Opera: Grand Stage for Comedy of Trial and Arias
Oliver McBain’s story of the Tosca who jumped from a prison parapet in the last scene of Puccini’s opera (supposedly to her death) only to be bounced back into view by the hidden trampoline provided for her landing, has many lives.
Ridgely Allison Muller, who teaches a History of Opera class in the Torrance Adult Education program, writes that the story is always enjoyed by his students, whether apochryphal or not.
He encloses a page from the book “Great Opera Disasters,” by Hugh Vickers, which insists that this delightful incident really took place at the City Center in New York in 1960.
“Though it has a certain legendary quality,” Vickers says, “it did really happen.”
It was not an accident, he says, but a deliberate practical joke engineered by the stage crew, which despised the prima donna who sang Tosca. “What normally happens,” he says, “is that on her cry ‘ Scarpia devanti a Dio ' she hurls herself off (the battlements of Castel Sant’Angelo) and lands on a mattress 4 feet below.”
But the crew had replaced the mattress with a trampoline. “It is said,” Vickers says, “that she came up 15 times before the curtain fell--sometimes upside down, then the right way up, now laughing in delirious glee, now screaming with rage. . . .”
Delightful as the story is, I am skeptical. I doubt that a trampoline would bounce a prima donna to a height of more than 4 feet 15 times, even if she were a gymnast and deliberately helped. But it’s a wonderful story, and I choose to believe it happened.
As Muller says, “Regardless, it is a very funny happening and will continue to delight opera buffs for many a year. Puccini’s heroines suffer many tribulations. They all have their ups and downs, but none can top Tosca.”
Opera does seem vulnerable to the unexpected and the slapstick, possibly because of all the props, costuming, labyrinthine plots, heavy histrionics and pomposity. That banana peel is always underfoot.
Dirck Z. Meengs of Westlake Village recalls that Time magazine once credited Rise Stevens with “the outstanding operatic performance of the year” when, in the middle of a rousing aria in “Carmen,” the top of her costume fell off.
Fred A. Glienna of South Pasadena writes that “Tosca” is jinxed. Its lore is full of sopranos who bounce, electronic candles that light in the wrong order, curtains that crash down too soon.
Glienna also credits Vickers with the story of a stagehand who dyed and glued inflated beach balls to serve as a pyramidal stack of cannon balls in the final scene. “As Tosca raced up to the parapet she kicked the pile, which proceeded to disintegrate, bouncing balls down the steps, down the stage, and into the orchestra pit and audience.”
An even more horrible incident occurred (perhaps in San Francisco) when the producer hired a group of Berkeley students for the non-singing roles of the firing squad who are supposed to shoot Tosca’s betrayed lover, Cavaradossi. Rushed on stage without rehearsal, the soldiers had been told to fire on command and “exit with the principal.” Confronted by two principals instead of one, they guessed wrong and fired their blanks at Tosca. But Cavaradossi dutifully fell and Tosca climbed the parapet and leaped. One by one the soldiers followed her over the wall.
Perhaps the most famous story in opera lore concerns the swan car in “Lohengrin.” The tenor is supposed to leave the stage aboard the swan, but the swan is pulled offstage prematurely, and the tenor says, “What time does the next swan leave?”
Ib J. Melchior, son of the great Lauritz Melchior, writes that this line has not only been attributed to his father but to “every other heroic tenor that ever lived.”
But young Melchior believes his father is the author of another famous line. Melchior was singing in Hamburg with a Brunnhilde whose voice was less than adequate to that role. In one scene she enters either riding or leading a magnificent horse. Stage horses customarily are not fed before performances, for obvious reasons. In this case some stagehand had erred. In the middle of Brunnhilde ‘s aria, the horse raised its tail and committed a faux pas .
“There was an uneasy hush,” Melchior says, “broken when my father turned to the conductor, shrugged and said, “ Everyone is a critic!”
Isn’t opera grand?