Smoking at the Opera

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Recently, in the American South, I saw a woman of a certain age enjoying a cigarette all too much. And then she enjoyed another. And another. Someone in our group said to her, “You are going to die a slow death smoking all of those cigarettes.” To which came a languorous retort, “Well, I don’t want to die a fast death, now do I?”

In noticing that Carmen, perhaps the most tobacco-stained character in all of opera, returns to the Metropolitan Opera Friday, I began to think about the seldom-discussed topic of smoking in the opera world. Carmen works in a cigarette factory in Seville and gets into lots of trouble when she is not rolling tobacco into paper. Did you know that, for a long time, the biggest business in Bayreuth, apart from everything Wagnerian, was a cigarette factory? 

Real cigarettes are seldom used on stage, whether in opera or plays. Instead, there are so-called herbal cigarettes that have a rather funky smell.

Although I have never smoked a cigarette (the smell makes me sick!), I recognize that smoking, for those who do it, is not always perceived as an addiction but as a pleasure. I enjoy my pleasures too, some of which are taxable, as is smoking. The most obvious issue about smoking, of course, is that it is indisputably bad for your health.

Let us not forget that smoking cigarettes, especially from the 1940s through 1960s, was considered elegant, sexy and the epitome of cool. Humphrey Bogart (who died of lung cancer at age 57) always had one, as did Bette Davis. Is there a more suggestive and romantic scene in movies than Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one to Davis in Now, Voyager? I think this film would make a great opera and I nominate Jake Heggie to write it.

If tobacco companies always knew about the lethal effects of their products, the imagery they purveyed was quite different. In the post-war era, advertising made smoking seem incredibly appealing, with brawny men and pencil-thin women in gowns deriving sensual pleasure from every puff. Even doctors smoked, if we believe the ads for Camels in which there was often the subtle suggestion that smoking was actually good for you.

While all the brands were glad to hook a smoker (my trombone-playing father smoked Newports but somehow always had sufficient breath), Camel cigarettes promoted itself as less impactful on the throat and used opera singers in advertisements. One of them was Marguerite Piazza, the American opera singer who also performed in nightclubs, who died of congestive heart failure at the age of 86. Piazza, a smoker, successfully battled cancer in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when fewer people survived that illness. Here she is in an ad for Camel cigarettes.

There was also an ad for Camels featuring baritone Robert Merrill. In it, he was asked, rhetorically, "Why do so many singing stars smoke Camels?” He responded, “In my case, what with rehearsals, heavy schedules at the opera, TV shows, concert tours, I can’t take chances with my throat.” The implication was that Camel cigarettes were mild enough that the throat would not be harmed. At the end of the ad, a note is posted, “Make a note, think of your throat”

I have read, but cannot confirm, that baritone Sherrill Milnes not only was a smoker but was, for a time, the Marlboro Man. This inevitably brings to mind another smoking opera, La Fanciulla del West. Set in the saloons and miner’s camps of the High Sierra in California, Puccini’s opera is a natural setting for lots of smoking by the lonely men seeking their fortune there as well as the Native Americans who are nearby. This production at the Met from 1992 stars Barbara Daniels as Minnie, Plácido Domingo as Dick Johnson and Milnes as the Sheriff Jack Rance.

While many composers smoked (Sibelius had mouth and throat cancer in middle age but successfully survived surgery and lived to age 92), no one smoked as much as Puccini. He often had had 90 cigarettes and Toscanello cigars a day. At his villa in Torre del Lago, you see ashtrays on the piano at which he composed and more of them scattered throughout the room. One can imagine him pacing, late at night with cigarettes in each ashtray, as he summoned the muse. Sadly, Puccini died at the age of 64 of complications from surgery for mouth and throat cancer.

Opera characters who smoke are typically found in works that have some degree of naturalism and resemblance to everyday life. Cio-Cio-San offers Sharpless an American cigarette in Madama Butterfly. Alfio, the carter in Cavalleria Rusticana, often has a small cigar in his craw even if he does not smoke it. Daland in Der fliegende Holländer frequently has a cigar as a prop. Balstrode, the retired merchant skipper in Peter Grimes, often is seen with a pipe that he smokes meditatively. In the current Met production of Die Fledermaus, the prison governor Frank dozes off while smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper, only to be awakened when the paper catches fire. I have seen several productions of Lulu in which the title character and Frau Geschwitz smoke suggestively about sex that might or might not happen. I even saw a Der Rosenkavalier, updated to the 1930s, in which the Marschallin and Octavian enjoy a post-coital smoke.

You would think that, with all we know about the terrible consequences of smoking, that opera singers would not go near tobacco. And yet, one of the world’s best singers is a very heavy smoker. I have seen him in social occasions exit several times in an evening to have a smoke. He is the kind of smoker who, between courses of a meal, gets up to smoke. I recently saw him in the audience in a theater where he was to sing the next night. I could not help but wonder if he would dart out at the intermission for a cigarette, which he did. Inevitably, when he sang the next night, the fact that he smokes so heavily entered my thoughts. He is still relatively young but this kind of smoking will inevitably affect his breathing, his breath control and perhaps result in something more grave than that.

A great soprano star, famous for her phenomenal breath control, smoked often though not nearly as frequently as the male star described above. Yet she had quite a long career and one would not know, from her singing, that she ever smoked. She is someone who famously had health problems during her career and I always wondered why she smoked. I think it was a combination of pleasure, addiction and a calming of nerves.

Many ballet dancers smoke. Some have told me that they do it to keep their weight down (with a cigarette in the mouth they are less likely to eat) while others do it to quell nerves. I once saw the stupendous ballerina Cynthia Gregory rehearse the 32 pirouettes of Odile (the Black Swan) in Swan Lake with a cigarette in her mouth. You can watch her and Fernando Bujones in the pas de deux. (The pirouettes start at 10’50”—imagine her doing this while holding on to a cigarette between her lips!)

Rock stars, jazz musicians, orchestra players and many actors often smoke in designated areas. Can you imagine Keith Richards and his guitar without the cigarette dangling from his lips? And, of course, many audience members still smoke. I remember that at the Met, in the 1980s, the lobby was divided by an imaginary line so that one half was for smokers (it had ashtrays) and the other was for non-smokers. This was silly because all that so-called passive smoke wafted throughout the entire lobby.

Tobacco companies, especially in America, have seen their markets cut radically thanks to anti-smoking legislation and health initiatives. Some, such as Philip Morris, now under the corporate name Altria, have tried to establish an identity as generous donors to arts organizations, many of them either edgy or quite needy. Should an arts organization accept donations from a company whose products are known to be very bad for one’s health?

I conduct my life with the belief that we should live and let live. If smokers wish to smoke, they should be able to do so in places where they do no harm to non-smokers. Public health officials and New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg are correct that no one should unwillingly be forced to breathe in smoke. To this I would add that no one should be forced to be exposed to excessive noise, which also is very bad for one’s health. Take a deep breath and weigh in with your opinions on these topics below.