Humorous Drama Incidents Some Opera

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lennygoran
Posts: 12862
Joined: Tue Mar 27, 2007 9:28 pm
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Humorous Drama Incidents Some Opera

Post by lennygoran » Sat Nov 25, 2017 6:50 am

This article appeared when I clicked on classical music in the NY Times-it contains some opera stories. He asked for permission and the paper gave it to him! Regards, Len


Oh, No! Live Drama and Unwritten Humor
[Dick Cavett]



Doesn’t it feel a bit too much as if we’re living in a time of plague?

Aren’t we in danger of overdosing on daily reports of our declining culture, menacing climate and unsavory president? Will you puh-leeze grant me your permission to write about something utterly other?

Thanks.

Recently saw a wonderful Off Broadway version of “The Elephant Man” at Gallery Players in Brooklyn. Great cast, especially M. Rowan Meyer, breathtakingly transformative in the title role, and Elisabeth Preston as a worthy and heartbreaking Mrs. Kendal. (Call the theater and beg them to reprise it!)

If it had a flaw, it’s that it didn’t: There wasn’t a hitch in it, and that put me in mind of a rich and wonderful field of humor in the arts that has gone largely uncollected and undocumented, and is not generally available to the public. Let’s call it the Performance Mishap.

You know the sort of thing: the blank gun in the play that fails to fire, the romantic kiss that transfers the mustache from his upper lip to hers, the “misspeak” that produces a perhaps unintended obscenity, or the wig that slips sideways and falls to roars of laughter. It’s one of the purest and most delightful forms of visual humor, with just the right amount of schadenfreude.

My dad taught English deep in the Sandhills country of Nebraska and staged the senior play as part of his $700-a-year salary. One year, a farmer’s burly son, who had protested that he didn’t want to be in “any sissy school play,” was browbeaten by his girlfriend into accepting a small part. He had to rush in, all excited, and with high emotion, yell, “I heard the pistol shot!”


The night of the performance, cued by a sound effect bang, he rushed in and shouted, “I heard the shistol pot! … I mean … I heard the postil shi … the shostil … Oh, hell! I didn’t want this part anyway!”

He stormed offstage, right through the audience and out the front door, and retired from his career as an actor.

Sometimes an onstage mishap produces a single sentence that deserves a measure of immortality. The actor Walter Slezak’s father, Leo, was a hugely popular opera singer in Europe but is most likely more remembered for an ad-lib.

In Austria, during a performance of “Lohengrin,” the “swan boat” that was to carry him offstage was sent out too soon. It crossed the stage and exited without him. Stranded, Mr. Slezak turned and called politely into the wings, “What time does the next swan leave?”

Actors live in dread of a certain bizarre mouth-and-brain trick that can involve but a single syllable. But oh, the cost.

In one example, the wonderful Morris Carnovsky, who worked with the Group Theatre in the 1930s, was playing King Lear in a version that had the king say, “I make you my beneficiaries. My repositories.”

Can you hear it coming?

The revered actor fell into the deadly trap lurking in “repositories” and gifted that night’s audience with (in his richest organ tones), “I make you my beneficiaries! My suppositories!”

“Oh, God! The hopeless feeling,” Mr. Carnovsky said to someone I knew who was also in the play. “Once I’d said ‘sup’ there was no going back, alas, and ‘positories’ had to follow. I tried frantically to think of anything else that begins with ‘sup’ that would work. My supplicants! My supper table! My suppleness! My Supp Hose stockings, my … something! Anything but ‘suppositories.’ I never said any word more reluctantly in my life.”

After curtain fall, he quickly posted a sign on his dressing room door: “Please. Don’t anyone say anything.”

Here is a story that actors love: In a tempestuous scene in a forgotten, hectic play, a Latina character goes for her pistol, screaming, as the script requires, “I keel you!” and shoots her lover. Or is supposed to. The blank gun clicked. And clicked. And failed to fire.

