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Opera's Swan Songs Often Strike Startling Notes

January 24, 1990|JACK SMITH

As we have seen here, opera is vulnerable to much unscheduled hilarity--the embarrassing glitch, the grand faux pas. It may be caused by temperamental tenors, headstrong divas, inept stagehands and/or backstage vendettas.

I am not surprised to hear other versions of the story about Tosca's leaping over the prison parapet, supposedly to her death, only to be bounced back into view by the trampoline meant to break her fall.

John F. Cook of San Pedro says he found the story in "The World of Opera," by Wallace Brockway and Herbert Weinstock. Only it wasn't "Tosca," they say. It was Halevy's "La Juive," in which the heroine is tossed into a caldron of boiling oil. During a performance in Chicago in the 1920s, she bounced back into view.

Theodore K. Millhauser nominates an incident in a performance of "Salome" as the funniest ever. He says the soprano had boasted that no one could ever break her up during an aria. A tenor challenged her, and said he could do it without being on stage.

The baritone who sang John the Baptist was a hypochondriac. His dressing room door was always closed to shut off drafts. Offstage he stuck cotton balls in his ears. In the opera, John is beheaded in the cistern and his head is raised on a platter to be toyed with by the kinky Salome. But this time there were cotton balls in John's disembodied ears. Broke her up.

Barbara Sarda of San Diego recalls a scene from "La Boheme" in which the grieving Rodolfo flings himself on the bed of the newly departed Mimi and the bed collapses. "Slowly the (dead Mimi's) head turns away from the audience, but the body is clearly convulsed."

Meanwhile, Cook also says it was the great Wagnerian tenor Leo Slezak who said, "When does the next swan leave?" (according to my version), when a stagehand towed the swan-boat offstage prematurely. (Ib. J. Melchior, Lauritz's son, also recalled that it was Slezak.)

According to "Opera Anecdotes" (Oxford University Press), by Ethan Mordden (I found it in the gift shop on the Music Center Plaza), Slezak was stranded offstage when the swan was pulled prematurely on stage , and what he said was, "Wann geht der nachste Schwan?" ("When goes the next swan?" Translation by the aforementioned Mr. Millhauser.)

Whether that is a literal translation of the German, I don't know. German is to me an impenetrable wall. As Mark Twain said of that language, "Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of the Atlantic with his verb in his mouth."

Besides operatic mishaps, the book records numerous comical moments in the lives of its principals. In 1961, it says, Sarah Caldwell phoned Beverly Sills and asked her to play Rosalinde in a Boston production of "Die Fledermaus." Sills agreed. But her husband noted that she was seven months pregnant and asked her what she planned to wear. Sills phoned Caldwell back. "I can't do 'Fledermaus,' " she said. "I'm pregnant." Caldwell thought this over. "Weren't you pregnant five minutes ago?" she asked.

Toscanini and diva Geraldine Farrar became lovers. Finally the affair threatened Toscanini's marriage, and he took his family back to Italy. The parting with Farrar was difficult, but they remained friends. Later he was a guest of Farrar at a lavish dinner that included caviar. "I slept with that woman for seven years," the great conductor complained to a friend. "Wouldn't you think she'd remember that I hate fish?"

The celebrated diplomat and wit Chauncey Depew once stared at soprano Mary Garden's decolletage and said, "Tell me, Miss Garden, what's holding that dress up?" And Garden is said to have out-fenced the nimble Depew with this riposte: "Your age and my discretion."

The great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was a woman of physical and artistic majesty. She was Czech by birth and German by training but American by adoption. This story makes her out to be simply a woman with a stubborn accent in an American drugstore.

"I'd like some powder, please," she tells the clerk.


"No. Vimmin's."


"No. I take it vit me."

If you believe that, you'll believe Tosca and the trampoline and Slezak and the swan.

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