Saturday, 26 November 2016


It’s time again for another installment of CLASSICAL MUSIC MAYHEM feat. Did You Know?

Today’s post features a sordid romp through the dark underbelly of the otherwise pristine world of Western Classical Music. Forget Dante’s Virgil: the following naughty little devils looked to Beelzebub himself as a guide through the blazing inferno of hell – boasting such bestial sin as


We begin in that most metropolitan of cities, New York, NY:


“Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore …
e diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel!,
…perché, Signor, ah, perché me ne rimuneri così?”

[I lived for art, I lived for love... and offered songs to the stars and to heaven!
…why, Lord, ah, why do you reward me thus?]
Tosca’s aria, Tosca, Puccini

News article concerning Versalle's
death, New York Times.
American Baritone Leonard Warren wasn’t the only famous singer to suffer an ironic fatality mid performance. In January of 1996, another American performer met an untimely end on the operatic stage, seconds after belting out a line from the work’s libretto that seemed to be written exclusively for him. The performer was the 63-year old tenor Richard Versalle, the opera was the MET premiere of Leoš Janáček's "The Makropulos Affair." The line: “too bad you can only live for so long” proved to be the tenor’s last words: immediately after singing the nine ominous lyrics from atop a 10 foot ladder, Versalle crashed to the floor, unconscious. He was pronounced dead shortly after arrival at St Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.

What makes Versalle’s untimely demise perhaps even more ironic than Warren’s, who also met his end at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House some 36 years prior – collapsing dead on the very same stage seconds after belting out the lyric "to die, a momentous thing!” from Verdi’s La Forza – was the subject matter of Janáček’s opera itself: The plot of The Makropulos Case concerns a certain diva, who, after ingesting a life-extending elixir some 337 years prior, notices the concoctions promise of eternal youth and immortality is beginning to weaken, making her demise all but an utmost certainty.

Talk about a theatrical ending! 

New York City wasn’t the only home of the ironical. I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention the infamous passing of the French playwright and actor Molière in Paris, during his famous – and final – performance on stage - whilst starring in his own ballet, appropriately titled La Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid): a collaboration with the 17th century composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

The three act comédie-ballet featured Molière himself as a typical hypochondriac – believing himself to be assailed by numerous illnesses, subjecting himself to countless amounts of enemas and weary of suffering an untimely demise. Dressed in medical smock and bandaged, the actor hacked and coughed his way through the performance – all a part of playing the character of an invalid – or so those in the audience thought. What attending patrons – and perhaps even Molière’s fellow actors on the stage with him didn’t know – was that the hacking and coughing by Molière wasn’t acting at all the playwright was actually stricken with consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis), and was in fact, coughing up very real phlegm and blood. The stubborn actor insisted (to himself) on finishing his performance, come hell or high water. Hell would come soon enough, when the playwright collapsed on stage due to a massive hemorrhage. He would succumb to another, even larger hemorrhage backstage, which ultimately ended his life.

Molière's famous death is depicted in the 2000 French masterpiece, Le Roi Danse:


This last entry into Ironic Deaths is more decidedly felicitous – and features one of the most gifted heldentenors the world had yet known in 20th century Swedish performer Jussi Björling...

Björling, whose impressive command of self and infallible dedication to the higher arts saw him power through a 1960 performance of Puccini’s La Bohème at London’s Covent Garden immediately after suffering a heart attack, would perish in September of the same year, leaving behind a vast and breathtaking recorded operatic repertoire. One of Björling’s final recordings was, quite appropriately, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem:


The Metropolitan Opera House, as we have already seen, played host to more than it’s fair share of untimely, ironic deaths, (not to mention serving as a resting ground for the ashes of modern patrons of the artform). It has also served as stomping grounds for murder, torture and attempted sexual assault.

The following horrific story is far from a laughing matter:

Helen Hagnes and her violin
It was during a hot summer in 1980 when young Canadian violinist Helen Hagnes met her most violent end, midway through a performance of the Berlin Ballet’s “The Idiot.” Hagnes, who was in the orchestra pit that evening playing violin, abruptly left her seat at the conclusion of the first act, never to be seen alive again.

