an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Antonio Pappano: Young singers are cancelling on us more than ever

At this morning’s season launch, Sir Antonio Pappano unleashed a diatribe at unreliable young singers who cancel at the slightest excuse.

Here’s what he had to say, recorded by a colleague:

PappanoPresident

 

‘It happens more and more. 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.’

Hmmm…. Myself, I’m surprised at his outburst. I’ve never known a more dedicated generation of singers, nor one that has been put under such physical stress by stage directors, who should be called to account for many of the cancellations of which the music director complains.

Not to mention stage managements who expose them to unsafe conditions. Or house managements who won’t pay them if they get injured in rehearsal.

Your views, please? Are young singers wussing out?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. John Kelly says:

    Pavarotti never cancelled, nor Caballe I suppose………………

    As a contrast, I was just the other day at the Met Opera Young Artists competition (Sun afternoon, house absolutely packed and not just with contestant supporters – who says Opera is dead?). Here we had 10 superb young artists who basically have worked their you-know-whats off to become opera singers, with better diction and intonation than was common in the past, with much better acting skills than were expected in the past and, at least here in the USA, with a level of musicianship that far exceeds that frequently encountered in the past, except among the very elite of the singing fraternity. Oberlin and Curtis and others are turning out fantastic talent.

    • John Kelly, they both did – Pavarotti I remember cancelled a Ballo a Covent Garden and was replaced (very ably) by Gegam Grigorian and Caballe cancelled lots! She even failed to appear at a Gramophone Awards I was co-presenting once to collect a prize, though that was apparently due to an accident.

      All of which said, none of my company’s young singers will cancel on Pappano. Or if they do, I will quietly dress up in wig and stage costume and take their place and hope nobody notices the difference.

      • I love Pavarotti, but he cancelled so often he was banned from Lyric Opera Chicago

      • If your “great story” is true you have no fear of libel and are free to tell us all about it!

        As for “Pavarotti … cancelled a Ballo …and was replaced (very ably) by Gegam Grigorian “: are you trying to tell us that someone expecting Pavarotti (after paying premium prices) would have been and SHOULD have been happy with Grigorian as a replacement?

        What annoys me more than singers cancelling – there are often legitimate reasons – is how managements increase prices when superstar singers are involved, but rarely think they should refund all or part when the superstar on which they based the price AND sold the ticket does not perform. For example, in the coming Covent Garden booking period Boccanegra (with Hampson and Furlanetto, not to mention maestro Pappano) will rake in £180,000 per night in ticket income, but the house will get an additional £90,000 – yes 50% more – for La Rondine, sold on La Georghiu’s pulling power. I doubt that even she will get an extra £90,000 a show! I understand all the arguments about charging whatever you can get away with providing you fill the house, cross-subsidy of less-popular operas etc, but if a much higher price has been charged because a top singer has been hired, there is no justification for not refunding all or part of the price if there is a substituion.

      • scrupulous1 says:

        Brilliant!!

    • Alejandro says:

      Maybe these youmg singers realise their limits. In this age of American Idoil/Bocelli/Grobin…there is a lack of knowledge aboiut body, breath and resonance. Top it with ignorant/ egotistical stage directors trying to put their signatures on a production vrs whar is there in the score…they are are lost.Americans were there best trained in the 60s, 70s and 80s period. The Italians, French and Deutche sing mainly in their tongue. To see Don Giovanji as Elvis or the Duke as Al Capone is ridiculious. As Ravel told my great master..Martial Singher, “its all there in the music”.Take the mics away from the Met, the old City opera and many others….no knowledge of using acoutic resonance of body and house. Cutting costs has done in the young singer who is forced to sing in a Vegas stylt house and literally forced to push the voice. This stress causes a compromise of tech, immune system and musicality. Blame the inept agents, adminitrators who do the hiring and supposed voice teachers who know very little. Singer should be singing on the vibration…not the cords, vibrating upon breath not muscle and always working on singing deep in the body with color, liteness of vocal weight and always spinning the voice faster than thought. We are now in the business of singing vrs the art of singing.

