Don’t Sing the High C

Roger Parker

  • Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera by Philip Gossett
    Chicago, 675 pp, £22.50, September 2006, ISBN 0 226 30482 5

Divas and, recently, divos are all around us. Late last year, the newspapers and opera websites had a feeding frenzy over the antics of the tenor Roberto Alagna, who had been singing Radames in Aida at La Scala. On the second night, booed after his entrance aria by the notoriously partisan loggionisti (an army of singer-obsessives who haunt the upper reaches of the theatre), Alagna simply walked offstage, leaving the mezzo Amneris, who had just entered to sing a duet with him, staring at her fingernails. The band played on. By chance (or so they say: Alagna later suspected a conspiracy), the understudy tenor was hanging around backstage. On he went, jeans and T-shirt notwithstanding: it wasn’t until later in the act that he was able to slip into something Egyptian and join a triumphal march or two. Alagna was banned from further performances, and bade the theatre a flamboyant public farewell, singing ‘Addio fiorito asil’ (from Madam Butterfly) in the Piazza della Scala; threats of lawsuits and further cancellations flew back and forth; parterre box, the ‘queer opera zine’, went into overdrive. Some old hands fondly recalled the time when the ur-diva Callas walked out of Norma when she was booed; but la divina waited until the end of the first act, which proves that singers aren’t what they used to be. (As if to remind us of this, a couple of months later Opera magazine gave subscribers four postcards with photos of Callas and others; they were packaged as ‘FREE vintage divas’.)

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