David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Mishaps

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.

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Mishaps

Mishaps

• Opera singer Nellie Melba once toured the back-blocks — the remotest part of Australia. In one town, her concert was sold out. Some of the leading citizens neglected to buy tickets, thinking that they had discovered a way to hear Ms. Melba’s concert for free. They used a ladder at the back of the hall to climb to the roof of the concert hall, where indeed they heard the concert for free. Unfortunately, the gardener discovered the ladder leading against the wall. Not wanting anyone to steal the ladder, he removed it and locked it up. After the concert, the town’s leading free-loaders waited for everyone to leave, and then they discovered that they were stuck on the roof. Fortunately, about 5 a.m. a police officer happened by and rescued them. Ms. Melba wrote in her autobiography, Melodies and Memories, “I can well believe that that policeman lived comfortably on blackmail for the rest of his life.” Another incident in the back-blocks involved a bill for some furniture. In honor of Ms. Melba, the hotel landlady ordered some fine furniture, which touched Ms. Melba. However, Ms. Melba was surprised to find the cost of the furniture added to her bill. Fortunately, her manager, John Lemmone, handled the situation. He said to the hotel landlady, “We shall be delighted to pay for the furniture, only of course if we do that, we shall take it away with us.” The hotel landlady replied, “But I want it myself.” Eventually, the hotel landlady concluded that if she wanted to keep the furniture she would have to pay for it.

• Very early in his career, in the late 1920s in Italy, tenor Joseph Benton, aka Giuseppe Bentonelli, had costumes made up for the part of Faust. He had his housekeeper sew buttons on each pair of tights so he could use them for his suspenders. (He did notice that the housekeeper looked surprised at the request, but he didn’t figure out why she looked surprised until he performed in the costume.) All went well during the performance — at first. Unfortunately, one suspender broke in two, and then the other suspender strap broke loose, too. Just as Faust took the lovely Marguerite in his arms at the conclusion of the opera, his tights fell down! The audience loved the mishap, and during the curtain calls the audience brought Mr. Benton back on stage for many bows. The headline in the local newspaper’s review the next day stated, “FAUST TENOR LOSES PANTS ON STAGE.” Following the debacle, Mr. Benton stopped using suspenders and learned how to tie his tights with bias tape so that they wouldn’t fall down.

• Early in her career, while making her first debuts on the operatic stage, Emma Calvé worried about her thin legs. Her mother didn’t help, as she referred to them as “spider’s legs.” Therefore, while singing the role of Cherubin in Noces de Figaro, young Emma decided to do something about her thin legs and stuffed her tights with cotton so that she appeared to have calves instead of sticks. While singing, she was gratified to notice that the old gentlemen in the audience were looking at her calves through their opera glasses. However, during intermission the director told her, “What are those hideous lumps, I’d like to know! I am tempted to stick pins into them! Stupid child! Don’t you know that everyone is laughing at you? Do you expect anyone to believe that those fat excrescences belong to you! Take them off instantly!” In the second act, she appeared without enormous calves, a fact the audience noticed immediately and applauded uproariously.

• While singing opera on a South American tour, Lucrezia Bori sometimes wore a dress that had a bell-shaped skirt. The bell shape of the skirt was created by a crinoline, which had to be tied tightly, for if it became undone the crinoline would raise the skirt much too high, thus revealing very much more than a lady wishes to reveal in public. Unfortunately, the fastening broke one day while Ms. Bori was singing on stage, the crinoline ballooned upward, carrying Ms. Bori’s skirt with it, and a thoroughly embarrassed but thoroughly professional Ms. Bori continued to sing. Fortunately, Grassi, the tenor on stage, put a screen in front of Ms. Bori, and when Ms. Bori, still singing, came out from behind the screen, her skirt, now that she had removed the crinoline, was no longer bell-like and instead was modest.

***

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Language and Media

Language

• During World War I, opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink was requested to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the American troops. Because she was so eager to help, she agreed, although she did not know the words. (She sang the tune, rather than the words, of the song.) Later, she read this comment in a newspaper article: “The voice of Schumann-Heink is a great inspiration when she sings ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but we would be very obliged if she would tell us in what language she sings it.” (Quickly thereafter, she learned the words.)

