Behind the opera’s velvet curtains, even the castrati were at it

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Behind the opera’s velvet curtains, even the castrati were at it

Post by lennygoran » Sun Aug 18, 2019 5:32 am

Behind the opera’s velvet curtains, even the castrati were at it--After Placido Domingo’s #MeToo moment, Alexandra Wilson charts the history of an art form powered by egos and libidos

Love, lust and their devastating consequences have been the lifeblood of opera throughout the art form’s 400-year history. Composers have been drawn repeatedly to lovers behaving badly.

Monteverdi started the trend in 1643, revelling in the ecstatic triumph of the Emperor Nero and his mistress in L’incoronazione di Poppea. In 1995 Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face staged the exploits of the “Dirty Duchess”, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Classic FM deemed its depiction of fellatio too racy to broadcast.

The Italian verismo movement (1890-1920) turned the sexual heat up to the max, its lurid “tabloid operas” featuring prostitutes (Giordano’s Mala vita) and femmes fatales (Cilea’s L’arlesiana). Love triangles were par for the course (Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Puccini’s Il tabarro). Puccini’s Tosca depicted in Scarpia a sexual predator whose actions have suddenly taken on a certain topicality in the #MeToo era.

Last week’s allegations against the tenor-turned-baritone and conductor Placido Domingo, accused by several women of sexual harassment, remind us that many of the men involved in the opera world have hardly been saints.

Even Verdi, one of the most uxorious composers when his wife was alive, created a scandal by living in sin with the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, the mother of several illegitimate children, before marrying her. In Germany, the married Wagner fell passionately in love with the wives of both his patron Otto Wesendonck and the leading conductor Hans von Bülow. It is probably best to pass quickly over Wagner’s fetish for wearing silk underwear.

Puccini embarked on a relationship with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani, fathered a son and eventually married her after her husband died. But Puccini would torment Elvira by having countless liaisons with lovers dotted around Europe. Things turned nasty when the jealous Elvira accused her husband of an affair with their maid, Doria Manfredi, driving the girl to suicide. An autopsy revealed she was a virgin and recently discovered documents suggest Puccini was actually having a fling with her cousin.

As for singers, even the castrati of the 18th century — castrated as boys to preserve their unbroken voices — were notorious ladies’ men. The 19th-century Italian tenor Mario, exiled to Paris for revolutionary activity, shacked up with the equally famous singer Giulia Grisi. It goes without saying that she already had a husband.

John Braham, a noted British tenor, cheated on his common-law wife Nancy Storace (the first Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro) and impregnated the wife of a sailor, who sued. Braham’s defence was that he should not have allowed his wife to fraternise with theatrical types in the first place.

In 1906, Enrico Caruso — then the most famous singer in the world — was taken to court for groping a woman in the monkey house at Central Park Zoo in New York. He was fined $10. Caruso protested his innocence but didn’t challenge the verdict for fear of further bad publicity.

A couple of years later the tenor’s domestic life fell apart when the mother of his two sons, the (married) soprano Ada Giachetti, sick of his affairs, ran away with the chauffeur. Caruso pursued a decade of womanising before settling into calm domesticity with the socialite Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1918, only to die three years later.

It seems all three of the Three Tenors had an eye for the ladies. Ron Howard’s recent documentary about Luciano Pavarotti brought to light his lengthy affair with the soprano Madelyn Renée. His second marriage was to his personal assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani. Jose Carreras would eventually marry a long-term mistress.

The intensity of theatrical life, months away from home, over-sized egos: all have enabled the most successful of operatic men to enjoy considerable sexual freedoms.

Most relationships were consensual, although the opera world, like Hollywood, doubtless has its darker side.

The conductor James Levine, for example, New York Metropolitan Opera’s musical director for 40 years until 2016, was sacked after claims of sexual misconduct. His lawsuit for wrongful dismissal was settled out of court this month. No criminal proceedings have been brought against him to date; what will happen in the light of the Domingo revelations remains to be seen.

Alexandra Wilson is professor of music and cultural history at Oxford Brookes University and the author of Opera in the Jazz Age: Cultural Politics in 1920s Britain (Oxford University Press) ... -bklt8ksms

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