LONDON — The tenor Robert Dean Smith was lying onstage — eyes closed, pretending to be dead — when he felt something very close above him.
Smith was appearing as Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse in France, and he assumed that what he sensed looming was his colleague, the soprano Elisabete Matos, who was singing Isolde. She’d probably decided to alter the choreography and had come to stand over him, he thought.
But when Smith opened his eyes, he saw a 467-pound fake rock hanging just inches from his face. “I panicked and just threw it out of the way,” he recalled of the 2015 incident in a telephone interview. He rolled out from underneath the object, and quickly got to his feet — which likely confused an audience that had watched Tristan die a short while before. (His co-star kept singing throughout.)
The cause of this dangerous mishap was at first a mystery. But the reality turns out to be so bizarre that it could be an opera itself.
Last week, a court in Toulouse found a stagehand at the theater guilty of tampering with the computer system that controlled the prop rock’s descent. The production, which was directed by Nicolas Joel, intended for the object to stop about 30 inches above the tenor, and its continued descent at the performance in question was only stopped when another member of the technical staff realized something had gone wrong, according to a report in La Dépêche du Midi, a local newspaper.
According to the prosecutors, the stagehand, Nicholas S., whose surname has not been revealed by French newspapers out of respect for his privacy, had long been in conflict with a rival stagehand, Richard R., whom he hoped would be blamed for the error. Two months before the incident, Nicholas S. had won a court case where he accused Richard R. of assault.
Nicholas S., who denied the allegations that he had tampered with the computer system, was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence and made to pay a symbolic one-euro fine to the Théâtre du Capitole. His lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Smith, the tenor, said he had never imagined someone had been trying to hurt him or had tampered with the equipment. “I’ve seen too many accidents onstage,” he said. “I’ve seen trapdoors open with people on them, and doors and walls fall down onto people.” Smith once cut his hand open while playing Don José in Bizet’s “Carmen,” because someone had forgotten to blunt the knife.
In 2008, Smith was actually the beneficiary of such a mishap — making his Metropolitan Opera debut, as Tristan, after the tenor Gary Lehman was injured during a prior performance because of a prop malfunction. Lehman had been lying on a palette on a steeply raked section of the stage when the palette broke loose from its moorings and plummeted into the prompter’s box. Lehman hit his head and could not take part in the next performance.
Given the frequency of accidents onstage, that the 2015 incident was the result of feuding stagehands was “just really bizarre and very unfortunate for the theater,” Smith said.
After the 2015 performance, the tenor apologized to Matos for his part in ruining the show. After that, he said, he had tried to ensure he died onstage in positions where he could keep his eyes open to see if anything was coming.
Constant Merheut contributed reporting from Paris.