• Very early in his career, Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine got work in the chorus of the French Light Opera Company. Very few of the members of the company were French, and the others did not know French. Fortunately, the members of the Russian audience also did not know French, thus allowing the singers to sing all the foreign words they knew at random — for example, “Colorado, Niagara, Mississippi, Charpentier, and Eau-de-vie ….”

• Because of a lack of knowledge of English, Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi misunderstood what would happen when she agreed to sing Tosca in New York as a benefit for the Milk Fund. Speaking to a reporter, she expressed her opinion that “babies” would enjoy hearing this very emotional opera, and she was surprised to learn that the “babies” would not be attending the benefit.

• French-born soprano Lily Pons learned her first American slang from comedian Jack Oakie — “Scram!” According to Mr. Oakie, Ms. Pons was the Metropolitan Opera’s “Top Line Canary.”

Media

• Chicago Symphony Orchestra flutist Donald Peck was mightily unimpressed by opera singer Maria Callas. Once, the CSO was supposed to record with her. A rehearsal was scheduled, but Ms. Callas did not show up. The CSO waited for her because they were being paid for the time of the rehearsal, and when the rehearsal time was over they stood up to leave. At that exact time, Ms. Callas walked into the rehearsal space. Her agent made sure that the press knew that the CSO had risen out of respect to Ms. Callas, but Mr. Peck writes, “What a manipulation of the truth!”

• Today, many people are amused by sensational stories in the tabloids; however, sensational stories are nothing new in American journalism. Once, several Philadelphia newspapers reported that soprano Adelina Patti had been devoured by mice. Here’s what had really happened: In the early 1880s, hotels were not as sanitary as they are now. Ms. Patti, a tremendously wealthy woman, had rented an expensive apartment in a Philadelphia hotel. When her maid turned down the bedcovers, six mice jumped out. Later that night, a mouse bit the celebrated opera singer’s left ear.

***

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Illnesses and Injuries, Insults, and Kisses

Illnesses and Injuries

• In the summer of 1987, opera tenor José Carreras discovered that he had leukemia. He underwent chemotherapy in Barcelona, Spain, where he sang arias as a way of timing how much longer the chemo sessions would last. The chemo was not completely effective, so he went to Seattle, Washington, where he had a bone marrow transplant. Lots of fans wrote him while he was in the hospital — he even received a letter addressed simply to “Tenor, Seattle.” His rival tenors, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, came through for him. Mr. Pavarotti sent him this telegram: “José, get well. Otherwise, I won’t have any competition.” Mr. Domingo frequently telephoned him and also flew to Seattle to visit him.

• Opera singer Pasquale Brignoli was traveling on a train in Pennsylvania when he decided to smoke a cigarette while standing on the outside platform of the rear car. Unfortunately, while he was lighting his cigarette, the train jolted and Brignoli tumbled over onto the railroad tracks. Cries immediately rang out: “Stop the train! Brignoli’s been killed!” Suddenly, everyone heard Brignoli singing loud, full, and clear. He then prayed, “I thank thee, Lord! My body has suffered grievously; but the voice — ah, the voice! — has not been injured.”

Insults

• French opera singer Sophie Arnould’s insults could be stunning. Mlle. Guimard used to dance at the Paris Opera in the 18th century. Her dancing consisted mostly of graceful arm movements — she used her feet very little when she danced. When Ms. Arnould heard that during a rehearsal a piece of scenery had fallen and broken Mlle. Guimard’s arm, she commented, “It’s a pity that it wasn’t her leg; then it wouldn’t have interfered with her dancing.” And when a friend mentioned a diamond necklace that an actress had been given by her lover, saying that the necklace was so long that it almost reached the actress’ waist, Ms. Arnould commented, “C’est qu’elle retourne vers sa source.” (In English: “It is returning to its source.”)

