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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

The adventures (and misadventures) of Tosca

Happy new year, blog friends!


The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is a funny time here at the opera. For many of us (particularly those of us who aren't involved with our Broadway series), it's the only "dead" time of year we have. It's the longest period during the season when there isn't a show going on. We put Giovanni to bed (pun intended) and then: almost two full months before rehearsals begin again. And every stinking year I get lulled into a false sense of "I have plenty of time to get this done," when in fact, those almost-two-months are chock full of preparations for this latter part of the season, where, frankly, we hit the ground sprinting and do not stop until we close in May.


To that end: TOSCA!


Knock knock!

Who's there?


Tosca who?



This week, we begin rehearsals for our February production of Puccini's Tosca. The artistic folks -- cast, conductor, director, designers -- are in transit, the set is loaded in to our rehearsal space, and we are (more or less) ready to go.


Tosca is particularly special to me, and marks a watershed moment in my career, because it was the first opera I ever worked on with this company, back in 2005. In fact, it was more or less my first opera; although I had seen Carmen with my french class in 9th or 10th grade, I had no recollection of it at all save that I missed the bus we'd hired to transport our class there and had to frantically get my mom to drive me down to the theater in Baltimore in time to make the show. So: not much.


Back in 2005, I was fresh out of graduate school. I arrived in Portland maybe a week or so before the first orchestra reading, so I didn't mark the parts myself. I had no idea what to expect sitting in on the first rehearsal! It turned out to be a decent introduction to life in the opera pit: one of the bass players discovered that two pages in his part had been reversed; then, during the break, the first violins requested that I go through and re-mark all the bowing changes that had been made during the first half of rehearsal. I dutifully helped everyone, knowing exactly nothing about the music or the people or the conductor. I don't recall being terrified, but maybe that was just the ignorance of youth!


For the record, I look back on the antics of that rehearsal and -- I mean this in a loving way -- I imagine it to be just like children who test a new babysitter. You cheeky violins! I make them mark any bowing changes made in rehearsal themselves now.


I don't yet have much to tell you about this Tosca, since nothing has yet begun. I can tell you that it's lovely -- I remember the sets and costumes from 2005. I can tell you that I'm quite certain you can't go wrong with Tosca, if you're looking for some good, juicy, beautiful opera to hear and see. And I can tell you that for some reason, there exist more hilarious stories -- or, I should say, tall tales -- about this opera than any other opera. So today I present you: Tosca jokes.


Bouncing Tosca

I first heard this one from, of all people, my teenage brother. Also: for the one person out there reading this who doesn't know the end of this opera: SPOILER ALERT!


At the end of the opera, Tosca leaps to her death from the Castel Sant'Angelo. Customarily, she lands on a mattress or gym mat. But in one production (some sources claim it was a Lyric Opera of Chicago production -- I haven't spoken with the Lyric but let's just say I have my doubts), stage workers decided it would be safer and more secure if, rather than a mattress, a trampoline was used instead. The result? Tosca plunges to her death ... only to appear again, and again, and again...

Alternate versions of the story suggest the placement of the trampoline to be revenge for troublesome behavior from the soprano.


Collective Suicide

In another wonderful tale, the supernumeraries who act as the firing squad at the close of Act III receive the following last-minute instruction: "Shoot the person you find onstage, then exit with the principals." When they enter, however, they find two people onstage; unsure of who to shoot (they are, after all, both saying "don't shoot"), they choose Tosca, only to be surprised when Cavaradossi drops dead. Then they linger, waiting to exit with the principals. When Tosca leaps to her death, they see their moment, and exit the same way she does -- off the Castel Sant'Angelo.


Stage Accidents

Some very real calamities have taken place during the seemingly cursed Puccini opera:

• There's the tale of tenor Fabio Armiliato, who was carried offstage on a stretcher when one of the blanks fired by the firing squad was loaded with a bit too much powder, catching him in the leg. He was treated, and then returned for a second performance ... where he fell backstage at the end of Act I and broke his other leg in two places.

• There's the story of Elisabeth Knighton Printy, who, singing the title role at Minnesota Opera in the early 1990s, missed the crash pad when she leapt to her 'death' (some reports say she leapt from the wrong side of the parapet) and broke both legs.

• Then there's the famous tale of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi: in a 1965 performance, Callas lingered too long over a candelabra during the Act II scene with Scarpia, and her wig caught on fire. Gobbi, seeing smoke emanating from Callas's hair, came over and "embraced" her, putting the flames out with his hand.

Callas reportedly also once stabbed Gobbi for real during the Scarpia murder scene, when the stage knife was mistakenly replaced by a real one. The story has it that Gobbi, cut but not seriously injured, uttered "My God!" and continued right on with his death scene.


Obviously, we hope our Tosca is thrilling -- but not this thrilling!

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