By the time the ballet’s second act commenced, with no sign of Hagnes, it was assumed by the violinists' fellow musicians in the pit that the 30 year old had wandered off to the restroom, perhaps overcome by illness. Sadly, this was far from the case.

The bruised and battered body of Hagnes would later be found, decaying on a beam inside an airshaft behind the Opera House – the victim of an attempted sexual assault and brutal homicide.

Each new detail surrounding the murder of Hagnes would only seem to supersede the last as convicted killer and former MET stagehand Craig Crimmins confessed to authorities (after one of the most extensive police investigations the nation had yet seen) that he had attempted to rape the young violinist, who he had first spotted whilst sharing an elevator with the victim at the Opera House. Crimmins, who cracked under investigative pressure, admitted to police that he had "drunkenly" propositioned Hagnes in the elevator, for which he was unceremoniously slapped on the face in rejection. In a fit of rage, Crimmins admitted to forcing the young violinist into a stairwell where he would tie and gag his victim before cutting the clothes from her body in an attempt to force himself sexually upon her.

By the time Crimmins was finished with Hagnes, he took her to the rooftop, and callously kicked her down an airshaft from a height of some six floors up, where she came crashing down on a steel beam.

Crimmins, who was alleged at trial to possess an IQ of only 87, would later recant his admissions of guilt through his attorney. He would be found guilty of Hanges’ homicide the following year and sentenced to 20 years to life behind bars.

Like the ironic deaths mentioned above, the ballet for which Hagnes was performing as violinist saw a female character as the victim of a violent homicide: she was stabbed to death. 

Mess with Mine wife, pay with Thy life:

…such was the motto for poor Alessandro Stradella. The 17th century Italian composer had made himself a marked man when he chose to elope with the prized fiancée of a notable Venetian senator.

Plots for the bashful Romeo’s assassination were first conjured in 1677 at Turin, with several failed attempts at accomplishing the Senator’s mission of murder most foul. Not to be deterred, the politician and his henchmen would chase the composer around the country until the deed was done – which it was – in 1682 at Modena, when Stradella was fatally stabbed to death.


Ludwig and Malvina in costume.

The next strange set of spooky happenstance concerns what is perhaps the finest opera ever written, Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which suffered a series of debacles so numerous, the work itself was long believed to have been hexed:

In brief:

  •  Tristan’s May 15, 1865 premiere is abruptly cancelled when it’s star soprano unexpectedly loses her voice…
  • Tristan’s star tenor, (and the original Tristan) Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld suddenly dies, without warning on July 21, 1865. To date, no explanation of Carolsfeld’s death (at age 29!) has been made. Shortly following his passing, the aforementioned star soprano, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, abruptly ended her singing career – smack dab in the middle of her so called “vocal golden period.”
  •  Conductor Felix Mottl suffers a heart attack midway through the second act of Tristan in late June 1911 – he would perish just a few short weeks later.
  •  Conductor Joseph Keilberth suffers a heart attack – curiously, also midway though the second act of Tristan – allegedly at the exact same moment in the music as Mottl, some 57 years prior.


German Wagnerian soprano Brigit Nilsson once played victim to a real life 20th century Dracula, when, during the second act of Italian Romantic composer Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot the famed heldentenor and operatic bad boy Franco Corelli roughly gnawed at her throat after becoming green with envy and furiously frustrated at his co-star’s impressive lung power: apparently Nilsson had surpassed the egoistic tenor’s singing ability by sustaining a top note for a longer duration of time than her would-be assailant.

Not one to take chances with the famously temperamental tenor’s erratic moods, Nilsson withdrew herself from a subsequent staging of the work, informing her superiors she would not be appearing on stage with Corelli, telling them “I have rabies!”


The year was 1818, the place: the town and comune of Pesaro, Italy, original stomping grounds of homegrown hero, composer Gioachino Rossini.

