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On Slipped Disc: The Met’s conductor responds to Antonio Pappano’s singer outburst

We received this letter overnight from Fabio Luisi, principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, in response to his Covent Garden colleague’s assault on singer cancellations:

Luisi Fabio - C Barbara Luisi_thumb_thumb

 

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_3

Gruberova (above) 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

Yours
Fabio

 

We are holding space for Antonio Pappano to reply. Meantime,

Dear Fabio

You are absolutely right for blaming agents and conductors for putting undue pressure on singers, but that’s nothing new. Look how many sopranos were ruined by Herbert von Karajan’s premature expectations… What is new, it seems to me, is the power of directors to demand young, slim singers and the enthusiastic approval of their demands by authoritarian opera house and festival directors. What can a maestro do when faced with an unholy trinity of agent, director and the man who signs his own contract? N’est-ce pas?

all best wishes

Norman

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Comments

  1. golf claps all the way around.
    I for one am perfectly happy to see singers have long satisfying careers instead of “flash in the pan”

  2. Joseph R. Olefirowicz says:

    I have also seen the alarming trend of singers singing roles too early, and then developing problems within 5-7 years. One of the issues plaguing opera in the German countries is often a team at an audition, where not a single person knows or understands about the voice. It gets rarer that a production’s conductor is present for their own casting and then choices are sometimes made which may seem good at the time, but already towards the end of the rehearsal period the first cracks in the foundation appear. – I specifically recall one young singer with much promise, that was specifically mentioned to a major house of being placed into roles far to early for her voice, and a mere few seasons later, is no longer cast in the genre. And she is not alone. We need to relearn longevity in this industry and not the flash in the pan, cast everyone young and gorgeous trend which is re shaping opera, but not for the better.

    • Bravo.

    • Marianne Zin says:

      As a singer I definitely agree and worked with many young voices cast into large roles
      That were miked because their voices could not cut above an orchestra. 20 year olds singing large roles is ridiculous. My voice for years confused due to its timbre is finally reaching the bloom and comfort I always wanted and at 43 feel like its my best. Not only do you have the physical maturity but emotional needed to fully realize a large role such as Tosca.

    • harold braun says:

      How very true! I have witnessed and played piano at many auditions where not a single musician was present at.Stage Directors,Intendants,and Administrative Staff Members,yes.This is the very sad state of affairs inGermany,where opera is firmly in the hand of non–musicians,or mostly so.

    • Aaron James says:

      I agree with you about Singers auditioning for people who don’t know the repertoire or what they are listening to. I was an apprentice at the Zurich Opera House under a director who’s only experience to date was as a manager in a Theater in Vienna. So, yes, he knew about theater but nothing about Opera. How he got the job at one of Europe’s most prestigious opera houses I’ll never know. But here’s my point: We were in the midst of a production of Herodiade by Massenet. Harod has a big Baritone aria, Vision Fugitive, which is standard audition material for Baritones. When asked to sing something French, it’s either Vision, or the Valentine aria from Faust, or Hamlet When I sang for my ‘house’ audition I choose that aria. I considered that since we were in the midst of performing this Opera, he would be familiar with the music and compare m y singing of it with the current singers in the production. Smart, yes? I thought so and so did my representative who was sitting next to him in the house at my audition. The GM turned to my rep and said, ”why doesn’t he sing something I know? How am I supposed to judge his voice? The rep kindly said, well, you’ve already heard this aria sung twice this week in the actual performances. It’s the Baritones signature aria of the night’ This was completely depressing to me, as a young singer, and left me with little hope that I would ever get a job — with this type of thing going on. I did work, but it was difficult finding a house or companies where they knew what they were hearing. I’ve heard this from many singers, even here in the U.S. It’s a wonder we still have Opera Houses.

      Aaron James
      Houston, TX

  3. I do not think agents are any different today than they were earlier. I believe Gruberova, Freni, Sutherland, Scotto, Gheorghiu, Fleming et al. experienced just as much pressure from agents at the start of their careers.

    I have read comments from many singers suggesting that one of the biggest changes in the business is that there is no longer any time to for close mentorships with conductors or others. There are too many time and money constraints. Today, young singers are thrown in as many houses and performances as possible, often to their detriment, and those running the houses do not seem to care (did they earlier?). Yet, despite this being obvious, and despite many singers complaining about the schedules, and despite vocal damage occurring in many cases, nothing changes.

    • I sang professionally for more than 30 years, and still at 75 can produce a better sound that some tenors having big international careers. For the last 27 years teaching at one of the largest music school in the country and one advice I give to those students that have the possibility of making a career is: SAY NO WHEN THEY OFFER YOU A ROLE NOT IN YOUR FACH. . Unfortunately in today’s market and so much competition from good voices from Eastern European countries ( I said good voices, NOT good singers), getting a job in a German theater is very difficult, and if you are lucky and get one, then they make you sing from Maddalena to Eboli, or Nemorino to Alvaro, and if you refuse, you are out. Opera Singer has to be one of the most difficult profession, equal to a Ballet dancer.

      • Roland Mathews says:

        Indeed as you say… good voices ( = not always good singers ) I was accompaniest and conductor at an operahouse, vocal coach and teacher. I always warned singers about these dangers. And, often, the singers ” think” they can do it / or even want to do it and propose certain roles themselves. ( Stupids ). A director of an operhouse who used to be a singer took care of his singers. Nowadays it’s all bad management and wrong voices for certain parts ( I am speaking about Brussels and Antwerp ). Voices ARE often to light to cope with the ” wall of sound ” in front of them and don’t know how to deal with it. After a few it’s all over and then they have to start to teach while they had NO expierence in singing.

        • Can you please explain more about what you said here:
          “Nowadays it’s all bad management and wrong voices for certain parts ( I am speaking about Brussels and Antwerp ).”

          I applied for Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels. I’m curious about what you mean…

          • Roland Mathews says:

            Dear Tatiana. I’v seen and am in close contact with one of the Queen Elisabeth’s Competition – for singing. The laureats are getting a lot of concerts & opera to sing after that. Not always suitable for their instrument ( read: vocal chords, body, etc…. ). One can sing a heavier role, with piano ( no problem ) or orchestra ( in a concert ), but when it comes to multiple performances per week it becomes dangerous. Vocal chords are only muscles…… and the voice is the ONLY natural instrument and is unique. A few weeks ago I heard a soprano singing Lieder in the first part of a concert ( Debussy & Schumann ). No style to sing that and no control over her voice ( She sang it as it was an opera – but without the emotion or knowing what it is about ). In the second part she sang ” Carmen “!!! Of course she could sing the notes. It was all within her range. BUT….. she had not the type of voice, nor the style or sensuality to do that. Again… with piano one can do a lot. The problem for me was that she has a ” Wagnerian ” voice. For what I could feel then was a seconds Birgitt Nillson. A Brunhilde. Vocally she would have been better off singing that or a Leonora for example. rather then Carmen. Singers often ” think ” they get away with it until someone is in the audience that has experience to hear what the problems will be in the future…..At the end it all comes together to one thing including: style, intelligence, language, acting, character, vocal instrument, good physics such as mouth, pallet, jaws….. ). Also singers like to sing certain parts. No problem their if it suits. And also the voices changes all the time. What one can sing at age 25 wouldn’t ( normally ) we possible at age 50. However… there are always exceptions… And also you may have a good voice, but not knowing how to solve a problem, then you are lost. I prefer people that had some problems. They then know how to deal with it if they are ( were ) well-guided. When later, they start to teach they can recognise some of the problems with their students. If some singer never had a problem they would become lesser good teacher as they never experienced nor can feel the student’s problem(s). When you are in Belgium I would like I would like to meet you. Take care of yourself and of your voice.

          • Thank you very much for responding. I’m a very careful singer, I read a lot, do tons of research and try to learn and understand the mechanichs of my instrument as better as I can everyday. Other singers mock me because they think I’m wasting my time, while they go to a room and practice (bark) all day without trying first knowing HOW the voice works. I’m willing to say no if a teacher teaches me something I feel weird, tight, uncomfortable or anything that goes against the freedom of singing. I’m actually 25 and still waiting for the invitation to audition to QEMC. Hope to meet you and would love to keep in contact!! Can you please give me your email??