      • As an instructor of voice at the largest school of music in the world, the Indiana University Jacobs School, one which sees over 100 singers a year, I can tell you that my personal experience is absolutely in line with this. Real understanding of the instrument is at an all-time low, everyone believes in Italian appoggio technique but few actually teach it, young singers sing in a way that does not maximize resonance and relies on over-support and over-use of the vocal folds, and are pushed to sing every language and to spend countless hours studying useless academic things while voice lessons get only an hour a week. On top of this, conductors and stage directors know nothing of the singing voice, and choral directors know even less (and young singers now spend hours a week in choir at most schools). Indiana University mics many singers as does the Met and other large houses, and singers are taught to “sing for the camera” and never learn the fundamental skill of projecting over an orchestra. Singers such as the much-lauded Kaufmann, Villazon, Eric Owens, Dessay and others are constantly cancelling and young students are missing gigs constantly due to lack of technique and vocal overuse. It amazes me that Mr. Lebrecht has such high praise for this generation… seeing hundreds of young singers pass through my program every year, I have observed quite the opposite: record cancellations and sicknesses accompanied by truly ignorant treatment of the instrument and the art of music.

        • The Voice of Reason says:

          Ah yes, those “useless” academic things; what place have they in academe?

          • If one is getting a performance, and not an academic, degree, I’d say it’s a fair question.

          • scrupulous1 says:

            If you mean being able to actually read music properly, that “useless” academic stuff might not be such a bad idea.

            This is coming from somebody whose had to endure the hell of trying to coach a “Messiah” to somebody who couldn’t be bothered with mere trifles such as the skill of actually reading music.

        • Scholarastastic says:

          Jake, out of curiosity, are you IU faculty or a student associate instructor?

        • Lucy Long says:

          I find reading what you have written extremely refreshing in that it points so honestly and with great understanding, towards many of the REAL problems. I am a retired Opera singer, relieved I no longer have to struggle against the odds in order to do the job of singing. I am continually horrified at how little a great majority of singers nowadays even understand about Bel Canto technique. They produce shallow, hollow sounds, sing off the voice or just force, have no idea of the core or beauty of the instrument, they cover, distort vowels, don’t know how to sing on the breath, often their support being completly mis-guided and worst of all, they lack any dynamic energy or/and sincere emotions. Legato seems to be a thing of the past too! I hear people singing out of tune and no one says anthing! I taught voice for a while and threw in the towel, finding many students fighting to sing roles entirely unsuitable for their voices. So often naturally lighter voices wanting to sing Wagner and even getting hired in some of the German houses to do so. (It’s cheaper!) It’s a horrific trend. Many students had also adopted the idea of the “quick Fix” and simply weren’t prepared to do the work. After years of standing up for what I believed in, my disgust, frustration and despair with modern “Regies” and dreadfully loud, high speed conducting, I found my World turned up-side down. This ultimately resulted in my having a nervous breakdown, so I got out for good. My late husband, a fine dramatic Baritone from OK U.S.A., later took up a Professorship in Stuttgart and complained of much the same things you write about. The banal approaches, academic instead of physical. Sports schools/coaches understand exactly what’s required. Why has this been lost with sining? It is a vocal Sport. Thank you so much for giving me faith: you are out there and know what’s what! :-D

      • I am sorry to say, I totally disagree with your “french, italian and german” singers sing mainly n their tongue. We are taught to sing in different languages, whether it is french, german, italian, russian, english, or tchekoslavakian.
        The operas in Europe are almost always in their original language.

    • Barbara Williams says:

      Pavarotti canceled so many times, Lyric Opera of Chicago refused to book him any longer~!

  2. Billy Tink says:

    We need to pay our bills and living costs. We love our job and won’t be pulling out for any other reason than we can’t physically sing.

  3. I have been involved in two different situations where relatively well-known young singers had to back out of engagements at the last second. In both situations, their unknown replacements walked away with the show and are now both rising to the top of the field thanks in part to those spectacular last-minute debuts.

    • I have observed similar things and was quite happy for the substitute singers. I recently was given a free ticket to the Met to see Traviata, normally I wouldn’t go because I am not a Dessay fan, and she was sick and replaced by Hei-Kyung Hong who did a superlative job and sang better at her current age than Dessay did in her prime.

