The Last Laugh


In his autobiography, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf couldn’t resist passing along a story that suggests how seriously eighteenth-century Venetians took their music.

The famous castrato Guadagni had given three fine performances in an opera that was a particular favorite of Venetians. But after an argument with the impresario, he decided to sabotage the opera by pretending to forget his part. After two appeals from audience representatives, Guadagni howled instead of singing and stood stock still instead of acting. Dittersdorf expressed his bewilderment:

Who would not have thought that the audience would run him off the stage with rotten apples and oranges, according to its usual custom? Contrary to all expectation, the performance went on quietly to the end.

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The payback would be more frightening.

After the opera Guadagni, still in costume, was about to get into his gondola when four masked abductors blindfolded him and hauled him into a scantly furnished room. Two men brought in a table with a good supper on it. The hungry singer sat down to eat.

“Hands off, sir,” said one of the captors. “Unless you sing, you’ll get not one bite.”

Guadagni refused and the table was carried away. The scene repeated itself for two days until an irresistible soup prompted Guadagni to say, “I would rather sing than starve.”

“That is not enough,” said the masked man. “If you do not sing—yes, and sing your very best—and act in the bargain, the soup goes out the door!”

Guadagni sang and acted as if impelled by pure love of art.

“Bravo, bravissimo!” exclaimed all the masked critics, clapping their hands. Laughing, they unmasked. The singer found himself face to face with a group of hangmen.

“I am commissioned to warn you to do your duty at all future performances,” the spokesman said. “If you do not, you may be sure that the Senate will treat a second insult far more seriously.”

There was no second insult.