250 ANECDOTES ABOUT OPERA

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  • For a while, Pierre Monteux conducted for Serge Diaghilev and his ballet troupe, resulting in a reputation of being a ballet rather than an opera conductor, despite the vast number of operas he had conducted. When Mr. Monteux began conducting for the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York critics made this criticism of him, and a leading arts magazine especially made this criticism of him, but Otto Kahn told him, “Don’t worry, Monteux. I will take care of this.” Mr. Monteux wondered how Mr. Kahn could stop the criticism, but Mr. Kahn easily solved the problem. He simply paid $500 for an advertisement for Mr. Monteux in the leading arts magazine, and the criticism magically stopped.[1]
  • Giuseppe di Stefano had pride. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he once announced that he would not sing a concert because he had discovered that the concert programs contained an advertisement for “the world’s greatest opera singer, Franco Corelli.” Mr. di Stefano did sing the concert — but only after the programs had been taken away from the audience and placed in his dressing room.[2]

Advice

  • Opera singer Lillian Nordica was shocked by a young woman who had been singing with an opera company in England. Ms. Nordica wanted her to audition for the Metropolitan Opera, where she was sure the young singer could get the role of a Page in Romeo and Juliet. However, the young singer replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t sing a secondary role.” Ms. Nordica felt that the singer was making “a great mistake. To sing well one beautiful aria on the same stage with such artists as the two De Reszkes and Madame Melba would do her more good than to sing the first roles in a poor company.”[3]
  • Theater director Tyrone Guthrie was a fan of opera — and especially of Verdi’s Requiem. Often, he would sing along with his recording and shout, “Yes! Yes!” His wife, Judy, occasionally asked him, “Tony, can we just listen to it?” Mr. Guthrie always replied by shouting, “No — get involved!”[4]

Age

  • At the age of 93, Mary Garden’s mother died, but at the age of 35, she stopped counting how many years she had lived. She once told her daughter, “Mary, I was never 36 and I never shall be.” The two sometimes traveled together, but Mary was sometimes embarrassed because according to her mother’s passport, her mother was one year old when she gave birth to her.[5]
  • Cosima Wagner, Richard’s wife and then widow, had a remarkable intelligence, even in her old age. Conductor Karl Muck once argued with her about a passage by a philosopher. Afterward, he went to bed at his hotel, but he was woken by Cosima, who was throwing stones at his window. He went to the window, and Cosima yelled up at him, “I’ve got the book here. Come down. I am right!”[6]
  • When Mabel Wagnalls interviewed Lilli Lehmann, she was shocked when Ms. Lehmann mentioned her date of birth, so she said, “The American ladies so seldom give their age that your frankness is a revelation.” Ms. Lehmann smiled, then replied, “Why not? One is thereby no younger.”[7]

Alcohol

  • Opera singer Clara Doria once was seasick during a voyage and was unable to eat, but the wife of a clergyman declared that she was suffering from starvation, not from seasickness. The clergyman’s wife recommended that she drink a gin cocktail with Angostura bitters, and when Ms. Doria did, her appetite immediately returned and her seasickness vanished. Ms. Doria told this story to her friends, and when she left on another sea voyage, many of her friends got her quart bottles of gin cocktail as a farewell gift. Some of her friends went separately to a man named Billy Pitcher to buy quarts of gin cocktail, telling him that they were gifts for Ms. Doria, and he was amazed and asked, “Good Lord, what sort of woman is Ms. Doria? Does she drink cocktail by the gallon, or does she take a bath in it?”[8]

 

  • Opera singer Kirsten Flagstad enjoyed drinking, but she didn’t like to drink before noon. Therefore, she and her accompanist, Edwin McArthur, would sit and watch the clock slowly move its hands toward noon. However, during one of their train trips from New York to San Francisco, Mr. McArthur occasionally would get tired of waiting, so he would say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, in New York it’s already nearly two — we can start.” Then he would pour two glasses.[9]
  • The great tenor Enrico Caruso occasionally took a drink during the rigors of recording opera. He once disappeared for a few minutes while recording a duet from Madame Butterfly with Geraldine Farrar. When he returned and they started recording again, Ms. Farrar mischievously added these words to her part of the duet, “Oh, you’ve had a highball!” Mr. Caruso in turn sang these words: “No, I’ve had two highballs.” The recording is now a collector’s item.[10]

[1] Source: Doris G. Monteux, It’s All in the Music, p. 102.

[2] Source: Herbert H. Breslin, editor, The Tenors, p. 123.

[3] Source: Mabel Wagnalls, Stars of the Opera, pp. 179-180.

[4] Source: Alfred Rossi, Astonish Us in the Morning, p. 149.

[5] Source: Mary Garden and Louis Biancolli, Mary Garden’s Story, pp. 274-275.

[6] Source: Karl Böhm, A Life Remembered: Memoirs, p. 97.

[7] Source: Mabel Wagnalls, Stars of the Opera, p. 270.

[8] Source: Clara Kathleen Rogers (Clara Doria), Memories of a Musical Career, pp. 464-465.

[9] Source: Edwin McArthur, Flagstad: A Personal Memoir, p. 41.

[10] Source: David Ewen, Listen to the Mocking Words, p. 88.

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