David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Weight, Work

Weight

• Opera tenor Luciana Pavarotti made an unsuccessful movie titled Yes, Giorgio. Perhaps it was unsuccessful because Mr. Pavarotti was known for his voice (and his weight), not for his acting. According to Hollywood lore, Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels fame almost signed up to co-star with Mr. Pavarotti, but singer/actress Cher advised her, “Never, never, everdo a movie where you can’t get your arms around your romantic lead.”

• Tenor Luciano Pavarotti became quite fat late in his career, and people sometimes would ask him what he weighed. His usual reply was, “Less than before.” Occasionally, people would want to know what his “before” weight had been. Mr. Pavarotti would then reply, “More than now.”

• Jimmy Dorsey was a fabulous jazz musician but not always very good at communicating orally. On Bing Crosby’s radio show, Mr. Dorsey once introduced an overweight opera star in this way: “And now we bring you that great opera steer ….”

Work

• When Sarah Caldwell began working at Tanglewood, a music venue in Massachusetts, she worked very hard because she was afraid that she might be fired (and because she always worked hard). One opera set designer had been fired because he had not given 200 percent — his sets were not finished on time. Ms. Caldwell did not want that to happen to her. In fact, she worked such long hours that she did not have time to attend the Tanglewood concerts. This worried her because rumor had it that the bigwigs kept track of who attended concerts and who did not. In fact, when Ms. Caldwell attended her first concert, the biggest wig of all, Serge Koussevitzky, said to her, “Caldwell, how nice to see you at a concert!” She worried about this, and she attended a second concert, and Dr. Koussevitzky said to her, “So, Caldwell, you have come to another concert!” A little later, she said to him, “Dr. Koussevitzky, there is just one thing wrong with Tanglewood.” She then explained that she did not know how she could give 200 percent and still find time to attend concerts. Dr. Koussevitzky hugged her and replied, “I never want to see you at another concert.” By the way, when Ms. Caldwell began studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, her father gave her some good advice. She wrote in her autobiography, “He suggested that I major in professors. He said that if I found a wonderful, brilliant professor, it wouldn’t make any difference what he was teaching. I should learn from him, try to determine how his mind worked, what he considered important, how he behaved, and how he reacted.”

• Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used to work for Hieronymus von Colloredo, an archbishop; however, they did not respect each other. The archbishop treated Mozart badly and did not pay him well; in return, Mozart called the archbishop an “archbooby.” When Mozart’s opera Idomeneobecame a success in 1781, he decided to leave the archbishop’s employ. They had a loud argument, and Mozart’s employment ended. As a final humiliation, the archbishop’s secretary kicked Mozart in the seat of his pants.

• As a young singer, conductor Richard Tauber especially liked to sing the role of Narraboth in Salomebecause the character is killed 20 minutes into the opera, then dragged off stage. This meant that he could leave the theater early and catch the last showing of a movie if he wished. Unfortunately, during one performance, the guards forgot to drag him off stage, so he was forced to lie on the stage, breathing shallowly for an extra 90 minutes.

• Sometimes, it doesn’t pay to lie. Early in her career, to get a job in show business, Grace Moore decided to lie. Therefore, she went to the Packard Agency. When the manager asked Ms. Moore about her experience, she brazenly answered that she had been performing in the operetta The Lilac Dominoon a West Coast tour. The manager looked her right in the eyes and said, “That ain’t so, for that’s our company.”

• As an immigrant in Paris, Henny Youngman’s father made a living as a professional applauder for opera performers. Any opera singer who wanted to be sure of making a hit could hire as many professional applauders as he or she felt was needed to ensure being called back for an encore. (Some professional applauders also made money by specializing in crying at sad numbers or laughing at happy ones.)

• Two of the giants of opera are tenors Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Mr. Domingo actually has a double career in music; he often conducts. One day, after Mr. Domingo had conducted a concert, he said to Mr. Pavarotti, “It’s wonderful to have this double career. Why don’t you try it, Luciano?” Mr. Pavarotti replied, “What, with a voice like mine?”

• As a young man, English tenor Walter Midgley worked as a clerk at an iron and steel works, picking up extra money during his off-time by singing. He was so successful at this that he drove a better car than one of the directors, who wondered for a while if the young clerk might be getting his extra money through such extra-curricular activities as burglaries.

• Musicians can get tired of playing the same music — even great music — over and over throughout an opera season. Critic Patrick J. Smith remembers seeing a musician at the end of a performance of Götterdämmerunglean over and kiss the last page of the score.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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