• Fritz Reiner was the conductor for an orchestra on a long American tour for which the program consisted of either Claude Debussy’sLa Meror Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. At one concert, a musician got mixed up and started playing Don Juanas the rest of the orchestra began to play La Mer. After the concert was over, Mr. Reiner told the musician that he was fired. The musician pleaded with him, saying that he had made a mistake that anyone could make in the midst of a long exhausting tour. Mr. Reiner replied, “Oh, it’s not that — it’s the way you play Don Juan.”

• Gioacchino Rossini was not fond of the sound of the high notes sung by the tenors of his day, and when Enrico Tamberlik wanted to visit him in Paris, Mr. Rossini requested that he leave his C-sharp in the vestibule until his visit was over.

• Sir Thomas Beecham seemed by some to want to monopolize opera in Great Britain — something not appreciated by other British conductors. Sir Hamilton Harty once said, “British opera is dying slowly but surely — of TB.”

• Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmillawas a failure. In fact, it inspired the grand duke Mikhail Pavlovich to come up with a unique method of punishment — he forced offending officers to sit through the opera.

• Not all tenors look impressive. When the diminutive 19th-century tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez appeared in the dress rehearsal for his first William Tellin Paris, a ballet girl saw him and shouted, “What! That toad! Impossible!”

• In the 20thcentury, sopranos Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi feuded. Ms. Callas, however, denied that they were rivals: “How could we be rivals? I am champagne, and she is Coca-Cola.”

Kisses

• When Renata Tebaldi received her first kiss, she was disappointed. Her biographer, Victor Seroff, asked if the disappointment stemmed from the youth and inexperience of the man kissing her. She replied, “Too young and inexperienced at twenty-five? Not in Italy.” (Fortunately, the second time he kissed her, she liked it.)

• Conductor Arturo Toscanini was unhappy at a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff— in one scene, the singers were not kissing in time to the music. Therefore, he demonstrated the correct way to kiss the soprano with a rapid series of kisses. “Like this!” he shouted. Eventually, the two singers kissed correctly.

***

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Husbands and Wives, and Wives and Wives

Husbands and Wives, and Wives and Wives

• In 1997, Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton, both opera singers and both lesbians, performed together in Verdi’s La Traviatain Santa Fe. They had not known each other before, but they did meet at a party before production started on the opera. Ms. Racette remembers, “It was pretty clear that there was a lot of energy there. And then we got together in the summer and we started our staging, and it was lots of fireworks. It was pretty palpable. It was just a matter of time — let’s put it that way.” It didn’t take much time. In the opera, Ms. Racette played Violetta, and Ms. Clayton played Flora, Violetta’s best friend. In the opera, Violetta falls in love with the main male character, Alfredo, but on the opera stage, Ms. Racette and Ms. Clayton fell in love. At one point, Violetta was unconscious and Flora picked her up — and Flora gave Violetta a kiss. Ms. Racette says, “I was on the floor with Beth and, per the staging, she comes in and scoops me up. But she leaned over and just plants one on me! I had to turn my entire body into her because I couldn’t stop laughing when I was supposed to be passed out!” In 2005, the two women had a commitment ceremony. Ms. Clayton says, “We had a reception, and we had a beautiful dinner, and my parents paid for it; that was not our plan, but they sort of came through in that Southern tradition. It was very affirming and validating.”

• Soprano Rosa Ponselle sang for herself after retiring from singing for opera audiences. When Rosa was approaching her 80th birthday, Washington Postmusic critic Paul Hume dropped by her house and heard lovely singing and thought, Rosa’s found a wonderful pupil. Actually, Rosa herself was singing. Of course, she was wonderful on the stage and could wonderfully express emotion with her voice. At one time, getting a divorce was very difficult, but a divorce would be granted if either the husband or the wife had committed adultery. After English music critic Ernest Newman heard Rosa sing her first Amore dei Tre Re (The Love of Three Kings), an opera by Italo Montemezzi, he said, “If as a divorce-court judge, I had heard her one ‘Ritorniam’breathed to her lover, I would have given her husband a divorce without hearing further evidence.”

