David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Practical Jokes and Presidents

Practical Jokes

• Comic singer Anna Russell, who was born British, became a naturalized American citizen. She was very nervous about taking her citizenship test, despite having studied for months. (Studying history was rather odd. In English schools, she had studied the War of Independence and learned that the Americans were the bad guys and the English were the good guys, but now she had to learn it the other way around.) An American official made her even more nervous when he looked at her ominously and said that he hoped she had studied hard. The official asked her to write a sentence in English, and then he asked her who was the first President of the United States. Finally, he signed her citizenship papers. A shocked Ms. Russell asked, “Is that all?” The American official replied, “Yes, but I had you rattled there, didn’t I?”

• Enrico Caruso was quite a practical joker off stage and on. Nellie Melba used to chew evergreen gum from Australia to keep her throat moist, chewing it before going on stage and then depositing it in a cup in the wings where she could use it to moisten her throat when she was once more off stage. Mr. Caruso once substituted chewing tobacco for the gum when Ms. Melba was on stage. On another occasion, in the last act of La Bohème, Ms. Melba, who was performing the role of the dying Mimi, was carefully lifted and placed on a bed. However, when the sheets of the bed were lifted so Mimi could be covered, the audience laughed — under the bed Mr. Caruso had ordered a stagehand to place a large object: a chamberpot.

• Gerald Hoffnung often arranged a musical joke at his Hoffnung Festivals in London. On one occasion, Mr. Hoffnung announced to the audience that Sir William Walton had agreed to conduct an excerpt from his opera Belshazzar’s Feast. Sir William came out on stage, along with soloist Owen Brannigan. Sir William raised his baton, and the members of the chorus sang out one word from the opera — “Slain!” Sir William then lowered his baton, shook hands with the soloist, and they left the stage — to appreciative applause from an audience who had enjoyed the joke.

• Operatic bass singer Luigi Lablache was a huge man. One day, he was in Paris at the same time as the famous little person known as Tom Thumb. A lady wished to see the little person, but she mistakenly knocked at Mr. Lablache’s door. Mr. Lablache opened the door, and the lady told him that she wished to see Tom Thumb. Mr. Lablache replied, “I am he.” The lady expressed surprise, saying, “But I thought you were quite small!” Mr. Lablache replied, “So I am, madam, when I am on exhibition, but when I am at home, I always make myself comfortable.”

• Tenor Lauritz Melchior did his best to make soprano Helen Traubel laugh on stage. Sometimes, as she was singing an industrial-strength tragic aria, he would mutter to her, “For God’s sake, Helena, hurry it up! I’m hungry and I need a beer!” In addition, when Ms. Traubel was onstage singing a tragic aria, Mr. Melchior would sometimes be in the wings dancing a hula while wearing a grass skirt and paper flowers, trying to make her laugh. Or he would wear a derby and a bearskin while dancing a Highland fling.

• Heinrich Knote, a leading German tenor, once played a practical joke on Jean de Reszke. In Paris, Mr. Knote pretended to be a peddler and found an excuse to sing before Mr. de Reszke, who was very impressed and told him, “Sir, I engage you at once for the Opéra. You have gold in your throat.” Mr. Knote later wrote a friend, “The incident was really most droll, and it cost me a terrific effort to play my role to the end without laughing.”

• In a performance of Tosca, Maria Jeritza decided to play a practical joke in her final scene, in which she stabbed the villain of the opera with a knife. On this particular night, instead of using a stage knife, she used a very ripe banana.

Presidents, United States

• President Dwight David Eisenhower once attended a Metropolitan Opera production of La Bohème, at which the Secret Service did their duty, checking out anything that might possibly lead to an attempt on the President’s life. One of the Secret Service men asked Met general manager Sir Rudolf Bing about the heroine of the opera, “We hear the girl dies. How is she killed?” Sir Rudolf replied, “She dies of consumption. It isn’t contagious at a distance.”

• American opera star Jan Peerce had a meeting with President Harry S. Truman, but first he stopped to say the traditional prayers for his deceased parents in a synagogue. Arriving late for the meeting, he explained why he was late. President Truman replied, “I don’t mind. The Lord won.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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