Tenors and Bullets

RiflemanThis is a true story. I am not making it up. I was there, and I saw the whole thing.

The opera was Puccini’s Tosca, produced by The Israel National Opera in their home theater, which had once been the Israeli Parliament (the “Knesset”) building. The opera house was sandwiched between the beach and Tel Aviv’s Red Light District. From 1978 – 1982, I was one of the company’s leading sopranos. During that time, I broadened my repertoire, got great reviews in both local and international publications and made friends with a lot of people, including some of our immediate neighbors in the Red Light District. Most of them were male transvestites. (They were better dressed than I was and they probably made more money.) I was nice to them, which was wise. They got rough with anyone who disrespected them, from customers to bratty teenagers. I respected them, and they liked me.

All of that has nothing to do with the story I am going to tell. I just thought you’d find it interesting.

Okay. So the performance of Puccini’s Tosca went without a hitch almost to the end. I was not in this performance. I shared the leading role with another soprano, a Romanian woman. She was singing that night, and I was watching from behind the last row of the orchestra section of the house.

Somebody dies in most operas, but in Puccini’s Tosca all three of the leading characters bite the dust. The tenor gets his comeuppance via firing squad, just before the end of the opera. This requires precise timing and sound effects. In our case, the sound effects were provided by a little old guy named Milo, who stood backstage with a pistol loaded with blank bullets. He would shoot it at the right time, the tenor would fall down, the “firing squad” (a few chorus guys, equipped with old, plugged-up rifles) would leave the stage and the opera would continue to its end. Simple, right?

On this fateful night, Milo’s gun failed to go off.

Maestro Tarski, the conductor, held the orchestra on a drum roll, waiting for the shot.

Milo kept trying to shoot the gun, which still failed to go off.

Maestro Tarski held the drum roll some more.

Milo, who was determined to shoot that damned gun, kept trying.

Maestro Tarski and the tenor could not see Milo, and Milo could not see them. Nobody knew what anyone else was doing.

Maestro Tarski finally shrugged his shoulders, figuring there would be no gun that evening, and gave a signal to the tenor. The tenor gave his usual realistic depiction of a man being shot to death. The “firing squad” began to file offstage.

Milo’s gun went off.

The audience, which, up until then, had been absorbed in the tragic story, fell apart laughing.

It can only happen in opera.

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7 thoughts on “Tenors and Bullets”

  1. Well, it was a sniper rifle, you see, fired from a great distance, so the bullet hit before anyone could hear the gun being fired. Yep.

    Wonder how long it would take to explain *that* excuse in song?

  2. It would have been easier to list the things that didn’t go wrong with that performance and your story at the beginning was massively interesting.

    1. I figured a little background story wouldn’t hurt!

      Actually, the performance went off without a hitch until that one disaster, almost at the end!

    1. Milo was reliable and determined. If it was his job to shoot a blank bullet backstage, he was going to do it! 😀

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