Monday, 3 December 2018

A Strange Night at the Opera with James Joyce

Here's a lovely illustration by Carl Flint from his book with David Norris, Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide, 2012. It shows a night at the Paris Opera in July 1930, with John Sullivan singing his famous 'topseasoarious' role in William Tell. Joyce's extraordinary behaviour was reported in the international press:

'The audience were witnesses of a dramatic scene which exceeded in intensity the drama being placed on stage...A sudden hush fell...when a man in one of the boxes, whom many recognised as James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet, dramatically leaned forward, raised a pair of heavy dark glasses from his eyes, and exclaimed: 'Merci, mon Dieu, pour ce miracle. Apres vingt ans, je revois la lumiere.'*

Ellmann 1982 p 625, quoting articles in L'Intermediare 5 July 1930  and the Daily Express 1 July 1930

*'Thank you my God for this miracle. After twenty years I see the light once more'

Joyce did indeed stage a dramatic publicity stunt that night in Paris, but I don't believe that it happened the way the press reported it.  For one thing, he never sat in the box at the opera. With his bad eyesight, he always sat at the front of the stalls. Remembering this night later to Frank Budgen, Joyce talked about 'my antics in the stalls of the Paris Opera.' So if Joyce really did lean forward and remove his glasses most people in the audience would only have seen the back of his head. Also 'after twenty years' would make him unable to see since 1910!

Here's Joyce, with Augustus John, wearing those dark glasses. On 15 May 1930, he'd had his ninth eye operation, in Zuruch, and been given these glasses to protect his left eye while it healed. On 15 June, Nora Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver that the surgeon, Dr Alfred Vogt, 'found great progress in the sight' but added 'My husband asks you not to speak of his eyes to anyone till I write again.' (Letters III p198).

Ellmann, who takes the press story at face value, says in a footnote, 'Joyce wanted to keep his recovery secret because he was concocting a publicity stunt to aid...John Sulivan'.


On his return from Zurich to Paris, Joyce learned that the Italian star tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, had received a glowing review for singing Arnold in William Tell at the Paris Opera.  Listening to him sing, here, I can understand why.

However, Joyce believed that only John Sullivan had the right to sing this role.

'Joyce once remarked, 'I have been through the score of Guillaume Tell, and I discover that Sullivan sings 456 G's, 93 A flats, 92 A's, 54 B flats, 15 B's, 19 C's and two C sharps. Nobody else can do it.''

Herbert Gorman, James Joyce 1941, p 343

We have Joyce's own version of what followed in a letter, written several years later, from Paul Léon to Frank Budgen

'Perhaps Léon, who is typing this will shoot you off a pen-picture describing my antics in the stalls of the Paris Opera for the scandal of the blasé-abonné, and the ensuing story in the press....

Concert of Volpi heard. Also much talk about a performance of William Tell with Volpi in the part of Arnold. Conversations with Sullivan establish that Volpi had the entire score cut by some half of it and the key lowered by a half note. This Volpi performance is narrated with all sorts of compliments in the N.Y. Herald by their official music critic (M.Louis Schneider). Immediately a letter is written to him containing a wager by Sullivan to let him and Volpi sing both the part of Arnold in any concert hall – the arbiter to be Mr Schneider....Naturally no reply from either Schneider or Volpi (considering Schneider had written that nobody at present could sing the part of Arnold as had been done by Volpi).'

Paul Leon to Frank Budgen, 29 January 1938, quoted by Budgen in James Joyce and The Making of Ulysses, p362-3

Yes, to help Sullivan, Joyce engineered a feud between him and Lauri-Volpi!  Joyce wrote letters to the New York Herald and Paris newspapers issuing the challenge, and persuaded Sullivan to sign them.  

'I challenge M.Lauri-Volpi to sing this role in the way his compatriot Rossini wrote it and in the way I myself have sung it hundreds of times in the principal cities of France, Belgium, and even of Italy, where this opera, buried for want of a tenor who could sing it since the death of the celebrated Tamagno (who sang it last in 1889), was resuscitated by me in 1922.'

quoted by Ellmann James Joyce 1982, p624

Sullivan's biographer Francois Nouvion says that the singer 'found the whole thing completely ridiculous, but in view of his friendship with Joyce, he signed the letter.' By doing this, he'd made a lasting enemy of Giacomo Lauri-VolpiThe Italian later got his revenge in his book Voci Paralelle, where he presented Sullivan as a drunk and a failure:

'John O'Sullivan is another Irish tenor, but from another time. Carelli called him the tenor of two notes. He would rouse the stalls in Ugonotti and Guiglielmo Tell....Sullivan triumphed in Ugonotti and flopped in Guiglielmo Tell. Devoted to Bacchus his career was short.'

quoted by Francois Nouvion, Asile Hereditaire: The Life and Career of John Sullivan, 2012



Continuing with Leon's letter to Frank Budgen:

'A week later – performance of Guillame Tell with Sullivan. Sitting in the fifth row right aisle next to the passage your obedient servant next to him JJ next to him, Mrs Leon and next to her Mrs J – somewhere in the stalls an Irish Miss correspondent of some paper, and a gentleman correspondent of the Neue Zuricher Zeitung.

First and second act pass with great applause. J.J. being greatly enthused. Third act where there is no Sullivan on the stage spent in the buffet.

