NEW YORK, JAN. 27 -- Police called the death of Bantcho Bantchevsky an apparent suicide, but theatre people are wondering whether the curse is back.
The 82-year-old singing coach fell to his death from a top balcony of the Metropolitian Opera last Saturday during intermission of the Verdi opera based on "Macbeth."
Some people wondered aloud whether the curse of Macbeth had struck again.
Theater tradition has it that "Macbeth" in any form -- be it Giuseppe Verdi's opera, one of the nine film versions or the stage play as Shakespeare wrote it -- is cursed.
Just mentioning the play's name is considered such bad luck among English actors that they invariably refer to the play as "the Scottish play," "the Unmentionable" or "Harry Lauder," the name of a Scottish music hall performer.
Such is the evil associated with the play that tradition declares any actor who mentions or quotes it must leave the room, turn round three times, spit, and knock, humbly begging pardon for the transgression.
Even among actors who take care, say believers, the curse has a way of striking. Productions of "Macbeth" are accident-prone.
Scenery falls. Macbeths and Macduffs cut each other in the duels. Lady Macbeths sleepwalk off the stage.
Death, accident, fear and bad notices seem to stalk even the most humble touring companies when they do "Macbeth."
Lillian Baylis, the beloved director of the Old Vic in London, died of a heart attack during rehearsal for a 1937 "Macbeth" there.
That was the same show in which Laurence Olivier, who was playing Macbeth, was nearly killed by a weight falling from the flies.
When John Gielgud took up the play in 1942, his King Duncan and two of his witches died -- one right on stage.
A Bermuda performance in the 1950s nearly roasted its audience when the flames around Macbeth's castle roared out of control. In the 1960s a touring company in Cape Town, South Africa, was unloading scenery from a crane when a passerby inquired what the show was.
As soon as a stagehand replied "Macbeth," a spear fell from the packing and ran the stranger through.
Even the productions which everyone survives seem plagued by lesser misfortunes.
Peter O'Toole nearly drove off a cliff while he was rehearsing his 1980 "Macbeth" and his Lady Macbeth was in a motorcycle accident. The third performance was stopped by a bomb threat, during which someone stole O'Toole's only family heirloom, a prized pocket watch.
Worse yet, from a professional point of view, the production was one of the worst disasters of O'Toole's career, and was said to be a factor in the Old Vic company's losing its government subsidy and folding.
O'Toole thus joined a long list of movie stars, including Charles Laughton and Lionel Barrymore, who chose "Macbeth" for a return to the stage and found themselves failing miserably.
The trouble is said to stem from the witches' scenes in the play. Apparently, says the English actor Richard Huggett, who has written a book on the subject, Shakespeare gave his actors a genuine witches' curse to say.
It took effect immediately, Huggett writes in "The Curse of Macbeth."
At the first performance in 1606, before King James I, the boy actor who was to play Lady Macbeth came down with a fever, and the author himself had to take the part at the last minute.
And Shakespeare's attempt to please the king, who was both a Scot and a published expert on witchcraft, sorely misfired. The play was immediately banned for five years.
The Metropolitan Opera's "Macbeth" has been plagued ever since the current production was unveiled in 1982.
It was created by the English director Sir Peter Hall, who had come down with a terrible case of shingles the last time he'd tried to stage the play.
Apparently unimpressed by the curse, he had allowed the Met to talk him into directing Verdi's operatic version, even though he considered the opera "only intermittently fine."
Hall's approach, which included a nude dancer and a Lady Macbeth who rolled about in apparent sexual ecstasy as she sang of the hopes for her husband, was not a hit.
Most of his ideas, as well as his name, were removed for this year's revival. But it was plagued later by a domino-like succession of cancellations from baritone Renato Burson, who was to play Macbeth, soprano Eva Marton, who was to sing the Lady, and Giuseppe Sinopoli, who was to conduct.
These theatrical disasters were overshadowed at the recent matinee by Bantchevsky's apparently intentional fall.
A lot of actors, though they were as horrified as everyone else, said they were not surprised.