Category Archives: opera anecdotes

Verdi zings a ‘Great Critic’

Priti Gandhi as Inez (left) and Paoletta Marrocu as Leonora in the San Diego Opera production of Verdi's 'Il Trovatore'. Photo © 2007 Ken Howard

Verdi lore has it that A Great Critic visited Verdi as he was finishing Il Trovatore. (We all know and LOVE the Great Critics.)

Verdi played him the Anvil Chorus: “What do you think?”

“Garbage,” said the Great Critic, which he had to say because he only had an ear for the finest music.

“How about this?” Verdi said, playing the Miserere just for his fine ears.

“Uh! That is foul,” the Great Critic said for he could only accept the most refined art.

“One last test,” said Verdi, playing the tenor’s signature aria, “Di quella pira.”

“Awful,” said the Great Critic, scoffing.

Verdi rose from the piano, took the Critic  in his arms and hugged him out of sheer joy.

“What did you do that for?” asked the Great Critic.

Verdi told him, “I have been writing an opera for the people. Not for purists and classicists like you. In fact, if you liked this music, no one else would. Now I know that in three months, Il Trovatore will be sung, whistled and played all over Italy.”

— adapted from Opera Anecdotes, 1985

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Filed under Classical Composers, Opera and humor, opera anecdotes, Uncategorized

opera and premonition

Have you ever had a premonition? A presentiment of the future of the foreboding variety?   

I had one once when I was 19. While in the midst of a busy day acting and singing, I was overtaken that something bad had happened to my mother. I was studying performing arts in New York City at the time and about three hours from home. The next day, sure enough, I got a call from my sister that my mother had had a stroke and had been taken to the intensive care unit of the hospital where she was as likely to die as live.   

What is so striking about this premonition is that I’d never had one before. I wish I could describe it– like a pall I couldn’t shake until the reality of the premonition coming true jars you out of it. And my mother had rarely been sick when I was younger, so believe me, a seemingly healthy fifty-two year old suffering a stroke wasn’t anything anyone could have predicted.   

This week in opera history, Bizet will die on June 3,  1875, just outside of Paris at only36 years of age–of heart failure. While Bizet’s death at an early age is common knowledge, what you might not know is that the leading lady who premiered the role of Carmen had a premonition of Bizet’s death. When I read about the incident, I could well relate to how she must have felt.   

Celestine Galli-marie, who originated the role of Carmen

Parisian born mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié whose crowning operatic achievement was creating the role of Carmen became close to Bizet over the months of rehearsal. Only months after the show opened at the Opéra Comique in Paris, on the thirty-first performance, she arrived at the theater inexplicably anxious. In the third act, after Carmen foresees her own death in the “Card Trio,” she collapsed backstage. Not because something happened to her but because she knew “something dreadful” had happened elsewhere. The next day she learned that Bizet had died the night before.   

Galli-Marié was a difficult performer. Though she hardly originated the prototypical opera diva, she certainly was a standard bearer for the stereotype. Apparently she made Bizet rewrite the “Habanera” thirteen times until it passed muster. Perhaps if she hadn’t made him work so hard, he would have lived longer.   

So what causes these premonitions, do you think? According to one site I consulted, premonitions are attributed to the existence of paranormal capabilities and are thought to be “another fragment of the psychic abilities that everybody has, but not everybody may be in tune to applying.” Apparently, the most common method to receive a premonition is by way of a dreams, the rationale being that dreams provides us with knowledge our conscious mind does not.   

Neither Galli-Marié’s nor my premonition came via a dream. Have you ever had a premonition? Do you know of any other true-to-life opera premonitions?

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Filed under Classic Opera, Classical Composers, opera anecdotes, Performers, Premieres

a tale Godunov to share–the Chevy Chase of basses?

Tonight, I went to opening night at Berks Jazz Fest. At the gala before the show, I was talking with a veteran local musician, now a senior citizen, who had seen Boris Godunov at the Met decades ago.

“It starred a Finnish bass,” he explained but not remembering the name. “This singer was unusual because during the death scene, he didn’t just slump over in his chair like most Godunov’s. I remember he actually tumbled out of it.”

The death scene is dramatic and draining and to combine the equivalent of a pratfall in the scene sounded like a killer punishment to the body–over time.

I got home and within minutes on the computer, I googled Finnish bass and Godunov and found (drumroll, please) this video of Martti Talvela just about killing himself in this scene–definitely punishing his body. When he dies, he hits the floor,straight on, like dead weight. And yet he performed the role of Boris Godunov 39 times between 1974 and 1987, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which is why I referred to him as the Chevy Chase of opera. Not because Talvela was funny, but because he inflicted so much punishment on his body while on stage. Sadly, he died young, at only age 54 in 1989.

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Filed under North American Opera, opera anecdotes, Performers