Fourth act after the aria 'Asile hereditaire' sung with great brio and real feeling by S. applause interminable. J.J. excited to the extreme shouts, 'Bravo Sullivan – Merde pour Lauri Volpi'. The abonnés...rather astonished, one of them saying: Il va un peu fort celuis-la.*

Half an hour later: at the Café de la Paix. Great conversation in which S. joins after he has changed clothes. At the moment of parting the correspondent having been talked to all evening about music approaches J.J. with the following words:

The Correspondent: Thank you so much for the delightful evening. I have some pull with my paper and should you wish I could arrange for an article or two to appear there about your Paris impressions.
JJ: Many thanks but I never write for the newspapers.
The Correspondent: Oh! I see you are simply a musical critic.
Next day an article in the press. Mr J.J. returned from Z'ch after a successful operation goes with friends to the Opera to hear his compatriot S. sing William Tell. Sitting in a box. After the fourth act aria he takes off his spectacles and is heard saying, 'Thank God I have recovered my eyesight.''

* 'He's going a bit strong, that one'

So in this letter, Joyce is presenting the miraculous cure stunt as a press invention. Ellmann believed that Joyce was being misleading here, but why would he do this while admitting to shouting 'Shit!' in the Paris Opera House?

We have another witness of that evening, Lucie Léon, who describes what happened in her book, James Joyce and Paul Léon: The Story of a Friendship, 1950

Although she dates this to 1936, this is clearly the same event described in the letter to Frank Budgen.  Lucie Léon was sitting right next to Joyce, yet she makes no mention of him dramatically removing his spectacles.

Lucie Léon recalled the evening again, in 1972, when she was interviewed by Arnold Goldman for his Radio 3 documentary on Sullivan and Joyce:

'After the famous aria people clapped  and Mr Joyce suddenly stood up in his seat, started waving his cane and his hat, and in his best French right out loud, he said: Bravo Sullivan, et merde pour Lauri-Volpi. I must say it brought the house down. and Joyce was very pleased with himself.'

''Send him Canorious' – Arnold Goldman writes about James Joyce's 'Sullivanising'',  The Listener, 3 August 1972.

It strikes me that Joyce causing a scene at the opera was newsworthy, but the journalists wanted to tell the story without using the word 'shit', and so one of them invented the 'Merci mon Dieu' story. It's also possible that Joyce suggested this 'miraculous cure' angle to the correspondent from the Neue Zuricher Zeitung, in the conversation at the Café de la Paix after the show.

So this is how I picture the scene, with Joyce waving his opera 'cliqueclaquehat' and cane. 

I think that this kind of behaviour was unusual in Paris, but very common in the Italian theatres where Joyce developed his opera-going habits. La Scala in Milan is still notorious for booing opera singers.

'Roberto Alagna, the Parisian tenor of Sicilian origin, has decided not to return to La Scala this November as Massenet’s Werther after an eight-year absence. The reason: he did not want to endure the catcalls of the loggionisti, those self-appointed arbiters of taste and guardians of tradition, who like to boo, jeer and audibly comment during performances.'

Fred Plotkin, 'Does Booing at La Scala Ruin the show?' WQXR radio

Here's Joyce's description of the lively loggione (gods) of the Teatro Verdi in Trieste: 

'Loggione. The sodden walls ooze a steamy damp. A symphony of smells fuses the mass of huddled human forms: sour reek of armpits, nozzled oranges, melting breast ointments, mastick water, the breath of suppers of sulphurous garlic, foul phosphorescent farts, opoponax, the frank sweat of marriageable and married womankind, the soapy stink of men......'

Giacomo Joyce 



The newspaper story of Joyce miraculously seeing 'the light once more' thanks to Sullivan's astonishing voice is echoed in 'From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer', written two years later. Here Joyce is still mocking Lauri-Volpi, who appears as 'Giaco for luring volupy' alongside Ernesto Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli. The three star Italian tenors stand under a darkened street lamp, which they are unable to re-light. Then Sullivan appears with his bag of tools and 'makes the world go lighter. Lux!'The three tenors stand 'mouthshut' at this demonstration of Sullivan's superiority.

Giovanni Martielli
'Enrico, Giacomo and Giovanni, three dulcetest of our songsters, in liontamers overcoats, holy communion ties and cliqueclaquehats, are met them at a gaslamp. It is kaputt and throws no light at all on the trio’s tussletusculums. Rico is for carousel and Giaco for luring volupy but Nino, the sweetly dulcetest, tuningfork among tenors, for the best of all; after hunger and sex comes dear old somnium, brought on by prayer. Their lays, blent of feastings, June roses and ether, link languidly in the unlit air. Arrives a type in readymade, dicky and bowler hat, manufactured by Common
Enrico Caruso
Sense and Co. Ltd., carrying a bag of tools.
Preludingly he conspews a portugaese into the gutter, recitativing: now then, gents, by your leave! And, to his job. Who is this hardworking guy? No one but Geoge, Geoge who shifts the garbage can*, Geoge who stokes in the engine room, Geoge who has something to say to the gas (tes gueules!) and mills the wheel go right go round and makes the world grow lighter. Lux! The aforesung Henry. James and John stand mouthshut. Wot did I say? Hats off, primi assoluti! Send him canorious, long to lung over us, high topseasoarious! Guard safe our Geoge!'

'From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer', The New Statesman and Nation, 27 February 1932

Sullivan and Joyce
 * 'Joyce was carried away by Sullivan's voice. He said to me that it was cleansing and reminded him of the men that came for the garbage in the early morning.'

Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, p.188