  4. People today in both entertainment and sports are way more aware of possible long term risks involved in behaviour that previously would have drawn less concern. We also have a less authoritarian society, and a demand for performance by a stage director or conductor is less likely to be taken as something one cannot refuse. Although there are certainly singers who cancel for reasons that they should not, there have always been people like that. What Pappano is seeing is that singers who have dedicated years to reaching a certain level not willing to throw the whole thing away for a tumble down a raked stage. On a pure vocal level, we have also seen (especially in Musical Theatre) directors and agents who use people up and throw them out. I know people whose voices were trashed forever by a national tour. We have all heard these stories, and enough people are wary, and their teachers are wary too. Having a five year career ending in vocal destruction, is not all that romantic.

  5. It seems to work for Justin Bieber.

  6. Mark Pemberton says:

    Netrebko? I’ve booked 3 times to see her and she’s cancelled every time.

  7. The only reason I can see for people withdrawing more readily than in the past – if that is indeed happening – is because you daren’t risk a sub-standard performance due to ill health. One bad review/bad performance can tar you for life and effect all future work. It’s a tough decision as withdrawing can lead to a different reputation, equally damaging. I know one english tenor who no longer performs at all. He suffered the misfortune of 2 productions in one year on the continent where he did the rehearsal period and then came down with laryngitis. He was not able to do any shows. All his expenses of staying in Germany for 4 weeks, getting there etc etc fell to him as he got no fee at all. He could not take the risk and consequently stopped performing. As Mr Tink says, who would give up the money in this current climate unless they felt they had no choice.

  8. Mike Hausgrand says:

    A vital piece of information missing here: given the economic crisis, most agents (especially in Europe) overbook a young singer because chances are that half of the projects will be cancelled or reduced due to financial hardships of the promoters and so they can keep their option open, just in case.
    If and when things do not get cancelled, agents have to cancel the less payed or less prestigious gig rather than admitting the overbooking for the same period (of course blaming the singers to the promoters).
    This young singers generation is in many way more prepared and eager to work than any previous generation, but they have to deal with agents and artistic director who have no clue of how to build careers that last.
    Also, given the general economic crisis, there are no classes or standards on ‘steps’ of career anymore. An example: most festival or small companies that used to promote new talents and young singers are now calling big names to ensure ticket sales, and in this crazy new situation, people cancel and get booked randomly.
    The same applies to young conductors. In the same season we have Fabio Luisi conducting at the Met, and than conducting in a small, cheap festival in southern Italy (where he made his conducting debut in the nineties), so the potential young and unknown” new Fabio Luisi of the moment” won’t find a platform there to be seen… but maybe he will make his La Scala debut at 20, without having had the chance to fully develop, only to cancel a tour of a long-planned regional concerts for an artistic director who had at the time real vision, because La Scala calls at the last minute (when it does not fall apart, as readers of this blog know).
    Given this situation, agents and performers try to grab any chances of work, and when more things actually work against all odds , they simply cancel.

    • Catriona says:

      Absolutely agree with this comment.

    • Hannah B. says:

      Hell yeah. They do not care, it’s all about the fast buck. God forbid they should use a singer over 30, who might actually know how to take care of their voice and not follow like sheep every ridiculous thing a stage or music director wants them to do. They want 25-year-old low-paid supermodels, then profess amazement that these singers can’t hack it. Remember when they wanted to hire an actual 17-year old singer (preferably Japanese) to do Butterfly at the Met, and someone had to explain to the stage director that no 17-year-old singer was going to be able to sung Butterfly? The ignorance and disregard for singers is staggering. I feel sorry for anyone trying to build a career right now.

  9. It seems to me the schedules of singers are tougher than ever. Traveling, short stays, difficult productions. I am not surprised their bodies rebel at times. We are asking singers to do more and more. Directors practically want them to be magicians. What do we expect?

    I am surprised by Pappano’s comments, but respect him so wonder if there is something behind this statement of which we’re not aware.

    • Marguerite Foxon says:

      I agree – Pappano is a very considerate person, and not given to this kind of statement without there being some reason for it.

  10. I know very very few singers at any level who can AFFORD to plan periods of rest, as Maestro P recommends. What a luxury that would be! The necessity of a rigorous schedule earning less money than previous generations surely will result in more scheduling conflicts and cancellations. It’s the current nature of the business that’s to blame, not the whims of the singers (who would love to take better care of themselves and the pacing of their careers if they could).

