Opera Anecdotes

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini

For some reason, Tosca seems to be to opera what Macbeth is to theatre — somewhat cursed. There are probably more anecdotes about things going wrong in performances of Tosca than in any other opera. Here are a few.

The tale of the bouncing Tosca: This supposedly occurred at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and involved a British soprano. As Tosca, she was supposed to leap to her death from the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo. Usually, the actress lands on a mattress. But the stage workers had thoughtfully improved her safety by replacing the mattress with a trampoline: the result was that Tosca appeared two or three times from behind the wall. (Another version describes this as an act of revenge for troublesome behavior by the soprano.) Eva Turner has admitted to being that Tosca, in a TV special hosted by Robert Merrill in which he interviewed some of the greatest Toscas of the century, including Eva Turner, Grace Bumbry, Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Ljuba Welitsch and Birgit Nilsson, among others.

The collective suicide after shooting the wrong principal: Another delightful, but probably apocryphal, anecdote is the one which allegedly happened at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco – to the same “Bouncing Tosca” from Chicago.

The firing squad were played by supernumeraries who received last minute instruction to shoot the person they found onstage, and then to exit with the principals. However, When they got onstage, they discovered there were two people there instead of one. Not knowing which one to shoot, they wavered back and forth a bit as both principals said not to shoot them. They finally settled on Tosca, shot her, and looked bewildered when Mario keeled over dead. They also did not leave, since they were told to exit with the principals – and neither of the principals were exiting. Tosca made some gestures to shoo them away, but they remained onstage until Spoletta came in with the soldiers. When Tosca jumped from the parapet, they saw their chance to finally exit with at least one of the principals, and jumped down after her, giving a Shakespearean greatness to the final tragedy.

Soprano Renata Tebaldi, considered by many to be one of the best Toscas ever, was famous for her melodramatic cries in the final scenes. Once, in Tokyo, she decided not to jump for the final suicide, but chose instead to exit by the quinte, walking among the astonished policemen as only a diva could.

Famous baritone Tito Gobbi, a very original Scarpia, recalled a prima, or premiere, with Maria Callas, in which he had to improvise to save the diva in Act II. While he was on the floor, having just been killed, he realised that Callas was walking around the stage unable to find her way out. She had severe myopia and, while she could wear glasses during rehearsal, her eyes would not tolerate contact lenses. Gobbi tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so intensely that both his laughing and his pointing were seen by the audience. The morning after, the newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death throes. In other performances, he was able to whisper directions to her so that she could make a satisfactory exit.

In 1964, at London’s Royal Opera House, Tito Gobbi was again with Callas. As he recounts in his autobiography, during a dress rehearsal of the duet in Act II, Callas moved close to the table, not realising that she was getting too close to the candles. Soon smoke could be seen coming from her wig. Gobbi pretended to attempt to embrace her, as he did so closing his hands over the fire in her hair. Not at first understanding what he was doing, Callas stared at him with a perplexed expression, so Gobbi extended his burnt hand very near to her face and then pointed to the candles. Callas interpolated her own “grazie, Tito.”

Gobbi also paid tribute to the ferocity of Callas’ acting in this role, noting that he was often afraid during their performances that she really would kill him in Act II. She very nearly did so, when the knife she was using failed to retract. Gobbi was cut, but not severely hurt, and with a cry of “My God!” went right on with his death scene.

4 comments on “Opera Anecdotes

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Turner didn’t sing Tosca in Chicago. I cannot remember whether she specified the location where this supposedly happened to her, but I have heard at least one interview in which she said it was her. She sang many many performances around Great Britain between 1915 and 1924 and the bouncing Tosca may have been during that period.

  2. Jim Van Sant says:

    Lisa – It may interest you and others here that Eleanor Steber once told me the “original”
    bouncing Tosca was Lily Djanel, 1938 at Havana. Eleanor did not tell me where she got the
    information, but she was adamant it all started there. I can’t add much except to say that
    it could well have happened in various venues at various times since the early 20th C.
    It is such an obvious kind of thing to expect to happen. As for Steber — she too had a
    problem at the end of Act III — someone had moved the mattress/cushions and Steber
    landed on the hard Met floor and broke off a front tooth!
    Turner, BTW, has to be taken with great caution! She had big time ego needs and
    a quite fanciful imagination.
    Best to you,
    Jim/Santa Fe

  3. Stewart Spencer says:

    According to Linda Esther Gray’s biography of Dame Eva Turner, the incident took place at the Alexandra Theatre in Hull in the north of England in the early 1920s. Dame Eva also recalled the episode in Desert Island Discs on British Radio in 1982.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Jim, yeah – Turner lied about the number of Turandot performances she sang (claiming 200 when it was around 75) and misled people about the degree of her success at La Scala. A surprising number of people swallowed the La Scala story. She sang all of 5 performances there!

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