Cursing, the actress flung it to the ground and, in a marvelous display of quick-thinking improv, rushed at her target and thrust her knuckles into his cheek, shrieking, “So I keel you with my poison ring!”

An actor friend who witnessed this says whenever he thinks of it he still bursts into laughter, startling those around him.

He doesn’t dare go to funerals.

Sometimes an actor doesn’t have to say a word to make a statement. I’ve forgotten the Broadway play, but the set was a magical illusion. An artist’s apartment, top floor. A vast window upstage offered a totally convincing, trompe l’oeil view of Paris.

A lead actor shouted, “Au revoir!” and rushed to the door. Although others had sailed through it, it had somehow become stuck. It would not yield. Giggling in the audience began.

There was no other egress. He was livid. He uttered an unprintable word, kicked the hated door, went out the wide terrace window and, like an angry giant in a storybook, magically stomped away, across the rooftops and chimney-pots of Paris.

He was rewarded with booming applause.

“Macbeth” is usually referred to by actors as simply “the Scottish play.” It’s a euphemism used because of the long list of real tragedies and serious mishaps connected with the unlucky and superstition-riddled play. I know of at least one suicide during a performance, gruesomely committed with a table knife, by a cast member in the bushes outside the theater.

The following bit of ill luck is less dramatic.

At a 1950s West Coast Shakespeare festival, someone made a huge Human Resources gaffe and told a troublesome actor — before the curtain went up — that this would be his last performance, that he was being “let go.” Even though all of us should rise above it, ingenuity in getting even is a thing we secretly admire.

Picture the moment when Macbeth learns that his queen is no more. It was this actor’s character (Seyton) to whom embattled Macbeth directs the line, “Wherefore was that cry?” In Shakespeare’s words, Seyton’s dread news is invariably delivered with two pauses in three dramatic beats: “The queen … my lord … is dead.”

Instead, on this history-making night, the fired and spiteful actor took his revenge.

“The queen … my lord … is much, much better.”

I’m not sure he was allowed to live.

Same play, same scene, same character, different production. The TV director Joan Kugell told me how, in this case, the actor playing Seyton, instead of announcing the queen’s demise, astonished everyone — and himself — with: “The king … my lord … is dead.”

The actor could never account for this unwarranted gender switch. With the other actors stalled and at a loss, he feebly attempted some instant repair with a half-audible, “They, uh … got the queen, too.”


“Tosca” has compiled such a record of mishaps, accidents and serious injuries that it’s known as the “Macbeth” of the opera world. Its list of victims is impressive. Its producers should lay in a supply of Purple Hearts.

Even the great Maria Callas was a “Tosca” victim. One night, in a scene in which she handled lighted candles, she set her wig ablaze. Comedy ensued. The stretched-out corpse of a “dead” man, whom the audience had just seen murdered, leapt back to life and jumped up for volunteer firefighting duty. Luckily, it was only a one-alarm ignition without serious injury.

On one of my shows, Peter Ustinov recalled with delight a cherished performance of “Tosca” somewhere in Italy where, for once, no one got hurt. An ambitious new company had gone all-out to stage Tosca’s death memorably, with Tosca falling from a high tower, then out of sight behind a low wall (landing safely on a hidden trampoline).

The original Tosca had left the company. The night Mr. Ustinov was there was the debut night of the brand-new Tosca — a woman carrying more poundage than her predecessor.

One problem: No one had thought to adjust the trampoline’s tension setting accordingly. She plummeted from the heights, fell thrillingly a full 30 feet through the air and out of sight behind the low wall. She hit the trampoline dead center.

And reappeared, momentarily.

In another production of “Tosca” in 1995, the tenor Fabio Armiliato, as Cavaradossi, suffered shrapnel wounds to his leg when one of the guns used in the execution scene contained a bullet that wasn’t actually a full blank.

