Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Who is to blame for cancellations?

The lights are lowered but the conductor hasn’t yet taken his place. A formally attired opera house official walks out from the wings and the audience groans in anticipation of the bad news. Will it be the lead tenor or their favourite soprano who’s cancelling: someone they’ve paid more than £200 and made a round trip of 100 miles or more to hear? If they’re lucky an acceptable alternative will have been found: many a star has been born by thrilling a disappointed audience and saving the day for the opera management.

But why do singers cancel and is this such a recent trend? According to Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera, unreliable opera singers have become the scourge of houses such as his. In an outburst last week, he claimed that young opera singers were too prone to pull out of productions. “It happens more and more,” he said. “There’s something about this generation of singers, that they are weaker in their bodies or don’t care. I don’t know what it is but it’s something that is very, very frustrating for me personally.” He was, it’s true, somewhat on the defensive, because he had been asked about the recent production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable which had been created for the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who then decided not to take the part.

The rising Russian star Marina Poplavskaya also pulled out of the production citing medical grounds, only to change her mind and appear after all. The show was further compromised by the inability of another soprano, Jennifer Rowley, to master her role but in this case it was Covent Garden that pulled the plug at three days’ notice and reassigned the part.

A singer such as Plácido Domingo, on the other hand, according to Pappano, would “have to be on his death bed” before he’d let an audience down. His colleague and rival Luciano Pavarotti was made of less stern stuff: many is the groan that has gone up from audiences who had paid a small fortune for a chance to hear those golden vocal cords in action, accompanied by a wave of the famous white handkerchief. Montserrat Caballé (said in the trade to be “available for a limited number of cancellations”) and Kathleen Battle also come to mind as serial cancellers.

But Pappano does have a point. There have indeed been many cancellations in recent years, for which a number of reasons may be adduced. Perhaps the biggest factor is the booking of singers years in advance of the engagement. Diary slots are commonly filled two or three years ahead, sometimes more. Opera managements, keen to sign an attractive name in box office-friendly repertoire, offer inducements (sometimes a trade-off for a less popular opera the singer is keen to do); singers’ agents, whose percentage on a bigger, heavier role might mean a nice holiday in Mustique, may also apply pressure.

The trouble with such early bookings is that voices change and develop. As their voices mature, singers often gravitate towards heavier repertoire: instead of singing Mozart and Rossini, a soprano may feel the time has come to tackle Strauss’s Ariadne, or Puccini’s Tosca, or a meaty Wagner heroine. How can a singer or a head of casting be sure that there will be an alignment between the vocal development and the opera house schedule? The truth is they can’t, because it’s an inexact science. Nor can anyone be sure that a new role will necessarily suit a singer until they’ve thoroughly inhabited it, perhaps even in rehearsal, by which time cancellation becomes a serious business.

Then there are productions that fall through for reasons connected with opera house budgets; to guard against such eventualities agents have been known to “overbook” their clients, like airlines, ensuring that they always have dates in the diary. The less desirable dates then have to be ditched.

The modern world brings with it changing imperatives in terms of higher fees, international co-productions, the expectations of sophisticated audiences, the impact of opera on film and of demanding modern stagings. All add to the pressure on singers to deliver superlative performances night after night. Little wonder that they sometimes don’t feel up to it. A singer who breaks a contract should not expect to do so with impunity but it’s not difficult to see why, in the cut-throat modern world of opera politics, commitments are sometimes entered into that shouldn’t have been.

So what can be done? First, young singers need to be better advised as to their capabilities for particular roles. Experienced singing teachers despair at the way ill-advised youngsters take on roles ill-suited to them. There needs to be more mentoring for young singers. Second, if fee structures were less weighted in favour of the glamorous big roles (Tosca, Brünnhilde, Otello, Tristan), there would be less temptation for singers and their agents to land themselves with unfulfillable commitments. Third, is it not time for the profession to move towards a more rational system of booking artists: less far ahead, less astronomical fees, less pressure all round? Undoubtedly it is but it’s unlikely to happen: the operatic merry-go-round is whirling too fast and everybody’s clinging on for dear life.

London Evening Standard

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