David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Illnesses and Injuries, Insults, and Kisses

Illnesses and Injuries

• In the summer of 1987, opera tenor José Carreras discovered that he had leukemia. He underwent chemotherapy in Barcelona, Spain, where he sang arias as a way of timing how much longer the chemo sessions would last. The chemo was not completely effective, so he went to Seattle, Washington, where he had a bone marrow transplant. Lots of fans wrote him while he was in the hospital — he even received a letter addressed simply to “Tenor, Seattle.” His rival tenors, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, came through for him. Mr. Pavarotti sent him this telegram: “José, get well. Otherwise, I won’t have any competition.” Mr. Domingo frequently telephoned him and also flew to Seattle to visit him.

• Opera singer Pasquale Brignoli was traveling on a train in Pennsylvania when he decided to smoke a cigarette while standing on the outside platform of the rear car. Unfortunately, while he was lighting his cigarette, the train jolted and Brignoli tumbled over onto the railroad tracks. Cries immediately rang out: “Stop the train! Brignoli’s been killed!” Suddenly, everyone heard Brignoli singing loud, full, and clear. He then prayed, “I thank thee, Lord! My body has suffered grievously; but the voice — ah, the voice! — has not been injured.”


• French opera singer Sophie Arnould’s insults could be stunning. Mlle. Guimard used to dance at the Paris Opera in the 18th century. Her dancing consisted mostly of graceful arm movements — she used her feet very little when she danced. When Ms. Arnould heard that during a rehearsal a piece of scenery had fallen and broken Mlle. Guimard’s arm, she commented, “It’s a pity that it wasn’t her leg; then it wouldn’t have interfered with her dancing.” And when a friend mentioned a diamond necklace that an actress had been given by her lover, saying that the necklace was so long that it almost reached the actress’ waist, Ms. Arnould commented, “C’est qu’elle retourne vers sa source.” (In English: “It is returning to its source.”)

• Fritz Reiner was the conductor for an orchestra on a long American tour for which the program consisted of either Claude Debussy’sLa Meror Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. At one concert, a musician got mixed up and started playing Don Juanas the rest of the orchestra began to play La Mer. After the concert was over, Mr. Reiner told the musician that he was fired. The musician pleaded with him, saying that he had made a mistake that anyone could make in the midst of a long exhausting tour. Mr. Reiner replied, “Oh, it’s not that — it’s the way you play Don Juan.”

• Gioacchino Rossini was not fond of the sound of the high notes sung by the tenors of his day, and when Enrico Tamberlik wanted to visit him in Paris, Mr. Rossini requested that he leave his C-sharp in the vestibule until his visit was over.

• Sir Thomas Beecham seemed by some to want to monopolize opera in Great Britain — something not appreciated by other British conductors. Sir Hamilton Harty once said, “British opera is dying slowly but surely — of TB.”

• Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmillawas a failure. In fact, it inspired the grand duke Mikhail Pavlovich to come up with a unique method of punishment — he forced offending officers to sit through the opera.

• Not all tenors look impressive. When the diminutive 19th-century tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez appeared in the dress rehearsal for his first William Tellin Paris, a ballet girl saw him and shouted, “What! That toad! Impossible!”

• In the 20thcentury, sopranos Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi feuded. Ms. Callas, however, denied that they were rivals: “How could we be rivals? I am champagne, and she is Coca-Cola.”


• When Renata Tebaldi received her first kiss, she was disappointed. Her biographer, Victor Seroff, asked if the disappointment stemmed from the youth and inexperience of the man kissing her. She replied, “Too young and inexperienced at twenty-five? Not in Italy.” (Fortunately, the second time he kissed her, she liked it.)

• Conductor Arturo Toscanini was unhappy at a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff— in one scene, the singers were not kissing in time to the music. Therefore, he demonstrated the correct way to kiss the soprano with a rapid series of kisses. “Like this!” he shouted. Eventually, the two singers kissed correctly.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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