Bouncing Tosca — urban myth?

Anyone who works in opera dreads the moment when a non-operatic person says ‘I know a good story…’ and it always turns out to be the one about the time when Tosca did her suicide leap from the battlements at the end of Puccini’s opera, only to reappear to the audience’s sight as she bounced up again on a trampoline.

This is re-told in so many books of musical and operatic anecdotes, without attribution, that one naturally assumes it is an urban legend (along with the elephants falling through the stage in Aïda, or that awful pidgin-English synopsis of Carmen).

However… the other day, I met a distinguished gentleman (while waiting for the long-delayed start of the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House – but that’s another story).  He started telling me his Tosca story, and my heart sank… until he said he had actually been there.  Heaven knows when it was – 1950s, I’d guess – but it was at the Vienna State Opera, the Tosca in question was soprano Ljuba Welitsch (‘not a small lady’) and the conductor was Herbert von Karajan (‘who was not at all amused’).  Whether it was a natural bounce or some disaffected person had substituted a trampoline for the regular pile of mattresses, history does not relate.

So now you know.  Next time someone starts telling you the old Tosca story, you can say, ‘Yes, I know.  It was…’

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16 Comments on “Bouncing Tosca — urban myth?”

  1. Sarah Lenton Says:

    Jonathan, at last. I’ve been driven frantic by people coming after lectures to tell me about the bouncing diva. Now I know know who she is (though I guess it’s too much to hope that the information will be able to stop the flow…)

  2. jonathanburton Says:

    Gosh — an operatic fact you didn’t already know! That must be a first 😉

    • wr Says:

      I suspect it has happened many times, which is why the story comes up so frequently. I saw it happen in a production in the US, in Oklahoma. I think there is probably a certain technique to landing on the trampoline in such a way as to absorb the rebound in the knees that some singers haven’t quite mastered. Or maybe the costume gets in the way. At any rate, for a time I thought that the production I saw was the source of the story, but have realized it must have happened more than just that once, and this version confirms that.

      • jonathanburton Says:

        How interesting! Many thanks for that. And I have been reliably informed that the lady in question in my story never sang Tosca under that conductor, so my informant must have been making it up or had misremembered the facts himself. So we’re still no nearer a definitive historical sighting! Thus the ‘urban myth’ remains…

  3. Peter Pears Says:

    Ljuba Wellitch?! Really? Robert Merril did a series of interviewes on “Great Divas” and their portrayal of Tosca, interviewing Grace Bumbry, Ljuba Wellitch, Magda Olivero, Eve Turner, Gina Cigna and others, and – I’ve just watched to confirm – Eve Turner says it was her, at the Alexander Theatre Hall. Transcript:

    Eve Turner: “We went to the Alexander Treatre Hall, which was a small opera house, a small theatre” (Merril chuckles) “and the drop was very shallow. And I did it, as they said, with great conviction and I came up again.”

    Robert Merril: “You bounced up!” (and laughs)

    Eva Turner: “Yes I did!”

    Rober Merril: “So YOU were the once that bounced up!”

    Eva Turner: “Well, it was me”.

    Robert Merril: “Now we find out it was you.”

    00:43:40 of my recording, I can share the clip if you like.

    I’m wondering whether there might not be more than one bouncing Tosca…

    • jonathanburton Says:

      Thank you, er, Sir Peter 😉

      Now this really IS interesting! Eva Turner, no less.

      It looks as if, thanks to you, we may have finally nailed the myth? And there may indeed have been more than one Bouncing Tosca??

      (Where is the Alexander Theatre Hall?)

      yes please — do send a link to your video clip!

      Best wishes — Jonathan

  4. Peter Pears Says:

    Hah! I go by the “Peter Pears” moniker so often on the net I forget that when I speak to my fellow opera lovers, they actually know who that was! I just like the name, incidently – I’m Portuguese and my name in English would sound a lot like “Peter Pears”, and I also happen to be a tenor, so there you go.