Heroically, he tried to go on in the next performance on crutches, but the crutches collapsed and he broke his other leg. (Don’t be ashamed. I laughed, too.)

The fine actor Lon Chaney Jr., star of “The Wolf Man” and Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” suffered one of the worst humiliations the gods ever visited on a living actor.

In the middle of the live broadcast of an early TV drama, a startling thing happened. All was going smoothly. In a violent scene — as he was supposed to — Mr. Chaney picked up the special breakaway chair to smash over another actor’s head.

But instead of delivering the blow as called for in the script, he inexplicably and gently placed the chair back on the floor, saying, to everyone’s horror, “We’ll save that for the show.”

They were near the end and someone wisely said, “Don’t tell him until it’s over.”

How did this happen?

On a long, hard day, Mr. Chaney, new to television, had thought that what was really the live broadcast was in fact only the final dress rehearsal. Hence, the “saved for the show” breakaway chair.

Upon learning what he had done, Mr. Chaney — such a disciplined and conscientious actor — said he wanted to die. Of course, it got wide and painful coverage. Mr. Chaney was said to be as close to suicide as it’s safe to get.

The playwright George S. Kaufman remembered what he called the “greatest ‘line reversal’ of my lifetime.”

He liked to drop in on Broadway shows he had directed to, as he put it, “just check on them and take out the ‘improvements.’ ” He was eternally grateful to have caught one performance when he heard an actor commit the gem.

It ran: “Her breath would take your beauty away.” He kept the line framed on his desk ever afterward.

On a beatific summer day in Stratford, Conn., inside the giant American Shakespeare Theater, the audience was enjoying the sturm und drang of a thrilling production of “Julius Caesar.”

To add further drama to the moment when Caesar is assassinated, the director had opted to borrow the director Akira Kurosawa’s invention: the eerie slow-motion death. The effect was chilling.

The audience was rapt, so realistic and spooky it was, with everyone’s blood-smeared white robes, the trick dagger blades seemingly penetrating Caesar, his body sinking slowly to the ground. That’s when it happened.

BRINNGGG!

Just at the moment when Caesar’s crimsoned corpse settled on the stage came the strident, ripping sound of the stage manager’s normally muted backstage telephone. Everyone, onstage and off, froze.

The only sound was another BRRINNGG, prompting the actor Joe Maher, playing a murderer, to state, full voice, “I hope it’s not for Caesar.”

There are a million more such tales, but bringing all this home, my own personal favorite is one from my father.

He loved quoting lines from Shakespeare to his Nebraska high school English classes. He came home from school one day, somewhat abashed. I had to pry out of him what had happened.

“Macbeth” had struck again. Lady Macbeth, trying to buck up her husband’s nerve, commands, “Screw your courage to the sticking place …” which A. B. Cavett had the ill luck to render aloud as, “Stick your courage to the screwing place.”

The kids loved it.

Former students reminded him about it for years. He’d say, “At least I’m remembered for something.”




https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/24/opin ... collection

barney
Posts: 2661
Joined: Fri Aug 01, 2008 11:12 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia

Re: Humorous Drama Incidents Some Opera

Post by barney » Sun Nov 26, 2017 8:21 am

Thanks for posting this. An essential bookshelf item for all CMGers is Great Operatic Disasters by Hugh Vickers. Does anyone not have this? I can always repost a couple of anecdotes!

lennygoran
Posts: 12862
Joined: Tue Mar 27, 2007 9:28 pm
Location: new york city

Re: Humorous Drama Incidents Some Opera

Post by lennygoran » Sun Nov 26, 2017 8:31 am

barney wrote:
Sun Nov 26, 2017 8:21 am
Thanks for posting this. An essential bookshelf item for all CMGers is Great Operatic Disasters by Hugh Vickers. Does anyone not have this? I can always repost a couple of anecdotes!
Barney please don't go to any trouble for me but I don't have it. Regards, Len

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