls in love with the main male character, Alfredo, but on the opera stage, Ms. Racette and Ms. Clayton fell in love. At one point, Violetta was unconscious and Flora picked her up — and Flora gave Violetta a kiss. Ms. Racette says, “I was on the floor with Beth and, per the staging, she comes in and scoops me up. But she leaned over and just plants one on me! I had to turn my entire body into her because I couldn’t stop laughing when I was supposed to be passed out!” In 2005, the two women had a commitment ceremony. Ms. Clayton says, “We had a reception, and we had a beautiful dinner, and my parents paid for it; that was not our plan, but they sort of came through in that Southern tradition. It was very affirming and validating.”

• Soprano Rosa Ponselle sang for herself after retiring from singing for opera audiences. When Rosa was approaching her 80th birthday, Washington Postmusic critic Paul Hume dropped by her house and heard lovely singing and thought, Rosa’s found a wonderful pupil. Actually, Rosa herself was singing. Of course, she was wonderful on the stage and could wonderfully express emotion with her voice. At one time, getting a divorce was very difficult, but a divorce would be granted if either the husband or the wife had committed adultery. After English music critic Ernest Newman heard Rosa sing her first Amore dei Tre Re (The Love of Three Kings), an opera by Italo Montemezzi, he said, “If as a divorce-court judge, I had heard her one ‘Ritorniam’breathed to her lover, I would have given her husband a divorce without hearing further evidence.”

• Composer and conductor Richard Strauss once had a terrible and very public quarrel with soprano Pauline de Ahna during a rehearsal. Because Fräulein de Ahna felt that Strauss was conducting the music too fast, she shouted insults at him from the stage, then went to her dressing room. Strauss followed her and for a long time shouting was heard from the dressing room, then silence fell. Members of the orchestra were upset at Fräulein de Ahna’s conduct, and so a delegation knocked on her dressing room door, which was opened by Strauss. The delegation explained that in light of what had just happened, they felt that they could no longer work with Fräulein de Ahna. Strauss replied, “That hurts me very much because I have just become engaged to Fräulein de Ahna.”

• Tenor Franco Corelli suffered from stage fright before performances and even before making a recording. He was once scheduled to record an album of duets with Renata Tebaldi for Decca. Everything was ready for the recording, and everyone was ready except for Mr. Corelli, who was downstairs. Suddenly, the people in the recording studio heard a slap-slap, then they heard Mr. Corelli’s wife tell her husband, “Now go upstairs and do it.” As usual, Mr. Corelli was suffering from stage fright, and his wife had slapped him to get him to sing. Of course, when he did sing, he sang beautifully.

• When opera singer Plácido Domingo was courting Marta Ornelas, he followed the Spanish custom of the serenade. He hired a mariachi band, positioned it under Ms. Ornelas’ window, and then sang to her. She found this charming, but her neighbors did not, and they called the police. However, when the police found out that the serenader was Mr. Domingo, they asked the neighbors why they were complaining. After all, they were hearing a free concert by a gifted opera star of the Mexican National Opera. By the way, the serenade was successful. In 1962, Mr. Domingo and Ms. Ornelas were married.

• Tenor Hugues Cuenod sang the part of Styx in Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworldwith Teresa Stich-Randall at the Grand Theater in Geneva. During celebrations for New Year’s, Mr. Cuenod decided to make a play on the names “Stich” and “Styx,” so he sang, “Listen, if you marry me, you will have almost nothing to change on your calling card!” Both Ms. Stich and the audience enjoyed the joke.

• Enrico Caruso once took his wife, Dorothy, out to buy furs. They went to an expensive store, and several furs were laid out before her. He asked her, “Which you like?” She named the shortest fur, because she thought that it would be the least expensive. Mr. Caruso then turned to the store attendant and said, “We will take them all.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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