'60 Minutes' Story About Singer Hits False Note

October 15, 2004 -Poynter Online

Ever hear something on the air that stops you cold? And makes you wonder, “Could that be true?” That happened to me recently while watching CBS's Sunday newsmagazine, “60 Minutes.” A correspondent began his story:

“Just what is it that sets Placido Domingo apart from the greats of the operatic stage? Well, look up ‘applause' in 'The Guinness Book of Records,' and you'll see that an audience cheered him after a performance for an hour and 20 minutes nonstop. Fair to say no audience in history has ever seen anything quite like it, and for opera, that's just the problem. After Domingo, then what?” (May 16, 2004)

What stopped me cold was nonstop. And how could the correspondent, Scott Pelley, know that no audience in history has ever seen anything quite like it? Has a central registry been keeping stats on all gatherings since the Stone Age?

Curious, I followed the correspondent's suggestion and looked up applause. Turned out, though, the index to Guinness World Records 2004 does not list applause. And no clapping, no curtain call. Nor does the index of last year's Guinness list applause. And no Domingo, either. Same for the index of the 2005 Guinness: no applause, no clapping, no curtain calls, no Domingo. The correspondent referred to The Guinness Book of Records, but the book has not carried that title for five years.

You can find the purported event through the index of the 2002 Guinness—but not by looking up applause; there is none. You need to look up Domingo. The entry credits the “longest applause” to him for “1 hr. 20 min. through 101 curtain calls after a performance of Otello…at the Vienna Staatsoper….” Then you'll see a date for the performance: July 30, 1991. The year is right, but Guinness has the month wrong. The correct date: June 30.

At first, my raising questions about the “60 Minutes” story seemed like a trivial pursuit. But the more I poked around, the more my search became a reportorial challenge: tracking down sources and trying to sort out conflicting information, all in an effort to find the cause of the correspondent's false start.

Back to our fact-finding expedition: Domingo's “longest applause” in 1991 might have occurred too late for inclusion in the 1992 Guinness but probably not too late for the 1993 Guinness. Yet, if you look up applause in the ‘93 index, you're referred to clapping. And that leads to: “Most curtain calls. On 24 Feb. 1988 Luciano Pavarotti…received 165 curtain calls and was applauded for 1 hr. 7 min. after singing the part of Nemorino in…Donizetti's L'elisir [correct: L'Elisir] d'Amore at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin….” But no Domingo.

Even so, the Guinness Web site currently includes both Pavarotti's and Domingo's ovations. About Domingo, the site says: “Thunderous clapping echoed around [how about inside?] the Vienna Staatsopher [sic] on the warm summer evening of July 30 [sic], 1991, for one hour and 20 minutes, setting a new record [my goodness, Guinness, new record is redundant] for the world's longest applause ever [ever? anywhere? for anything?]. The audience, who had just reveled in a performance of a lifetime by Placido Domingo in Othello [sic], responded by rising to their feet and clapping through encore after encore—101 curtain calls to be exact.” (Encore? An encore is a plea by an audience for an additional performance, or it's the performance itself. Guinness doesn't specify.)

The first time a Guinness book reported the 1991 Otello ovation—the “longest applause”—came in the 1998 edition, seven years after the event. The Domingo item was printed right below Pavarotti and his curtain calls. The Domingo entry also ran in the next two editions. The 2001 book skipped it, but it reappeared in 2002, then disappeared.

If you accept the Guinness Web site's entries, Pavarotti's audience in Berlin apparently applauded twice as fast as Domingo's audience in Vienna: the Berliners registered one curtain call every 24.3 seconds, more than two a minute; Viennese registered one every 47.5 seconds. How did Berlin outclap Vienna, 2 to 1? Maybe the Berliners clapped more briskly. Maybe the Viennese clapped in waltz time. Or the Scorekeeper's stopwatch malfunctioned.

An on-stage observer of the Otello in question—and a leading participant, too—was the baritone Sherrill Milnes. He recalled, as quoted in Placido Domingo: My Operatic Roles: “There were 58 curtain calls [after Domingo's first Otello, in Hamburg, Germany, in 1975], but believe it or not, this is not the most we got after an Otello. That record goes to the last of a run of performances at the Vienna State Opera in 1989, which also happened to be the last performance of the season. Again, Katia [Ricciarelli] was Desdemona, and the conductor was Michael Schoenwandt. Right from the start, we felt a sort of electricity in the air, the feeling that tonight the stars are in the right place—a Sternstunde [great moment], as it's rightly called in German—and by the end of our Act II Otello-Iago duet the place exploded! It went berserk! And at the end, we took our bows, the soli, the tutti, and half an hour or 40 or 50 curtain calls after, we were still there. By then we were all getting tired of smiling, the way that you do at wedding receptions, and finally an hour and a half and 101 curtain calls later, we got away!”