• Composer and conductor Richard Strauss once had a terrible and very public quarrel with soprano Pauline de Ahna during a rehearsal. Because Fräulein de Ahna felt that Strauss was conducting the music too fast, she shouted insults at him from the stage, then went to her dressing room. Strauss followed her and for a long time shouting was heard from the dressing room, then silence fell. Members of the orchestra were upset at Fräulein de Ahna’s conduct, and so a delegation knocked on her dressing room door, which was opened by Strauss. The delegation explained that in light of what had just happened, they felt that they could no longer work with Fräulein de Ahna. Strauss replied, “That hurts me very much because I have just become engaged to Fräulein de Ahna.”

• Tenor Franco Corelli suffered from stage fright before performances and even before making a recording. He was once scheduled to record an album of duets with Renata Tebaldi for Decca. Everything was ready for the recording, and everyone was ready except for Mr. Corelli, who was downstairs. Suddenly, the people in the recording studio heard a slap-slap, then they heard Mr. Corelli’s wife tell her husband, “Now go upstairs and do it.” As usual, Mr. Corelli was suffering from stage fright, and his wife had slapped him to get him to sing. Of course, when he did sing, he sang beautifully.

• When opera singer Plácido Domingo was courting Marta Ornelas, he followed the Spanish custom of the serenade. He hired a mariachi band, positioned it under Ms. Ornelas’ window, and then sang to her. She found this charming, but her neighbors did not, and they called the police. However, when the police found out that the serenader was Mr. Domingo, they asked the neighbors why they were complaining. After all, they were hearing a free concert by a gifted opera star of the Mexican National Opera. By the way, the serenade was successful. In 1962, Mr. Domingo and Ms. Ornelas were married.

• Tenor Hugues Cuenod sang the part of Styx in Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworldwith Teresa Stich-Randall at the Grand Theater in Geneva. During celebrations for New Year’s, Mr. Cuenod decided to make a play on the names “Stich” and “Styx,” so he sang, “Listen, if you marry me, you will have almost nothing to change on your calling card!” Both Ms. Stich and the audience enjoyed the joke.

• Enrico Caruso once took his wife, Dorothy, out to buy furs. They went to an expensive store, and several furs were laid out before her. He asked her, “Which you like?” She named the shortest fur, because she thought that it would be the least expensive. Mr. Caruso then turned to the store attendant and said, “We will take them all.”

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Friends and Humility

Friends

• This anecdote may not be true, but it is a good one. One day, tenors John McCormack and Enrico Caruso met on the street. Mr. McCormack asked, “How is the world’s greatest tenor?” Mr. Caruso answered, “And since when have you become a baritone?” By the way, much earlier in Mr. McCormack’s life, from the gallery at Covent Garden he watched the great Enrico Caruso, and he vowed to his wife, “If I ever get my foot down there, it’ll take a h*ll of a lot to get it off.”

• Luciano Pavarotti was forced to share a bedroom in a crowded hotel one night with his friend Franco “Panocia” Casarini. Unfortunately, they quickly discovered that each of them snored — loudly. After trying unsuccessfully to sleep at the same time, they ended up taking turns sleeping. Mr. Pavarotti slept for an hour, then Mr. Casarini slept for an hour, and so on until morning.

Humility

• Soprano Marcella Sembrich managed not to let herself be overly impressed by the fame of other people or of herself. As a young student, she had the opportunity to demonstrate her talents before Franz Liszt. She wrote a friend, “Professor Schell, who takes great interest in me, wants me to meet Liszt when he comes. He wants me to sing and play for him. They say I can reach great achievement — but enough of that — what news of your garden?” Even after becoming famous, she retained her humility. When W.J. Henderson praised her by saying she was the most moving Violetta he had ever seen in La Traviata, she replied simply, “Don’t you remember [Adelina] Patti?” This humble personality may be one reason why, when Ms. Sembrich retired from opera in 1909 with a farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera in one act each from Don Pasquale, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and La Traviata, Geraldine Farrar honored her by singing the small role of Flora in act 1 of La Traviata.