  11. I work as a repetiteur at a major opera house in Germany, and cannot think of one ‘young’ singer who would cancel for any reason other than absolutely dire vocal or health circumstances. If the problem is a vocal one, then the question must be asked: who hired the singer? Young singers (and their agents) are so eager for work that mis-casting is almost routine in the business. The onus is thus on the ones HIRING to make sensible decisions. This also implies that the ones hiring are the most equipped to make sensible decisions. Artistic administrators, Intendants, Casting Directors……but what about conductors? Do conductors of Pappano’s ilk take the time to listen to house auditions? Do they have a major say in casting?

    On the other hand, there are a select group of major stars (not exactly young) who routinely cancel, almost as though it’s part of their allure. Harteros and Gheorgiu come to mind. It’s probably fair to say that they are also routinely over-booked by their agencies, and houses/conductors who hire them surely know EXACTLY what they are getting themselves in for. It’s a risk the big houses seem prepared to take.

  12. Fabio Luisi says:

    Dear Norman,
    I think nobody, not even Tony, came to the core of the problem, and we, as conductors, have to pronounce a very clear “mea culpa” in this.
    Most singers, especially the young ones, are simply too young, not prepared enough, with technical problems and they get the wrong roles.
    Take e.g. a good, young soprano who makes a successful debut with, let’s say, Micaela or Liu’.
    Some agent will eventually ask her if she could take over Violetta, then Leonora (Trovatore), at the end probably Butterfly or Tosca.
    “You know, darling, they are looking for a new, young and pretty Tosca in that international Opera House, director and conductor would love to have a new voice, they would love to discover a new star. That’s you!”
    It can work maybe a couple of times, if the orchestras are not too loud, if the director is understanding, if the conductor helpful (not looking for Magda Oliviero’s sounds). Of course, we do need Butterflies and Toscas, but are they the right roles for a young soprano? Definitely not. You can sing them of course, with a fresh voice, but not for long. So they start to cancel – and then they disappear.
    Gruberova never accepted such roles (she sung even Violetta not very often) – and she still sings.
    If I read that the Nemorino-tenors are approaching Des Grieux (Puccini) or Cavaradossi, of course I am curious, but I already can see… it won’t last long.
    How many singers, Norman, have we seen “bruciati” by famous conductors? Freni and Butterfly? she was smart enough to do it only once (and, as soon as I know, never on stage), but she had a 40 years long career. Gruberova ditto.
    Best regards to all
    and thanks to Mike – for whom I am still a young conductor (I am kidding, I have understood what he means – but don’t worry, I don’t take jobs away from young conductors, at the contrary, I am inviting a lot of them – if they are skilled – in Zurich – and btw the Festival della Valle d’Itria is maybe small, but not cheap at all – to have no money doesn’t mean to be cheap in artistic profile)
    Yours
    Fabio

  13. Catriona says:

    If singers are incorrectly trained, are pushed to sing the wrong repertoire (or worse still, have no appropriate guidance) and have no concept of ‘pacing’, then they are often forced to cancel after a few performances of a particular role, because they simply cannot sing. it is an unbalanced world now, from a musical and directorial (and possibly even managerial) point of view and it does not suit the ‘lyrical’ voice fach singers. Some soubrettes and dramatics seem to be able to survive, but the middle ones are struggling, it is true. And it is sad indeed. However, if 32 years of age for a Bayreuth “masterclass” on Wagnerian singing is an example, then no wonder singers end up ruined by 35. It all depends on your voice and your personal character whether you can survive the regime nowadays and in a day and age when singers are given no mercy, they will sure cancel rather than expose themselves to ridicule because a couple of notes were a bit ‘off’ on one night. But I am sure Pappano has no problem finding a ‘cover’ in the wings….. as irritating as a box-office name cancellation must be for him.

    • @Catriona: I am curious, from your comment. Do you feel there is less “mercy” given to singers today than previously? I believe yes, and that, despite the interesting things we can find on many blogs (such as this), many are so overly-critical as to cross into cruel. Nevertheless, critics have always been very tough, no?

