Over the decades, the Metropolitan Opera has seen more than its share of death scenes. Many concerned the unfortunate if melodious victims of homicide, suicide or failing health who never made it to the final curtain (sometimes not even through the first act) and died in the spirit of grand opera. Of course, opera’s “dead” would rise again and proudly take their bows to the applause of appreciative audiences. But that eccentric and unpredictable fellow the Grim Reaper, who lies in wait for us all (whether or not we’re on or off stage), often has plans that go above and beyond the libretto. Since 1960, at least five to ten real deaths actually occurred at the Met.
Among these deaths, according to Wikipedia, the following:
March 4, 1960: Leonard Warren “died of a stroke onstage after completing the aria ‘Urna fatale’ in act two of Verdi‘s “La Forza del Destino.”
April 30, 1977: Betty Stone, a member of the Met chorus, “was killed in an accident offstage during a tour performance of ‘Il Trovatore’ in Cleveland.”
July 23, 1980: Helen Hagnes Mintiks, a “young Canadian-born violinist, was found dead at the bottom of an air shaft at the Met. Mintiks had been murdered by a stagehand, Craig Crimmins, during a performance of the Berlin Ballet. The investigation and trial were chronicled in the book Murder at the Met by David Black.”
January 5, 1996: tenor Richard Versalle died while playing the clerkportraying Vitek (an elderly law clerk) in what was to have been the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. Versalle was climbing a 20-foot ladder in the opening scene when he suffered a heart attack and fell to the stage.”
But the most famous of these incidents concerned the suicide of opera-goer Bantcho Bantchevsky on January 29, 1988 during an intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth.
Bantcho Bantchevsky was born in 1906 in Bulgaria and had a lifelong passion for music. He studied at the Sofia Conservatory, learning piano and flute, but his special love was in his study of opera. Establishing himself on Rakovska Street in Sofia (Bulgaria’s “Little Broadway”) he soon became quite well-known in the 1930s. After it allied itself with the Soviet Union, Bantchevsky left Bulgaria. He sang opera in Czechoslovakia and Austria, also appearing in films and plays in Berlin, including a small part in Macbeth. He emigrated to America in the 1950s and, and when he couldn’t find work as a performer, became a singing coach; gradually evolving into a well-known fixture at the Metropolitan Opera.
More than performing or coaching was his devoted love in attending the opera. With tickets given to him by friends in the opera company, he would usually have an orchestra seat. Three weeks before his death, he suffered a minor heart attack but quickly checked himself out of the hospital after a few days. However, friends observed that his usual cheerful disposition had all but vanished and he seemed irritable and remote.
On January 29, 1988 Bantchevsky attended a Saturday afternoon performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth.” He chose to sit in the Family Circle, the highest level balcony section, far indeed from his customary seating. Many witnesses later reported that he was causing several disturbances throughout the performance. During the intermission between the second and third acts, Bantchevsky perched himself on the balcony’s railing. When asked to come down by an usher, he leaned back and fell off, striking his head on another railing and crashing onto an aisle off the orchestra; he died instantly. This was the first and only suicide at the Met, which gave Bantcho Bantchevsky his only (if deadly) claim to fame. He was 82…beloved by those who knew him in better days.
Bantchevsky’s suicide, and various other scenes of death and absurdity at the Met, could be found in “Molto Agitato”: a comprehensive examination of opera’s darker, sillier and more unfortunate side.
And people wonder why I love opera so much!!!