Singing Librarian flashback: Tosca tantrums


Readers beware.  This is not a happy tale of backstage life, but rather a cautionary tale that I remember every time I am tempted to have a prima donna moment or act like a divo.

Summer 2001.  The Gulbenkian TheatreTosca.  This was one of the summer operas for the University of Kent with a combined professional and amateur cast, where I sang in the chorus.  In this one, I also had a significant ‘silent role’ as a soldier, but perhaps more on that another time.  As part of the project’s mission was to take a fresh look at each opera (always performed in English), the action was moved from occupied Italy during the Napoleonic era to occupied France during the early 1940s, which mostly made very good sense.  One notable change that is significant to this flashback is that the shepherd boy who sings a little ditty to open act three became instead a lost young woman in a holding camp, one of many about to take the train journeys we know so well from that period.

As act three opened, it was snowing on stage.  Snow (or rather a papery substance that acts very much like snow but doesn’t melt under the stage lights) was wafting down from above with a sprinkling already covering the set, and those of us who came on from the ‘outside’ entrances had to form a queue in front of one of the backstage crew to have snow liberally sprinkled on our heads and shoulders.  Of course, on the last night all the excess snow was used up, which meant that it looked like we had been through a blizzard!  But anyway…  Amid this snow, the young woman sings her mournful song, a moment that was both sad and beautiful.  After this was some business with the chorus and before long came the lead tenor’s big aria ‘E Lucevan Le Stelle’, which is one of the most gorgeous tenor arias imaginable.  But we came to the technical rehearsal and this moment of beauty became my worst theatrical memory.

Our tenor had been drafted in relatively late in the process, as the original Cavaradossi had pulled out due to ill health.  This new tenor had to learn the translation (he already knew the role in Italian) and managed to do so with amazing speed, apart from this famous aria, which mysteriously never surfaced in English, but was always sung in Italian.  Beautiful, but rather odd to have a sudden linguistic leap.  Anyway, here we were with the aria about to be sung in Italian amid the falling snow, when we heard first a grumble then a torrent of discontent from the stage.  How could he sing with all this snow coming down?  He might breathe some of it in!  And the snowfall machine makes a noise above the stage!  How could he work under these conditions?  OK, so he didn’t actually use that cliched phrase, but he came very close.  A quick glance at the stage told those of us waiting in the wings that he was positioned a couple of feet behind the snowfall, whereas the girl who opened the act had been in the middle of the snowstorm.  And she could be heard above the noise of the snow machine… 

The rehearsal ground to a halt here as a lengthy battle broke out between our tenor, the director and the stage crew, with the tenor threatening to walk unless he got his way.  We lowly chorus people hid as best we could and felt very uncomfortable, as we saw the end of what had already been a very long day slipping further into the distance.  I simply cannot describe how awkward, scared and angry this incident made us feel, particularly once one of the stage crew had been reduced to tears.

After what seemed an eternity, he got his way.  There would be no snow during his aria.  I suspect he had really irritated the stage crew operating the snow machine (basically a box that shuffles back and forwards to allow the snow to fall through holes and drift to the stage), as they made it very obvious that the snow was stopping just for him.  The rate of snowfall didn’t slow down.  It just stopped dead, about a bar before his aria began.

Until this point, the group had been pretty harmonious, but after the tenor tantrum, the atmosphere was never the same.  We never felt comfortable around him again and the production was much less happy backstage than it should have been.  From this I know how it feels to be a bystander when a star has a strop, and I am determined I shall never do it.  The problem (if it really was a problem) could have been sorted earlier, or after the run-through, and it certainly could have been sorted without really hurting the feelings of the stage crew.  Never be a prima donna.  You might get your way, but you’ll lose an awful lot of respect and goodwill.

  1. I’m not entirely sure that it’s good practice to leave the first comment on one’s own post, but I thought I should say that I know this isn’t as amusing as my other flashbacks, but I thought I should show that there is a ‘dark side’ even to amateur dramatics. It’s not as well-described, either, because it’s hard to put my feelings into words. It felt like we were all being violated in some mysterious way. Not good. Anyway… I promise to choose something more edifying for my next flashback. 🙂

    • floatykatja
    • August 27th, 2006

    He’s lucky he managed to get away with it. In my experience, the stage crew generally have their own subtle but effective ways of getting back at prima donnas. ‘Gosh, I can’t THINK how your vital prop managed to disappear! Goodness, you mean that door that gets opened slowly during your solo wasn’t oiled before the show?’

    I think AmDram is far worse for diva-like strops. I directed for an amateur operatic company a few years ago and their stroppy behaviour was far worse than any of the professionals that I’ve worked with.

  2. This is the only major strop I’ve ever encountered, thankfully! Minor flare-ups, of course, but no other major episodes. All bar one of the shows I’ve done since leaving school have had mixed pro-am casts which did once lead to a bit of tension, but no other diva episodes. Me and My Girl was entirely amateur (though two of the cast are former pros) and although there were various tensions, there was no major strop like this one!

  3. Urgh, I sympathise with your feelings about this incident. It reminds me of the time one of the conductors had a strop and walked out of a choir rehearsal I was at. A most uncomfortable time. I can’t even remember why he did it.

  1. January 17th, 2011

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