  14. Alexander Hall says:

    At the risk of being regarded as an old fogey, I think it is the generation as a whole. The problem? Lack of discipline. Nobody has to work hard any more; if your boss fires you for whatever reason you can take him (or her) to court and with the help of clever lawyers sue for millions; if you make a mess of things, just blame somebody else. How could it ever be your fault? Whether it is reliability or punctuality or attention to detail, today’s generation is the “Me!!!” generation, pampered from birth, courted by the world of advertising and lulled into a sense of expectation that everybody else owes you a living. Prejudice on my part? Not at all. These thoughts are based on observing the world around me in countless European countries over the past three decades. Now that the rot has set in it will take a while for things to change. Antonio Pappano is right to feel frustrated, but his problems will not disappear overnight either.

    • Alexander, whilst I agree that this is generally a phenomenon of people under 30 or even 40 in this day & age, I do believe this model is not applicable to opera singers. The lazy, spoiled ones will never make it because there is simply too much excellent competition. The ones who have made it onto professional stages have worked very hard, waited on tables, sung at church on Sunday, sung every poxy concert they can whilst studying full-time, spent countless hours on the phone & email to companies, agents etc, all whilst living below the poverty line, and usually for more than a decade. They also keep up a rigorous fitness regime. Then they finally get work, have the world expected of them, never complain, and still struggle financially because it’s a very expensive career to keep up (no need to bore with a list of expenses). The ones who have made it have worked VERY hard, and for them the lazy generation argument does not wash.

    • Dr. Emilio Pons says:

      I fully agree with Trevor. No professional singer with an international career (myself included), who has built his or her career over the past decade, has had it easy. The competition is fierce, the conditions have become extremely harsh, and the financial retribution for singers is at an all time low. Yet building a career is extremely expensive (particularly if you were trained in the USA), and maintaining all the more so (voice lessons cost €120 per hour or more, every audition trip will set you back at least €500 for two days’ expenses, six weeks of rehearsals, which are often not paid by the organizers, will cost you a couple thousand Euros, etc). No one in his/her right mind cancels at a whim – NO ONE!

      Moreover, as a former attorney-at-law, I can also attest to the fact that contracts are mere formalities in the world of opera. If an opera house breaches a singer’s contract (that has happened to me, at a major Swiss opera house), there is nothing the singer can do. If he/she were to sue, the process would drain the singer’s financial resources even though the chances of prevailing in court are certainly not guaranteed. Moreover, anyone who would dare sue, would be immediately black-listed and find himself/herself out of work for good. It is simply naïve to imply that the process would in any way resemble those in the USA and/or involve the type of ludicrous multi-million settlements in favour of the plaintiff (even the stupid ones who burn themselves with McDonald’s coffee) that have become the staple of the American legal system.

      The administrators of European opera houses know this. Upon breaching my contract, for example, by cancelling an entire production and trying to force me to sing two roles I never signed up for and which would have wrecked my voice, the artistic director of the Swiss opera house in question told me: “the only thing that matters to me about the content of a contract is the amount of money I have to pay to a singer”!

      The houses are at a *de facto* (albeit not *de jure*) liberty to cancel entire productions, leaving the artists involved to fend for themselves during the two to three month period that they had envisioned for a production, thus wreaking financial havoc; they are at liberty to fire singers at any moment of the rehearsal process and all the way up to and including after the dress rehearsal (this also happened in that same Swiss house to a colleague), leaving the singer with a tremendous financial deficit and having worked for six weeks entirely in vain; etc.

      Finally, there is nothing anyone can do because of two crucial factors: there is no strong union fighting for and protecting the rights of soloists in Europe (the way AGMA does in the USA); and there is no authority governing the actions of artistic administrators, even though they are primarily financed by local governments and operate thanks, in large part, to tax payers’ contributions.

  15. Pappano is cowardly blaming singers when he should grow a pair and point the finger to the true guilties: stage directors, intendants and his peers conductors, who do not know how to nurture talent anymore. Today they choose first the director, then the opera and the conductor and try to find singers stupid or desperate enough to destroy their voices in inapropriate repertoire. No health can bear for a long time such thing. Also, even those singers who have vocal condition to sing a more dramatic repertoire, abuse their voices singing dramatic roles too often. In the past, singers used to mix dramatic repertoire with lyric roles to keep the voice in shape. It was very rare to see someone only singing dramatic roles all the time, maybe the Wagnerians, but in Italy it was not that common.

