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Leading Intendant to Pappano: ‘Opera singers are more reliable than Premier League footballers’

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:
peter jonas
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.
football_opera
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!
opera stock exchange
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!
***(c) Peter Jonas/Slipped Disc
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Comments

  1. HOW I agree with Mr Jonas on ‘politicos’ attending any cultural event, especially opera, ballet, & classical music concerts. It should be a given – and they shouldn’t be there courtesy of free tickets, either.

  2. Graf Nugent says:

    Munich has long been known as an extremely well-run house, so Peter Jonas’ comments come as no surprise. Is there any truth in the claim that Munich docks pay from guest singers who come un(der)-preprared? I’ve heard this but can’t substantiate it.

  3. Stephen Richards says:

    Suarez (tenor), Berbatov (baritone) and Coloccini (bass) head my cast-list.

  4. This is wonderful! I love the comparison to “footballers.” Thank you, Mr. Jonas.

    • I wish there were more Intendanten like Herr Jonas–thank you for giving the singers their “gladatorial” due! Bravo! Most singers I know say they would sing for free: they get paid to put up with travel and less-than-prepared directors!

  5. CULTURAL IDENTITY
    The dédain for the arts as shown by British politicians is due to the egalitarian, leftish world view which got hold in a stronger sense in the UK, and also in the Netherlands, than elsewhere. Art = elitist = unfair to the unwashed, which is misunderstanding original socialist thought which gave priority to make the arts accessible to the masses and create equal opportunities so that everyone could, if wished, visit an opera production. If politicians expose their own uncultured soul, what to be expected from them? Also in Holland, the political elite has denounced the arts, resulting in incredible cuts in subsidies which led to the folding-up of many cultural institutions. It seems that such primitive mentality is, to a great extent, due to the focus upon business, money-making, materialist goals, of both these countries’ self-understanding. Cultural identity in more traditional countries like Germany, Italy, France etc., is bolstered-up by a strong feeling of importance of their cultural heritage: being cultured means being better at your job, especially if you are a politician.

    In fact, this core of cultural self-confirmation is a typical trait of European civilization, given its rich history, so it can be concluded that the UK and the Netherlands are, under the surface, not really European nations. Which is underlined by the British anti-EU move of recent times and Holland’s indifference to things European, especially in the cultural field. Also it is significant that both countries sport a strong cultural bond with the USA. In Holland, anything coming from the USA is deemed more important than coming from other European countries, whatever it may be.

    • Sebastian Petit says:

      Far from being leftist the idea that opera, and indeed the arts in general, are elitist is one that is constantly re-stated by the low-rent pro-tory press. Also successsive tory governments and councils have been even less supportive of the arts than their Labour counterparts

      • But doesn’t this show that tories have embraced the egalitarian tenet of their opponents? Or they dismiss the arts as valuable on different grounds, i.e. from a purely materialist / business point of view? However, the result is the same barbarism.

        And then, what is the role played by inferior, unserious, flippant new art and new music? Since a lot of tax money circulates in those fields, it gives support to the impression that ‘the arts’ are not to be taken seriously. Although this has nothing to do with the old art, the image spreads over the entire field, old and new, good and bad, and politicians try to exploit this.

    • @John Borstlap: I believe, Sir, that you have your information about the United States backwards. You seem to suggest that “left-leaning,” countries shun the arts.

      In the United States in 2012, Democratic politicians (to the left) embrace the arts while Republicans (to the right) shun it as elitist, snobby and “hoity-toity.” A Republican politician likely would not be caught dead being seen at the opera (or any theater, really), while many Democrats regularly attend. There are Republican exceptions, most of whom hearken back to the days of the Reagan Republican. Mayor Bloomberg is a large supporter of opera. Since her return to NY, we have seen many news accounts of former SoS Clinton and President Clinton attending events at Lincoln Center.

      Republican politicians have as a part of their official platform the elimination of PBS, which is the home of the arts on television, and the elimination of the NEA. The Democratic Party (again, on the left) united to save these entities.

      I suspect non-politician Democrats and Republicans are not so easily divided by party on this issue. I feel certain I have met both Democrats and Republican at the Met. :wink:

    • Jonathan Dore says:

      @John Borstlap: “In fact, this core of cultural self-confirmation is a typical trait of European civilization, given its rich history, so it can be concluded that the UK and the Netherlands are, under the surface, not really European nations.”

      Sorry John, but that’s just silly. For the last three hundred years the dominant and most prestigious artistic medium in Britain — the one with the widest social reach, and which occupies the most central space in the national conversation, in the way that music does (or has) in Germany — has been literature. Fiction publishing generally operates in a commercial environment, and unlike the performing or visual arts does not involve attendance at events, or public subsidy, so politicians turning up or not turning up, or giving or withholding funding, are simply not relevant criteria by which to measure interest or support, whether institutional or general.

  6. I sing. I am soprano, who gets the odd gig or two and mainly teaches as when I was 21 I took the wise decision and did not go and do post-graduate training in Opera.

    I have the high-notes and technique, and despite being a small soprano, the same can not be said of my voice.

    However with most young artist programmes being geared to light fachs what happens to the singers who are going to end up with larger voices?

    Where are the Spintos the Dramatic Coloraturas and the Dramatic Sopranos going to train?

    These singers begin to get going at 30. Large voiced singers launch their careers in their 30s and 40s as that is when they are vocally ready.

    With artists sing wholly unsuitable roles in their 20s, no wonder the amount of vocal surgery is on the rise.
    A large frame does not necessarily equate to a large voice. A well shaped head, a decently proportioned neck and prominent collar-bones does. The ability to train the core-stability muscles and those involved in breathing and support to back that voice up can be done in a relatively demure person.

    A new approach to Opera needs to be sought, where the lens is recast on singers in their 30s and early 40s. They still have 20-30 years career left, and are a good investment as vocally they are less likely to crash and burn.

    Furthermore, agents need to understand that NO does not mean, ‘I want to curtail my career’, it means, ‘I’m wise enough to know my limits’.

    The results will be happier audiences, and happier directors and music directors. Harmony restored.

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