            Tatiana

          • Roland Mathews says:

            Hello Tatiana. It seems you are different and that makes me more confident as you want to know more. I can really say I know – in person – a singer who won the first prize at the Queen Elisabeth competition. We went out for dinner a few weeks go. Just the two of us. I cannot comment to much about this person here, but he/she was kind of forced to follow classes with someone who broke her/his voice. ( I have similar examples with students from the same teacher ). After that experience she/he went almost ” out of job ” with depressions on top of it. She/He is now obliged to teach to have an income. Sad story. I really feel pity for her/him and this was what I predicted when this person won the competition. ( Sorry that I try to hide to gender – I try to protect this person this way ). We can stay in touch, of course. You seem intelligent anough to avoid ” barking ” That’s a good one and sometimes correct. Lol. roland mathews 2004 ( all in one ) followed with @ followed with yahoo and then a dot followed by co and a dot and to end uk. I hope this is ok. If not….. ask
            again. ( Sorry, I try to be clear as we are here very public – and I try to avoid complications ). Take care.

  4. How about having them sing in weird positions?

    • Christine Goerke says:

      Try it three times to show good will. if you cant make it work? Say no. That was easy.

      • Marky Tarky says:

        Excellent reply, Ms Goerke! An example of professional behavior from one of our very best. Yes, try it first, and with good will; you never know. But have the courage to refuse the impossible.

  5. I agree with what Luisi says, though I think Pappano was also criticising the system too. But there is another issue. In the days of the likes of Carlo Bergonzi, RenateTebaldi and Mirella Freni, singers were much more specialised: they were lyric tenors or coloratura sopranos or specialists in bel canto or Wagnerians. There seems to be an expectation now that singers will cover a much wider range of genres and types of voice. Singers seem to be expected to move on Wagner and Strauss as a career move, rather than because their voice is best suited to it. Also back in the 70s you would find a singer going to (say) the New York Met and staying there for the whole season, doing a number of roles. Now it’s quite normal to be in rehearsal at La Scala one day and doing a one-night stand ‘on tour’ with the Welsh National Opera the next – then back to Italy the next morning. (This is a true example from a friend of mine – both in very demanding 20th and 21st-century roles.) One can argue that Bergonzi shouldn’t have been singing Nemorino on stage in his 60s, but at least he still *could*.

  6. Graf Nugent says:

    Generally, the heavier the role, the higher the fee. Is it any wonder some agents want to push their fledglings into more dramatic repertoire before they’re ready? It’s a dreadful practice and more people should look to the example set by the Gruberovas and Alfredo Krauses of this world to see there is a healthier way forward than following up Nanetta with Tosca.

  7. Although there is an argument to be made about singers accepting and being encouraged to accept the wrong roles I think there is an equally valid problem with the opera houses weak response to capricious cancellations. Instead of the ‘Oh well, what can we do’ attitude taken by most houses they could impose severe financial and professional penalties that would be clear in the contract the singers [not the agents] sign. This might prevent singers from signing contracts before they thoroughly study the roles they are committing to.

    • Susan Graham says:

      Your suggestion of a contract imposing “severe financial and professional penalties” would do a great injustice when one becomes legitimately ill and is forced to cancel. Believe me, just losing the FEE for a cancelled performance is incentive enough for most of us to perform even if we are NOT at our best! But another issue is that, these days, with the ease of YouTube, and the frequency of performance streamed on the internet or live broadcast on the radio or Sirius, virtually ANY performance can end up recorded for posterity. One is less likely to want to be judged by the world (and it DOES happen!) based on a performance that was sung JUST to avoid the possibility of losing a fee or worse, being FINED for it.
      I understand the frustration of cancellations, but I think I speak for my colleagues when I say that NOBODY is more upset by it than we are when illness forces us to withdraw from a performance, preventing us from doing what we do, and what we love, and what we’ve worked weeks to create, in a particular production.
      This is a really complicated issue, and I understand that the thrust of the conversation is that “young singers” are being thrown into heavy rep too early, thereby burning them out and canceling. I think that’s only part of the picture. It has also to do with the fact that we are travelling a lot, exposing ourselves to viruses that are sometimes virulent, get spread easily in rehearsals (the opera house is a petri dish), hang on for a long time and are sometimes resistant to treatment. The time of year can aggravate it, the intensity of the rehearsal process, and whether there are sufficient breaks between performances to recover vocally and get enough rest, etc.
      We must always be diligent but we can’t live in a bubble! And it seems to be getting worse– lots of illness this year, everywhere it seems.

      • Well put Susan. I should also add that while i adore my daughter, I do not adore the germs she carries from school. I asked her to keep her distance yesterday because she had a terrible cough. She burst into tears. I explained the problem of course, but I still felt a selfish cow.
        You’ve said it all Susie, bar this.
        X

      • I don’t think Pappano was talking about legitimate cancellations due to illness. More likely he was referring to the frequency of ‘I am over extended so I need to cancel and take a break’ or ‘Oh dear, the role is wrong for my voice’ [having signed the contract 2 years in advance]. There is also the frequent case of artists not wanting to cross the Atlantic for an isolated date although they have a contract. I remember when Hughes Gall ran Geneva and took legal action against 2 well known singers for illegitimate cancellations it made everyone think twice about canceling or arriving late.

      • Julia Kogan says:

        Susan, I have a fond memory of you singing a dress rehearsal of “Werther” in Toulouse during which you were very ill (on maximum doses of antibiotics, according to Nicolas Joël who came out to announce this news before the curtain rose, if I remember correctly). You marked it, but so beautifully, that I have been a devoted fan ever since. How wonderful that you didn’t cancel, for whatever reason.

        But that, of course is what serious technique allows one to do. And without it, sooner or later, we are doomed. I’ve known colleagues of different levels who, because they had known a measure of success early in their careers, simply couldn’t take the time to truly work on technical issues. It is difficult to correct technical problems while maintaining a performance schedule. A singer must stop doing one thing in order to replace it with something that works better, and that is impossible if one is relying upon the old technique. There is so little work and so much competition, long-term thinking is a wisdom few singers feel they can afford, sadly.

      • ELIZABETH NORBERG-SCHULZ says:

        So true, dear Susan! To be an opera singer is a hard job, but we could not live without it!

      • i think you only have ONE voice and should treat that working instrument very carefully like a big treasure.
        what do not understand is, when you read all the young singer,s interviews they ,,all,,know about the problems like singing heavy roles too early and give examples from singers who had problems like villazon etc. but then they make the same mistake and sign contracts just to make money. and this is the key…MONEY,, instead of letting their voice grow they are not patient and want to make a lot of money in a
        short time. what they do not learn when studying is to work on the ability to do the decisions which are best for them. look at gruberova she sang about seven years the smallest roles almost unable to survive with the money she got. but than she had the right moment with her zerbinetta. she found out very soon that she is no tosca,leonora or butterfly. i heard her three years ago in her sixties in hamburg in one of her last traviatas after many years she had not sung that role. she was amazing…it is NOT a question of criticizing each tone it is the most important that the singer is touching hearts and FEELING the part she sings. her NORMA in the age of 60 was no step behind a callas. again, it is NOT the perfect tone each moment but the expression.
        and finally my wish to all young starters is <<MONEY IS NOT ALL,, .

  8. Magnificent letter from Fabio and powerful observations from Norman.

    It has become “slaughter of the innocence” out there with regard to singers.

    A big part of the problem is that even when a singer knows in his/her heart and sole that, “I shouldn’t be doing this”, the fear of screwing up what may have been presented to them erroneously as a “great opportunity” is too great, so on stage they go, and a few years later everyone says, “what happened that great voice”.

    The authority in Opera must shift back to the conductor.

