Authors: Barbara Paul
Prima Donna at Large
An Opera Mystery
It was a mistake, I should never have done it, I should have stood firm, I should have said
. Rule number one for sopranos:
Never sing in a world premiÃ¨re when you're sick
I can't really complain about the reviews, I suppose. The critics were kind for the most part, although not one of them passed up the chance to mention I was still suffering the effects of my “lingering indisposition,” as they so prettily put it. (I had a coldâa plain, ordinary
.) The critics all praised my acting, bless them, but
The New York Times
suggested a little more restraint. As usual. Whatever I do,
The New York Times
suggests a little more restraint. They suggest, and I ignoreâas I would this time.
is broad comedy; it
to be played big, with oversized gestures and the like.
The telephone hadn't stopped ringing all morningâfirst my manager, then friends and well-wishers, and even a few rivals bent on keeping up appearances. Scotti called twice, dear man. Some fans showed up here at the apartment building and the doorman had to shoo them off, go-away-little-girls, have to speak to him about that. Last night may have been a qualified triumph, but it was a triumph nonetheless.
Geraldine Farrar in Umberto Giordano's new opera, “Madame Sans-GÃªne.”
Has a nice sound to it, don't you think?
Actually, I fared better than the opera itself did. The critics one and all agreed that
, while tuneful and pleasant, is not particularly distinguished or original, tut tut. 'Tis neither grand nor eloquent, those overpaid arbiters of public taste have declared, nor does it contain any realâtake a deep breathâ
Well, I knew that, for heaven's sake! Not every new opera can be a
. And besides, there's a real place on the operatic stage for the lighter works. It can get a bit wearying, singing the same standard roles over and over again. I'm always on the lookout for something new, or at least something I myself have never sung before. In fact, it's time I started thinking about my next new role. Perhaps
? I want to get something this time that the critics won't be so quick to dismiss as unworthy of everybody's efforts.
Just the same, last night's glittering audience at the Metropolitan Opera had been excited and uncritically enthusiastic; in the long run, that's what counts. The truth is, I have a large and faithful following that always watches with fascination every new thing I try. The Metropolitan has only two singers who can be relied on to fill every seat in the house every time they appear. Caruso is one, and I am the other. There's no modest way to say it, but my fans
everything I do. Truly. With that kind of support, who wouldn't keep trying new things?
But the fact remains I did not sing well last night; that blasted cold robbed me of all my top notes. I should have refused to sing at all. But that mule-headed Gatti-Casazza had been adamant; and once the Metropolitan's general manager puts his size-eighteen foot down, there's no budging him. He'd postponed the premiÃ¨re once because of my illness, from Friday to the following Monday. On Friday Mr. Gatti had hurriedly substituted another opera from the company's repertoireâand most of the audience had asked for its money back. That little item of news hadn't depressed me one bit, ha, nosiree it hadn't. But Mr. Gatti had been appalled at the thought of the same thing happening again, so I had to sing the premiÃ¨re performance of
on Monday, January 25, 1915, cold or no cold. Frankly, I was just as glad Giordano, the opera's composer, hadn't been able to come to New York for the premiÃ¨re after all. There's nothing more disheartening than an unpraised composer drooping around an opera house.
The telephone rang. It was Caruso, bubbling over with italianate good cheer. “Gerry,
, you were magnificent! But then you always are, are you not? Me, I cannot tell from listening that you are sick at all! Not even a little bit sick!”
I appreciated the lie and was quite willing to go along with it. “Why, thank you, Ricoâwhat a nice thing to say! If you believed the newspapers, you'd think I dragged myself from my deathbed last night.”
“Pooh! What do they know? Just the same, you must take care of yourself,” Caruso fussed. “No vocalizing today, not even scales. Stay in bed, rest. Do you hear, Gerry?”
“I send Mario with my special throat sprayâyou use it, yes? And I send some to Pasquale also.”
“His throat burns like furnace, his eyes they water, his nose does not permit the proper breathing â¦”
I groaned. Pasquale Amato sang the role of Napoleon in
last night I'd noticed he was looking a bit peaked, but he'd sounded superb and I was so wrapped up in opening-night nerves I hadn't paid much attention to anything else. And now it looked as if I'd passed on my cold to Amato. I asked Caruso, “Will he be all right by tomorrow night?” The three of us were scheduled to sing
“Who knows?” I could hear the shrug in his voice. “This morning, he cannot sing even a nursery tune. But by tomorrow night â¦ who is to say? Tomorrow night he may sing his best Escamillo ever!” Caruso, the eternal optimist.
