Nowadays we all think of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City as this vast complex of buildings, but in the old days it wasn’t all that big, just tall. The old Met, which was torn down in 1967, looked rather like a very well-kept tenement house.One of the great stars of the Met in the old days was the New Zealand-born soprano Frances Alda.
Named Fanny Jane Davis at her birth in 1879, she began singing light opera at eighteen, moved to Europe to study singing at twenty-two, and conquered Paris’s Opera-Comique, London’s Covent Garden, and Milan’s La Scala, before moving on to the Met following her marriage to its director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, in 1910. She was a reigning soprano there for nearly twenty years, frequently performing with that most magnificent of tenors, Enrico Caruso. In 1928, she divorced Gatti-Casazza, and a year later retired from the Met. She continued to sing in concert and recitals, wrote an acid autobiography called MEN, WOMEN AND TENORS in 1937, remarried in 1941, and died in Venice in 1952.
Over the years following her death, though, she apparently returned to the Met several times in phantom form, and she was that most disagreeable of patrons, living or dead: a heckler.
Her most dramatic performance in this role happened at a matinee in 1955. Imagine, if you will, this scene: an opera lover settles into her seat. She smiles politely at the rather stout woman in the next seat over and proceeds to read the program, only to find the woman beside her is a fidgety sort. The woman crackles her program, and her black silk dress rustles with her every movement. The patron tries to ignore her as the curtain rises and the afternoon’s performance begins. . .
and things go downhill from there.
The large lady in black is critical of everything happening on the stage. She grumbles. She regales her hapless neighbor with snide remarks about the scenery, the costuming, the orchestra. And, every time the soprano opens her mouth to sing, she elbows her neighbor—hard enough to leave bruises, as it turns out—and hisses, “Flat, flat, FLAT!”
By intermission, the poor opera lover in the next seat, who only wants to listen to the music in peace, has just about had all she is willing to take out of this rude old dame in the black silk dress. She makes up her mind to go to the management and demand another seat, as far away from her nasty neighbor as she can get, or that the woman be ejected for bad behavior. And so she leaves her seat and goes straight to the offices of the Met director.
He listens sympathetically to her story. He wants to ensure her comfort (and, truth to tell, that she will continue to pay out good coin to attend the opera in future), so he goes with her back to her seat, prepared to throw the old harridan out—
only to find she is gone—and none of the other patrons in the area even saw her.
Whereupon the manager gives himself a solid thwack! on the forehead with the heel of his hand and groans, “Oh, Lord, it’s Madame Alda. Again.”
“Madame Alda?” says the bewildered patron. She has never heard this name; it’s been so long since Madame sang here that she’s been all but forgotten.
“One of our great sopranos from earlier times,” says the manager. “She has done this before—disturbed patrons, disparaged the sopranos, and made a general nuisance of herself—But she’s gone now, dear lady. Please resume your seat and enjoy the rest of the opera.”
He says gently, “No point in trying to find her and dismiss her from the premises. She’s been dead for years.”
As far as I can tell, Madame Alda’s antics were confined to the old Met. There don’t seem to be any reports of her ghost in the new one.
However, should you ever find yourself in a seat in that great hall next to a stout old lady in a black silk dress, be wary. Chances are it’s not Madame Alda. But if it is, beware the sharp elbow and sharper tongue. And resist the temptation to yell at her, “SHUT UP, YOU OLD BAT!” You don’t want to get tossed out for disrupting a performance—and she never stays past intermission, anyway. 😉