Saturday, 9 January 2016


This thoroughly unflattering depiction of a screeching
viking-esque soprano may have it's origins in an early
production of Richard Wagner's epic
Der Ring des Nibelungen, 
a mammoth four part opera cycle featuring the
character of Brünnhilde, a sheild-maiden and Valkyrie
of Norse mythology. Wagner's productions were
notoriously behemoth in scope, and it is from these factors
that the legend of an equally robust performer belting out
stratospherically rotund arias
likely first 
attracted critics of the composer, and eventually, of the 
art form of Opera itself.
Have a friend who thinks Opera is nothing but prim and proper ladies and stuffy old louts watching overweight Primadonnas bound about the stage in nothing but breast armor and Viking caps?

Show them that both performers and creators in the world of Opera (and indeed, it's audiences) can get just as down and dirty with the rest of them as we remove the pomp from the circumstance with these salacious tales of Mayhem Behind The Music.

Below you will find a cornucopia of anecdotal tales of yore interspersed with comical musings, mishaps and superstitions, snarky commentary (courtesy of competitive composers whose behavior is anything but proper), and for good measure, a fair share of drunkards, playboys and murderesses.

We begin backstage, at an unnamed theatre’s production of Bellini’s Norma, an tragedia lirica consisting of an ill-fated Druid-Roman romance - one that was now tempting the gods with an offering of opera buffa for the course. 

This delightfully comical anecdote was regaled in author Stephen Tanner’s Opera Antics and Anecdotes:

A caricature of Falstaff
“One hour before curtain time the 230-pound soprano for Norma cancelled. Her slim, trim sub was hurriedly escorted to the makeup and costume departments, where it turned out her costume had vanished. The only costume available was that of the 230-pounder designed by Omar the Tentmaker. It was six sizes too large and particularly baggy in the chest area. Since needle and thread and safety pins couldn't do the chest job, the costume lady shouted at the sub, "Go as fast as you can up to the prop room and ask for prop number 77, shove it down the top of your dress, and scamper back here as fast as you can. It's curtain time in ten minutes!" Minutes later, the soprano was back, out of breath and looking very unhappy, a large piece of sponge rubber stuck out of her dress, bulging up under her chin. "Oh, my God!" screamed the costume lady, "I said prop 77, not 79! That's Falstaff's behind!"

Fans of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote will enjoy the following anecdote as re-told by Hugh Vickers in his hilarious book Great Operatic Disasters. Cervantes' enthusiasts are sure to remember a certain squire Sancho suffering a similar fate in the celebrated Spanish classic:

Vickers' humorous depiction of the
bounding soprano as illustrated
in Great Operatic Disasters.
"This catastrophe is - delightfully - due entirely to ill-will, in this case between the stage staff & the soprano. With diabolical cunning, they permitted her, after several stormy rehearsals, to complete her first performance without mishap until the very last moment, when Tosca throws herself off the battlements of the Castel Sant'Angelo. What normally happens is that on her cry, 'O Scarpia, davanti a Dio' she hurls herself off & lands on a mattress four feet below (who but Callas has ever looked totally convincing at that moment? - Her outstretched hands haunt the memory). But in this case it was not Callas but a large young American who landed, not on a mattress, but - perish the thought - on a trampoline. It is said that she came up fifteen times before the curtain fell - sometimes upside down, then the right way up - now laughing in delirious glee, now screaming with rage ... Worse still, it seems that the unhappy lady was unable to reappear in any other Opera Center performance throughout the entire season because the Center's faithful audience, remembering the trampoline, would have burst into laughter. She had to remove herself to San Francisco, where of course no such grotesque incident could possibly occur."

Stravinsky's premiere production of Le Sacre du Printemps was
notoriously chaotic to the point of violence. Police had to be
called to break up the many brawls that broke out amongst
audience members who were so thoroughly enraged
with the Composer, his choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, and with
eachother. It was an evening Parisian society would not
soon forget.

Such comical catastrophes were not exclusive only to performers of the Classical arts, but also to their patrons. We all remember hearing about the May 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, dubbed by the press as the ‘Riot at the Rite’ (and as regaled here on unravelingmusicalmyths in my post on the notoriously chaotic premiere) - but, beyond the cat-calls, hissing and throwing of veggies (and fists), you may not have heard about a particular audience member, who was so riled up by the shocking performance and it’s jarring rhythms, that journalist Carl van Vechten would report being made the personal timpani of said audience member, who  

“began to beat rhythmically on top of my head!”

