Opera gossip is particularly harsh, as a minor bulletin board opera school user found out very quickly. Silence is golden, and speaking out can mean the death of a career.
Knowing none of this, the new member, seeking to amuse the polity, posted what in the days of Walter Winchell was known as a “blind item.” The subject was an event he’d seen from the catwalk of the opera house where he works as a super; the scene was an insufficiently dark corner; the dramatis personae were a moderately famous male singer and a member of the chorus. No names were named, but the act in question was specified, and no sooner had the message been posted than the napalm began to fly.
By the time I got in on all this, the initial uproar had given way to a more interesting wrangle: several forum members were arguing that opera gossip in general was a bad thing. To engage in idle chatter about the sex lives of singers, they said in tones suggestive of a certain unwillingness to be contradicted, was to waste time that could better be spent austerely contemplating the beauties of Mozart and Verdi. To really care about who is trying to find out how to stop snoring, or who is getting a new nosejob next week is vapid info, in the very least. This started yet another electronic fistfight; the phrase “political correctness” soon reared its ugly head, and it took a couple of weeks before the smoke finally cleared.
Watching the battle unfold from a safe distance, I found myself feeling a sneaking sympathy with the anti-gossip brigade. I was at a dinner party last year at which one of the guests started to tell a juicy story about a temperamental soprano whose backstage battles have long been the stuff of legend. The host clamped his hands over his ears. “I don’t want to hear it,’ he said. “I love her singing, and I don’t want to know what she’s like. Don’t tell me.” I knew what he meant. But there is a big difference between preferring not to know and believing nobody else should care – especially for those who live and work in the world of opera.
Opera News, the magazine, does not publish “gossip,” at least not in the conventional sense of the word. OperaWatch tells who’s singing and where, which is news; Notebook contains only the mildest sort of dish. But gossip, like treason, is a matter of dates. If OperaWatch reveals that, say, Renee Fleming had a baby a few weeks before she sang Desdemona at the Met’s opening-night gala, it’s news, and of obvious significance. If a well-connected source tells me the same thing six months before the fact, it’s gossip – but just as significant.
Most backstage chat is not nearly so innocuous as that, of course, and it isn’t difficult to imagine a piece of gossip whose inherent interest was purely prurient. Speaking as a sometime opera critic, I don’t think it would be of any value for me to know that Giovanni Doe was into leather. But the line between the prurient and the significant is often as thin as it is gray. I recently asked a group of opera professionals to tell me what they gossip about most often. Their collective list, in no particular order, ran as follows: (1) Who’s sleeping with whom? (2) Who has AIDS? (3) Who’s having a vocal crisis? (4) Who’s putting on weight? (5) Who’s a bitch backstage? Needless to say, such matters are not necessarily devoid of professional relevance. What if (1), for instance, dealt not with a casual fling but a casting-couch scandal? Is that gossip, or a matter about which other singers have a right to know?
Even if you think all this is simply an elaborate rationalization of sheer nosiness, I suspect such nosiness is natural to the point of inevitability. Unlike the orchestra at Bayreuth, opera singers are anything but invisible: they are the living embodiment of an art form whose subject matter is passion. The desire to know what they’re “really like,’ to bridge the mysterious gap between their offstage and onstage personalities, is as old as greasepaint like it or not, all the censorious postings on all the bulletin boards in the world are not going to stamp it out or even cut it down.
As for me, I have mixed feelings about opera gossip. It sometimes occurs to me that I know far too much about the private lives of people I’ve never met than could possibly be good for my soul, and then I straighten my collar, pour myself a glass of cold water, put on a 78 of Karl Erb singing Schubert and try not to remember that Erb’s wife ran away with his accompanist, allegedly because his sexual apparatus was in poor working order. Most of the time, though, I shrug my shoulders, remind myself that opera is the smallest town in the world and think cheerfully of the motto neatly embroidered on the pillow on the settee of Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “If You Haven’t Got Anything Nice to Say About Anybody, Come Sit Beside Me.”