    (it is beyond me how “the director” ever got a position of authority in Opera that surpassed that of the conductor! It’s like giving the air stewardess authority to make decisions about the flight while the pilot is told “just fly the plane”!!) )

    An the authority must go to opera conductors who understand how to conduct and produce a flexibility of the vocal line, an art I am afraid that is almost dead as so few conductors know how to do it!! When to lead, when to follow, how to lead, how to follow, etc, etc……….. :)

    (End of Rant! :):))

    • Dolora Zajick says:

      This is a complicated issue, and several facts need to be addressed before responsibility and blame can be assigned to the destruction of many fine talents.
      A century ago, singers began their careers ten years earlier. It was much easier because one, theaters were smaller, two, orchestras didn’t put out much sound, and three, singers began their training at the start of adolescence and were carefully nurtured with a short daily lesson, with heavy doses of solfegge and a repetiteur.
      Today a singer has to wait until they are physically mature enough to fill the large halls over louder orchestras, and they begin their training at the end of adolescence or the early twenties with one lesson a week, so training takes longer.
      The probelm today is inadequate training, the desperate need of opera companies to fill in casting holes in Verdi and Wagner and agents and managers that throw singers on stage in an important debut without adequate preparartion or into a role too heavy for a singer, and conductors who bombast their their way with loud orchestras luxuriating in the fact that they can drown out a singer if they choose.
      Young singers who survive today do so because they have learned to say no, or they have a real manager that is interested in planning a career rather than just booking singers, or fate or luck or whatever has prevented them from making a major debut before the right timing or any combination of these three things
      Younger singers today also face the fact that today any performance they do can end up on youtube, and this is a major game changer. Where is a singer to get their earlier experience without being judged? People seem to be forgiving with singers involved with young artist programs with major houses. The young singers that rise to the occasion often garner their own audience following, and the young artist program seems to have become the venue where a singer can gain some protection while gaining experience, though young artist programs vary in the level of protection and amount of experience. A regional company that takes forty singers to sing in a chorus is not a young artist program, and many singers have been ruined by these kinds of programs as well, especially young tenors. Sometimes these young singers are forced to sing out four and five hours a day in a chorus with little quality coaching. The house singer in many European houses also faces a tremendous amount of abuse. They have no choice and must sing the roles assigned. Many promising singers are lost in this system as well.
      Young singers, especially ones inadequately prepared in technique, style and musicianship also face the the problem of dealing with dictaorial conductors and stage directors who are just as unprepared. Then you have opera companies that are making decisions based on what they need at the moment. They may extend protection to the ones they have in their young artist programs, but that does not necessarily extend to other young singers who are often shamelessy used up and thrown away. Younger singers can get away with a certain amount of technical lack and get by with sheer youth. The thinking is that they will eventually ruin themselves anyway, so use them while you can. There is always another load of eager singers to replace the the ones just thrown away. This may solve a short term problem, but compounds the problem for the future. Great singing requires the right kind of nurturing. If we don’t invest in the long term careers, we will lose many of the greatest artists of the future. Some will rise regardless, but they will be fewer in number, and without great singing, there will be no great opera.

  9. German Producer says:

    After being born in this system, I can tell some stories:

    In Germany there was once a very good system of house-cast and they had very good contracts. Nowadays, they have only a contract called “NV-Solo”. This contract is like a swiss-cheese and the can and do make you sing everyday a different opera-show. One day Wagner, the next day Purcell, followed by Mozart (this even in main roles). And in the morning you will have rehearsal with a crazy producer, doing his first opera, because also there the companies save money by making contracts with very young directors without experience. This system goes in every part in the theater: young and cheap (kick experienced people to save money) – and most the magazins and newspaper love it, because there is something fresh to write about.
    If you are lucky (they still are there) you can find a theater with a very experience Intendant and most important a very experience Disponent (planning office), but most the time the house-cast (ensemble) just eat the dirt and just cancelled more shows. You have to be lucky to see an original cast in one normal show in germany.
    Therefore many companies also start to have more guest-singers for the big roles. Guest-Singers have the worst contract you can have in the german theater system. Theater save a lot of money with guest singers, because they don’t pay you for cancelled shows (even when the theater cancel the show) and they pay much less fees for health- and social-insurance. But the only thing whats better to be a guest-singer: You can see the dates for the shows much earlier and make your own planing (and cancel shows before you sign a contract).

    Now to agents:
    Its very simple rule for singers: They want to earn money with you, as fast and as much as possible! This is the main interest! They don’t think about, that your voice is going to be developed in 10-20 years. They push you to sing one day abigaille and the next week leonora. Most of them are trained specialist to sell you and projects. They might have some experience in voices, but mostly they now a lot about making money, and they can sell you as a singer to producers with roles you can not sing!
    Singers: Pleas wait to say “Yes” to projects without checking if you are able to sing the role (sing it out with a pianist). Don’t ask your agent/manager: “Is it really for me?” He will always they: “Yes! And its a big opportunity!”
    The system is so money and network fixed, it’s a shame but the truth.

    I can write here more and more details and even stories.
    But the most important rule today is: Agent wants to make more money and companies want to save more money…

    • German Producer says:

      And yes: In auditions most the time, nobody knows voices. They are not searching good singers. They are searching characters and actors… Even producers can select singers in auditions…

      • Graf Nugent says:

        100% correct all down the line. I advise all aspiring singers to read German producer’s posts above.

      • harold braun says:

        Couldn´t agree more,German Producer.Your post is an absolutely realistic description of how opera houses are run nowadays in Germany in 9 out of 10 cases.

    • Gut gesagt!

    • Spot on.

    • I sang professionally for more than 30 years, and still at 75 can produce a better sound that some tenors having big international careers. For the last 27 years teaching at one of the largest music school in the country and one advice I give to those students that have the possibility of making a career is: SAY NO WHEN THEY OFFER YOU A ROLE NOT IN YOUR FACH. . Unfortunately in today’s market and so much competition from good voices from Eastern European countries ( I said good voices, NOT good singers), getting a job in a German theater is very difficult, and if you are lucky and get one, then they make you sing from Maddalena to Eboli, or Nemorino to Alvaro, and if you refuse, you are out. Opera Singer has to be one of the most difficult profession, equal to a Ballet dancer.

      • Carlos, I can tell you, as a singer working under the aforementioned NV-Solo, with a clause in my contract that mentions Fach, that I have had to fight like hell with theater management to avoid singing roles outside of my Fach, and I often worry about the consequences of having done so. Theater are almost entirely run by people whose background/training is in straight theater, and the General Music Director is often out of the loop of casting decisions. Music staffs are often woefully inadequate. Everyone is under enormous pressure to save money, and soloists, who lack tenure (until they have been with a theater for fifteen seasons) and have a rather weak union, are always the last in line. Until that balance of power shifts in favor of vocal music, and theaters are staffed with people who care about the music as much as Regietheater and their own fiefdom, the art form will suffer.

    • Roland Mathews says:

      THIS is soooooooooo damn right!!!!! Also… SINGERS ” think of having a descent vocal coach “, someone who can guide you.

    • Well said.. Also in regards to money, it is not exactly easy to make steady money as a young opera singer… Singers may sometimes feel pressure to take on roles that are not quite right or too big because they need the money!

    • Opera of the World says:

      As a singer in the German system the past 23 years I will say that all that has been written and commented on is 100 procent true. In my hundreds of auditions there was rarely a musical director present. In those cases where there was a MD present the entire audition was noticeably more professionally handled. When not, good luck to experienced good singers….most cases wanted only characters and non singers for major opera roles…As far as cancellations go most come from singers chosen in this non MD audition process….Good Luck is the word.

    • Markus Laska says:

      The story of the agents who just wish to make money is a very old and simply answer on the problems we discuss here. Everybody wants to earn the more money possible for the work he does. This is not just a behaviour that agents have. I am agent and I never forced any singer to any engagement. My last word is always “at the end it’s yyou deciding.” Anyway, for sure there are a lot of agents who behave differently. No doubt. In any case there are also a lot of singers who always choose just the best paid offer. And please remember, that at the end it’s the artiust signing a contract with the promoter and not the agent.

  10. I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s not just opera houses that suffer this modern disease of late-cancelling. I seems to me, anecdotally (since I have no data), that performers of all kinds feel able to cancel more easily these days. Concert halls are forever having to apologise for performers being ‘indisposed’ (and how wonderfully broad THAT word is).

    • I note that Martha Argerich has rather obligingly cancelled her concert with Abbado at 24 hours notice, just to enhance my point.

  11. Its great to read such a knowing, responsible statement from a conductor like Fabio Luisi and not least because of his knowledge of singing it is so easy and satisfying to work with him!
    But one thing I have to add: as a singer you always have the choice to say NO!!!
    (And don’t tell me that you have to accept certain roles – to early – to make a career: time always works for smart and careful singers!)

    • Fabio Luisi says:

      Dear Christian,
      I agree, but not all singers know themselves well, and especially young singers are eager to advance quickly in their “career” – too quickly sometimes, and that is the problem.
      So they can’t stand the seductions of agents, managers, conductors or directors and they sometimes accept roles which are to early for them.
      Who is here to blame? Yes, the young, naif and bad-advised singer maybe too at the end of the line, but who should know it better? The conductor and the opera house manager (or the casting director). I read Florez for Robert le Diable? He was intelligent not to accept it, but common sense would suggest not even to ask him for this role. But, he is a big star, and you probably sell more tickets for this unknown opera if you have such a star in the cast….. Mein Gott, it is very complicated!
      But putting all the blame to the singers seems not to be fair to me. Cancellation come because of pressure and recurring problems with the voice, and they are often caused by recurring singing of wrong roles.

