It was a night to remember at the Opera, but not for the usual reasons.
Back in 1979, Wexford in Ireland staged a performance that has passed into the folklore of stage productions. The opera was La Vestale by Spontini, an infrequently performed work that enjoyed great popularity in its early days, two hundred years ago.
The cast was young and near the start of their careers, a factor that had a bearing on the outcome.
The stage was angled down from the back to the footlights, and made to look like marble. It was slippery, so the stage designer arranged for the surface to be liberally sprinkled with lemonade, which provided the necessary grip.
The curtain rose and the hero strode confidently onstage, singing lustily. Unfortunately for him, there was no coating of lemonade that night. Someone had blundered. The hero fell flat on his back.
Still singing, with the orchestra in full flow, he scrambled to his feet and fought for purchase, sliding ever closer to the footlights. Next onstage was his stage buddy who similarly slid downhill, colliding with the hero. By this time the audience was falling in the aisles.
Together, the pair of them (still singing) scrambled upstage to grab hold of the altar, from where they could safely continue their performance. With the audience whooping and weeping with laughter, the chorus launched themselves onstage, sliding and scrambling with arms waving wildly.
With the determination of youth, some managed to grab the altar and our two heroes, while others anchored themselves to them, forming a kind of conga line. In this unstructured formation they managed to see out the first Act, and the curtain fell to a massive roar of delighted applause. In the interval, lemonade was restored and the performance continued as planned.
It might have been an ‘ordinary’ event, a passable performance of an attractive, if little known, opera. In fact it provided huge entertainment that those present would never forget, and it enabled the cast to show their combined resolve and press on, despite the unexpected hazards.
A useful lesson, I think, for those of us who present or perform to audiences.
[I am indebted to the late, great Bernard Levin for the story.]