Pagliacci, props and peril

David RendallThe picture on the left is yours truly as Canio in Pagliacci. In 1998 (a year or so after my Pagliacci performances in Portland, Oregon) I was invited to Milwaukee in Wisconsin by the conductor Jo Rescigno (the nephew of Nicolo Rescigno with whom I had performed at the Met and in San Francisco) to reprise the role, albeit in a different production with the Florentine Opera Company.

Milwaukee is known as the beer capital of the world, being home to several breweries – Miller and Schlitz to name just two.  The world-famous motor cycle manufacturer, Harley Davidson is located there as well. As things turned out, it also appears to be the home of misfortune and near death experiences.

About a week into rehearsals, we finally got to the last scene, which takes the form of a play within the opera.  By this point, Canio is in a jealous rage as he tries to get his wife, Nedda, to reveal the name of her secret lover.  He stabs her, and, as she dies, she calls out for Silvio, who is in the audience, watching.  Canio approaches Silvio, says ‘Ah, sei tu. Ben venga!’ (‘Ah, it’s you. Welcome!’), and stabs him too. When we first started rehearsing this scene I complained about the knife I was given to use.  It was a real commando knife – push a button and a three-inch blade shot out, push the button again and the blade retracted.  I said that it wasn’t safe, and insisted on a plastic stage knife, where the blade is on a spring, and of no danger whatsoever to anybody.  The armourer assured me that the commando knife was completely safe but said that I would have what I wanted in a couple of days.

How wrong he was!

When stabbing someone on stage, the attacker lunges forward, while the victim concaves his upper torso and retreats, thereby creating more space between them both.  Unfortunately, Kimm Julian (the baritone playing Silvio) struggled to coordinate the movements, and tended to arch his back, thereby  pushing his belly towards the oncoming knife. After each run-through of that scene, my reaction (as Canio) was to withdraw, see what I had done and drop the knife.  We did this at least twelve times in the afternoon rehearsal, when I asked to do the whole movement in slow motion.  I did it first with the stage director and then with Kimm.  He did exactly the same as he had on previous occasions, lunging forward with his belly, instead of the concave movement and  the retreat.  As I began the movement, the blade on the knife was out, and when I lunged forward, I pushed the button for the blade to retract.  When I pulled back after that move, I pushed the button a second time for the blade to come out again.  I saw that the blade was already out so pushed the button again and again – the mechanism had broken.

I looked at my colleague and asked if I had made contact with him. He said that I hadn’t. Three or four minutes later he went as white as a sheet and collapsed on the floor, blood oozing through his shirt.  The stage manager called 911, said that there had been a stabbing and that an ambulance was required urgently.

The police arrived much faster than the ambulance, and they demanded explanations as to what had happened and why.  Thinking that I had possibly killed my colleague, I was in tears when the police asked me to explain, so the stage director told the police that he would relate the events leading up to the stabbing.  He started by pointing at me, and said that I had just found out that my wife (pointing at Nedda) had been having an affair with Silvio (pointing to the unfortunate man on the floor), and that I had approached him and stabbed him.  HE WAS TELLING THEM THE PLOT OF THE OPERA, and not what had actually happened.  I was immediately handcuffed, manhandled and almost dragged to an empty room next to the rehearsal room.  Within minutes, the State Police arrived and the interrogation started.  I was locked in that room with two very aggressive law enforcement officers for several hours before I was allowed to make a phone call to my wife back home in England, this being supervised by the cops with one on each side of me listening intently to my conversation.

During this time Kimm was taken to hospital, where he had to undergo immediate surgery to save his life.  I was eventually freed after about five hours, having eventually made the police understand (with the backing of my colleagues) what had really happened.  We all left the rehearsal building together and went to a pub to calm ourselves down, me in particular.  After several beers, I was taken back to the apartment hotel where I was staying, only to find that there were television cameras waiting at the front.  I was taken into the hotel via the back door, and went straight to my room.  The following morning, I was to go to the opera company offices to discuss what had happened.  The TV stations and reporters were still there at the front door, so I had to use the back door again.

At the company offices I was given a whole load of newspapers, including the New York Times, and on the front page of each was the headline ‘BRITISH TENOR STABS COLLEAGUE’.  It went global from there, hitting the front page of every London newspaper, the whole of Europe, Australia and so on.  The gravel track outside my home back in the UK was filled with cars and vans and the paparazzi that drove them, each trying to get an interview with my wife and anybody else in the household, all of whom declined.  Apparently, my gardener turned up and, being a bit of a country bumpkin, told them that I was pretty good with a knife. The London Times pictured me as Otello, wealding a huge knife, and of course, as journalists do, blew everything out of proportion. In my research for this blog post I re-read some of the articles concerning the incident. Several of them said that the stabbing occurred during a performance, that the audience could hear the scream of Silvio as he was wounded, and that they could see the blood pouring out of the wound.  What a lot of old **** (sounds like ‘trap’)

Later that day (the day after the accident), I went to see Kimm in the hospital.  Again, the TV cameras were there with their news reporters but I declined to give an interview until I had seen my colleague.  I was told that the knife wound had just missed the peritoneum by a millimetre, and that had it punctured it, Kim could have died.  He looked somewhat worse for wear and very grey in colour, but was sitting up in bed.  Kim and I, together with the CEO of the Florentine Opera Company decided to give an interview to the media. I was told, a few days later, that this episode had caused so much publicity (which didn’t even have to be paid for), that the opera sold out immediately with enough requests for a further four or five performances, which unfortunately we were unable to do.

Kim went back to Minneapolis, and his Harley Davidson followed in a tow truck.  A replacement Silvio was found in Chicago – a young ethnic American Indian – who took over the performances with great success.

At the end of the run of performances, before my departure home, I had a final meeting with the management of the opera company, who told me that they had received emails regarding the incident from Australia.  They were from my ex-wife, who stated ‘This isn’t the first time he has stabbed somebody’.  I will go into this further in another blog post, as it is a story really well worth reading. I kept in contact with Kim over the following months, and he returned to his career, in a role for Washington Opera in DC, about three months after the incident.

I hopefully will be adding some more attachments to this blog post, but they haven’t arrived yet, so please come back occasionally to check things out.

My rendition, in the Portland production, of Canio’s two great arias are available on the home page of this blog. Some time later, I performed ‘Vesti la giubba’ (amongst other arias and duets)  in a concert televised by BBC Wales from St. David’s Hall in Cardiff. Here is that performance.



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