My South American trip took place in 1981 to Caracas in Venezuela, where I was engaged to sing in Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s La traviata. The performances were due to take place in a new theatre – the Fundación Teresa Carreño. However, the theatre was still under construction, so all we could do was to rehearse there; the performances would take place at the Teatro Municipal.
The first opera – Faust – was conducted by Carlo Franci. Méphistophélès was played by Justino Diaz, and the Marguerite was Adriana Maliponte. I don’t remember who the Siebel and Valentin were but I, of course, sang the role of Faust. In the theatre, when you have been working with your colleagues for some time, you tend to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek and, before a performance, you would say ‘Toi, toi, toi’ (for the Germans), ‘Merde’ (for the French), ‘In bocca al lupo’ (for the Italians) and ‘Break a leg’ (for the Americans). We Brits have adopted ‘Toi, toi, toi’, which represents spitting over the shoulder of your colleague – a sign of good luck (words which should never be said!)
Well, before the first night, I greeted my colleagues in the above manner, only to be pushed aside by the husband of the woman playing Siebel. Screaming at me in colloquial Spanish, he basically accused me of having an affair with his wife, and demanded to know how I dared kiss her. Then he reached inside his jacket, pulled out a gun and pointed it at me. Thank God that my manager, Alfredo Strade was there to intervene. I don’t know exactly what was said, but he stood between us and told me to leave.This made me very nervous for the first night, which was about to start.
Before the curtain went up on the performance Strade came to me and told me to hang onto the high C at the end of my big aria, ‘Salut! demeure chaste e pure’, for as long as I could. I demurred, as I thought that it would be a bit tasteless, but he assured me that if I did, I would have tumultuous applause. I did what he said, and it worked. Here’s the recording of that performance of the aria – see what you think.
Faust, ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’ Caracas, 1981
The next opera (there were only two performances of each) was La Traviata, which went without any problems or incidents. Here I am, singing Alfredo’s scene from the opening of Act 2.
La traviata, ‘Lunge da lei … De’ miei bollenti spiriti … O, mio rimorso’ Caracas, 1981
My father had an ex-work colleague who was living in Caracas, to whom I gave my complimentary tickets to both operas. He asked me if there was anything I would like to take home as a ‘thank you’. I said that I would like some Colombian coffee. The day before I left he arrived at my hotel, the Anauco Hilton, with a brand new suitcase which had ten kilos of freshly roasted high quality coffee inside.
My flight the next day to London was via Miami with a short stopover. On arrival at Heathrow airport, I went through the ‘nothing to declare’ channel and was pulled aside. I had been followed by a customs official whose sniffer dog had shown some interest in my suitcases! I was ordered to open them, and when they saw the coffee they looked triumphant. Each one-kilo bag was slashed open and the beans were emptied into the case. The officials then asked me where ‘it’ was. “What is ‘it’?” I said, and was told not to be naïve. I was then taken into a side room, where I had to wait for a doctor. When he arrived, I was told to strip, and was given a full cavity examination! I objected profusely at the way I was being treated, but the more I complained the nastier things became. It was a humiliating and very rough examination, involving rubber gloves and some kind of jelly. After about 3 hours or so I was allowed to leave without a word of apology, my coffee now rattling in the suitcase. I re-bagged the beans when I arrived home and froze them to retain the freshness.
That batch of coffee didn’t last as long as I would have liked, as my ex-wife made litre after litre – but not to drink. She was training to become a dietary therapist, and used the coffee, once cooled and strained, as a colonic irrigation for herself and her patients. She would put the liquid in a gravity feed enema bag and insert the tube where the sun doesn’t shine, retaining it in that dark place for up to 20 minutes. This put me off drinking coffee for a very long time.