Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Breaking a Leg

For some reason, wishing someone “Good Luck” before a performance is considered Bad Luck – perhaps it will jinx the performance, another of those backstage superstitions – so instead, well-wishers and colleagues will say something awful like “Break a leg!” And so reverse psychology becomes a tradition.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce diDonato, who’s rapidly becoming one of the best known opera singers in the business today – if you haven’t heard her recordings, you may have seen her in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD Broadcast of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” a couple seasons ago – was singing the opening night performance on the 4th of July of another lively production of this lively classic in London at the Royal Opera House when indeed she did, quite literally, break a leg!

Needless to say, on her blog-post of July 4th, she has banned the well-meaning expression.

Shortly after her big show-stopping aria, Une voce poco fa, she had a slight faux pas when she slipped and fell. Gracefully, as only Joyce, a consummate actress with great comic timing, would do, of course. She got up, dusted herself off and hobbled around, everybody thinking it was all part of the scene. She thought she had sprained her ankle. At least, that’s what was announced to the audience at intermission.

The physical limitations were one thing – the pain must have been something else. But in the best sense of the “old trouper,” the show went on. With the help of her great cast – ooh, there’s another pun, but more of that later – she was able to make it through the rest of the opera with first a cane and then a crutch. At one point, she sang the line – as written – “I have a cramp in my foot” which prompted some audience applause and laughter. She was even able to improvise a little with the crutch, decorated with a bright pink flower, which came in handy during the Storm Scene when she trashes the set!

Stiff upper lip aside (and how would one sing with such a lip?), she was congratulated by the London critics who praised her singing’s “delicious innuendo and fabulous aplomb.”

After the curtain calls and the standing ovation, she went to the hospital where the doctor was horrified to discover she had been on her feet for three hours after she fell. Officially, she fractured her fibula but fortunately with no apparent damage to the ligaments or the joint. (Whew!) While technically that’s not “breaking a leg,” it’s close enough for jazz.

Now she’s facing 6 weeks of NOT being on her feet in order for it to heal - properly. So last night’s performance was – in the best Bette Midler manner – sung in a wheel-chair. Granted, the wheel-chair might be a bit anachronistic for 18th Century Seville, but her cast was covered in a bright pink sock to match her costume!

I’m not sure what one can do to replace the expression, “Break a leg!” She suggests “in the mouth of the wolf” which sounds like the Italian version of something else equally bad for you but, as she points out, far less likely to happen.

In the past, I used to joke with performer-specific breaks – to a string player, “break a string!” or a singer, “break a lip!” But then one night, a string player I’d said that to actually broke a string and I felt awful... So now I leave it more generically to “break a nail” or (better yet) just “have fun!” Perhaps that’s why I always hear singers say to each other backstage, “toi toi,” whatever that means. The implications are better than “Knock ‘em dead!”

Speaking of which, here she is, singing that very fall-inducing aria Una voce poco fa from the Met production of “The Barber of Seville”:
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Best wishes for una recovería ma presto assai!

- Dr. Dick

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You can read reviews from the London Telegraph, here - and the New York Times, here. If you haven't added any of her recordings to your collection yet, check out her website's discography.

Photo credit: Joyce and her cast at the London hospital, posted on her blog. Another photo on the blog, taken after the performance, includes her Count Almaviva, Juan Diego Florez, and the equally indispensable, flower-bedecked crutch. Check back, too - she has promised pictures of the cast in action on the stage of the Royal London Opera!

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