    I don’t know where the hall is, and the entire video that I have was recorded on VHS from RTP1, the Portuguese TV. The interviews have portuguese subtitles (they all speak English, though, apart from Magda Olivero – Italian – and Galina Vishnevskaya – Russian), and the voice-overs outside of the interviews are dubbed in Portuguese.

    So I will not upload the entire video as I’m pretty sure you’d find it hard to follow. 😉 Mind you, “Onegin65” seems to have the entire thing with Polish subtitles, and maybe THEY didn’t dub over some parts? Some bits of this are available in YouTube, such as:

    Though not, sadly, the “Bouncing Tosca” anecdote. As I type this I’m getting that bit out (as well as some minutes before and after because thay documentary’s just too damn good) and will upload to rapidshare or some such, not having – and not much caring to have – a YouTube account. Would that be ok with you?

    • Peter Pears Says:

      Ok, the size of the thing is giving me some trouble, but googling for “eva turner bouncing tosca” gives other interesting results. Here’s one:

      “Eva Turner didn’t only take credit as the bouncing Tosca in that 1980s
      interview. She wrote some of the liner notes to the 1960 LP release of
      some of her opera recordings, and in the introduction to “Vissi d’arte”
      says she was the bouncing Tosca. She wrote:

      “At one theatre, I forget which, I contributed a moment of
      unexpected levity at the end of the opera. When with the phrase
      ‘O Scarpia avanti a Dio,’ I threw myself over the battlements of
      Sant’ Angelo, the mattress placed to break my fall was so
      springy that I bounced and momentarily re-appeared before an
      astonished audience.”

      The author of this little article goes on to say it’s possible Dame Turner was just having a bit of fun, but on the other hand, how many other Divas have come forward saying *they* were the ones? It’s not like Calla’s hair getting set on fire, THAT’s too showy for anyone to mistake!;2ol0Fw;19970705235811-0700A

      • Peter Pears Says:

        Oh, and I forgot:

        “And there may indeed have been more than one Bouncing Tosca??”

        That’s just me hypothesising, much as wr mentioned. It’s not allt that uncommon when you think of it… Tosca is one of the best-loved and most oft-performed operas. The sopranos are usually on the hefty side. Statistically, it’s bound to happen more than once, but it’s funny enough to be remembered every time that it happens. I only got thinking along these lines, however, when I saw Ljuba Wellitch credited for it when I knew it was Eva Turner (although you disclaim that in a later reply).

        And sorry for being so long winded! Shutting up now!

  5. jonathanburton Says:

    Wow — thank you for all those!

    My friend Stewart Spencer, fount of all knowledge (who was the one who told me it couldn’t have been Ljuba Welitsch) confirms:

    “The Alexandra Theatre was in Hull. It’s mentioned in Linda Esther Gray’s biography of Dame Turner. She (LEG) mentions the Tosca incident on pp.68-69 , including a transcript from ET’s 1982 Desert Island Discs in which she tells Roy Plomley about her bounce.”

  6. Sue R Says:

    I saw the Tosca bounce of Anna Tomowa-Sintow at the ROH
    on 7 Dec 1993. I believe Paul Gambaccini was also present at that performance. Actual fact – not urban myth – Never to be forgotten!

  7. Makhno Says:

    In the version I remember, the bounce was the result of too many mattresses being placed below on the second night in overcompensation for the first, when an excessively thin mattress had caused the leap to be followed by a loud crash and a yell of pain.

    I think the story was in the Book of Heroic Failures, which dates to the late Seventies. I believe names were cited but can’t recall them.

    • jonathanburton Says:

      Interesting! But see all the other comments above — the Eva Turner story must date from a lot earlier than the 1970s..

  8. Steve Druhe Says:

    The incident was discussed on a tour of the state opera house. The scheduled opera had been cancelled and a rush was on to substitute Tosca in its place. One of the inexperienced people setting up the stage noticed the trampoline was not taught, so he tightened it, resulting in the bouncing diva. . .

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