David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Mishaps


• In 1981, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, revived Verdi’s Un Ballo in Mashera. Unfortunately, the opening night performance was marred. First, the scheduled tenor and baritone didn’t show up, then the Amelia, performed by Montserrat Caballé, left the stage before her scene with Romeo. Because of the confusion, the stage curtain descended, and the conductor, Bernard Haitink, picked up the telephone in an effort to find out what was going on. When the switchboard operator answered, he said, “Haitink here. Give me the stage manager.” The operator answered, “I’m sorry; I can’t do that — there’s a performance going on.” Mr. Haitink looked at the stage curtain and said, “That’s what you think.”

• Sometimes, high art is more disgusting than tabloid journalism. For example, in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, the severed head of John the Baptist is brought on a platter to the title character, who kisses its lips. At a 1978 production of this opera at Perth, Australia, a particularly gruesome head of the Baptist was created. It was to be brought out on stage, covered with a cloth. At the properly dramatic moment, Salome was to lift off the cloth, then shock the audience. At this particular production, however, a mistake was made. When Salome lifted off the cloth, the only thing to be seen on the platter was a stack of ham sandwiches.

• In 1935, opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti was born in Modena, Italy, and his first critic was the doctor who delivered him. Hearing the infant scream, the doctor marveled, “Such high notes!” The ability to produce high notes under stress came in handy in 1969, when he was singing on stage in La Bohèmein San Francisco when an earthquake struck. According to a 1979 article in Time, Pavarotti “gripped the hand of his Mimi, Dorothy Kirsten, a little more tightly, but kept on singing at full voice and never missed a beat. The earthquake drew to a peaceful conclusion and so did the performance.”

• Sir Rudolph Bing once said that opera singers do not fit easily into blue jeans. Soprano Rita Hunter once visited Disneyland, where she attempted to get through a turnstile leading out of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Unfortunately, she got stuck. The day was hot, and as she and her family were waiting for a turnstile mechanic to arrive to help her, her daughter bought her an ice cream cone, then bought her another one. As Ms. Hunter was eating the second ice cream cone, she heard a Disney employee tell her daughter, “Jesus, sweetheart, don’t feed her any more or we’ll never get her out.”

• Franco Corelli used to carry around hidden sponges on stage while singing so he could occasionally wet his lips. Birgit Nilsson remembers that during the 1961 revival of Turandotat the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Corelli suddenly turned his back on the audience, reached into the front of his pants, and, in Ms. Nilsson’s words, “began fooling around.” Of course, she was understandably worried about what he was going to do, and she was understandably relieved when he finally pulled out the sponge he had been searching for and wet his lips.

• Long ago, women’s underwear was held up by a button. While singing onstage in La Bohème, Frances Alda felt the button come loose and her pantalettes start falling down. Still singing, she stepped behind a sofa that was part of the scenery and let the underwear fall to the ground, then stepped out from behind the sofa. Unfortunately for Ms. Alda, tenor Enrico Caruso, who was on stage with her, saw what had happened, and he picked up the underwear and spread it out on the sofa for all the audience to see.

• During theatrical events such as opera, backdrops are used to depict scenes. While Eugene Goossens was conducting Die Götterdämmerung in Liverpool, two backdrops were used. The bottom one showed a fire; the top one showed flames consuming the gods in Valhalla. Unfortunately, during a performance, only the top backdrop appeared — the lower backdrop showing the fire was missing, revealing this sign painted on the wall: NO SMOKING.

• While Emma Albani was singing at a benefit night for herself at Covent Garden, an admirer threw a bouquet of flowers and a jewel case to her. Unfortunately, the jewel case struck her squarely on the forehead (greatly upsetting the gentleman who had thrown it), and Ms. Albani was forced to leave the stage. However, when she opened the jewel case and discovered that it contained a beautiful jewelled diadem, she was not angry with the gift giver.

• The plot of an opera by Thea Musgrave revolves around a corpse in a bed on stage. In a 1961 production at the London Opera Centre, director Anthony Besch refused to let anyone other than himself handle the “corpse” that the props department had created, but at one performance, he forgot about it until the last moment. As the curtain opened, Mr. Besch was discovered running across the stage and carrying the corpse to the bed.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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