      • Young singers (and young people) should take responsiblity for themselves – and say no. It would help if their parents and the like wouldn’t keep telling them they were perferct and could do no wrong.

        • Of course, ultimately it’s up to the singer, but who’s advising them? You expect a young singer entering into the foreign world of opera to “know” what’s right and what’s wrong? Listen to the music that surrounds them 24/7 and then think about trying to teach them what a good healthy operatic sound is! That’s a challenge to begin with. Then have them “know” the differences in vocal demands in the rep? Does a young novice understand that even within the same composer there are huge differences depending on the original singer and growth and development of the composer himself. There is a learning curve even for an intelligent and capable singer. That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with good ears. Eventually you learn what it takes… but even then will occasionally make mistakes. Florez is a smart cookie, but even he tried (and put away!) the Duke. Was it a mistake for him to try it? I don’t think so. But ultimately he didn’t think it wasn’t a good fit. We need better mentoring for young singers.

          • Soapbox Soprano says:

            Totally agree with you, RobMcTenor. Yes, we singers need to look out for ourselves and make the best choices we can. But sometimes we get led in bad directions by people who are supposed to be “in the know”. There are SO many teachers and coaches (and conductors, directors, and managers) out there who don’t know what they’re talking about and give us bad guidance, but sometimes we get sucked into their way of thinking because they’re supposed to be the ones who know the rep and the voice best. Someone above said we should sing through a new role with a pianist before accepting an offer so we can see if it fits our voice. So I’m supposed to spend weeks and hundreds of dollars learning a role so I can see if it fits my voice before saying yes or no to the offer? And the company is gonna wait that long for my response, right? I don’t think so. Sometimes you have to make a judgement call based on as much knowledge as you have at the time.

            My biggest frustration in this whole conversation is the fact that everyone’s talking about the bad choices “young singers” make and how they should wait patiently while their voices mature before taking on big roles (and I’m not just talking about big-voice roles like Leonora). How are we supposed to wait patiently in this huge culture of ageism in our industry? By 30, a soprano is considered old and can’t even enter most vocal competitions (including the Met), where she’d have a chance to be noticed by important people. You’re a soprano in your 30s and you haven’t made an important debut yet? Oh the horror! It might be too late for you, dear. Yet, we’re being lectured here about how we should bide our time and wait until we’re well into our 30s and 40s before taking on rep that MIGHT stretch our fach a bit? Yes, we need to know our voices, surround ourselves with professionals we (and others we respect) trust, and make sound decisions. But, if I get offered a role that is a little bit of a stretch in terms of my fach, while I’m sitting here slamming my head against a wall fighting for ANY opportunity, while surviving on top ramen and peanut butter and jelly, you bet your sweet patooty I’m most likely gonna take that gig, if it’s within the realm of possibility! From personal experience, I have learned that turning down a role offer, no matter how good and honorable your reason, may never get you asked back to that company. We’re not all in the luxurious position of having the clout to pick and choose, and still be respected for it.

            Want singers to make better choices? Give them MORE TIME to grow into their voices! Stop the age limits on training programs and competitions! THAT is what is harboring this idea that you have to singing big roles in big houses by 25. We should NOT be told we’re old at 30! Give singers a chance to make good decisions, instead of scaring us to death by telling us that we are washed up by 35.

      • Maestro Luisi has it ABSOLUTELY right here. It is the conductors and casting directors who should know better. If singers have the knowledge, self-restraint and wisdom to only accept suitable repertoire, that is well and good…but this is often not the case, and the temptations to accept ANY work are simply too great.

        • I agree wholeheartedly. It would be nice if the singer knew his or her personal limitations, but as a conductor or casting director, they should without question know if a singer is capable or not to perform the role he or she is asked to perform.

      • Michael J. Begley says:

        Maestro,
        There are actually people on the opera-l list who insist Florez will be singing Arnold in William Tell at various theatres (including the Met) in the near future. I find it hard to believe, especially since Mr. Florez has shown such good judgement in role selection in the past. But when I tell people Arnold would be vocal suicide for Florez, they say I don’t know what I’m talking about.

        Also, please have your secretary forward a copy of your post to Angela Meade as soon as possible. According to her online bio this is what she has done in the 4 years since her professional debut at the MET:

        Since her professional debut in — 2008 — her operatic repertoire has been:

        Rossini – Semiramide

        Donizetti – Lucia

        Donizetti – Ana Bolena

        Donizetti – Roberto Devereaux

        Bellini – Norma

        Mozart – Nozze di Figaro

        Mozart – Don Giovanni

        Mercandante – Virginia

        Rossini – Moise et Pharaon

        Verdi – I due Foscari

        Verdi – I Lombardi

        Verdi – I vespri Siciliani

        Verdi – Il trovatore

        13 DIFFICULT MAJOR roles in 4 years!

        ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

        Plus Choral Works:

        Verdi – Requiem

        Brahms – German Requiem

        Zemlinsky – Lyric Symphony

        Mendelssogn – Lobesgang

        Mahler – Symphony #2

        Mahler – Symphony #8

        Beethoven – Symphony #9

        Dvorak – Stabat Mater

        Ms Meade is a great talent, but this kind of workload is insane. And as Ms. Goerke remarks below, it is a singer’s responsibility – especially to pick knowledgeable advisors.

        Maybe you ought to have lunch with Jose Van Dam and hear his comments on directors – the other thing ruining opera. I’m so glad that the Met has added you to the management team – I’m not implying anything about anyone else; but clearly you “get it” as far as how voices work. Fight the good fight to save our favorite art form!

        Respectfully.
        Michael J. Begley

        • You forgot Beatrice di Tenda and she also had to learn Armida when she covered Renee Fleming at the Met.

  12. Christine Goerke says:

    I very much appreciate this coming from Maestro Luisi… however, I would like to add, that it is *our* responsibility to know what is too much, and what is NOT for us, as singers. I was told at twenty four that I was a dramatic soprano. I sure wasn’t at that age, and it was my responsibility to have surrounded myself with people that I trusted and that knew better. It’s one thing to try something and realize it isn’t right, then put it away. It’s another to continue on because you think it will make you a “star”. It never works that way!

    • Agreed Christine ! Lets stop the finger pointing at agents, directors and conductors and understand that artists have the responsibility to know their own voice and limits.

    • That’s a particularly interesting comment from you, Christine – since, in your case, it wasn’t exactly that “it” (singing dramatic soprano roles) wasn’t right, it was that it wasn’t right yet.

      I remember enjoying your work in Mozart and Handel quite a bit back around ten years ago; you even did some good work with period-instrument bands, if memory serves.

      I wouldn’t have imagined back then that you would be scoring a triumph as Elektra now. I’m thrilled that you have – and I’m thrilled that you knew not to try that rep on too early.

    • Exactly!

    • Anne Delécole says:

      Absolutely right, Ms. Goerke! The agents have much responsibility in that matter, for sure, but it is natural: they look for their interest. Singers must see for their own; they are not little (silly) children, they have all the right and possibility to say “NO” to the contracts and roles that do not suit their voice, at least in a specific point of their career. If they do not, this is their responsibility and their choice. The truth is that they are seduced by the idea of being “the new star” and the youngest one, and this is the big mistake!!! And I’d say not only the problem of opera singer but of our society… By the way, there are still some wise, patient and reasonable singers in our times, as were Freni, Krause and Bergonzi during theirs. See Ramón Vargas, for example, singing a perfect Don Ottavio at the Met, 30 years after his debut in this role, and after more than 200 starring appearances at the Met, and many others at La Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, etc… Weren’t they the same agents, theater managers, stage directors as for their colleagues singers at the same time (some of them early retired, voiceless after only 5 or 6 seasons)??? Intelligence, patience, self-criticism and humility make the difference!!!

    • Yes..true.

    • My reflex is to nod and say, “Of course!” but I tend to think perhaps a bit of luck at the beginning must play in to the end result. How does a young singer of 22 truly know they have surrounded themselves with a good team looking out for their long term interests? I suppose they should know, but it must be so difficult in an environment filled with “experts” who appear to be but are not and pressure to succeed younger and younger. I suspect meeting the right people early on must play an important part, and that may be partly luck.

      I am not a singer, I must say.