• Opera/lieder singer Kathleen Ferrier was humble. At an airport where she was landing, she looked out of the window of the airplane and saw a fancy reception committee on the ground. She told her companion, “Look at all the kerfuffle. There must be someone of importance on board.” She looked around at the people on the airplane, then pointed to a portly man and said, “Probably a statesman or some industrial nabob.” After the airplane had landed, she learned that the reception committee was for her.

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Fathers and Food

Fathers

• Tenor Manuel Garcia could be a very harsh teacher of singers. Often, the sound of crying could be heard at his house. People who asked the neighbors what was happening were told, “Oh, that’s nothing. It’s only Mr. Garcia teaching his pupils how to sing.” He could also be more than harsh when teaching his own children. He once ordered his contralto daughter, Maria Felicita Malibran, whose voice extended into the soprano range, to learn an entirely new role in a few days. She protested because of the shortness of time, so he threatened to kill her if she did not learn the role. She learned the role. Despite this harsh treatment, she loved her father. Near the end of his career, they sang together — he as Otello and she as Desdemona. After a curtain call, her face appeared as dark as her father’s. While the curtain was down, she had kissed his sooty face.

• Danny O’Mara, a baritone, once sang a role in Fideliothat required his character to be in prison. His family frequently saw him play the role, and on a crowded bus returning home after a performance, one of his children complained loudly, “Why is it, every time we see Daddy, he’s always in prison?”

Food

• During a visit to his native Naples, Enrico Caruso invited a number of friends and acquaintances to lunch at a restaurant. Of course, these friends and acquaintances wanted to hear him sing, and he willingly sang both operatic arias and Neapolitan songs. One particular part of his audience gratified him, as he explained to his friend Salvatore Cortesi: “The cook’s praise is the praise I love and respect most of all. Women will even weep as I sing, but they largely do that because it is Caruso that sings. But if I can draw the man who cooks my macaroni from his fire and if I can make him forget that there is such a thing as food in the world, then I know that I am touching the heights of my art.”

• A man named Bertani once wrote Giuseppe Verdi a letter in which he complained that Verdi’s opera Aidalacked quality, despite his having heard it twice. In the letter, he enclosed a statement of the costs of hearing the opera, including the price of his opera tickets, the cost of the railroad tickets, and the cost of his evening meals after hearing the opera. Finally, he asked Verdi to reimburse his expenses. Verdi agreed, but he first extracted the promise that the man would never attend one of his operas again. In addition, he refused to pay for the cost of the evening meals, saying, “He could have perfectly well eaten at home.”

• Salvatore Baccaloni, a comedian in basso roles, was a huge man, weighing in at 325 pounds. During the mid-1950s, he confessed that the saddest day of his life was when his doctor placed him on a diet that stressed consumption of fruits and vegetables. What was the happiest day of his life? When he went off the diet. On that day, he enjoyed himself by consuming four pizzas, a meal with three kinds of meat, and one-half pound of a dessert cheese — Italian, of course.

• Sir Rudolf Bing took steps to integrate the Metropolitan Opera, hiring such African-American divas as Leontyne Price. Whenever the Met toured, he set the policy that the Met would not stay at segregated hotels or perform in front of segregated audiences. Once, before the Met left to perform in Atlanta, Georgia, Ms. Price remarked to him, “I am sure that you will find room for the horse and me.” In Atlanta, Sir Rudolf took her to dinner in the hotel. He says, “As we walked in, there was a sudden hush, which I greatly enjoyed.”

• Robert Merrill once worked with soprano Eileen Farrell, who had large breasts. During a rehearsal of one scene of Forza, Mr. Merrill’s character was dying and over him was Ms. Farrell, whose breasts kept dipping before his face. Finally, Mr. Merrill asked her if she had “a cookie to go with the milk.” A good sport, Ms. Farrell brought him a cookie on opening night.

• Frances Alda and Kirsten Flagstad once dined together at the Ritz-Carlton, and the waiter asked Ms. Alda if she wanted to order Melba toast. This was a mistake, for Ms. Alda and Nellie Melba, after whom Melba toast was named, had been great rivals as opera singers. Ms. Alda roared at the waiter, “Melba toast! No! Bring Alda toast!”

