Opera is an art-form put on by dramatic people for the drama-loving audience. With so much drama on all of its fronts, the opera theater is a fertile ground for urban legends and popular myths and superstitions. Aside from that (in)famous Scottish Opera based on its equally jinx-a-delic Scottish Play (we never utter the word “Macbeth” inside the auditorium, be it at the opera or at the playhouse. Doing so would require the cleansing ritual of three full body spins, an enthusiastic bout of cursing, a projectile spit and an exceedingly melodramatic round of begging in order to be allowed back inside the theater), one of the most accident/mishap-prone opera in standard repertoire today is Puccini’s audiences’ favorite, Tosca.
The story is based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 play, La Tosca, where the famous opera singer Floria Tosca tries in vain to keep her political insurgent artist lover, Mario Cavaradossi, from being executed at the hand of the power-hungry Baron Scarpia. Her pleas for Cavaradossi’s release countered by the Baron’s demand for the pleasure of her fleshy companionship, Tosca contrives to trick Scarpia into helping her fake her lover’s death. She obtained from him a release document before knifing him in a brief struggle only to find herself double-crossed when Cavaradossi was actually shot with real bullet in the supposed mocked execution. With all her escape routes barred when Scarpia’s body is discovered, Tosca runs up to the roof of the majestic Castel Sant’Angleo and jumps off it, escaping from life straight into operatic immortality.
The traditional staging requirements for live candles (in Scarpia’s Act II dark-ish study), physical struggle, stabbing, and shooting make Tosca a fertile ground for onstage accidents and mishaps of various degrees of severity. Much of the legends are unconfirmable now. There is a persistent legend of the bouncing Tosca, for one, where a particularly weighty Tosca jumps off the stage parapet and lands on a trampoline instead of a mattress, and finds herself bouncing back in view of the audience anywhere ranging from 3 or 4 times to 15 times, depending on who is telling the story. The identification of the unfortunate bobbling diva also seems to change with the teller of the story. Some say it was diva X and the other diva Y. Whoever the actual diva may be, she is most likely very pleased that she cannot not now be firmly associated with this legend.
There are also tales in which the newly recruited supernumeraries playing Scarpia’s soldiers are so unfamiliar with the opera’s plot that they end up shooting Tosca instead of Cavaradossi. And there is yet another tale in which the inexperienced extra soldiers, being thrown onto the stage with only the direction to “follow Tosca”, all jump off the castle’s parapet with her, ending the opera in a mass suicide instead of just one climatic one.
For the Tosca mishaps that definitely happened in real life, though, here are a few confirmed episodes:
In the 1920s one of the reigning Toscas at Metropolitan Opera in New York was the fiery Moravian soprano Maria Jeritza. She was such a committed singing actress that when she continued singing after having fallen to the floor during her scuffle with Scarpia, originating a tradition of Tosca singing her famous aria while lying on the floor. On one such physical performance of Tosca, however, it was the Scarpia of Antonio Scotti who found himself painfully deviated from the script when the prop dagger Jeritza stabbed him with failed to retract upon contact.
A certain amount of realism is demanded by the opera audience. So when the guns used in the execution scene in a Tosca performance at the Macerata Festival in the 1960s weren’t charged with enough gunpowder and failed to
bang properly, the local newspaper took revenge by headlining its review with “Cavaradossi dies of a heart attack!” So much for audience sophistication!
Nineteen sixty five was a particularly ill-lucked year for the well hexed opera. As Maria Callas tried to wrestle off Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia her long black wig caught fire from one of the candelabras, much to the horror of the audience. Luckily the quick-thinking Gobbi improvised a fight move on the spot and snuffled out the flame without missing a beat and Callas escaped without injury. A few months later in Rome tenor Gianni Raimondi wasn’t quite as lucky as his Cavaradossi was fired upon by an overcharged prop gun during the execution scene and suffered burn to his face.
Live fire on the stage was something that Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya was not used to when she started performing in the West in the 1970s. During a Tosca run at the Vienna State Opera Vishnevskaya’s insistence on using her own wig instead of the fire-retarded one furnished by the theater backfired when her tress was ignited by one of the candle. The diva kept on singing, evidently not realizing what had happened, and was shocked when the freshly murdered Scarpia jumped back into life and lunged at her along with the Cavaradossi (none other than one Placido Domingo), who wasn’t even supposed to be in the scene to begin with. The two colleagues successfully put the fire out as the curtain fell and Vishnevskaya suffered only minor burns to her scalp.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean Eva Marton was a big star at the Metropolitan Opera in the mid 80’s when in 1986 her Tosca took a vicious elbow blow to the jaws in her scuffle with off Juan Pons’ powerfully verismo Scarpia. Marton soldiered on and finished the show singing with dislocated jaws, earning much praise from the audiences and critics alike. Her Toscan plight was not finished, however, and she suffered another mishap on her final performance of the role at the Met in 1999 when the stage hands replaced the usual mattress she was to land on with an even softer one that was stuffed with feathers. The thing exploded on impact and covered Tosca with unbecomingly birdy tuffs, sticking to various parts of her costume and make up as she grudgingly made her way back onto the stage for her curtain calls.
At the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul in 1993 soprano Elisabeth Knighton Printy had a real fright she realized upon jumping off the stage platform that she wasn’t in the right spot where the mattress was placed on the ground to cushion her fall. Thirty feet straight down later the star of the show had knocked herself out of action for the rest of the run with two broken leg and many bruises.
A couple of years later the stars were aligned malevolently for tenor Fabio Armiliato as he commenced his performance as Cavaradossi at the Macerata Festival in 1995. One of the guns used in the execution scene was loaded with a bullet that wasn’t quite blank enough and the tenor was hit in the leg with its fragments. Determined to not let the incident faze him, Armiliato turned up to perform in the subsequent performance with the aid of crutches, which promptly broke under him along with his other leg, effectively knocking him out of the rest of the performances.
– Anne Edwards. Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography. St. Martin’s Press. New York. 2001.
– Andrew Gumbel. Tosca – Out With A Bang. Independent of London. 6 August 1995.
– Time Magazine. Music: Stage Dagger. 8 February 1937.
– Johanna Fiedler. Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Muisc at the Metropolitan Opera. Anchor Books 2003.