      • scrupulous1 says:

        That’s the problem Janey. I studied music at college and worked in various musical roles (often simultaneously) until my late 20s when curiosity for life just drove me to try out other career directions, which just happened to work out over time. I was mostly an instrumentalist, but I had the good fortune to have had singing lessons in my early teens and again in my mid 20s from 2 very good singing teachers who taught solid technique. I stress the last because it was well known that the most prestigious teacher in the country taught no technique whatsoever. Many of the “stars” she taught vanished without trace, the few who succeeded (the last of whom was somebody I regularly worked with) succeeded largely because they went to the UK or elsewhere for lessons with better tutors after leaving her (a small few also surreptitiously went to other tutors on the sly for technical help). I’m sure its the same everywhere. I notice the very best performers don’t cancel unless there is a real problem, because they have the phenomenal technique that enables them to battle through throat/chest infections, colds/flue and less debilitating illnesses. Those who don’t have this probably won’t last very long anyway, cancellations or otherwise. Having a solid technical basis is as critical as the ability to read music fluently and get on with people.

        What you say about guidance and advice is very, very true though. And its like that in life in general: few people take younger people under their wing and give them advice that is unbiased or useful. The big danger is when somebody is really gifted and thus surrounded by “advice” – not all of it unbiased, but isn’t in a position to commit 100% to the demands of an international career, they may been wrongly told that they can still look for the Covent Garden and other prestigious roles without taking the “hard” route of doing smaller roles in regional houses and gradually working up to a level where they have the stamina and ability to self pace to take on a large role such as Tosca or Butterfly.

        In fact there was an interview on the radio yesterday with one of last years cancelees, who astonishingly, AGREED with Pappano before the interviewer kindly reminded her that she had actually cancelled herself. She went on to criticize other singers as being “precious” while it seems she’d cancelled with 1 week to go to the opening night. She went on to mention that she’s signed up for a role next year that to even my rusty experience, couldn’t be more wrong for her in terms of vocal maturity and musical maturity. From what I can see, she’s trying to cherry pick the engagements she wants without doing the dog-work further down the food chain, and taking on seemingly “prestige” (and I suspect, higher paid) engagements back home that in reality will lead to retirement to the Joseph Locke school of crooning rather than the bigger opera house stages. In business, there is a concept called “path dependency” where you need to go through a set of interdependent stages in order to reach certain goals, and trying to skip through simply means later tasks cannot be completed if the tasks they depend on are not done. Its very like this for a musical career: there are no shortcuts.

        Not getting paid (for anybody – not just singers – I work on a consultancy basis myself) – is a huge disincentive to take every precaution to avoid problems. Nobody has mentioned the horrific cost of private healthcare in the US and some other western countries that can add considerable expense to a singers cost of living. That has to be a huge worry for those in some countries. Plus rents – living short term in major cities – especially in places like London, New York, San Francisco, Swiss cities and Italy – are hardly cheap. Only a small few at the very top will have the kind of income to enable buying multiple apartments in such places: most will be dependent on less salubrious lodgings.

        That said, I don’t think huge droves of young singers are getting many “Toscas” or “Butterflies” – if they do, they are generally one off opportunities. The biggest cancellers are due to recurring vocal injuries or wear-and-tear (you just can’t traipse around the world in dirty air without suffering some of the consequences physically). People in other careers do suffer consequences by the way – they are just terrified to talk about it because of the ruthlessness of the business world.

        Lastly, hate to say this, but there is an attitude to musicians that persists – that musicians are cantankerous, moody, stupid and a bit stupid etc. The more that non-musically trained businesspeople, administration and production teams are moved into musical and operatic organisations in order to make them more “efficient” and “businesslike” in order to please stakeholders, the greater the risk that this mindset will pressurise negotiators to treat contracted artists in a disposable manner, and take little responsibility for their welfare. Singers are, after all, only human, they have lives, many things can happen in the 5 years between a role is agreed and rehearsals start, and if they cannot get the rest and comforts they need, you cannot expect them to persistently perform at their best. The more that the business world takes control, the bigger the risk that you get people working in positions of influence who don’t actually realise that most musicians are self-driven, hardy, hard-grafters who can learn stuff by themselves very quickly, but are not superhuman and certainly not robots. I am sick of trying to explain this to people who spent their 4 years at college throwing paper aeroplanes around lecture halls in the engineering dept while we musicians came in at 8am and practised up until 10m at night while they were down the sports bar having a good time.

        • Gioconda says:

          The more that non-musically trained businesspeople, administration and production teams are moved into musical and operatic organisations in order to make them more “efficient” and “businesslike” in order to please stakeholders, the greater the risk that this mindset will pressurise negotiators to treat contracted artists in a disposable manner, and take little responsibility for their welfare.

          The non-musical business people are a BIG problem, IMO:
          the Meyers, the Lissners and whatever they are called… They mainly shift the same productions with the same singers from one house to the other. No building up of young talents or finding something new and refreshing for the more experienced ones. Singers cannot rely on conductors, agents or managers but it is their OWN responsibility to know what is right for them and when.

          • Roland Mathews says:

            Right. Or… having a GOOD coach that can guide the singers if they are not to stubborn to accept good guidance.

      • I have to agree with you Janey. Luck and circumstances do indeed play a role in one’s success. I was fortunate not to have been thrown into the “deep end” until later and subsequently, was able to gain experience and training when it would help me the most. I consider myself lucky and grateful that I am still singing today and well I might add. Good luck to you all.

  13. As you would expect from the principal conductor of the Met there is truth in Fabio Luisi’s view that some conductors are putting pressure on young singers to accept roles that they aren’t quite yet ready for. Although, I would say I think that this is most unlikely in Pappano’s case, since he has worked with singers as a sympathetic coach for many years before beginning his conducting career. I have seen the phenomenon myself first-hand when I was a member of the Philharmonia. A wonderful mezzo was put under pressure to sing a part that the voice wasn’t really suited to. If it had come off, it would have been a triumph. It didn’t, and I think that this particular singer’s career subsequently suffered.

  14. Chris (an opera singer) says:

    Finding a job in opera is really tough – opera houses are closing and there are fewer and fewer positions available. I am lucky enough to have a fest position, but every audition I go to I hear fabulous out-of-work singers.

    Theater companies are tightening their belts, salaries are shrinking and ensembles are shrinking. I therefore, do not begrudge singers who accept roles that might be beyond them – if you get the offer, that is a door opening. You take it, otherwise the door doesn’t open again.

    As for agents, I haven’t had a good chat with any of my agents about it, but when there is no work opening then they are doing it tough too!

    When we discuss money, it always seems to me that there is money being thrown about and plenty of opportunities going. Definately not. This situation is like a bunch of hyenas fighting for the last remaining scraps of meat – money and roles.

    If we want singers to have choices, there has to be more support from audiences to keep their opera houses open and therefore more opportunities.

    The only bad thing about this “youth” trend (because youth does sell) is that there is a risk that the more older and experienced singers are thrown away – they need more Leonoras and Butterflys so that they can keep singing too!

    I for one, am about to hit 32 and am scared that in five or six years that I will also be a victim of the youth obsession.

    • Let’s not forget that *youth* has the added advantage of not having to be paid as much as experienced singers.

      • Why? Do ‘youth’ not have to pay for singing lessons and rent. Catch a grip!

      • a singer too says:

        Ding ding ding ding ding!!!

        A working singers checklist in 2013:

        Under 25
        Thin
        Good looking
        Consistent …. Doesn’t have to be great, but, consistent
        Must pay crazy fees to singing gurus in hopes of them talking to their dear friend agent x or conductor y telling them “they muuuust hear this great new tenor who pays me 200 a week and isn’t fat”
        Work for cheap

  15. Marcel Lange says:

    I think Stephen Hough recently wrote a blog post about pianists, that the current average talent is far higher than it used to be, while the very top peak of talent probably is weaker.

    Maybe this mass of available, high level talent is one reason why managers get away with this “(ab-)use and forget mentality”? The more good singers and musicians exists, the more replaceable they are.

    I even feel this pushing of the average might be a reason why the top end talent is weaker or less noticed than it used to be.

  16. Novagerio says:

    I dont think Karajan had any wrong doing in the vocal destinies of singers such as Freni, Ricciarelli, Carreras ed all; there was first of all the option for refusal from the singers themselves – despite the lucrative offers: the Salzburg Festival in the Karajan era, tenfold fees, a golden contract with the golden label etc. Then there was the fact that Karajan could infact keep down the orchestral volume to nil in order to acccommodate a voice, he prefared a lyrical approach in everything he did and in fact he would once even be criticized for making the mighty Ring des Nibelungen sound like “chamber music”. The real problem was that the conductors who followed Karajan didn’t have the masters abilities even if they would tell you they shared his concept, then the record industry went more or less to hell – ironically with the death of Karajan and still we are there, seeing potential singing stars being ruined for taking on the wrong roles to early. You want to stay long in the business, you got to learn to say NO THANKS every now and then. The isk is that you, as a young and ambitious singer will easily be replaced and forgotten. Managements who should concentrate on selling sports articles such as tennis balls and tennis socks are now (since 25 years in fact) handling the music industry. Mea opinio.