• Operatic tenor Jan Kiepura strongly preferred European sweet butter to American salted butter. At a restaurant, Mr. Kiepura pointed to some American salted butter and asked a server, “What is that?” Of course, the server replied, “That is butter, sir.” Mr. Kiepura then said venomously, “In Poland, we give such butter to pigs!”

• Operatic tenor Leo Slezak was a big man — six-foot-four and almost 300 pounds. His friends used to joke that it was cheaper to take a vacation trip to Cairo than to treat him to a meal. Whenever several citizens from Brünn showed up in Cairo, Mr. Slezak’s friends joked that he must be singing in Brünn.

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Gifts and Good Deeds

Gifts

• Giuseppe Campanari acted and sang the part of Kothner the final time that Anton Seidl conducted Die Meistersingerat the Metropolitan. Kothner appears in the first act but does not afterward appear in the opera until very much later in the final act, where the character waves a flag and sings a few notes. Mr. Campanari asked Mr. Seidl for permission to go home after the first act, thinking that in the final act a member of the chorus could very well wave the flag and sing the few notes. Mr. Seidl, however, replied, “No. Remain for the master’s sake! [The master, of course, is the composer of Die Meistersinger: Richard Wagner.] Go to your dressing room, and I will send you something to keep you company.” Mr. Campanari did retire to his dressing room, and Mr. Seidl sent him two cigars and a bottle of champagne with his compliments. Mr. Campanari writes, “At the proper moment, during the last act, the original Kothner appeared and thus Wagner’s dignity was upheld at the expense of Mr. Seidl’s purse.” By the way, Mr. Seidl celebrated Christmas with a huge Christmas tree, and presents for his dogs — each dog got a sausage — hung on its branches.

• In 1969, when opera singer Beverly Sills made her debut at La Scala in Milan, Italy, she and her daughter, Muffy, stayed in a hotel on a street that was famous for its flashily dressed prostitutes, all of whom carried large handbags. Muffy was very impressed with the glamour of the prostitutes, and she asked her mother, “Mama, how do you say ‘beautiful’ in Italian?” Ms. Sills answered, “Bella, bella.” The next evening Muffy went over to a prostitute and told her, “Bella, bella.” The prostitute was so pleased that she reached into her handbag and pulled out a gift for Muffy: a piece of chocolate.

• Bass singer Feodor Chaliapin once spent the night with a young woman, and the next morning he said, “I shall give you tickets for the opera this evening.” Hinting for a different kind of gift, the woman told him that the opera tickets would be of no use to her as she was poor and hungry. Mr. Chaliapin replied, “If you wanted bread, you should have spent the night with a baker.”

Good Deeds

• When he was a very young man who had just graduated from Harvard, future music critic Henry T. Finck decided to attend the first Beyreuth Festival, with Richard Wagner himself conducting. He arrived several weeks before the festival began, and he wanted to attend the rehearsals of the great works of opera written by Mr. Wagner. No one was supposed to be admitted to the rehearsals, but he found a convenient keyhole and put his ear up to it. Someone discovered him doing this and said, “Nobody is allowed in here.” Henry pointed out that he had spent a great amount of money for tickets to all the public performances of the festival, but to no avail. The attendant said, “I am extremely sorry, sir, but I have strict orders to make no exceptions. Fortunately, Henry met Mr. Wagner himself. He took the opportunity to ask the great man to allow him to attend rehearsals. At first, Mr. Wagner declined, thinking that Henry was a critic. (Henry became a critic — as which he was a defender of Wagner — later.) Henry said, “But I am not a critic, only a young man of 22 who has come simply to describe the new works.” (True. Henry could write, and he had arranged to send articles about the festival to the New York Worldand Atlantic Monthly.) This pleased Mr. Wagner, who asked him, “Have you a Patronatsschein?” Henry replied, “Three!” Mr. Wagner then did a good deed. He said, “I had made up my mind to admit no one to the rehearsals, not even Liszt. But he has gone in and I have admitted a few others, so you might as well come, too.” Mr. Finck wrote in his autobiography that he “had the time of my life watching the great master superintending every detail of the performances.”

