DEAR ABBY: I presume that you, and most of your readers who are more than 40 years old, have heard the expression, "It's not over until the fat lady sings."
Was the fat lady they were referring to Kate Smith? -- OLD-TIMER
DEAR OLD-TIMER: No, it wasn't Kate Smith. A reader asked me that question in 1987. The research was quite interesting.
One resource attributed that expression to Dick Motta, coach of the Washington Bullets basketball team, and later coach of the Dallas Mavericks. He was reported to have said it during the 1977-78 basketball playoffs, and he meant, "We may be behind, but we haven't lost the series until all the games have been played." Another source credits Dan Cook, a San Antonio sportscaster, who said it was a takeoff on Yogi Berra's line, "The game isn't over 'til it's over." Mr. Cook said this story is recorded in the Library of Congress.
After I published that information, a reader offered another source of this popular expression. Retired Capt. Charlie E. Milton, U.S. Army, informed me that the expression originated in connection with opera, and the lady it referred to was a heavy-set soprano who performed in Richard Wagner's opera "Gotterdammerung."
Still another reader wrote to me about it, and his letter is so interesting I'm printing it again in its entirety:
DEAR ABBY: I'm sure you meant no offense when you used that expression, "It's not over until the fat lady sings."
It originated during the reign of that great opera star Zinka Milanov, the gargantuan singer with a glorious voice who towered over most of her tenors. When they make fun of Wagnerian Brunhildes, they are really doing a parody of Zinka.
I still remember going with my sixth-grade class to the "Met" to see a matinee of "La Boheme" with Jan Peerce as Rudolfo and Zinka as Mimi. She towered over Jan, and when he sang the aria "Che Gelida Manina" ("What a frozen little hand") to Zinka, who had hands like the boxer Primo Carnera, it was too funny for words.
Jan, by the way, was my neighbor. When his father was alive, Jan did not want his father to walk the seven miles to the synagogue on Saturday, so he had a room of his house made into a chapel. He would invite some of the neighbors and his friends from the Met for services. I was in my teens at the time. You can imagine what it was like hearing the hymns sung with Jan, Roberta Peters, Robert Merrill and others in the little congregation. The house practically shook. -- IRA D. SHPRINTZEN, NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y.