    • Michael J. Begley says:

      Singers who DID turn down inappropriate roles from Karajan, found they were blacklisted. When the choice is do an inappropriate role or commit career suicide, well – singers have to eat, too. I think singers have a responsibility to know what rep they can do, but when a gun is put to their head, who is to blame? The singer or conductor.

  17. I agree that we are simply not doing nearly enough to prepare our singers for the rigors of an international opera career. It’s possible to cultivate an impressive sound with poor technique, not to mention more expedient than learning to build coordination and stamina the right way. We are producing young singers who make impressive sounds and cut a handsome figure – after all, that’s what the market would seem to be demanding these days. The singers themselves don’t know that they haven’t prepared adequately, and by the time they begin to struggle they already have momentum and a brand that they feel pressured to maintain.

    I don’t know what the solution is, short of trying to educate the community about what constitutes healthy singing. As a voice teacher, I’m making my best efforts to that end. But in a culture where we can’t even get people to stop guzzling gallons of corn-syrup laden soda, we’ve got our work cut out for us trying to educate anyone about the virtues of health over immediate gratification.

  18. John Daszak says:

    I would like to thank Fabio Luisi for his honesty and frankness. He clearly has an understanding of the pressures on young singers today and the Met is fortunate to have a person with this degree of humility to lead them.
    Like many others I am surprised by Tony Pappano’s attack. Perhaps he was still dealing with the frustration of yet another “High-profile” cancellation? It must be frustrating.
    I think it is absolutely true that the “Art” of Opera has changed over the years. These days people are looking for a quick route to stardom. It’s not only true of singers, but conductors, directors and administrators too. There used to be a slower build up…a building of a career. Either nobody has the patience for that now, or they have lost the knowledge. All of these are jobs which involve learning a craft and just like great craftsmen, there is a certain amount of training and preparation required if the career is going to have longevity. Perhaps we have lost this craft to some degree?
    In this age of media, Youtube, HD video etc…Naturally there is also a different kind of pressure. Not only must young singers be vocally, technically, musically and dramatically gifted, but they are also going to have photo shoots and video close ups (This is also true of conductors). This aesthetic side seems to have become almost as important today as the musical side. Sometimes, more important. There needs to be a balance, and there are certainly many gifted singers with looks and voice. But I feel sometimes that the ability on the technical/musical side is overlooked for the aesthetic side. This can and does certainly lead to problems. I certainly don’t think we need necessarily to see huge, overweight or ugly singers. But if an overweight, ugly singer sings a particular role brilliantly, I personally might prefer their performance to one who looks great on a Rolex advert. Balance is what is needed in my opinion….

    • Kulta Heila says:

      Dear Mr. Daszak,
      I would like to ask you who is this one singer “who looks great on a Rolex advert”. Who is that an overweight, ugly singer (singers) who sings a particular role more brilliantly as this one who looks great on a Rolex advert? And why do you personaly prefer their performance before “to this one who looks great on a Rolex advert” ? And in which performances they are more brilliantly as this one who looks great on a Rolex advert?
      I can guess who is this one who looks great on a Rolex advert but I do not understand your unfair attack. This one who looks great on a Rolex advert along with Piotr Beczala are IMHO currently two best of the best and most beloved tenors of the world.

      • Mr Daszak is a very accomplished principal tenor himself – just research him!

        • Kulta Heila says:

          Yes, I knew it and that’s why I asked him to

          • John Daszak says:

            Dear Kulta! Sorry if my post wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean any specific person. I just used “Rolex advert” as an example of what successful Opera Singers are now expected to engage in. I don’t actually know specifically which singers male or female have appeared on Rolex adverts! But I know there have been a few….It was a hypothetical example and I thought that was clear. I said “I might prefer their performance” not that I had….
            Best wishes JD

    • Words of wisdom Mr. Daszak. Thank you for your input. I happen to agree with you and it has been proven through my experiences as well. I wish you well!
      James

  19. David Boxwell says:

    Jonas Kaufmann is 43 and says up front that Tristan is in the distant future, if at all. He’s got the sense to know what his voice can and can’t do, and he sings off the interest, not the principal (to quote Leontyne Price). He’s also got the maturity to say no, but unfortunately young artists are all too easily persuaded or pressured by management to assume roles before they’re Ready for Prime Time, when they _look_ right, but not when they sound right.

    • I agree, I remember some years back singing with Jonas when he was performing Belmonte and thinking: “you won’t be staying in this repertoire for very long…..” But of course he is now in a strong position to dictate his own career and loses nothing, and maintains his integrity, credibility and voice by saying “No!”. These days, there are greater pressures on young less known singers, partly because the ratio of good singer to jobs available is higher than ever before, and previous comments pertaining to the visual and media-driven world we now live in is spot on…….. Most are intelligent enough to know they are being tempted or pressured prematurely into unsuitable roles, but many conclude they have to take the risk or not get the chance again…..

  20. 150% right, Maestro Luisi. THANK YOU.

  21. Janet Shell says:

    Thank you John and Claudia for your insightful responses. Too many singers these days have no idea how they produce their sound and have therefore not got the technique to give the conductor or director what they want without giving away their voice too! I think the filming of opera, while wonderful, has created an expectation that the singers need to look like film stars and be able to sing while swinging upside down or running up and down stairs etc both of which I have seen! All without any consequences!
    Singers get used to the sound of their voice very quickly and need to trust somebody else’s ears for the fine tuning – along with how it feels – but if somebody influential tells them they sound wonderful while they have to adjust something crucial to create that, very quickly this becomes habit and then the singer compensates and very soon they have a vocal problem. Know thy voice is the maxim here I think and find an excellent pair of ears that are not your own and get to know how it FEELS to sing well. Often what you hear reproduced is not actually what the singer is DOING to create that sound.

  22. There’s a slippery slope to what Luisi is saying. I started out young, and was told to “be careful” and things like that. Problem was that there was no room made for natural vocal growth! Lots of people hear you sing one style and when you’re young, you can get pidgeonholed and it’s frustrating. Sure, you don’t want someone killing themselves singing Norma or Tosca at 24, but as the person ages, it’s only natural for the repertoire to change – albeit SLOWLY. Now, in my 30′s I can see this. There’s got to be a balance of progression and health. But the singer also needs to be able to say, “Does this feel right, or is it too much?” and not be afraid to speak up!
    I find it wildly amusing that Luisi is saying this when at the Met, there’s TONS of miscasting going on! Not to mention the fact that the techniques being used today are causing all sorts of vocal issues (like, you can’t hear the singers over the orchestra). Singers today AREN’T as strong as they used to be, and it’s a combination of many things. Pressure to sing bigger roles before your time is only one tiny part of a much bigger problem.
    I read a comment here earlier that talked about how singers used to specialize and didn’t stray too far outside that comfort zone. I think that idea could be part of a bigger solution.

    • For what it’s worth, I doubt that Luisi has all that much influence over casting at the Met – some, perhaps, but not nearly as much as Levine had.

    • Michael J. Begley says:

      There is no miscasting at the Met – all the artists look very attractive on the HD telecasts. So I’m told. You just have to accept that Gelb’s Met is a video production company; not an opera house.