Although Domingo sang the title role in the Vienna Otello, that account did not single out Domingo as the recipient of the audience's plaudits. Rather, in that account in the book (by Helena Matheopoulos, published in 2000), Milnes spoke of the cast's sharing the acclaim. He used we and our several times and tutti (Italian for all).

In 1989, the year Milnes was talking about, Schoenwandt—according to Tenorissimo.com—did not conduct a Vienna Otello. But the site, which calls itself Domingo's official Web site, notes he conducted the Otello there on June 30, 1991. (PlacidoDomingo.com also calls itself Domingo's official site.) Tenorissimo.com quotes the Hamburger Abendblatt of July 2, 1991, as saying Domingo received 80 minutes of bravos, flowers and standing ovations.

But a newspaper in Vienna—not cited by the Domingo Web sites—described the ovation there on June 30, 1991, as a salute to the stars and a tribute to the departing director of Vienna's State Opera. In its review on July 2, Die Presse said there had been 101 curtain calls in an hour and a half. That's 10 minutes longer than reported by Guinness and the German paper.

The first paragraph in the Die Presse review also said the audience had put the final touch to the end of an era. And said many friends of the director's had come to thank him one more time. Above the article, the head focused on the departure of the director.

Otello runs two hours ten minutes. Which means the “longest applause” ran more than half as long as the opera. Did the entire audience hang around all that time or only a claque?

Eight months after the “longest applause,” in February 1992, a British magazine, Classic CD, ran an article saying Domingo had received “the world's longest standing ovation, one hour and 50 minutes.” In Barcelona. In 1986.

Since 1991, more than 20 other magazines (all linked from Tenorissimo.com) have carried long cover stories on Domingo. In only one did I find a reference to a record: Télérama of Dec. 9, 1998. The French magazine said Domingo had made it into “the Book of Records” (not identified) after receiving an ovation of 75 minutes and 87 curtain calls. In Vienna. In 1986.

In 1994, the BBC published Placido Domingo's Tales from the Opera. But one tale it didn't carry was that of Domingo's “record” of 1991. So I recently e-mailed the author, Daniel Snowman, in London, and asked in a P.S.: “Which singer has had the longest applause for a performance? Which opera? Where? When?” Snowman turned the question around and asked me, “What's the answer to your PS???” I told him I didn't know. He responded, “I remember Placido telling me in 1983 that he and [Mirella] Freni had eighty-odd curtain calls over a period of one-and-a-quarter hours at the end of a Vienna Bohème!” Snowman had written about that ovation in his The World of Placido Domingo, published in 1985.

Snowman's recollection is echoed in Placido Domingo by Cornelius Schnauber, published in 1994: “Just how enthusiastic the Viennese audience can wax over Domingo is demonstrated by the fact that he once received a seventy-five-minute ovation and 83 curtain calls following a performance of La Bohème there. This one event assured him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the singer with the longest applause in the history of opera.” But Guinness has never proclaimed that a record.

I asked Dr. Schnauber, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, whether that “record” (of 1983) still stands. He e-mailed: “Yes, it is still a record.”

What does the Vienna Staatsoper itself have to say? I sent an e-mail asking who held the record there for applause. The reply (from Brigitta Wutscher in the press office): “It is not possible to answer your request in a real honest kind because the time of applause was never measured.”

So I wrote back and asked her, again in English, about curtain calls. No reply. But my translator, Annette Leyssner, a German student in the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, phoned Vienna's Staatsoper and spoke with a man in the press office. Then she e-mailed me: “As far as they are concerned, Ljuba [Welitsch] got the most [curtain calls] for ‘Salome.' But they were not very precise and said it was in the Fifties…they keep no official statistics [but the curtain calls] went on for ‘about 45 minutes.'”

Again I asked Brigitta Wutscher about the record for curtain calls at Vienna's Staatsoper, this time with the help of my translator, who e-mailed my questions in German. That brought a reply. My translator e-mailed me: “Wutscher says ‘it is said' that the La Bohème under Karajan got [the] most curtains in 1977. She is not sure if it's true, as they keep no statistics.”

Thus, the Staatsoper's press office gave two different answers about curtain-call records there, one suggesting a La Bohème, the other a Salome. But both press people said they do not keep such records. And neither person at the Staatsoper mentioned Domingo's Otello there in 1991.

Still another book, The Private Lives of the Three Tenors: Behind the Scenes with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, published in 1996, discusses the careers of the singers, but it mentions neither Domingo's “longest applause” nor Pavarotti's “most curtain calls.” The author is Marcia Lewis. (She's the mother of Monica Lewinsky. That's another story book.)