Now that is one way to offer a unique critique - a scathing commentary on music deemed garrulous and uncouth, unfit for Parisian upper-crust society - and all of it offered without ever having to utter a word! Quite unlike the following composers, who took competition to a very dark place - mud-slinging at contemporary musicians with the skill of a discus-hurling Olympian:

Perhaps in an effort to beat would-be critics to the punch, the following musicians dabbled in the art of self-deprecation (of the hilarious variety):

Conductor extraordinaire and my personal maestro preferito would, true to his reputation as an uncharacteristically insecure recluse for someone of such genius, pen the following discourse on what I like to call "talent-dysmorphia" in a rare series of letters to a then-budding conductor Charles Barber (as printed in Barbers’ Corresponding with Carlos:)

My most loved conductor, Carlos Kleiber.
“I am sorry to say: I hardly conduct at all; so that would mean you would be totally hors d’oeuvre (out of work) and horrified at my lack of interest, energy, initiative, and so forth … I’m a real mess, actually. Don’t tell anyone, please.”

Yours Sincerely
Carlos Kleiber

Speaking of erroneous quotes and letters, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was famous for his correspondence with family and friends. In the quote below, a young Mozart shares with his bride Constanze, the beast hiding within his usually comical exterior:

Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would, throughout the course of his travels and career,
pen many letters, which, as we will see further down in this post, showcased a very boy-like and
somewhat crude personality and sense of humor.
and who could forget Johann Sebastian Bach, who famously declared: 

It is obvious to any fan of the Classical genre that such displays of self-inflicted aspersions were entirely disproportionate to the talents of the above mentioned artists. A little humility, however, often does go a long way - and for the likes of Kleiber, Bach and Mozart, posterity has seen to it that such displays of self-deprecation are no match for the astounding oeuvres put forth by each artist, rendering any such commentary as the ramblings of an ingenious eccentric.

While we are on the topic of humility, as the old colloquial expression states: "A little humility could have been precisely what the doctor ordered" rings true for the following singers, who proved to be a tad too big for their britches:

We begin with the Serbian mezzo-soprano Dragana Jugovic, the so-called “Drunk Carmen”, who, to the horror of tenor Alexei Steblianko, and indeed the entire attending audience at a concert performance featuring the works of French composer Georges Bizet, had a little too much to drink before curtain call and wound up slurring and swaying her way though a rendition of the final duet "C'est Toi!" from Bizet’s famously recitative-infused opera Carmen, with a shrieking vocal ability ghastly enough to shatter glass. Whoever said “the show must go on without exception" clearly never saw this:

..and who could forget the American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who was so impressed by her vocal gifts that she once proclaimed to a taxi driver following a near fatal collision that her screaming upon impact was an offering from the heavens, sending him a letter of thanks for improving her “high C’s!” Whether Ms. Jenkins was aware of the mockery made of her seemingly oblivious ability to sing in key or hold a note, or perhaps, just didn’t care, it didn't stop the ever-wobbly soprano from using the funds obtained from an inheritance given to her by her late father to establish ‘The Verdi Club’, using her new-found fortune and status to mingle in musical circles. Jenkins did indeed see notoriety in her lifetime - as an object of satire and jest.

"Murder on the High C's": a
Florence Foster Jenkins Production.
Posterity has been no kinder to the unobservant soprano: a posthumous album would be released with the aptly (and hilariously) named title of “Murder on the High C’s”.

The most familiar source of mockery when it comes to Florence Foster Jenkins was her horrifying rendition of Mozart’s "Der Hölle Rache” from Die Zauberflote, widely considered to date to be one of opera’s most difficult and demanding arias, and is certainly not for the faint-of-heart performer. Jenkins, however, believed she had it nailed:

Compare Foster Jenkins (at left), with virtuosic coloratura Queen (and my personal favorite in this
role) Cristina Deutekom (at right).


It is difficult, in today’s social-media infused world, to imagine any performer with the - gifts? - of Foster-Jenkins living in such thoroughly oblivious bliss.