  23. Sam McElroy says:

    Such an interesting and necessary thread. Thank you Maestros, and thank you Norman. I was at a talk last week given by the great baritone Benjamin Luxon, over in Tanglewood. His most pertinent remarks concerned the generational shift in what is expected of singers these days, and how the singing career has changed. He talked about an era when singers earned a living in the opera houses, the concert halls and the recital halls. The rehearsal periods were longer in the opera houses, so there was more chance to “sing the role into the voice” within that particular staging. Orchestras performed far more oratorios and vocal works back then, but now are more restricted by budgetary concerns, and the recital halls were full to the rafters. He even sang folk songs and ballads, and made a living from that, too. His point was that not only did the physical voice have a chance to develop naturally, but so did the singing, and thus the ARTIST!! He had a chance to develop a relationship with text and character through the song repertoire, to build his stagecraft in the opera houses, to broaden his range as an artist for a long career. Today, he says, it is all about “hitting the back wall”, with little time for rehearsal. We have a moribund recital culture, and little or no emphasis on long career development. Sadly, Ben’s career was cut short by deafness in his mid-fifties, but his memory is sound and his opinions and 30-year experience carry weight. I listen to his fresh-voiced recordings today, from Schubert to Verdi via Irish rebel songs, and THIS is the kind of exceptional artist I want to listen to! Bring back the oratorio, bring back the recital! We should not pander to what we THINK “the market” is, rather we should CREATE the market. That was Steve Jobs’ credo, at least, and it is good enough for me! :)

    • Searching for the music says:

      Brilliantly put everyone. I definitely agree with most of the points made here! It’s a matter of miscasting as well as being too young. Throughout history there have been some extraordinary young singers singing difficult roles. But any singer will get in trouble if they sing outside of the natural comfort zone of their voice. Expand the comfort zone whether is is top down or e converse. Lamperti wisely said each voice is a law unto itself. Very true! A great coach one told me pick up the score and analyze the requirements. It is like finding your dress size. What are the natural strengths of your voice, the sit, how it moves, not just whether it moves how much weight it needs. What vowels, rhythms, challenge you technically? Which are home for you? The problem with the fest system is like la law that tries to define one singer by another. Many of the roles found in a single category have precious little to do with each other. We need to look at the actual music, it is the great teacher. How often does the work push you through your passaggio. Word to the wise if the piece is sitting just beneath it all the time you will tire. What are the emotional requirements? If you’re smart, you look at a score and sketch out the range, the time spent in different parts of the range, the accompanying orchestration, and other parts and match it with what you’ve been doing comfortably for at least six months. The problem is that music schools are becoming more and more like companies. Singers need much more time to explore and less time to have it all decided. People need the courage to have egg on their faces from time to time – it is part of growth. But where is the music? Where are the singers who actually want to rehearse, to explore, and to actually sing with each other, the community that music creates opposed to copying recordings or learning everything exactly on the page without regard to the poetry, structure, or insights? You are right about creating the market. But it’s more than that it’s about creating a culture. Presently all the grants focus on the top end of things (at least where I am). It is becoming a niche for the wealthy. More lessons and coachings equal more privileged information, better references, grant references… We need to do something to take money out of the equation.
      We would do much better to focus on creating good small companies in the communities, that have fair employment standards than to continue to create an elite few that dictate who to pass over.

    • Oh! I would loved to have heard that talk. He (Luxon) is a tremendous artist. I think his recordings of Butterworth and Gurney with pianist David Willison set the mark very high. I am sorry to hear of his hearing issue. Thanks for posting.

    • This is such a fascinating conversation, and I’m very pleasantly surprised that some big name singers and conductors have fearlessly jumped into the fray. When the story first broke I said to a colleague “no singers will respond to this for fear of how it might affect their career” but I’ve been proved wrong! There’s needs to be open discussion on this issue. I believe that Pappano was not referring to singers who genuinely get sick, but those who cancel for less legit reasons. BUT, I wanted to respond to this post about Luxon in particular because I do believe that one of the big problems today is that young singers automatically look to opera as their goal, probably because opera is so much more in the public limelight than its ever been (HD, stadium concerts etc. etc.) but also, because oppotunities in recital and oratorio have dried up so dramatically. In the major city I live in, recital series by top name singers have all but disappeared in the past couple years due to lack of an audience. It’s very sad. If singers had more of a balance of opportunity, it would probably be much healthier for them vocally.

  24. But the people canceling are not “young singers”…they are established artists with international careers!

  25. Alexandra Eldin-Taylor says:

    Novagerio. I agree with you, Carreras admitted that he sang everything, far too soon and outside his vocal means, a beautiful voice already ruined before his terrible illness. His fellow Catalan tenor, Aragall, had the good sense to refuse roles and retired with a still beautiful and intact voice. He came out of retirement this year with new recording and at 73 , fifty years after his La Scala debut, he is still in good voice.

  26. New wagnarian says:

    I am a dramatic soprano who is finally ‘mature’ and ‘old’ enough to sing Wagner. I will make my Wagner debut this year. My teacher made me take the long route, saying i would only develop the right way into a dramatic with age and time. I sang bel canto for 20 years before turning to Wagner! Would you believe, that I am actually too ‘old’ now for the Wagner competitions?? I am finally vocally ripe! I am of normal weight and look much younger than my age, but am fearful about houses knowing my age because of the youth obsession. How can they expect great singing in the dramatic repertoire with young singers and then expect vocal longevity? It doesn’t work that way! We aren’t machines! It takes years to develop stamina and technique!!!

    • Spot on! I’m now an old tenor, looking for an Isolde to practice my Tristan with…….. seriously, I wish you every success!

  27. I certainly think filming has something to do with it. While a middle-aged woman might pass for a young Butterfly in the opera house (especially if one is sitting near the back) she cannot past muster on film. It shows all the wrinkles!
    Cancellation is nothing new in the music profession. I remember being booked in for a concert by Richter only for him to cancel on the morning of the performance!
    BTW I see Karajan’s again being blamed for everything. Did he start the Second World War too?

    • Ashley Holland says:

      Sometimes it takes courage for a singer to say ‘no’.

    • Let’s remember – Butterfly is supposed to SOUND 15 not look 15!!! The thrill of the great Butterfly’s was exactly that. No more no less.

      • Ms Flanigan, what do you mean by “Butterfly is supposed to SOUND 15 not look 15!!!”? She is supposed to do neither. What she is supposed to do is, in her singing and acting, to give the audience the illusion that she is a 15 year old geisha. I doubt many people would want to listen to a Butterfly sounding like a 15 year old sound.

  28. I believe the blame here is misplaced. Singers in Verdi’s time regularly made debuts in these roles in their 20s and 30s and went on to have long careers.

    I’m going to argue that the root problem here is voice training. We have a university system in the US that while providing job security for thousands upon thousands of singers, basically amounts to the blind leading the blind. Classical voice training for the opera stage is so much more than subscribing to the NATS journal and teaching the Alexander Tecnique. At larger programs this isn’t always true, but I have personally witnessed it many times at smaller state schools: Singers with huge potential get tossed into opera roles without knowing how to sing them, on top of which they haver regular recitals and juries to worry about, on top of which they study with a teacher that never learned how to sing in the first place.

    • Christine Goerke says:

      Aaron- you must also factor in the fact that those young singers were not hopping international flights to do their singing… There are many factors that play into the care and feeding of a healthy (big or not) voice.

      • Michael J. Begley says:

        Christine – Yes, and the opera houses were under 1000 seats, the diapason was a half tone lower, the orchestras used gut strings and the conductors actually REHEARSED WITH THE SINGERS. I mean, rehearsed even BEFORE the week of the premiere. The patrons also still had hearing, not having been blasted for 30 years with over amplified plays, musicals, concerts, opera, etc.

    • Aaron: In addition to what Christine says, I think there’s also the factor of how much larger opera houses tend to be these days. I think young singers could effectively sing those Verdi roles in a house of a few hundred, where they could sing more lightly and still be effective in the role. But these days, they’re being asked to sing these roles in houses of a few thousand, which is a much different thing, and not suitable for young voices.

  29. Christian Gerhaher is an interesting singer. One gets the sense that he works carefully within strict limits and does not compromise, nor chase the limelight. He does a few operas, probably because of all the difficulties highlighted in this thread. Result is a reliable voice of spectacular beauty.

  30. German Producer says:

    If you listen to the records or see the DVDs of Karajan you can see that he worked a lot with the singers. And the orchestra reacts mostly perfect on the singing. Today the planing and position of the contuctors not even allows proper musical rehearsals. I wish we would have someone like Karajan. His work on roles and singer was a masterpiece.

  31. To the extent that HD broadcasts have made singers’ appearances more of a deciding factor in casting, I think that both singers and opera companies both need to arrive at a more realistic standard. Singers must accept the need to become as fit and flexible as they can; opera companies need to understand that they shouldn’t “type” singers the way that film & tv companies do actors w/ regard to things like age, height, ethnicity etc. http://www.claudiafriedlander.com/the-liberated-voice/2013/01/beautiful-singer.html

  32. ken scott says:

    Slipped Disc at its best. Thanks so much.

  33. I agree with 99 % of everything stated by everybody, but nobody mentioned today’s use of microphone in many theaters, therefore those singers with very small voices are able to do all kind of roles, as they don’t have to worry if their voices is beeing heard over the orchestra. Someone mentioned a singer who, actually I believe is a very good singer, but his voice will be too small singing dramatic Verdi or Wagner roles, but thanks to the new microphone era, he and others will be covering the whole repertoire. Shame !.

