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Opera divas and flamboyant conductors – classical music is full of big personalities who give great performances. But in such an adrenaline-fuelled environment, emotions sometimes run high…
A bizarre incident in 1704 might have seen Handel's composing career cut tragically short after a set-to with fellow composer Johann Mattheson. For reasons apparently unknown, the two had a fierce quarrel in which Mattheson almost killed Handel with his sword, which fortunately struck a button on Handel's chest rather than the chest itself.
Sir Simon Rattle has said his relationship with the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic is sometimes turbulent, and in a recent interview with The Telegraph, described the players as 'stroppy'. Luckily it’s only because the orchestra has a big personality and cares about the music so much.
Aside from his compositional talents, Berlioz was a no-holds-barred music critic. A keen Shakespeare fan, he reworked the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy from Hamlet, but we can’t help thinking he overreacted: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer third-rate operas, ridiculous concerts, indifferent performers, mad composers, or take arms against this sea of troubles and by opposing end them?”
Wagner got angry with Nietzsche, but he didn’t react at all. The composer remarked that Nietzsche would go far in life thanks to his manners – which Wagner felt he was sadly lacking.
A young lady visited Gounod, asking for an autograph. Gounod said: “No, positively not. I have been pestered so many times to give my autographed picture that I am very tired of this nonsense. Besides, I haven’t another picture left and it cheapens me.” She launched herself onto his lap and kissed him until he changed his mind!
Poulenc certainly looks like a friendly chap, but the same can't be said for his teacher Paul Vidal. Poulenc dedicated his Rapsodie nègre to fellow composer Satie, but his teacher saw it and flew into a rage, saying: “Your work is foul and inept. It’s squalid rubbish!”
Tenor Roberto Alagna stormed off stage with a shake of the fist at La Scala, in the middle of a performance. But then, he was being booed by the audience.
Composer Hermann Levi said Wagner’s operas were better than Gluck’s, but Brahms flew off the handle: “One doesn’t pronounce those two names like that, one after the other,” and stormed out of the house without saying goodbye.
Singers are often unjustly criticised for their diva-ish behaviour, but Mahler should really take some of the flack. If a singer became tired of repeating the same phrase, he would fly into a rage and offer very specific performance directions.
Kathleen Battle, opera diva extraordinaire, once rang the Boston Symphony Orchestra management to complain that her hotel had put peas in her pasta. The cast cheered and applauded when she was fired…
Even Beethoven had his moments of rage. After dedicating his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon, the composer was shocked to discover he’d made himself emperor, going against the ideals he previously believed in. Beethoven was so incensed that he scratched out the dedication on the manuscript, making a hole.
It’s not uncommon for pop stars to demand long lists of luxuries when they’re touring, but opera diva Jessye Norman can beat many of them. She even specified the make of Rolls-Royce in which she was to be collected from the airport.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin cancelled his performances of Verdi’s La Traviata, allegedly following a string of bad reviews. But perhaps he just had high standards – his agent released a statement saying his artistic vision was at odds with the orchestra’s, but he wished them well in their future performances.
Rock stars often smash up their instruments in a fit of musical rage, but the classical music world is usually slightly more sedate. Rock crossover violinist David Garrett smashed up his violin, valued at £1million, but this wasn’t to make a musical statement – he fell backwards down a flight of stairs.
Haydn’s music might be light-hearted, but his diva-ish behaviour emerged as soon as he got out his wallet. He always attempted to maximise his income, and was often hot-headed when business partners disagreed with him.
The first performance of Britten’s War Requiem boasted a cast of some of the best singers of the past 100 years, but it wasn’t without its diva moments. Galina Vishnevskaya (pictured at the front) threw a tantrum during the recording, thinking she should be placed with the male soloists instead of the choir.
Perhaps it’s the behaviour of the opera singers from the past who have given today’s singers a bad rep. Gaetano Majorano, known as Caffarelli, the famous castrato singer, sung his own preferred versions of music, mimicking his colleagues while they sang, and throwing temper tantrums both on and off stage.
When a mobile phone rang in the middle of a performance by the New York Philharmonic, it would have been easy for maestro Alan Gilbert to get angry. Instead, he stopped the orchestra, addressed the offending phone owner, and started the piece from a few bars earlier after some stern words to the audience.
The two superstar singers were embroiled in rivalry in the 1950s. Tebaldi once said: “I have one thing that Callas doesn't have: a heart”, and Callas said that comparing her with Tebaldi was like “comparing Champagne with Cognac”. Meow.