• Lucrezia Bori of the Metropolitan Opera had surgery to remove some nodules from her vocal chords; unfortunately, the operation was not a success and she lost her singing and her speaking voice. Internationally famous Australian opera star Nellie Melba visited her and told her about the time that she had strained her voice by trying to sing a Wagnerian role that was not suited for her voice. For three months, she had remained completely silent, and she had recovered her voice. She added, “You are not yet thirty. Have patience. Wait and watch and work mentally. You will have a great future one day.” In fact, that is what happened. Ms. Bori had another operation, and after lots of rest and silence, she was able to recover her voice and have a second career singing at the Met. When Ms. Bori returned to the Met, Ms. Melba was there. Before Ms. Bori’s performance, Ms. Melba sent her a large basket of flowers, and after the performance, she told her, “You sang beautifully tonight. You are more marvelous than ever.”

• When Ivan Jadan, the premier lyric tenor of the Bolshoi Opera from 1928-1941, escaped from the rule of the dictator Josef Stalin in November of 1941, he walked west with a group of other artists and their families. As they neared an overturned German truck, one of the children in the group started crying. Hearing the child, a German soldier inside the truck stuck his head out of a door. The one member of the Russian group who could speak German asked in what direction they should travel. Although the Russians were supposed to be the enemies of the Germans, the German soldier saved their lives by warning him about a minefield directly ahead of them. Hearing the child cry had made the German soldier realize that these Russians needed help, and he gave it to them.

• During World War 1, opera tenor Enrico Caruso visited a hospital for wounded veterans. He learned that a soldier who had lost his legs in the war was traveling through New York on his way to Washington, DC, for artificial legs. He also learned that the soldier wanted to see New York City. No problem. Mr. Caruso simply requested, “Put him in my car.” Mr. Caruso and the veteran had lunch together, and then Mr. Caruso went to a rehearsal and his chauffeur took the veteran around New York and showed him the sights. Afterward, Mr. Caruso received a letter from the veteran: “Many thanks for your great kindness to me. When I get my new legs from Washington, I am coming to hear you sing.”

• An impoverished German student once wrote Jenny Lind, the 19th-century singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, begging for a ticket and promising to pay her for it when he received his allowance. Ms. Lind not only sent him two free tickets, but during the concert she made sure to smile in the direction of those particular seats.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Embarrassment and Lack of Etiquette

Embarrassment

• Kirsten Flagstad once recorded a number of arias in three hours of hard work, then she and Charles O’Connell, the man in charge of the recording, went to lunch. He asked if she were tired, and she explained that she was not tired vocally, but that a certain muscle ached from standing. She then took his hand, put it on her inner thigh, and said, “The muscle is all stiffened up. Can’t you feel that muscle?” Mr. O’Connell could feel the muscle, and he almost died of embarrassment as all the people in the Waldorf dining room stared at them.

• Tenor Franco Corelli could be brutally honest as a voice teacher. During a class, a young woman sang for him for the first time. Unfortunately, she was not good. Mr. Corelli asked her, “You have a singing teacher?” The woman nodded that yes, she did. Mr. Corelli then asked, “And you pay such a teacher?” Embarrassed — as was Mr. Corelli — she started crying and ran back to her seat.

Etiquette, Lack of

• Opera/lieder singer Kathleen Ferrier had an interesting way of handling rude people. Following one of her concerts, a man in the audience met her in the artists’ room and told her, “Miss Ferrier, I wanted to come round to tell you that it is a pity you included Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ in your program this evening; it is a hateful song and I detest it.” Ms. Ferrier simply looked at him and asked, “And?” Of course, the man had nothing to reply to this mild, but effective, rebuff.

• Arturo Toscanini had a policy of allowing no encores, as he felt they interfered with the flow of the operas he conducted. Unfortunately, on the very last night of the 1902-1903 season, the La Scala audience insisted on the encore of a favorite aria from A Masked Ball. Toscanini tried several times to continue, but he was unable. Finally, he ran from the podium in disgust and an assistant conductor finished the opera.