I had been worrying whether
would be ready Wednesday night; Carmen is much more demanding a role than Caterina in
. But I was getting over my coldâPasquale Amato was just starting his. On impulse I said, “I'll take him some of my medicine.”
“No!” Caruso commanded with authority. “
take care of Pasquale. You stay home and take care of yourself.”
“I feel responsible, Rico. I'm sure he caught his cold from me.”
But my favorite tenor was in a paternalistic mood that morning and kept insisting, so finally I promised to do as he said just to stop his well-meaning badgering. The minute I hung up I called to one of the maids to bring my hat and coat. I started packing a small valise with the various medicines I'd accumulated lately; Caruso's throat spray was good for the ordinary hoarseness that plagues every singer, but it wouldn't do anything for Amato's cold. I checked my appearance in the mirror and ten minutes later was away on my errand of mercy.
The chauffeur drove me from West Seventy-fourth Street down Central Park West, around Columbus Circle, and on to Broadway. Everywhere I looked, bold black-and-white posters were exhorting me to give to the War Relief Fund. Sidewalk billboards proclaimed the day's headlines:
German Submarine Sinks Three Steamers in Irish Channel, Bread Riots in Florence
. I found I was clenching my jaw and had to do a breathing exercise to relax. I
not let the European war depress me, even though everyone was saying it was only a matter of time until America joined in.
The limousine pulled up in front of the Hotel Astor in Times Square. I'd decided that if Pasquale Amato was sleeping, I'd quietly leave my valise of nostrums and not disturb him. But Amato's valet assured me that his master was awake and ushered me into the sick man's bedroom.
The first thing I saw was the huge rear end of a woman who was bending over the sickbed straightening the covers. She had all the grace of a Guernsey cow; and when she looked back over her shoulder with enormous cow eyes, I fully expected her to moo. “Hello, Emmy,” I said.
“Good morning,” Emmy Destinn answered amiably enough. “You have come to visit our ailing baritone?”
No, I'm having an affair with the valet
. “Rico telephoned me,” I said, figuring that was sufficient explanation. Amato did not look good; he was feverish and had dark shadows under his eyes. “I'm so sorry, Pasquale,” I said. “I never dreamed I was making you sick too. I should have been more careful.”
Amato gave a gallant little wave of his hand. “Do not blame yourself,
Gerry. These things happen. Iâ” He broke off, coughing violently.
“I have something here that will help that,” I said hurriedly, putting my valise down on a table at the head of the bed. “A special syrup Dr. Curtis mixed up for meâ”
“Then perhaps you would be so good as to allow Dr. Curtis to decide what is best for the patient,” a raspy voice said testily.
Whoops. I'd not noticed the older man standing over by the window. “Dr. Curtis! I'm glad you're here. I was going to call you.”
“A noble intention, rendered unnecessary by present circumstances. As you see, I am already here.”
“I called him,” Emmy Destinn said placidly.
“How thoughtful of you,” I murmured smoothly. “Well, Doctor? What is the, ah, prognosis?”
,” Dr. Curtis glowered at me, “is bed rest and quiet. So, any time you ladies feel like leaving â¦?”
Amato started coughing again.
“Don't you have a rehearsal today?” I asked the other soprano pointedly. Emmy just shook her head.
Ever since I'd come into the room I'd been smelling a most peculiar odor. I didn't want to say anything; you know how it is in sickrooms. But the odor was too strong to ignore, and I was about to ask what it was when the door burst open and Enrico Caruso erupted into the room, carrying six atomizer bottles. “Pasquale! I bring you the throat spray myself!” He greeted the rest of us in his usual noisy manner and proceeded to place the bottles neatly on a bureau. “We try some now, yes?”
“We try some now
,” Dr. Curtis rasped. “I know what's in that spray of yours, Caruso, and it's no good for a cold. Forget about it.”
“But it soothes the throatâ”
“No, confound it! Later, perhaps, but not now.”
Frustrated, Caruso turned on me. “I tell you to stay in bed today!”
By then I'd traced the source of the noxious odor to Amato's bedside table. I picked up a ceramic jar and got a good whiff of the foul-smelling concoction it contained. “What in the name of heaven is this?”
“A salve for rubbing on the chest,” Emmy explained. “It is good for colds and coughs.”
“May I remind you people that
am the doctor here?” Dr. Curtis growled. “I'm sure Amato appreciates your concern, but
decide what medicine he takes, and only I. Is that understood?”
Before anyone could answer, the bedroom door opened again, this time to reveal a bearded, middle-aged man who grew immediately alarmed when he caught sight of three singers hovering over Amato's sickbed. “Stand back! Stand back! Do you
want to get sick?” Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, looked as if he were envisioning the entire opera company's coming down with colds at the same time.