David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes (Recordings, Religion, Revenge)


• Very early in his career, John McCormack made a record titled “Killarney” for The Gramophone Company. Later, when he was a very famous opera singer, Mr. McCormack would play the record for distinguished visitors, saying that the recording was of a singer who wanted his advice about whether he ought to pursue singing professionally. Mr. McCormack said, “Without exception, everyone of them, including such an excellent critic as my friend Dr. Walter Starke, said, ‘Oh, Lord, John, don’t advise that poor boy to study singing. It is too pathetic for words.’” Then Mr. McCormack would show the listeners his name on the record and laugh and laugh. By the way, one of Mr. McCormack’s funniest reviews appeared in the Melbourne Australianafter he gave his first-ever concert at Exhibition Hall: “If this Irish boy is not known in a very few years as one of the greatest tenors in the world, it will probably be because a careless builder dropped a warehouse or a terrace on him as he was passing.”

• While recording an album, all involved must be very careful not to record extraneous noises such as squeaks. While recording the album Diva!, soprano Leslie Garrett and the musicians ran into a problem because of a squeak that would not go away. Thinking the squeak might come from a wobbly music stand, the musicians moved the music stands a few inches and tried again. The squeak remained. Thinking the squeak might come from a wobbly chair, the musicians moved the chairs a few inches and tried again. The squeak remained. Then Ms. Garrett took thought, held the music engineer’s head to her chest, and asked, “Is that what you heard?” It was — the squeak came from the underwiring of her bra. Ms. Garrett removed her bra in the ladies room, then made a squeak-free recording. Afterward, whenever they recorded a new album together, the music engineer asked her, “Have you got the right bra on?”

• Tenor Hugues Cuenod sang a very long piece on a recording of works by Francois Couperin. Igor Stravinsky heard and enjoyed the recording, so he asked Mr. Cuenod to sing his Cantate. However, Mr. Cuenod knew that the tenor would have to sing a 13-minute aria with no pauses, so he declined. Mr. Stravinsky complained, “But you sing 22 minutes without stopping in your Couperin recording; then why can’t you sing 13 minutes of my music?” However, Mr. Cuenod says, “He had forgotten that it is possible to stop, start, and splice in making a recording, or even to do it in several takes; but that’s obviously what I couldn’t do in a live performance.”


• In the early 1900s, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifalwas considered scandalous — clergymen felt it was improper for a theater to stage religious drama. However, very quickly the scandal was forgotten and many theater-goers looked forward to seeing Parsifalannually on Good Friday.

• In the late 19thcentury in Milan, a reporter heard someone playing the piano at 7 a.m., so he asked a member of the hotel staff if piano playing was allowed at such an early hour. The hotel staffer replied, “Not as a rule, but we make an exception for Verdi.”


• Moravian soprano Maria Jeritza made enemies of many of the tenors with whom she sang. One such tenor, the Englishman Alfred Piccaver, decided to get even during a May 19, 1925, performance of Cavalleria Rusticanaat the State Opera in Vienna, Austria. At the moment in which the Turiddu was supposed to push her character down the stairs, Mr. Piccaver simply stood with his arms crossed, and Ms. Jeritza had to throw herself down the stairs. Afterward, Ms. Jeritza refused to take a bow with Mr. Piccaver, and she became furious when he received more applause than she when they took their bows separately. For several months, she refused to sing with him, but within a year they stood on stage together as Tosca and Cavaradossi.

• Early in soprano Joan Hammond’s career in Australia, she was a member of the chorus in I Pagliacci, where she quickly discovered that some of the extras wanted to be front and center so their friends could see them. These “Footlight Fannies,” and Ms. Hammond and her chorus-member friends called them, were unpopular, and Joan and her friends figured out a novel way to get revenge on these people. In one scene, the extras and chorus members sat on benches, and the Footlight Fannies, of course, ran and sat on the ends of the benches closest to the audience. Joan and her friends were also sitting on the benches, and at a prearranged signal, they suddenly stood up, letting the Footlight Fannies crash to the floor.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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