• Even as a young girl, opera singer Maria Callas was assertive. A friend of the family used to come to her home and put his feet up on a table pedestal — something no one else was allowed to do. Young Maria was angered by this and told him, “Please don’t put your feet on our nice furniture.” When her mother told her to be nice, young Maria replied, “If you won’t talk to him, Mother, I will.”

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David Bruce: Opera Anecdotes — Education

Education

• Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine studied under Professor Dimitri Usatov, who was sometimes very severe and even hit him with his baton. In self-defense, Mr. Chaliapine sometimes stood behind the piano, which was close to the wall. Because Professor Usatov was stout, he was unable to get close enough to Mr. Chaliapine to hit him. One day, however, Professor Usatov was so angry that he shouted, “Come out of that, you young devil! Come out! I know your game!” Mr. Chaliapine came out, Professor Usatov beat him with his baton, and then they continued the lesson. (Professor Usatov was actually very kind, giving Mr. Chaliapine voice lessons for free and even teaching him table manners.)

• Schuyler Chapin held many important jobs in the arts, including cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, and General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. He fell in love with music early. Unfortunately, he discovered that he had no talent in music composition. Nadia Boulanger at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge agreed. She looked over some compositions of his, and then told him bluntly, “It’s very simple. You have no talent.” She thought that he ought to be an impresario instead. Mr. Chapin agreed. He says, “If you know you don’t have talent yourself, you try to acquire the talent of recognizing talent in others.”

• One of the people who helped develop Australian soprano Joan Sutherland’s voice was Richard Bonynge, who became her husband. He felt that she could sing higher, so he took advantage of the fact that she lacked perfect pitch. Placing her in such a way that she could not see the keyboard of the piano as she did her vocal exercises, he would play E flat and tell her that it was C, which she would reproduce. They continued in this way higher and higher, and eventually Mr. Bonynge would reveal to her how high she was singing. In this way she developed her ability to sing notes much higher than she had thought she was capable of singing.

• Every opera singer will crack on a note in public. Early in his career, while singing in Tel Aviv, Israel, Plácido Domingo cracked on two notes while singing an important aria in Charles-François Gounod’s Faust, for which he had had inadequate time to prepare. He was horribly embarrassed, and he offered to resign from the Hebrew National Opera, but the directors would not accept his resignation. Instead, they said to him, “Plácido, here you have a chance to learn, and one mistake means nothing. We trust you, and we want you to continue.” This vote of confidence, Plácido says, is “the biggest boost anyone has ever given me.”

• Mario Lanza was not good at reading music, so he learned new arias by listening to recordings by accomplished opera singers. Leila Edwards listened to him sing some arias from the role of Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and then she told him, “You learned from the [Beniamino] Gigli recording.” Mr. Lanza asked, “How did you know?” Ms. Edwards replied, “Because you’re making the same mistakes Gigli made!” (Mr. Lanza made his only appearances on an operatic stage as Pinkerton in Madama Butterflyin New Orleans on April 8 and April 10, 1948.)

• Lotte Lehmann was a glorious lieder singer. Once she gave a master class at the Academy of the West, and Anna Russell, a singer of parodies of opera, asked to sit in on the class. Ms. Lehmann taught the class, then near the end she asked Ms. Russell to come forward. Ms. Lehmann then took Ms. Russell through the comic song “Schlumph ist mein Gesitzenbaum” (German for “Dumb is my sittingtree”) and taught her to sing it much better than she had ever sung it before.

• As a young man, Mario del Monaco entered a competitive examination at the Opera School in Rome. He sang successfully and won a scholarship. Unfortunately, when lessons commenced, Mr. del Monaco became convinced that his teacher was ruining his voice. Eventually, he became so angry that he threw the score of La Favoritaat his teacher’s head!

• The singer and composer Nicola Porpora took the castrato Gaetano Caffarelli as a pupil, and made him sing for six years a single lesson based on vowel sounds. At the end of the six years, Mr. Porpora told his pupil, “I have nothing further to teach you — you are the greatest singer in the world.”

***

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250 Anecdotes About Opera  (Kindle eBook: 99 cents):

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