A few of grand opera’s more embarrassing outtakes

Opera has the fewest masterpieces of any major art form. In fact, take away the operas of only four composers (Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini) and there wouldn’t be much to perform. A period of only a century and a half includes all the operas in the standard repertoire. Writing a very good opera seems to be about the hardest creative act the intellect can conceive. Even Beethoven was overwhelmed by it. After revising Fidelio endlessly, he never attempted another opera. Since Puccini’s death, no one has been able to write an opera that the public has taken to its heart despite the successes d’estime of the operas of Berg and Britten. Dmitri Shostakovich might have been able to do it, but Stalin put the kibosh on his operatic career while he was still in his twenties.

One opera presents more ways to screw up than can be found in 100 hospitals – well, maybe only 10. One of the reasons opera is not sung in the vernacular in this country is to help disguise the disasters that afflict almost every performance. The addition of titled performances in most houses is defeating this subterfuge, while adding new ways to go wrong. Nothing is more fun than reading translations that have gone out of sync. I even saw one performance where they started with titles from the wrong opera-no one seemed to notice.

In the second act of Rigoletto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in a performance in the early eighties, Matteo Manuguerra (singing the title role) entered the garden of his house through a wooden door which came off in his hands. The stage action required that he close the door, which was impossible as long as it was in the baritone’s hands. So, trooper that he was, he kept on singing while he unsuccessfully attempted to put the thing back on its hinges. Finally, when he realized that everyone in the audience was now awake and intrigued by the stage action, he gave up and just leaned it against a wall leaving the tenor to figure out how to partially open a door that wasn’t there.

Signor Manuguerra again fell victim to the prop gremlin the same season at Lyric, when he was singing Tonio in Pagliacci. The character is supposed to bang a large drum in the first act, which he proceeded to do with great panache. Unfortunately, the head of the drumstick popped off after the first few pounds and rolled under the cart in which he and the drum were deposited. There were a few minutes before he was to punctuate the tenor’s opening solo with some drumbeats. He frantically searched for the missing part of his drumstick. His eyes implored the choristers for help, but they ignored him as if he were a conductor. He tried to get out of the cart, but he couldn’t. There was nothing for him to do but bang the drum with what was left of the drumstick; it was as much use as a toothpick.

Around the same time that Manuguerra was finding himself insufficiently propped, an even more spectacular event occurred at Lyric Opera. The Civic Opera House, which is home to the company, is very large; accordingly, the director of their new production of Don Pasquale, an intimate opera, decided to shrink the large stage by building a little house on it in which all the action would take place. Shortly after the first act started, Alfredo Krauss, the tenor singing Ernesto, slammed a book on a table. A few seconds later, the left wall of the house gracefully fell towards the center of the stage. Then the back wall did the same, followed by the remaining right wall. So slowly did the walls descend that the audience at first thought it was part of the act, especially since the walls miraculously did no damage to any of the singers. But when the curtain came down they realized that an untoward event had occurred. After the house had been rebuilt, the opera started all over again, overture and all. When the book slamming moment arrived, Krauss made as if to bang the volume on the table, but at the last moment restrained himself and put it down like a feather. The next day the Chicago Tribune’s front page headline read, “Lyric Opera brings down the house.”

Thirty years earlier, Thomas Schippers made his conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera, presiding over the same opera. After the overture, he was so eager to get the show going that he vigorously conducted the opening bars of the first act before the set was ready. The curtain didn’t go up, leaving Schippers with an empty baton and goofy grin. After a suitable interval, he was allowed to start again; this time, the curtain did go up.

Tito Gobbi, the great Italian baritone, made his Met debut in 1956 in his signature of Baron Scarpia in Tosca. He encountered a different problem with the Met’s stubborn curtain. It knocked him over. Scarpia kneels in hypocritical prayer at the end of Tosca’s first act. Not familiar with the old Met’s stage, he knelt too far downstage and got blasted keister over tea kettle by several tons of gold brocade. Fortunately, only his dignity was damaged and he did the second act in splendid form, dying with brio.

