Classicalite's Five Worst: Operatic Disasters

By James Inverne on Aug 13, 2013 08:01 PM EDT

With three opera singers having fallen into the lake mid-performance at the Bregenz Festival in Austria this week (Bregenz is famous for its floating stage, as featured in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace), there are, of course, genuine reasons for the festival to review its safety procedures and thank heavens the singers are OK.

But there's also a funny side to the story. There almost always is with opera misadventures--something about the sheer heavens-defying scale of attempting to stage opera at all, about the fact that somehow it usually comes together and works against all the odds, means that the disasters are write similarly large. When it goes wrong, it goes wrong big time. Which leads to some gloriously outsize disasters.

Here, then, are Classicalite's Five Worst you'll never forget.

Revenge of the diva

The relationship between star singers and their conductors can be tricky when they disagree. Back in 1992, when Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé was starring in Rossini's Il viaggio a Rheims at Covent Garden, she threw an apple at the conductor Carlo Rizzi, prompting outrage from the pit and reportedly a letter from the Musicians' Union, which she read out to the audience at a later performance. There were headlines in the paper and much hilarity (though not, one imagines, in the corridors of the Royal Opera House). However, an alternative version of the story suggests that Caballé was playfully tossing the apple at Rizzi (rather than throwing it at him), and he took it in good part (though not, clearly, the MU). According to this version, on the last night of the run, Rizzi called out "Where's my apple?" and Caballé--true to the joke they had prepared between them--lifted her skirt to reveal a bunch of apples hanging.

Sliding down the stage No. 1, La vestale at Wexford

Spontini's La vestale isn't often performed, and it's a fair bet that it has never been performed quite as it was one unintentionally vertiginous night in 1979 at the Wexford Festival. As reported in Hugh Vickers's classic book Great Operatic Disasters, the steep rake of a stage had been over-zealously polished by the stagehands so that, during the performance, every chorus member, entering with the dignity befitting a great piece of operatic drama, slipped downwards. Some apparently managed to grip either onto a lone tree on the stage or onto limbs of colleagues who were themselves clinging to the tree. As Vickers described it, they "one by one shot gloriously down the stage to join their colleagues in a struggling heap at the footlights." The lead soprano, realizing the danger, kicked off her shoes and managed to stay upright. The punchline? The show's (very distinguished) designer Roger Butlin was listening to the opening night on the radio and, not having a clue about the farcical happenings on stage, was baffled as to why the live broadcast featured an audience apparently killing themselves with laughter.

Sliding down the stage No. 2, Trisan und Isolde at the Met

Valiant Gary Lehmann, who has had something of a career of creating triumphs from last-minute substitutions, had the understudy experience to end all understudy experiences in 2008. He was called in to save a Metropolitan Opera Tristan when Ben Heppner had to cry off, and apparently did very well on his first night. This despite his Isolde, poor Deborah Voigt, succumbing to her own urgent illness halfway through the love duet in Act II and having to dash offstage. There was a ten minute pause before a new Isolde took her place. But it was Lehmann's second night that provided the real hilarity, when the dying Tristan was lying on a mat in Act III. The mat, without warning, sledged down the sloped stage (yes, another one). He went, as the website Parterre Box (quoted by the The New Yorker at the time) put it, "sliding like a toboggan, headfirst upside down, right into the prompter's box." No wonder Tristan doesn't survive.

The demon menopause

Christa Ludwig, one of the finest mezzo sopranos of the last century, uncharacteristically cracked on the climactic high note to "Oh don fatale," Eboli's enormous and exposed showpiece aria in Verdi's Don Carlos. The occasion was the opening night of the Salzburg Festival under Herbert von Karajan, so it couldn't have been much higher profile. Ludwig was so mortified, she never sang the role again. In fact, this one isn't funny. But it is telling for what the writer Tamara Bernstein discovered when interviewing the singer for an article in the journal La Scena Musicale--that Ludwig had been suffering from the effects of menopause during the time, a condition that can affect many female singers, but which is seldom discussed.

"Exit with the principals"

Another anecdote from Hugo Vickers's book (really, a must read for connoisseurs of such things) details perhaps the funniest stage exit of all time (even more risible than the Tosca who jumped from the parapet only to hit a particularly springy hidden mattress and bounce back up). It was, again, in Puccini's Tosca and the local schoolchildren brought in to fill the uniforms of the pursuing guards at the very end had, in lieu of rehearsal, been hurriedly given the standard stage instruction, "exit with the principals." So, when they saw their Tosca leap from the parapet, they dutifully lined up. And as the curtain came down, the audience was treated to the sight of the soldiers, in an orderly line, leaping to their death one by one.

And a bonus!

We couldn't leave out what has become known on YouTube as "the drunk Carmen." The stalwart, respected tenor Alexei Steblianko went toe-to-toe with a visibly swaying Dragana Jugović del Monaco. Steblianko looks like he knows he's in trouble but sees it through like a good professional. As for his leading lady, well, you just have to watch...

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TagsJames Inverne, Classicalite's Five Worst, Bregenz Festival, Montserrat Caballé, Hugh Vickers, Great Operatic Disasters, Gary Lehmann, Christa Ludwig, Verdi, Puccini

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