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DEATH AT THE OPERA MATINEE

TRAGIC DEATHS ARE nothing new to opera. But these two were tragically real. At the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, January 23, 1988, opera singer Bantcho Bantchevsky fell to his death from the opera house’s highest balcony. Every indication is that Bantchevsky took his own life. And, some years before, on March 4, 1960, Metropolitan Opera star baritone Leonard Warren was fatally stricken onstage during a matinee performance of another Verdi opera, La Forza del Destino.

Destiny Indeed. Bantcho Bantchevsky was born in Lovech, about 90 miles northeast of the capital Sofia and one of the oldest towns in Bulgaria. According to Wikipedia, Lovech’s traditional culture of singing and dancing inspired Bantchevsky to attend Sofia Conservatory, where he learned to play the flute and piano and studied opera.

Bantchevsky performed on Sofia’s Rakovska Street, known as “Bulgaria’s Broadway,” but fled when the country joined with the Soviet Union during World War II. In the 1940s, he sang opera in Czechoslovakia and Vienna, and was a member of the Don Cossack Choir Serge Jaroff.

Wikipedia notes, “He also appeared in films and plays in Berlin, including a small part in a performance of Macbeth.”

Bantcho Bantchevsky, 1906–1988, Bulgarian-born American singer, singing coach, and translator.

A Varied Career in the U.S. Bantchevsky emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1950s. Encountering competition from younger, native-born performers, he turned to coaching other singers and to writing political satire for Radio Free Europe.

In addition to his native Bulgarian, Bantchevsky spoke English, German, French, Italian, and Russian. This gave him employment translating material for visiting opera singers. He regularly attended performances of the Metropolitan Opera, his orchestra seats typically provided by Met friends.

The Fateful Day. Bantchevsky had been in failing health. In early January 1988, he was hospitalized with a minor heart attack, but checked himself out after a week.

The David K. Frasier website specializes in tales of “people at their extremes and limits.” Frasier recounts that, “On the morning of January 23, 1988, Bantchevsky refused a friend’s dinner invitation with the comment that he could not eat because ‘I’m going to die tonight.’ Attending the Met’s matinee performance of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, Bantchevsky seated himself in the ‘Family Circle,’ the fifth and highest balcony in the opera house where desks are provided for patrons to study the score during the performance.”

The Metropolitan Opera house, as seen from the stage. Image by Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera.

“During the first intermission,” Frasier writes, “two ushers had to pull Bantchevsky away from the top railing where he was seated rocking slowly back and forth. Ten minutes into the second intermission, the singing coach plunged 80 feet from the top railing, bounced off a lower balcony rail, and mercifully landed on unoccupied seats ten rows from the back of the orchestra with a broken seat atop him.”

More on Bantchevsky. Frasier’ website offers a comment from an anonymous reader. In part: “I remember Bantcho vividly…. …on opening night in 1976 he invited me to watch the opera, Il Trovatore, from his par terre box. On that night he was resplendent in white tie and tails and with numerous medals and ribbons decorating his chest. He was knowledgeable and gregarious about the theater and especially the opera but his good humor was overlaid by a certain world-weary melancholy not uncommon in slavic aficionados of a certain age.”

“On the afternoon of January 23, 1988,” the commenter writes, “… I turned on the radio to find the Metropolitan Opera broadcast in progress but instead of Verdi’s Macbeth I heard the announcer, Peter Allen, obviously stalling and filling time. Somehow, as soon as the situation was reported, I knew who the victim was before they mentioned his name. I was shocked but not surprised.”

“Incidentally,” the writer concludes, “the operatic equivalent of the ‘Macbeth Curse’ is usually associated with Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which has been marked over the years with strange and tragic events including the on-stage death of Metropolitan star baritone Leonard Warren.”

Leonard Warren’s Death. As described at Classic FM, “On 4 March 1960 Leonard Warren stepped onto the stage of the Met to sing the role of Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) by Verdi.”

Leonard Warren, born Warenoff, 1911–1960, American operatic baritone. Warren was a leading artist for many years at the Metropolitan Opera. This image of him portraying Don Carlo is from Classic FM.

In Act III, Don Carlo sings an aria beginning Morir, tremenda cosa, “To die, a momentous thing.” Warren began, fell silent, collapsed, and, age 48, died from possibly a cerebral hemorrhage, later thought a heart attack.

“Because of his death,” Classic FM writes, “superstition has attached itself with the opera, with some even believing the opera is cursed. This curse is reportedly supposed to have kept Pavarotti away from ever performing La Forza del Destino.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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