Gino Penno was a tenor, active in the fifties, with a loud voice that was rarely on pitch. He solved this problem by a unique stratagem at the end of the third act of Il Trovatore in a Met performance. This act ends with the second of two high Cs, neither of which were written by Verdi but which are always interpolated. Penno managed the first of these, more or less on pitch. He wound up for the second like Cy Young faced with the winning run on third base, opened his mouth as wide as Hoboken, and emitted nothing. Not a sound, not even a belch, nothing came out. He looked like he’d forgotten to wear his Pampers. When the encore curtains opened, he didn’t appear. It was very poignant.

Nobody complains more about the high cost of doing business and the lack of government support than do those who run our opera companies. The Met used to moan that they lost $100,000 every time the curtain went up. This was the prelude to asking for money from both private and public givers. My solution to the problem was that they never raise the curtain. After all, both the audience and the performers rarely seemed to be paying much attention to what was supposed to be happening on stage. This way they could still sell tickets for a long intermission and only have to pay the ticket takers and the front office. They could continue to sell drinks and candy at inflated prices and make out like Willie Sutton. They could announce a long list of operas that would not be performed; e.g. “Next Thursday the Met will not perform Aida for the first time this season.” But like so many good ideas, this one was ignored.

The nation’s opera houses (and symphony orchestras) vociferously protested the cut in funding that the National Endowment for the Arts suffered during the last congressional session. They argued that the arts in this country receive almost no money from the government, unlike their European brethren. They are completely wrong. While the Met worries that a cut in NEA funding will not make its theater safe for $200 tickets [now around $360 each], the country’s arts administrators seem determined to ignore the huge government subsidy they have always gotten. America finds its charitable organizations differently from any country in the world. Rather than directly subsidizing its open companies, it indirectly funds them through tax forgiveness.

Roughly one third or more of the income of our opera companies (and symphonies and churches, etc.) is paid by the federal government via taxes that are not paid by donors or on income generated by the company itself. This allows individuals to determine how their tax dollars will be spent without creating an arts bureaucracy. So the next time you hear an arts organization petition for more federal (and state) support, tell them you’ll back them if they’ll give up their tax subsidy.

A couple of years ago, I attended the opening Robert Wilson’s Madama Butterfly at the Bastille Opera in Paris. Note I said Robert Wilson, not Giacomo Puccini. Wilson is the most notable exponent of a form of performance art that stages an event using as background music the works of Verdi or Puccini, etc. Wilson’s Butterfly had no sets to speak of, but took place in the middle of what seemed to be a Zen garden. The costumes bore no relationship to the garb of any country familiar to me. They looked most like the clothes worn by Marlon Brando as Jor El in the first Superman movie. The singers, yes there were singers, moved in a jerky gait that suggested they were in dire need of a chiropractor or a neurologist. Doubtless this stop-action behavior was supposed to have some deep significance, but I’m too superficial an observer to figure it out. There wasn’t much action anyhow because the singers spent most of their time looking into the audience as though hoping to find something out there more interesting than what was happening on stage. In the last act, Butterfly’s two year-old son was played by an eight year-old girl which made more sense than the rest of the action. At the opera’s end, Butterfly didn’t stab herself to death, she just toppled over, presumably from boredom.

In the second act, Butterfly has a false moment of triumph when she thinks her American husband has returned to her. Only a theatrical genius can mess it up; otherwise, no matter how big a hack the director is the audience always breaks into applause. I’ve listened to Madame Butterfly for 40 years and only once during that time prior to the Paris production had I seen a director screw up that moment. Hal Prince, the great American director, did it in Chicago. He directed an ersatz Kabuki version that was greeted with absolute silence. In Paris, Wilson’s audience made the Chicago crowd seem like a riot of blabbermouths.

Because there are no new operas that anyone wants to hear more than once, opera houses mount the same works over and over again. Freshness and novelty not coming from new works are sought from more and more distorted and bizarre versions of operas that have already had hundreds or even thousands of performances by the same company. Putting the directors on Haldol might help. Caveat emptor.

Originally published:
Kurtzman NA: Operatic Excerpts. Lubbock Magazine (Jan):32-33, 1997.