Great (Funny) Moments In Opera: Bloopers and Blunders and Goofs - Oh, My!
When I think "Opera", in all it's lush and elegant splendor, the first one that come to mind is Verdi's Aida. For sheer dramatic spectacle, the grand operas can't be beat.
One of the interesting things about directing for the Opera though, is that the director rarely has any control over who is cast in any of the roles. Unlike the theater, where the director's word is usually final, even the opera chorus often auditions and is hired for the complete season without ever being seen by the director for whom they will work. The lead roles are usually contracted well in advance of the engagement of the directors for the individual operas.
The primary focus of the opera director is to stage the scenes as effectively and beautifully and dramatically as they possibly can. This means working closely with the designers and musical director, as well as the conductor, but unless your leads, the stars of the opera, are interested in flexing their acting muscles, most of your contribution to the mood or tension of a scene will be to try and shape the action towards whatever end you are trying to achieve.
Given the peculiarities and demands of the opera world, there is still much a good director can do to shape a production. Sometimes though, with all the best intentions in the world, things go awry.
I am an opera lover, and for many years held season tickets. I
love the music and the drama, the lush costumes and the marvelous
singing. I also love some of the "great moments" in opera it has been my privilege to witness - those unguarded, unplanned, unwittingly delightful moments when planets collide and the very gods conspire to force things ever so slightly adrift.
One of my favorite "great moments" occurred at a performance of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman. During the first section of that work, the first of the tales, an evil magician takes control of the requisite lovely young damsel, forcing her to sing and sing, almost to her death.
In this particular production, the entrance of the evil wizard into the young woman's "salon" was heralded by a green tinged light provided with great precision by a follow-spot operator high up in the lighting grid. Every entrance, right on cue, the full, basso tones of the wizard would ring out and "poof!" there he was lit up in all his evil glory by the green light from on high.
The light and wizard worked in perfect partnership until near the end of the tale. Then, on his last entrance, his music welled up, the basso voice rang out, light snapped on...but the evil wizard was nowhere to be seen The green pool stood empty.
We watched in fascination and listened as the voice moved across the stage behind the black drapes, the masking that outlined the boundaries of the onstage "salon". As the music continued unabated, the evil tones grew slightly muffled, only the occasional billowing of the draperies reflecting the singer's progress towards the downstage entrance.
The green light remained steadfastly at the lower doorway for several long moments. Then it wavered, dimmed, and was suddenly extinguished. The voice continued to move along behind the curtains growing louder as it neared the entrance. The light snapped back on, but still there was no evil magician to bask in its glow.
The light dimmed once again, but this time it began to track slowly across the stage, nuzzling along the edge of the black draperies, a faithful green glow in search of its evil owner. We were enchanted.
The magician's voice grew faint for a moment, then suddenly rang out from the upstage entrance. The faithful glow whipped across the stage to burst forth in all its fulgent glory, reunited once again with its evil master. We were so happy for the faithful little follow-spot we almost burst into cheers for it. Some of us shamelessly applauded.
My second favorite moment took place during the famous cantina scene in a production of Bizet's Carmen. The diva playing Carmen was wonderful - full of fire and passion. The Captain of the Guard had been a less felicitous piece of casting. To be sure, he was a talented singer, but he was a good head shorter than his leading lady, even in his platform boots.
To top it all off, the costume designer had been quite naughty. He had outfitted the Guardsmen in quite natty yellow and white uniforms with lots a snazzy black frogging and fancy plumed shakos. The stalwart young soldiers looked broad-shouldered and dashing to a man...well, almost to a man.
Unfortunately, the Captain of the Guard was also a tad rotund. To be completely truthful, he was quite egg-shaped, so the costume was less than flattering, especially the way the jacket tails stuck out in the back like a tail, almost...and the platform boots did lend his walk the tiniest bit of a waddle.
My friend, no respecter of anyone's dignity, leaned over and breathed in my ear, "Good God, the poor man looks like a blessed penguin." Somehow, we made it to the cantina scene without being ejected from the theater, but it was touch and go a couple of times.
Then disaster struck. The director had allowed the staging to get completely out of hand. The passionate Carmen rejected the Captain's advances, he pulled her to him, she slapped him away, and he grabbed her. Then he pulled her to the floor and flung himself down on top of her, all the while singing at the top of his lungs.