  16. The only person who never seemed to cancel was Alfredo Kraus, the Spanish tenor. Because he took such care of himself, exercised, only sang what he considered his natural repertoire, didn´t exert himself with too many performances and had such high standards, and above all had such a superb technique….
    Otherwise, most Spanish top singers cancelled a lot….particularly Teresa Berganza, am afraid.

    • Graf Nugent says:

      Glad someone else has mentioned Alfredo Kraus! I’d have been sad to have been the only one. Exemplary performer.

  17. I would like to know why managements allow singers to sing the wrong repertoire for them: I can only think that it is because they sell seats.

  18. The topic which Tony raises is absolutely fascinating and I want to cover it from a singer’s viewpoint. So many accusations have been hurled here blaming conductors, directors, the singers, the roles etc.

    As a soprano for 20 years singing the most demanding Italian repertory in the world, I can tell anyone who asks that the pressure is immense. As a Norma, Medée, Leonora (both), Aida and many others, you have to hold the show almost entirely alone. As that soprano I cancelled if I had the faintest whiff of a cold or bad throat. The roles cannot be done if one is sick. Yes, I had a couple of disasters with bad directors but I don’t think I ever cancelled as a result. Singing a role that is too big in a major house (probably the single biggest mistake a singer can make) leads to early vocal problems and a short career. Who is to blame there? Well in my opinion it is the singer. Luciano Pavarotti taught me one golden rule. Know when to say, “No!” Conductors can exact huge pressure e.g. Herbert von Karajan asked me to sing Tosca and cover Taurandot in my first professional year. Everyone advised me to say No so I did. It cost me any chance of ever working with that great conductor but I am still singing today 35 years later.

    Since I took up the mezzo fach I am in the happy position of never having had to cancel. I can sing character roles all night, even when less than 100% knowing that some other poor person will be where I was all those years ago. Of course I know every pitfall in every role I ever sung so I can see etched into their faces the same fears as they approach those passages. So don’t be too hard on the prima donnas if it is a tricky or long role. If they have allowed themselves to be led into the wrong repertory, well they don’t need any help from anyone other than to show them the light. Their career’s end will come quickly.

    Tony’s last point about being “Weaker in their bodies” is easy to explain. Travel and its ease. The idea of singer with the weight of a huge role flying in and singing is laughable. In the “Good old days,” singers were attached to a house. When the singer travelled it was usually with the house. It was usually slow and sedate. Today we have the ability to zoom around Europe, America and the world. Europe is the worst. You can be in any one of 80 opera houses with 2 hour flight and be singing consecutive nights. That’s fine if you’re doing Mme de Croissy but not Aida. No wonder they seem less strong.

    The idea is that, “If I can, I will.” There’s another fee in it. Short term gain, long term pain. Do 5 productions a year with full rehearsals staying in the same place. Add a couple of concerts and recitals. Remember every time you open your mouth someone else is making money off you. They will be the first to pressure you and the first to drop you like a hot potato as soon as it all goes wrong.

  19. Joe Nelson says:

    I’ve known many young singers, colleagues and friends of mine, who are dedicated and hard-working. It is a horribly difficult business. Young singers right now are directionless because the career path that once was perhaps a little clearer, with schools and young artist programs that actually prepared students, many young artist programs have become nothing more than chorus contracts and outreach programs, with a lucky few getting a comprimario role or two. Schools haven’t managed to balance the practical training elements with the academic rigor necessary for them, at least in the USA, to maintain their accreditation. We have drought of great teaching, at least in this country. While there are many competent teachers, and some very good teachers, for students looking to bridge the gap between student into young artist into professional they need a teacher who is able to teach advanced student singers, someone who can work out specific issues affecting their production, whether having to do with the action at the larynx, in the mechanics of breathing, or any of innumerable other aspects of vocal technique.

