October 29, 2004

Ever hear something on TV that stops you cold? And makes you wonder, “Could that be true?” That happened to me while watching CBS’s 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. It’s 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 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. The correspondent referred to “The Guinness Book of Records,” but the book has not had 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 Opera in Berlin…” But no Domingo.

Even so, the Guinness website (http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/) 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.”
The first time a Guinness book reported the 1991 Otello ovation — the “longest applause” — came in the 1998 edition — seven years after the event.

If you accept the Guinness website’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.

Here’s a summary of what I learned about the erroneous “60 Minutes” opening (you can read more details here).

  • The 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. Nor is “The Guinness Book of Records” the title of those editions.

  • The correspondent said the audience cheered Domingo for an hour and 20 minutes nonstop. But not even Guinness has called the applause nonstop. In fact, I can’t find any source that says so.

  • Both the 2002 Guinness book and the Guinness website list the date of the “longest applause” as July 30, 1991. Correct: June 30.

  • The Guinness website makes several other errors: it renders Otello (the correct spelling of the Verdi opera) as “Othello” (Shakespeare’s spelling) and misspells Staatsoper.

  • 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.

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?

You can read a longer version of this story at http://www.mervinblock.com/60minutesapplause.html.

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