I could no longer contain myself. Weeping with barely suppressed mirth I slumped down in my seat, shoulders shaking. "Someone save that poor woman," my friend wheezed in my ear. "She's being attacked by a lust crazed penguin!"
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Another of my favorite "greatest moments" took place during an otherwise unremarkable production of Otello. Othello had just strangled his beloved wife, and was mourning her loss. There she lay, across the massive, scarlet draped bed in her virginal white shift, her poor dead head with its tousled mane of black curls dropped back over the end of the bed, her silent face upturned towards the audience.
Whoever staged the scene had done their homework. The lush, opulent, scarlet draperies in stark contrast to the snowy pillows - the body splayed across the blood-red velvet coverlet. Here was a fan of classical depictions of this tragic scene, much like the painting by Alexandre-Marie Colin.
Except Colin's Desdemona was a damsel of sylphlike proportions. Our Desdemona was a well-endowed soprano of heroic girth, her bosoms barely restrained by the chaste white robe that looked far too flimsy to contain its burden of abundance.
She had been staged with her head and upper torso hanging over the end of the bed towards the audience, arms up-flung over her head. We could only watch with a growing, horrified fascination as she slid fractionally closer, all the while her bodice strained to its utmost by gravity-encouraged flesh. Should those straps give way, the woman would be propelled off the end of the bed and into the audience by the sheer downward thrust of her suddenly released pulchritude.
We prayed that her undies would outlast Othello's aria. The mighty melons were slowly sliding from their bondage. I must admit I admired the woman's fortitude. I am sure she could feel her bosom's fatal slide, but she turned not a hair, nor lifted one finger to forestall her immodest exposure.
It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. No one paid the least regard to poor old Othello's anguish, we were all riveted by Desdemona's predicament.
After what seemed the longest recrimination in operatic history - Desdemona was slightly more than half off the bed, nearly doing a head stand on the floor, and one nipple was almost fully exposed - the chamber door was indeed flung open, and, to our great relief, Desdemona was covered, mourned,and trundled away before anything else untoward could occur.
The last "greatest moment" I will share with you occurred in the production my friend and I refer to, to this day, as Penguin Carmen.
Every grand opera has at least one breathtaking curtain riser (tableau), or one amazing procession, and Carmen is no different. The Fourth Act processional entrance into the Bull Rings to the martial strains of "The March of the Toreadors" is that big moment where the director pulls out all the stops. Every actor, singer, and extra available is pressed into service and no expense is spared to wring that "Oooh, Aaah!" from the audience that is so sweet to a director's ears.
As it usually also signifies good box office, it is also music to the Artistic Director's ears.
First came the Picadors, proudly strutting across the stage. Reaching center, they wheeled smartly and marched upstage towards the grand arched "entrance" into the bull ring. Then came the Toreadors, phalanx on phalanx of men and women, beautifully costumed and marching in perfect step followed them across the stage and up the center of the stage towards the arch.
Then came the Matadors, resplendent in their Suits of Lights and dazzling capes. Following them, the proud horsemen - yes, Virginia, real horses - gorgeously caparisoned, proudly tossing silken manes as they too proceeded across the front of the stage to wheel smartly and vanish through the upstage arch.
We all applauded when the horses paced proudly by, but they were far too late to salvage the "Oooh Aaah!" moment for this production. Mischance had already seen to that.
One of the lighting cues had not run properly and there were still a few floor lights burning upstage behind the scrim that served as the facade of the bull ring, rendering it semi-transparent - just enough that those of us who were fortunately seated, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, could see what went on behind it as each phalanx and rank of bodies passed from sight (they thought).
All we could clearly make out was a cartoon-like mass of flailing arms and legs as each bunch rounded the corner, throwing down their lances and gear, stripping off helmets, jackets, cloaks and all manner of clothing, and then running like the wind to grab their next costume and catch up with the tail end of the procession so they could reappear on stage as the next, different bunch of "-adors" (Pic-adors, Mat-adors, Tor-e-adors).
The audience was clearly split into two parts in this show. Those who could not see what was going on staunchly applauded each "new" phalanx of bull fighters or soldiers, and wondered why the rest of us were giggling so hard.
As one treated to the silhouette Speedy Gonzales-style strip tease, I cannot hear the martial tones of The March of The Toreadors without recalling how much amusement that particular production brought us. Who says opera is serious business?
I shall save the stories of the disembodied stagehand and the rifle in the roses for another time.