Likewise, Placido Domingo: Opera Superstar by David Goodnough, published in 1997, says nothing about any such applause.

The 1997 Guinness Book of Records carried an item about Pavarotti's curtain calls in 1988, but even by 1997, Guinness still had not printed one word about Domingo's applause in 1991. If you look up applause in the '97 Guinness, you're referred to clapping and curtain calls. But when you go to the first page listed for clapping, the word clapping doesn't appear. Yet you will find on that page Pavarotti's “most curtain calls.”

Right after the Pavarotti item, the 1997 hardcover Guinness gives half a page to about 350 words on Domingo—and his photo. On the bottom half of the page, a photo of the Three Tenors—Domingo, Pavarotti and José Carreras—is accompanied by 175 or so words. The lead of the Domingo article: “Most roles performed, most recordings made, and the biggest-selling CD in classical music history; good things do come in threes for Placido Domingo.”

A page of pure puffery. Yet nothing about Domingo's “longest applause.” Not until the next year, 1998, did an item about that applause debut in a Guinness book.

At the Guinness Web site, a man identified as Keeper of the Records says: “I maintain a vigilant watch to guarantee the accuracy and relevance of each and every Guinness World Record™, and my team of researchers operates with unswerving impartiality and commitment to veracity. A fact may only become a Guinness World Record™ when it's tested, verified and elevated above all suspicion.”

The 29-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 2001, has no entry for applause, curtain calls and Guinness. It says Domingo is “particularly identified with Verdi's Otello” but says nothing about his “longest applause.” The four-volume New Grove Dictionary of Opera is also silent about it. This Grove was published almost 18 months after the Vienna Otello, but it quoted Guinness as saying Pavarotti held the record for most curtain calls.

Today, the online New Grove's Dictionary of Music, incorporating the 1998 edition of the opera dictionary, also quotes the Guinness item about Pavarotti's “record.” Still nothing, though, about Domingo's (or anyone's) “record” for applause.

Now let's review the key elements in the erroneous “60 Minutes” excerpt:

* The “60 Minutes” correspondent said you can find the Domingo-centric applausathon in The Guinness Book of Records by looking up applause. But you can't. Domingo's “record” is not mentioned in the three latest editions (2003, 2004 and 2005). Nor is The Guinness Book of Records the title of those editions. As we've also seen, applause is not even in the index of the latest edition to carry the Domingo item, Guinness World Records 2002.
* Both the 2002 Guinness and the Guinness Web site list the date of the “longest applause” as July 30, 1991. Correct: June 30.
* The Guinness Web site makes several other errors: it renders Otello (the correct spelling of the Verdi opera) as “Othello” (Shakespeare's spelling) and misspells Staatsoper. I e-mailed Guinness twice and asked about the Domingo and Pavarotti items. No reply.
* The press office at the Vienna Staatsoper, where the “longest applause” supposedly took place, says it keeps no records on the length of applause or the number of curtain calls.
* Guinness says the applause was for Domingo. And “60 Minutes” credits Guinness for that information. Yet, the way the singer Sherrill Milnes is quoted in Placido Domingo: My Operatic Roles, the applause was not for Domingo alone. And the contemporary account in Vienna's Die Presse said explicitly the ovation was not only for Domingo but also for his co-star and the departing director of the state opera.
* Guinness says the applause lasted an hour and 20 minutes. But Milnes, who sang in that Otello, is quoted as saying it lasted an hour and a half. Vienna's Die Presse says the same thing.
* Although the applause in Vienna's Staatsoper after that Otello was, by several accounts, extraordinary, most of them agree it was not intended for one person. An exception: Guinness's belated—and inaccurate—recounting.
* The "60 Minutes" correspondent said the audience cheered Domingo for an hour and 20 minutes nonstop. I haven't found anyone else who says it was nonstop. Not even Guinness has called the applause nonstop.
* The correspondent ended his opening by asking portentously, “After Domingo, then what?” My answer: Don't worry. Even after the King of Tenors, Enrico Caruso, made his final exit (in 1921), opera survived. From what I hear, it's still going strong.

Does it really matter whether the CBS News correspondent got everything in his story right? After all, it wasn't the story of the century. And he didn't commit a hanging offense. But on a program produced by a network's news division, especially a program with the standing that “60 Minutes” enjoys, I expect everything to be true. Presenting a non-fact as a fact breaks faith with listeners who expect accuracy. (One fact not in dispute: Domingo is one of the greatest singers of our time, if not the greatest.)

Now it's time for the fat lady to singe—yes, she can scorch: Dear “60 Minutes,” was Domingo's “longest applause” plausible? And was that applause or applesauce?

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