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IT’S TIME to approach once more the “razor edge of absurdity” that constitutes opera. This time around, I’m tapping an entertaining book, Opera Anecdotes by Ethan Mordden, and other gossip concerning Giacomo Puccini—car guy.
Mordden’s collection of anecdotes range from adventurous (Caruso at the San Francisco earthquake) to heartbreaking (von Bülow and his ex-wife, now Richard Wagner’s) to zany (Toscanini’s view on Wagnerian pacing).
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, San Francisco was hit by a 7.8 earthquake leading to devastating fires. Enrico Caruso was in town with a touring company of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and he fled his Palace Hotel room with a single item—an inscribed photograph of Theodore Roosevelt.
No one knows why Caruso chose this particular object, received backstage from the president in Washington, D.C., earlier in the tour. It proved useful in the chaos that followed the earthquake: The photo’s inscription affirmed Caruso’s identity; its Teddy Roosevelt signature certainly offered a great character reference.
Caruso slept outdoors that night. Mordden quotes the great tenor as saying, “ ’ell of a place—I never come back here.”
He never did.
The conductor Hans von Bülow helped establish the operatic success of fellow German Richard Wagner. In return, Wagner stole von Bülow’s wife, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt. Wagner was 55 at the time; Cosima was 31. While still married to von Bülow, she conceived Wagner’s child.
Mordden cites this relationship in touching terms. “Perhaps he [von Bülow] understood, somehow, that Wagner and Cosima were destined to make an extraordinary, an artistically necessary, couple.”
“I forgive,” von Bülow was to have said to Cosima.
“One must not forgive,” replied Cosima, “One must understand.”
On a completely different note, the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was attending a Bruno Walter rehearsal of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolda in Salzburg, Austria. This Wagner love story, even by Wagnerian standards, has some duets of mutual devotion that are of stultifying length.
After one, Toscanini said to a friend, “If they were Italians, they would already have had seven children. But, see, they’re Germans: They’re still talking it over.”
Ivan Berger offered information on today’s last bit of operatic gossip—namely that opera composer Giacomo Puccini was a car guy. In fact, he may well have invented the SUV, as well as La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly.
Giacomo Puccini’s first motor car, purchased in 1901, was a De Dion-Bouton 5 CV. (For other gossip concerning le Marquis de Dion, see www.wp.me/p2ETap-d4.) Other cars in the Scuderia Puccini included French Clément-Bayard and Sizaire-Naudin, an Italian Isotta Fraschini and several Fiats.
Puccini enjoyed road trips, but he also delighted in driving off-road. Finding most cars of the era unsuitable for this activity, he commissioned Vincenzo Lancia to construct a car capable of more than a little off-roading—in a sense, the world’s first SUV.
It’s said that Puccini paid Lancia 35,000 lira for this car; figure $1750 U.S. in 1920, around $20,500 in today’s dollars. He must have been happy with his off-roading Lancia, because he followed it up with purchases of a Trikappa and Lambda (see www.wp.me/p2ETap-1CM for the tale of Lancia’s Lambda).
VV Puccini! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013