The opera that killed its star – the eerie story of how Leonard Warren died on stage

4 March 2019, 17:09 | Updated: 5 March 2019, 08:48

Leonard Warren was hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of his time
Leonard Warren was hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of his time. Picture: Getty Images

By Sofia Rizzi

'To die! Tremendous moment!' sang Leonard Warren on stage in New York, moments before he collapsed and died…

During his career, Leonard Warren was revered as one of of the best baritones in the world. He frequently sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. And it was here, in 1960, that he sang his last aria, before collapsing on stage.

Which is noteworthy enough – not many musicians die on stage, after all. But here's where things get really eerie…

On 4 March 1960 Leonard Warren stepped on the stage of the Met to sing the role of Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) by Verdi.

The performance began without trouble, but things took a turn for the worst in Act III of the opera. Warren began singing the aria that begins with the words ‘Morir, tremenda cosa’, which means ‘to die, a momentous thing’.

Just a few moments later, he fell silent and collapsed. Those opening lines were the last words Warren would ever say – or sing. He died on stage.

Eye-witness accounts say that the singer went silent and fell face-forward on the floor.

A packed audience at the Metropolitan Opera – the last sight Leonard Warren would see before dying on stage
A packed audience at the Metropolitan Opera – the last sight Leonard Warren would see before dying on stage. Picture: Getty Images

The exact details of the tragic event were documented by Raymond A. Ericson who wrote a review in Musical America. He wrote:

In one of the most dramatic and tragic events to take place on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, Leonard Warren was stricken with a cerebral haemorrhage and died during a performance of 'La Forza del Destino' on March 4 [1960].

In the middle of Act II (as given at the Metropolitan), the duet for Mr. Warren and Mr. Tucker, ‘Solenne in quest’ ora’ brought another crescendo of applause and bravos. Mr. Warren then was left onstage alone to sing the recitative that begins ‘Morir! Tremenda cosa!’ (‘To die! Tremendous moment!’). How ominous this phrase was to prove! Mr. Warren continued into the superb aria that follows, ‘Urna fatale’ (‘Oh fatal pages’), and he had never seemed in better form as his remarkable voice rode the long legato phrases and soared excitingly through the cadenzas to the climactic high notes. At the end, he stood quietly until the shouts of approval had died away. Moving to stage left he completed his next few lines of recitative and then fell forward heavily, as if he had tripped.

Roald Reitan, as the Surgeon, entered, singing his single phrase, ‘Lieta novella, e salvo’ (‘Good news I bring you, I saved him’). No response came from Mr. Warren, as Thomas Schippers, the conductor, waited with upstretched arms to bring the orchestra in.

Uncertainty and wonder gripped everyone for a few seconds, and the audience stirred uneasily. Mr. Reitan then went quickly over to Mr. Warren, knelt by his side. The audience did not know that Mr. Reitan raised Mr. Warren's head slightly, that the stricken baritone uttered faintly the word “Help!” and then went limp. The audience was only aware of Mr. Reitan's looking anxiously into the wings and at Mr. Schippers, and of a voice in the auditorium saying clearly, “Bring the curtain down!”

You can read the whole review here.

The eerie circumstances around his death have meant Mr Warren's death has been remembered in the world of opera ever since.

Because of his death, superstition has attached itself with the opera, with some even believing the opera is cursed. This curse is reportedly supposed to have kept Pavarotti away from ever performing La Forza del Destino.