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The Dirt on Divas





By Manuela Hoelterhoff

Random House

$25, 288 pp.

"Is there another art form that attracts so many sublime sufferers and so many nuts?" asks Manuella Hoelterhoff in her new book Cinderella & Company: Backstage at the Opera with Cecilia Bartoli. The narrative, loosely based on a two-year period in the life of the world famous mezzo-soprano, provides a way for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hoelterhoff to expose all the craziness of the opera world. Her readable anecdotes of eccentric divas, push managers and overweight sopranos give a "behind-the-scenes" picture of opera that will delight everyone from the hard-core opera buffs who live for this kind of gossip, to the opera-newbies who may just want to know something more about the performers than what they can get from the programs or liner notes.

This pseudo-biography of Cecilia Bartoli is in fact only a way for Hoelteroff to neatly package all of the opera gossip that she has collected over a lifetime of being a devoted (obsessive?) opera fan and a cultural critic for the Wall Street Journal. Although Bartoli's seductive portrait is emblazoned on the cover and her name is included in the title, Bartoli remains elusive in the narrative. Hoelterhoff followed the shy off-stage mezzo on and off from 1995 to 1997 and attempted to capture her "rags to riches" story by making a parallel between Bartoli and her signature role as Cinderella in Rossini's Cenerentola. Bartoli's story, however, is quickly overshadowed and nearly buried by the more colorful personalities that she encounters. After a lazy dialogue between the author and Bartoli, we meet Bartoli's doctor, who speaks "with the enthusiasm of someone who had just glimpsed the Zabar's deli counter for the first time," while looking at Bartoli's oscillating vocal folds through a tube while singing a high F. The introduction of each new personality takes the author on tangents that lead farther and farther from Bartoli. Yet, this was probably exactly what Bartoli wanted. By allowing Hoelterhoff access to the backstage of the opera world, Bartoli had the right to read everything in the book and to have some control over how she was portrayed. Because of this, Hoelterhoff only briefly mentions Bartoli's gradual weight gain and only paints a few unflattering portraits of the pasta-eating mezzo. This is not to say that Hoelterhoff pulled any punches with Bartoli's colleagues. Hoelterhoff seems obsessed with the gargantuan proportions of some of today's most well-known sopranos.

We all know that it's not over till the fat lady sings, and this book wouldn't be complete without the chapter titled "Clean Plate Club." Hoelterhoff throws political correctness to the wind in her descriptions of the "Three Tonners": Debora Voigt, Sharon Sweet and Jane Eaglen. In her merciless critique, she explains the difficulties of having hugely overweight leads playing believable romantic roles. In one version of La Boheme, with Jane Eaglan as Mimi, the Met had to build a bed that sunk with her weight to help some of the extra bulk. Hoelterhoff fills the chapter out with a mock "Diva Diet," which begins with a slice of toast for breakfast and ends with an "entire frozen Sara Lee cheesecake" for a late-night snack.

Keeping on the subject of "larger than life" singers, Hoelterhoff manages to continually weave in the story of everyone's favorite tenor, Lucianno Pavarotti. Told with a tinge of sympathy and pity, she traces the last moments of a tenor past his prime, who has constant memory lapses and has to transpose all of his arias down to avoid the dreaded high Cs, yet desperately does not want to leave the public spotlight. Like Bartoli, even Mr. P (as Hoelteroff affectionately calls the Italian tenor) is overshadowed by the more provocative characters surrounding him. Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti's "motor-mouthed, bullet-headed, forever-tan egomaniac" publicist, adds a touch of much needed vulgarity to the usually cordial dialogue. For him, everything the press writes isn't worth "a thimble-full of rat's piss." Always mentioned in the same breath as the faltering Mr. P is the superhuman Placido Domingo (everyone's second favorite tenor.) Hoelterhoff describes Domingo's unfailing energy, which allows him to conduct a matinee performance of one opera, star as lead role in another opera that evening, then hop on a plane to the other side of the country to fill in as a sub for a sick Othello.

For the true opera lover that loves to soak up every last bit of juicy opera gossip, this is a book that could easily be read in one sitting, as the comments on the back of the book jacket profess. For all of those sane, not-yet-obsessed opera fans, however, the book will take a little more effort. Although written in a relaxed, unpretentious style, the narrative is inundated with the names of every important performer, publicist, conductor and record company CEO in the business, not to mention the titles and allusions to plot synopses of most of the major operas. With the effort though, anyone who reads this will emerge from this book with a new appreciation for all of those "sublime sufferers and nuts."

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