Peter Jonas, retired intendant of Bavarian State Opera and, before that, English National Opera, has responded to our request for some thoughts on Antonio Pappano’s complaints of capricious singer cancellations. Here’s Peter’s longterm overview:
From my experience of leading the world’s largest opera company (in terms of turnover of productions and performances) for one and a half decades, I do not perceive any deterioration in the reliability of singers. I would even venture to say that their stamina, dedication, ability, flexibility and reliability is so good as to be a minor miracle!
Singers may not be so reliable as orchestra players (strange how we do not give credit for the fact that each night in a large opera house the orchestra is present, correct and accurate despite transport problems, weather, personal problems and illness). Maybe young ballet dancers cope with the physical demands of their art form slightly better but they are also on average much younger!
Opera singers,however, can certainly match the reliability of Premiere League (or even championship) footballers and have as tough or even tougher workload, more individual responsibility and much longer careers with less support staff as well as being more modestly (yes…believe me!) paid not to mention less cosseted and cloistered in an infrastructure of physiotherapists, coaches, medical and support staff.
What both these professions share (for better or for worse) is the gladiatorial aspect of how high public expectancy can inhibit performance but ’twas ever thus. In any profession or society some show more commitment and are more reliable than others. In any group some are, quite apart from their intrinsic talent, stronger and weaker mentally and physically than others. It is for opera company managements to acknowledge this and react, or provide for, accordingly according to their means and the seriousness with which they take their responsibilities as employers part of which is dealing humanely and wisely with the artists they engage and the risks involved.
The only variation in reliability we noticed statistically in Munich was a slight rise in cancellations during the extreme “Bull” market years in the world’s stock markets when the “macho” element among some singers within the occasional “locker room mentality” led to very few artists wallowing in their clever investment strategies which were earning them more (paper) profits than their singing fees! But this only concerned a few amateur but over zealous investors who came down to earth with a painful bump in the various stock market crashes, not least 2008!
No, this is a non story! Much more significant and important is Pappano’s remarks about British society and the political establishment’s view of opera and the arts which were also echoed astutely and eloquently by Nicholas Hytner recently. So many of us have worked hard to tackle this problem in the past and present. We worked hard at ENO in the eighties to de-stigmatize opera politically so that Pappano’s tale of Ministers being vilified for attending the Royal Opera is shocking, sad and what is appalling is that it only seems to occur in the UK.
This is what the opera community needs to be getting hot under the collar about. It really is time for opera and ballet professionals (and what professionals they are!) to piss on the political and social status quo and the perception of how these art forms are regarded by the body politic, or to put it more politely, lobby for its change.
What a nonsense it is that in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Zürich, Hamburg, Rome, Milan and Vienna politicians and government ministers are mocked for NOT going to THEIR opera house and in Little Britain it should be the opposite!