It would be during a stay in his familial neck of the woods that Rossini would become introduced to the much despised estranged wife of the Prince of Wales, Caroline of Brunswick. The powerful young socialite – she would later become Queen of the United Kingdom – commanded reverence and devotion wherever she went, seemingly oblivious to (or perhaps in defiance of) the surge of raging hatred held by the public against her persona, which was said to be highly narcissistic, bodaciously crude and tactless, and utterly, all round un-likable. Rossini counted himself among her many critics, refusing repeated invitations by the princess to her private salon, and even refusing to customarily bow before her royal paws.

This latter indiscretion by Rossini enraged the future monarch, who responded in kind with a threatening message for the composer, which she had delivered courtesy of a bunch of hired thugs (accompanied by her adulterous lover) who the princess ordered to openly brandish an arsenal of weapons at a future performance in Pesaro of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra – which they did: forcing the composer to be hastily smuggled outside of the theater for his safety when the nefarious band of brutes waved about pistols and knives at the composer from the audience, which they backed up with a fair amount of shouting: both of threats and well-timed critiques in the form of hissing. The shaken composer would never return to Pesaro again.

HANDEL: HERO OR HAZARD? The attempted murder of Italy’s rising star soprano.

Roll over, Beethoven: there’s an even bigger, badder dog in the house. German-turned-British composer George Frederick Handel was making a reputation for himself as an operatic bad boy long before the tempestuous Ludwig came on the scene to shake up finely manicured tail feathers.

In an effort to fill presently depleting coffers for the composers “Royal Academy of Music,” Handel set his sights on Italian rising star soprano Francesca Cuzzoni for a leading role in his upcoming opera Ottone. Word had spread rapidly across Europe – and to the ears of the composer himself - of Cuzzoni’s majestic singing ability and Handel was certain she would be just the tonic needed to mend his dwindling profits and surmounting debts.

Upon sending for the singer, Handel had undoubtedly filled his imagination to the brim with fantasies of basking in the glorious glare of untold riches. So, imagine the composer’s spectacular fall from grace when he first removed his rose-colored goggles to lay eyes on the arrival of Ms. Cuzzoni – his angelic savior – who presented a “short and squat” figure – and worse – a conceited aire and a demanding and difficult personality to boot.

After a series of private rehearsals in which Cuzzoni and Handel attempted to match wits – and in which Cuzzoni defiantly dismissed the maestro's directions in a bold effort to show that the singer knows best – the composer became enraged, violently lifted her into the air by grabbing the stout soprano about the waist, and charged her toward the window, threatening to throw her out of it to her death!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the composer had tamed the wild starlet and the two would reach a most profitable sense of détente from there on out.

A little something to keep in mind this Christmas whilst enjoying your local Messiah chorale. 

I end this post on a (comparatively) lighter note:


Soprano superstar Montserrat Caballé has gotten herself into quite the pickle.

Superstar Spanish soprano
Montserrat Caballé was convicted in December of 2015 of tax fraud after the shifty singer attempted to scam the nation’s government out of an excess of €508,000 (£369,000) by falsely reporting her place of residence in the low-tax principality of Andorra (located between France and Spain) – when in fact she was, and had been, living it up in fancy Barcelona.

The octogenarian star soprano was slapped with fines of €240,000 and €72,000 which were to be paid in damages to Spain’s tax agency. Caballé, who earned a reported €2 million in 2010, claimed ignorance of the handling of her income, which she had entrusted into an Andorra-based company, which she claimed was further complicated by the death of her former financial advisor.

Luckily for Ms. Caballé, as this was her first conviction, the operatic legend would serve only a six month jail sentence, all of which was suspended.

Freddie Mercury and the diva Caballé perform "Barcelona," in Barcelona, Spain, 1988:

Did You Know?

New York's Metropolitan Opera House has also had a brush with suicide. In 1988, during a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth a patron of the audience stood at the edge of one of the MET's upper balconies, and plunged to his death.

That concludes this edition of CLASSICAL MUSIC MAYHEM. For more articles like these visit the Mayhem Archives listed below.

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