    Furthermore, students are bombarded with “advice”, however well intentioned it often is, on their artistic or career path. Rather than hearing a voice for what it could do in that moment of the audition or masterclass, or even a few months from that moment, students are being given pronouncements about what kind of voice they are becoming or what they should work towards becoming. It seems everyone they talk to has a different opinion and it is dizzying, as well as a nightmare to sort through the good advice from the bad, and whose opinion to trust. Teachers can be as culpable in this as anyone else. More recently I lived in Chicago and I had never been in a singer culture so obsessed with weight and diet. I say weight and diet because the emphasis on fitness was superficial in comparison to the amount of time simply discussing weight and appearance. The news from the business has only exacerbated this problem from when I first began studying voice, with the notables probably being the gastric bypasses of several famous stars, and the incident with Debra Voigt and the production of Ariadne in London. For those singers who struggle with weight or body image, it’s devastating and a continuing frustration. For those who either already have had success maintaining a healthy level of fitness it is a grating distraction from the serious aspects of the art.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that there seem to be more young people pursuing their dream of singing than before, in addition to the influence American Idol, X-Factor, etc… have on them, and that there were never that many truly great teachers to begin with, so there is tremendous competition for limited resources. Perhaps, and I strongly believe this, a large part of the problem is the privatization of arts funding in Europe, and the corporatization of the cultural institutions in the USA and elsewhere. This has shifted the business models and practices of these important companies, at least in the US, towards those of the entertainment industry. In the effort to expose more people to the opera, and in part driven by the long-term recognition of the dwindling of public resources since the Reagan administration and the rise of neoconservatism, they’ve taken advantage of mass media and adopted the trappings of movie and television production companies, including hiring directors more aligned with those mediums. All of this is compounded with the established historical trends of pushing singers of talent into bigger repertoire, and the other issues brought up previously.

    In summary, I would suggest these all seem to be symptoms of the real sickness, where we are failing to teach the importance of opera and it’s highest level of performance to students who are immersed in contemporary popular culture, and maybe even failing to appreciate the finer art of it in lieu of impressive high notes, big robust voices, and visual aspects of production that are lost on anyone without binoculars seated past the tenth row.

  20. J Anthony Kaye says:

    While we are on the subject would anyone like to address the reason why our own Royal Opera House has a double standard.

    They pay two complete performance fees for a rehearsal period to artists coming form overseas for a 5 week rehearsal period and nothing at all to a British artist for the same opera and the same rehearsal period. The reason given to me by management is that, “We never pay rehearsal fees to UK based singers.” Why not?

    Imagine a singer who lives in Manchester and one who lives in Calais. Calais is nearer. Why does the opera house feel that the Manchester person will not incur all the same expenses as the French artist? The Calais singer get their air or land travel reimbursed too. The Manchester singer must pay all their own travel, accommodation, food, taxis, out of their own pockets. Come on guys. Let’s get together and fight this.

  21. the problem is also the number 440!

  22. The singers in question are TOO YOUNG! Every few years we hear that the age limit for new hires at houses like the Met is dropping lower and lower! The Met is now hiring singers between 20-25! For dramatic voices, they will not go over 30! This is ridiculous. These singers have no time to develop in small roles, to work their technique as they mature, which would enable them to learn how to sing when they’re sick. Pappano is correct. But the issue is not the singers! It’s the houses who hire them! The age should be 35-50 for leading roles, not 20-25. Then you would see a return of the professional singer, who doesn’t cancel at the sign of a sniffle. Pavarotti was an aberration. Most mature singers do not cancel.

    • In regards to the Met: “For dramatic voices, they will not go over 30! ”

      I keep seeing this repeated, but cannot understand given that the majority of their dramatic voices are well over 30.

      I read blogs repeatedly where Mr. Gelb is roundly criticized for waiting years before hiring the hot new thing.

      What is the reality?

  23. a singer says:

    History is full of examples of plenty of singers who debuted at extreme young age, including in so called heavy repertory and had long and reliable carreers. They are hardly aberrations, in fact a singer who has not arrived at the top by 35 will probably not arrive at all, yesterday or today. “Late boomers” in the past, like Corelli, would have their major debuts by their 30s.

    But what happens is that singers today are a lot less technically secure than singers of ages past, because of many things that are not under our control. If a singer of the past had daily voice lessons from 16 to 18 (as it is commonly evidenced by the literature/documentations) he or she probably already received more technical training than most singers on the stage today, since the average is a weekly voice lesson. Technical security followed.

