David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes —Royalty, Superstitions, Sex, Tobacco


• The myth of the Judgment of Paris explains the origin of the Trojan War. The Trojan prince Paris was the judge of a heavenly beauty contest, in which he was to award a golden apple to the most beautiful goddess. He gave the golden apple to Venus, who helped him win the heart of Helen. Unfortunately, Helen was married, and the Trojan War was his attempt to get her back. An opera based on the myth — Opera Il Pomo D’oro— was presented when Leopold I married the Spanish princess Margarita in 1667. Antonio Cesti, the writer of the opera, was no fool — he made sure that the golden apple was given to Margarita.

• Soprano Adelina Patti was beloved by royalty all over the world. Once, she was asked who was her favorite royal personage. She thought for a moment, and then answered, “Well, the Tsar Alexander gives the best jewelry.”


• Young, pretty opera singer Mary Garden was dining with an old man named Chauncey Depew, who was the President of the New York Central Railroad. Ms. Garden was wearing a low-cut, shoulderless dress, and Mr. Depew kept staring at her cleavage. Finally, Mr. Depew asked, “I am wondering, Miss Garden, what keeps that dress up?” Ms. Garden replied, “Two things, Mr. Depew. Your age, and my discretion.”

• Sir Thomas Beecham once told a soprano, who was lying in a prone position during a death scene, to sing louder because he couldn’t hear her. She replied, “Don’t you realize that one can’t give of one’s best when one is in a prone position?” Sir Thomas replied, “I seem to recollect that I have given some of my best performances in that position.”


• Luciano Pavarotti had a superstition — he wouldn’t sing unless he finds a bent, rusty nail on stage. Of course, smart opera impresarios make sure that their stage has a bent, rusty nail for Mr. Pavarotti to find. In New York, Mr. Pavarotti did not find a bent, rusty nail on stage, so he declined to sing. Fortunately, Maria Teresa Maschio also is superstitious, and she carries a bent, rusty nail for good luck. The theater personnel borrowed the bent, rusty nail, placed it on stage, Mr. Pavarotti found it, and the performance was saved — afterward, Ms. Maschio was given back her bent, rusty nail.

• Many people in opera have either superstitions or little rituals that they perform, or both. After a performance, tenor Plácido Domingo will return to the empty stage and say “Au revoir.” He regards this as a way of ensuring that he will return. And, like tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Mr. Domingo must find a bent nail before the performance. (Stagehands often plant bent nails for these tenors to find.)


• Enrico Caruso smoked, and he insisted on smoking. While at the Imperial Theater of Berlin, he started smoking in his dressing room. The stage director visited him to tell him that no smoking was allowed in the theater. Mr. Caruso replied that he needed to smoke in order to calm his nerves. The stage director left him, but soon the opera superintendent visited him to tell him that no smoking was allowed in the theater. Mr. Caruso replied, “Dear sir, I regret infinitely, but I have already said that I feel very nervous, and if I am not allowed to smoke in peace, to my great regret I will not sing this evening.” The superintendent suggested a compromise: Mr. Caruso could smoke as long as a fireman was in the dressing room with him. Mr. Caruso agreed to the compromise, and as he finished each cigarette the fireman took the butt from him and threw it in a bucket of water.

• While singing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanniat the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina, tenor John Brecknock was invited to a dinner party, where he noticed that the guests frequently disappeared for a short time, then reappeared. Because he was a guest, he did not ask the reason for such behavior. Eventually, he asked for permission to smoke a cigar, and he discovered that the guests had been disappearing because they were desperate for a smoke, and they had assumed that they should not smoke around Mr. Brecknock because he was a singer.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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