Even the most adroit modern performer has a rough night or two. Depending on where the performance is taking place, audiences range from the (usually) kind and appreciative to downright crass and castrating (as can be commonly witnessed amongst patrons of the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan).

It was here that tenor Roberto Alagna lost his composure after being heckled by the audience following a slightly overabundant use of vibrato. The cumbersome audience, erupting in a well-timed chorus of boos was astonished when Alagna responded to the vocal critics by serving them with a heaping portion of their just desserts. In a display of overabundant confidence (and perhaps a soupçon of cockiness) Alagna satisfied the secret wishes of sopranos and tenors everywhere who had also suffered the diminutive hissing of the audience at La Scala when he defiantly held up his fist high in the air, delivering a mocking shake - a gesture that could easily be deconstructed to express the sentiment “screw you!” before he angrily stormed off the stage. It was a grand gesture, and an even grander exit - well, at least it would have been: the flustered Alagna, so caught up in rage - had stormed off to the wrong side of the stage! In what could only be described as in a state of utter mortification, the disgraced tenor had to do an abrupt-foot: turning a full 180 as he sulkingly marched off to the exit at stage right.

Talk about a walk of shame!

Things weren’t always fun and games for fellow singers or the composers that inspired them.

Below you will find a series of superstitions, obsessive compulsions and so-called ‘carnal sins’ that are so salacious they alone could be the basis of a tragedie lyrique themselves:


Luciano Pavarotti and his handkerchief
Tenor Luciano Pavarotti was well known for his powerful vocal prowess and captivating stage presence. So adept at his craft was Luciano, that few were aware the behemoth legend suffered from an almost crippling case of stage-fright that would endure until the end of his operatic career. In an effort to combat this, Pavarotti is said to have clutched a handkerchief in his hands during his solo performances, which he would use as a tension ball during his high notes!

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was also plagued by stage fright, and would take excessive measures to try to temper his frazzled nerves. It is believed the composer (and sometime conductor) would only conduct with his right hand - his left hand was to be designated for his chin, which he would hold “propped up” in the fear that his head would “fall sideways” during one of his terror-induced dizzy spells (some autobiographies on the composer take this one step further, suggesting Tchaikovsky was trying to prevent his head from falling completely off!)

Niccolò Paganini: the soul-less virutoso
Not to be outdone by the superstitious measures of operatic successors Tchaikovsky and Pavarotti, a prolific violinist and composer living in the late 18th and 19th century by the name of Niccolò Paganini stirred up a witch’s brew of superstition of a whole different sort, when he took a page from Goethe’s epic masterpiece Faust, and convinced an entire audience that he had “sold his soul to the devil” in exchange for his virtuosic gifts.

Well tuned to the gossip of Italy’s elite patrons of classical music, Paganini would take to his violin prior to each sell-out performance, sawing into three of it's four strings - not too far - just enough for the gifted violinist to make it partway through a performance before the sabotaged strings would snap under the pressure of the bow - at which point the devious musician would finish the tune on one string, much to the appeasement of an already impressed audience.
Needless to say, Paganini made a pretty penny as a travelling supernatural performer.

Five years following the death of Paganini, the superstitious fans of the late violinist, who were prone to fits of fainting and bouts of extended reverie would find themselves overshadowed by another group of superstitious Neapolitans. 

Verdi, according to a group of Neapolitan
occultists, may have been victim of the
cursèd "Evil Eye".
The fanatical group in question would serve, collectively, as unofficial bodyguard to Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, when, following a disastrous debut of his early opera Alzira, local admirers of the composer deemed the work to have been cursed. So protective was this group of mugumbo dissenters, Verdi would find himself stalked (and close to the heel, at that) by the group, who would appear while the composer went out to dine, at performances he’d attend or conduct - even at his private residence.