    After this process, the singer would sing on smaller houses and companies and perfect their stagecraft and skills. Singing Butterfly at a young age at a small house sitting 300 people with a small (and often adapted) orchestration is one thing, singing Butterfly at the MET is another.

    Today vocal skill is at a low point. That is not to say that we dont have wonderful voices – we do, in fact that is the reason why we still are able to cast the operas at all. We have wonderful instruments with relatively poor technical knowhow compared to our recent past.

    When you add the hectic schedules that opera performance imposes on these people, then it is sometimes a recipe for disaster.

    Also, related specifically to Mr. Pappano, some advice could be given: try NOT drowning singers with your orchestra all the time, they will probably get less tired.

    • Gioconda says:

      I agree 100%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • “a singer” thank you for exposing the major flaw in almost all training programs today. Read the biographies of singers from the turn of the 20th century – students of Marchesi etc. – all had daily lessons and listened to the lessons of others. They also studied repertoire and stage craft daily. Today, a young singer gets one lesson a week, which gives you 6 days to forget what it’s supposed to feel like in your throat, and almost no coaching and stagecraft training.

      Astrid Varnay made her debut as Brunhilde in Die Walkure at the Met at 24 and had a very long career.

      I find it extremely interesting that singers today are held to less and less of a standard, but instrumentalists are held to the same technical and musical standards as their predecessors of the past 100 years.

  24. Jim Marshall says:

    I’m not convinced it is true that this generation of singers cancels more. If they do, consider that almost everything gets recorded, and with the internet, a sub-par performance can go viral in no time at all. Audiences are not likely to remember for very long when a singer cancels, but a bad performance stays in the memory for a very long time. I can think of a couple of occasions when I wish the singer HAD cancelled. We are fortunate to have many, many really amazing young singers performing today.

    • Gioconda says:

      well: almost everything gets recorded – so?? A bad performance stays in the memory – maybe. But it´s not really about one or more cracked notes, not even about a bad performance every once in a while. There have always been singers who cancelled more often than others, there were those who tended to crack their high notes more often than others or were less consistent in their vocal form. It´s about GENERAL standards. And I am absolutely convinced, that vocal skill just is NOT what it was 80 or 100 years ago. And then – internet also helps to make available good performances known around the globe and helps create certain myths – so there are two sides to that.

  25. Antomarchi says:

    I hate to feel that I have to be politically correct just because we’re talking about Pappano here. IN all honesty, Pappano was way off in his comment. There are so many things to be considered when talking about things like this. Singers have always canceled. Period. Nowadays we also have a lot of singers who become famous despite their lack of technique. And Pappano himself has used many of them for some of his biggest projects. If you are willing to take the risk of hiring a singer who’s vulnerable just to make use of the PR that comes with the name, then you should just deal with the decission you made. And that’s not even getting into the ridiculous demands singers have to endure nowadays: bigger theaters with awful acoustics, directors actually demanding “bigger” sound and singers complying for fear. I even sang a performance where the director lifted the orchestra pit at stage level, moved the set back to where you couldn’t walk behind it, and set up the orchestra right in the front middle of the audience in the space that’s usually occupied by people using wheel chairs. How dare anyone question his experience!!

  26. Derek Castle says:

    I hear that the ‘fodder’ is singing ‘Tosca’ at Covent Garden, but the show has been recorded for cinema broadcasting next autumn with three big stars, because ‘that’s what the public wants’. I saw Katherine Jenkins on TV recently, twirling around on a high-wire with a good-looking acrobat. Now there’s a singer who doesn’t have to worry about her ‘fee’!

    • scrupulous1 says:

      Is that why Jenkins is reduced to telling the media about her youthful minor drug use? Seems to me she is very desperate indeed: nobody in their right mind would discuss that kind of youthful drug use unless there was a real threat to their careers. Seems that she is desperate to “sell” herself back to the X-Factor/xyz’s got talent audience which will forget her quickly without yet anything gimmick.

      Nobody really knows what the public wants until the tickets go on sale!! But I suppose it is possible to make an informed guess, based on past experience.

an ArtsJournal blog