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A STAGE so ripe for chaos as grand opera certainly deserves more than a single mention ( In fact, there are those who say, with complete accuracy, that onstage and backstage operatic disasters could support a website of their own.

What’s more, today is Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday! So here’s Opera Chaos, Act II.


A charming collection: Even Greater Operatic Disasters, by Hugh Vickers, illustrated by Michael ffolkes, Jill Norman & Hobhouse, 1982. See also Great Operatic Disasters. They’re listed at both and

In Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, this court jester to the licentious Duke of Mantua is mocked by courtiers for his deformity, a hunchback. I suppose in these PC days, it would be termed kyphosis (from the Greek, κυφος, kyphos: hump). However, it just wouldn’t be the same for Marty Feldman’s character Igor in Young Frankenstein to look us in the (goggle) eye and say, “Which kyphosis?”

But I digress.


Humps vary from era to era, and Giuseppe De Luca’s Rigoletto, circa 1920, was one of the more memorable. Image by Herman Mishkin.

A Rigoletto production at L’Opera, Paris, 1954, is recounted in Hugh Vickers wonderful first book. At the key moment when courtiers are mocking him, Rigoletto has a dreadful wardrobe malfunction—his hump begins to slip downward.

As he sings a dramatic damn-the-courtiers aria, the audience sees Rigoletto transformed from a pathos-inducing hunchback into simply a guy with a big butt.

Opera seldom gets better than this.

Or maybe it does. There’s always Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which has a sense of absurdity in the best of times. For proof of this, see Anna Russell’s wonderful analysis (

Vickers recalls one production where Brünnhilde rendered herself temporarily sightless by donning her helmet the wrong way around.

Then there was an entry of Wotan, chief of the gods resplendent in an enormous cloak. The audience tittered, then guffawed. Visible to them, but not Wotan, was a fluffy, pink coat-hanger caught on the cloak.

Or the classic, twice-told tale of another Wagner opera, Lohengrin. A boat pulled by swans transports heldentenor Lohengrin onto and off of the stage several times—a setting ripe for operatic chaos.


This is what Richard Wagner (Happy Birthday!!) had in mind for a swan boat. See for other Wagnerian staging.

And so, at a Metropolitan Opera production in 1936, Lauritz Melchior sang his grand last note at the end of the opera. The swan boat arrived on cue amid orchestral richness—but pulled out before Melchior had a chance to get aboard.

Melchior faced the audience and said, “Wenn geht der nächste Schwann?”

He was quoting tenor Leo Slezak, who had been caught in the same predicament 30 years before. Leo’s son, actor Walter Slezak, wrote a family biography titled “What Time’s the Next Swan?”

Let’s conclude with a return to the Ring Cycle, specifically Götterdämmerung, its last of four—and of 15 hours. Peter Ustinov reports an occurrence at Hamburg Opera in the most solemn portion of Act III.

Siegfried, the hero of the last two operas of the cycle, lies dead on his bier. Two supernuminaries enter solemnly to remove the bier. Each picks up an end—but facing one another. No, this won’t work.

They set the bier down. Each turns outward and picks it up again.

No, this won’t work either.

They finally get it right. Ustinov observes that not all of Wagner’s genius, nor all of the supers’ solemnity, could prevent the audience from producing a gale of laughter followed by a storm of applause. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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