Posts Tagged ‘Opera’
The performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in Chicago’s Civic Opera House on the night of November 17th 1955 was an unscheduled one. After two rapturous performances, the great soprano Maria Callas was asked to give one final show, and it was a triumph. But the real drama came only when the opera was over. U.S. Marshal Stanley Pringle (foreground in photo above) and Deputy Sheriff Dan Smith burst into Callas’s dressing room and served her with court summons for a breach of contract. Callas, still in titular Cio-Cio-San’s kimono, was furious; she proclaimed, “I will not be sued! I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me.”
The moment was immortalized in an iconic photo of Callas, her black eyes aflare with hatred, her mouth curled up with fury. The press dubbed her “The Tigress” from that day onward. She vowed never to return to Chicago. This was just one of many melodramatic episodes for La Callas, who lived an operatic life both on- and off-stage. Born to Greek immigrant parents in New York City, Callas possessed a vocal range that made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works, and changed the operatic repertoire for generations to come.
But frequently ill (probably due to her earlier rapid weightloss), Callas had disputes and lawsuits with many a grand operatic stage. On the opening night of Rome season in 1958, she famously walked off after the first act of Bellini’s Norma; the temperamental diva had no understudy and left the President of Italy and most of Rome’s high society in attendance shocked and outraged, for which she was savaged in the Italian press. *
Her career was slowly declining by then; her imperial stature meant that she was still enthusiastically welcomed by the audience, but she herself knew her voice was faltering. After a less-than-adequate season in 1964, she abandoned her signature role of Norma. The next year, she gave up a more relaxing role in Tosca for good. Her last tour after a long retirement in 1973 was not critically well-received. Afterwards, holed up in her Paris apartment, she would spend many a sleepless night with her old recordings, listening to the Voice that had now left her, and died a loner four years later, unable to forgive the world that had forgotten her. She was 53.
* Typo corrected. I got more emails and DM tweets for this than any other grammar mistake or malapropism I used on this blog in last three years.
“The Critic” is probably Weegee’s most famous image, and certainly his most widely published. The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera in 1943 was the Diamond Jubilee occasion to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company. Although Weegee claimed that he “discovered” the shabby woman viewing the opera patrons on the right only after the negative had been developed, the truth was that he staged this photo.
Weegee has been planning this photograph for a while. Weegee’s assistant picked up an intoxicated woman from a bar. As Mrs. George Washington Kavenaugh and Lady Decies — generous benefactors to numerous cultural institutions in New York and Philadelphia — arrived, the assistant released the drunk woman into the vicinity. Weegee claimed he took this picture in a wartime black-out but his incredulous editor refused to use it. Weegee cropped the image and took it to LIFE magazine printed with the caption, “The plain people waited in line for hours to get standing room, listened intently and, as always, showed better musical manners than the people sitting in boxes.” This contrast of images, the rich with the jewels, and the well-mannered “plain people” was exactly what Weegee was striving for in all of his photography. The incongruence of life, between the rich and poor, the victims and the rescued, the murdered and the living – his photographs had the ability to make us all eyewitnesses and voyeurs. The first time the photo appeared with the actual title, “The Critic,” was in Weegee’s own book, The Naked City. The photo became so famous that the book was brought by Hollywood for a movie of the same name.
The photograph was quickly discovered by the Nazis and alleged used as propaganda; underneath the image were the words, “GIs, is this what you’re fighting for?”
(In case you were wondering, the opening opera that night was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The horse in the fourth act nearly ran away with the tenor as he bravely sang on).