Growing increasingly frustrated at his lack of privacy, Verdi is alleged to have inquired of this single-cell ameoba exactly what their end-game was. Much to his surprise, the small operatic militia revealed a theory of fantastical proportions: Alzira, it seems, had been afflicted with the “Evil Eye” - a curse inflicted upon the opera and it’s composer by a jealous rival, musician Vincenzo Capecelatro at it's backstage premiere by shaking his rival’s hands before curtain call. The malocchio, it was believed, would manifest itself on any future compositions of the cursed composer should Capecelatro make it a point to attend the performances. Acting as an unofficial bodyguard service to Verdi, the fanatical group would see to it that such an occurrence never happened. As ludicrous as Verdi found these superstitions, a series of coincidental events would seem to give the group a shading of clout, when, at a different premiere, the attending audience found themselves on their feet in ovation, such was their pleasure at Verdi’s latest production. Suddenly, and without warning, the composer found himself being bear-hugged from behind by a mysterious stranger. The ‘attack’ was so sudden, the startled composer jumped back several paces before turning to face the man who had so surprised him with such an abrupt embrace: it was none other than Capecelatro! At that precise moment, a not-insignificant sized piece of the set broke off and came hurtling toward the stage, crash-landing at the exact spot Verdi had just leapt from!

One can only imagine what the bodyguards thought - and what Verdi himself must have thought at surviving such a close call.

The above mentioned tales of calamity are but just the tip of the monumentally chaotic mountain that is classical music. From composers shying away from authoring or composing (as in the case of Franz Schubert) a ‘ninth symphony’ in fears of joining the so-called ‘curse of the ninth club’ (one in which famous composers such as Mahler, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Beethoven fell victim to unexpected and untimely deaths at or after composing a ninth symphony), to the playboy adventures of baroque men-about-town like composers Jean-Marie LeClair and Alessandro Stradella, each of whom are believed to have been murdered by former lovers and scorned wives.

Then there are the composers who just missed utter catastrophe, such as in the case of French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, who narrowly escaped a suicide attempt following the rejection of his current idée-fixe, a young doyenne named Camile, who had begun an affair with another in the period during her infatuated boyfriend’s absence (Berlioz was off to study in Rome, leaving his ladylove back in Paris).

The eccentric Hector Berlioz was a
known proponent and fan of the
psychedelic effects of Opium, and
would compose the 'Symphonie
(arguably his best work)
under it's influence.
So infuriated was Hector when he caught wind of the philanderers, it is said the obsessed composer set out to orchestrate a murder-suicide! Berlioz dressed himself in drag and boarded a train home, his fully loaded pistol in hand (or, in purse). It seems the frazzled Casanova had composed himself on the long ride home - at least enough to call off the murder. He presently had a solution for his still bereaved heart: he would drown himself by jumping abandonely into the Mediterranean Ocean. Fortunately for the annals of music history, he was quickly recovered from the chilly waters. Berlioz was no stranger to such obsessions of the heart - he would later (somewhat more successfully) attempt to lure into his romantic graces another young coquette by composing an entire symphony for his latest idée-fixe: one Harriet Smithson, who he wooed with a nearly fifty minute ode to his unyielding affections, complete with a deranged scene of Witches celebrating a dark Sabbath. It is believed the high strung Berlioz composed the work under the influence of Opium.

The castrato that never was:
Joseph Haydn.
Internationally renowned composer Joseph Haydn would himself avert catastrophe, when he, as a young virtuosic soprano (now commonly known as a treble) was approached by the church in which he performed with an offering of castration - a practice not uncommon in 18th century Italy, where the vocal agility of the young male soprano was so highly prized many a young boy would endure the procedure to ensure an ever-lasting high range that would endure throughout adulthood). It seems no one had bothered to ask his father, who quickly prohibited the procedure as soon as he caught wind of it.

I will end this post, which could take up an entire website (so numerous are such comic reliefs and tales of woe in the world of Opera and Classical Music) by leaving the reader with the following gems:

Mozart’s letters, considered so vulgar they had to be censored at first publication (and this is not to be taken as merely a sign of conservative times - some of the content contained in the composer’s correspondence is so graphic and vulgar, I hesitate to relay them even here! Let’s just say, ‘Wolfie’ had a penchant for humor of the scatological sort - once penning a letter to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart in which he describes, in explicit detail, a want to relieve himself of certain bodily functions on the face of his "Cozz Buzz” (a nickname Mozart employed for his favorite cousin). I will leave it to the reader to use his or her imagination. Such commentary by Mozart was rampant in his many letters, and was a humor shared even by his mother, who was no prude herself to risquée comedy!

(To read more about Mozart's dirty ditties, check out my post on Wolfgang here).

This talented comedian had an especially delicious knack for stripping from the world of Opera it’s pretentious reputation:



No comments:

Post a Comment