    • Roland Mathews says:

      If you don’t have the voice to do it without a microphone, simply don’t. Stick to what nature gave you. That is what I tell my students!!!

    • Still-Young-Soprano says:

      But what is this nonsense about mics in the theatre? It’s not true!
      I have sing a lot of roles in different theaters in the world, but I’ve NEVER seen mics for singers used for the theatre, only for broadcasts and live recordings.

  34. Nick (professional singer) says:

    Also, let’s not forget the need to survive as a young singer. Without the great patrons, etc. of the past to support you while training, the need for quick and consistent income is a MUST. You can’t really develop a career while working other jobs and, if you don’t work another job, your singing career must provide adequate income. Generally, that income comes in the form of roles you’re not quite ready to sing. At least that’s been my experience as a 31yr old. My choice was to resist the day job and be VERY poor and struggle to survive on fees for secondary roles until the time is right for the big roles. However, if someone calls my managers and offers something big with a big check…I may not be able to refuse. One must eat! Even D houses are bringing in big names these days for the lead roles so….what do you do? You jump when an opportunity presents itself because they’re few and far between until you’re an established name.

  35. The desire of managements to ‘compete’ with film, TV and ‘straight theatre’ on a visual level, (because they assume that is what the public expects), conspires with the giving up of artistic power to stage directors, who are now being recruited regularly from outside of the opera industry.
    Box – office mentality is evident in the desire of some subsidised companies trying to recruit film directors and studio theatre directors into the opera house because of relatively mainstream ‘celebrity’ status. When this is accompanied by some conductors who do not understand singing sufficciently to resist contractual changes ceding control to directors, there is suddenly nobody left to side with the singers or to view them as long term investments. The result – increasingly – is yet another example of encroaching short-termism obsessed with the ‘new’, ‘fresh’ and ‘young’ being an exciting, but disposable commodity! Such commercial and cynical (or naive?) thinking has poisoned much of society’s attitude into ‘positioning’ ‘classical’ music as another desirable accessory for the socially ambitious. It is hardly surprising that with a classical music ‘industry’ now led by such marketing ploys, often reliant on photogenic young solo instrumentalists that the vocally-illiterate but marketing-savvy movers and shakers see singers as being fit for the same treatment philosophy. In many cases the amateur musicians who end up in posititions of administrative power (either as agents or as would be intendants) buy into this model.

    It has to be said that marketing a 24 year old concert pianist through the repertoire is not a very technically complex task. There are obviously artistic considerations of perceived ‘credible gravitas’ – just as there are with conductors, but with singers in their twenties there are major physical, technical and psychological (technical psycholgical not artistic psychological) issues – as well as the considerations of the fach system. Lyric singers, impressive in some Mozart repertoire at a relatively young age do not necessarily become Puccini singers after a certain period of time. Often, in this country, the young lyric singers who impress, do so because of artistry more than technical command, but if they have a pleasing voice with adequate facility and exceptional musicianship they may well win the Ferrier competition or get a prize at Cardiff. After that has happened it is often assumed they can be groomed through the rest of the repertoire provided certain common formulas are followed. In respect of sopranos and (especially) tenors, very few singers young enough to win the Ferrier have either spinto voices or the technique to drive one, because if they have that sort of voice, the likelihood is that it will not yet sound polished enough to please the judges.

    Gruberova (cited earlier) is a wonderful example of how much better things are if these assumptions are questioned and (where necessary) rejected, but the pressure on singers now is immense, and a soprano who may be truly ready to shine in a world class Madam Butterfly by the age of 45, may feel a coercion to sing the role as much as fifteen years early while some film or theatre director thinks she still looks plausibly young. International Houses understandably need ‘names’ to underpin their status as centres of excellence. Among the cognescenti of audience members there is a palpable excitement at the thought of this or that famous singer presenting a particular role, and the confidence they feel based on previous form by said singer is a perfectly valid example of ‘brand-confidence’. The trouble is that ‘brand confidence’ is used indiscriminately. No one tenor is best for all tenor roles – but how convenient it would be if that were true! Often the biggest buzz is when a singer moves into new repertoire. At this point, brand confidence becomes dangerous because it starts being used as a lazy way of making headlines. Somebody (other than the singer) has to really know what is being undertaken here. Even some conductors get this wrong, and if an intendant or director gets lazy and over-ambitious in their wishful thinking (be it about visuals or box-office!) the results can be spectacularly awful. Once this goes wrong the singer is under enormous pressure not to commit professional suicide. So it is better to cancel than to never work again because you were overparted and failed. In the first instance a management will grumble for a while then have you back because you are still a ‘name’ with sufficient prestige for their house: in the second, they will drop the singer like a hot potato, and all the other international houses will hear about it within days. – Another career will be finished! Of course, it would never be conceded that the company had made a mistake – even though they will have just toasted a respected brand. Of course if enough companies do this, there will be ever increasing pressure to push the ‘promising’ into the position of ‘most exciting new star’ and shortly thereafter into a ‘trusted brand name’ frame. All of which starts to resemble a hideously accelerated sausage factory with new singers hrriedly pushed forward as others are burned out.

    I love the ground breaking work that many innovative opera directors have brought to us with which to challenge audiences out of their, sometimes, annoyingly conservative comfort zones regarding staging. Before moving firmly across into the ‘creatives’ camp, I had the privilege of working under some of the greatest of these directors, and my admiration remains undimmed – but the reason most people ultimately come to core-repertoire operas, and that civilized societies subsidise them, is because of the importance and quality of the scores.
    Everything permanent and essential about an opera is in the score, and until the people who have wrested artistic control from the vocally literate musicians that understood these scores (and the artists needed to perform them) can learn what their empires are reliant upon – and give it adequate support – it will be easier to blame the singers.

    Clearly I do not blame the singers, but neither do I particularly blame the directors. I am more concerned by those who effectively choose to put directors on a pedestal above composers.

    A wise tenor once said to me – (of singers in general) – ‘managements exist to protect us from our own egos’

    Every singer told they could be really good in a particular role would like to believe it, but singers cannot truly hear themselves any more than a theatre actor can see themselves. Singers are reliant on technique, sensation, experience and the feedback of music staff and other singers. Yes, singers do need to surround themselves with people they can trust, but that is easier said than done.

    I admit this is a very British perspective on a post pertaining to an international house, but downward transfer of risk and a disposable manpower philosophy are now all too common across the Western World. Whilst they may be applauded as astute business thinking in a free market, they are not appropriate to an important (and still subsidised) keystone of performance art.

  36. Thank you slipped disk!

    I would like to add that there has ALWAYS been pressure from managers or theaters to have singers
    doing repertoire that is one, or several sizes too big for their instrument. The word “NO” is the key to longevity!
    There have been plenty of singers who have made forays into that was potentially dangerous ofr the health of their instrument, but have then pulled back from that. Honestly realizing just what your voice can or cannot do is also key to basic vocal health. In other words, KNOW thyself?

  37. Fledgling professional says:

    As a young (30) dramatic lyric soprano, I too find these cancellations hugely frustrating. It is always the ‘next big thing’ who has been spotted in a competition singing a few arias, gets signed to an agency and is thrust upon us, with complete lack of care as to their suitability, and vocal stamina. The worst part, is that many members of the chorus in the opera houses can and do sing circles around said new star, but are without an agent, and won’t be heard for principal roles. It used to be that we could cover principals and invite agents to hear us thus having opportunity, but now agencies are forcing houses into a bartering system “you can have this big exciting name, but only if this new recruit can cover her” the house has their hands tied, and better brighter stars who are paying their dues and learning their craft, and developing vocal stamina are having the aforementioned opportunities taken away from us. What happens, the chorus sound great but are resentful (as they could do a better job) and the high paid star does a few nights on a few nights off, or worse never sings the top c once in the whole run of boheme!! Something needs to change or the standard will continue to slip and the great art form that we all love will be lost.

  38. Fledgling professional says:

    As a side not to this, in Britain, many of the music colleges must also take some responsibility. The current fashion is to take small early music voices, and voices suited to Susanna, and nothing bigger. This in turn means that the bigger voices are being lost along the way, and the agents are only hearing smaller voices. It’s not that voices are not as large or powerful as they once were, it’s just that the colleges don’t know what to do with them, and so they are lost, overtaken by the smaller voices. Then when it comes to casting there is a smaller choice of voice types, and so, a young Mozart voice is thrust into a large Puccini role. If we celebrated the larger voice more and nurtured it, this too would alleviate some of the problem as people could stay within their Fach, and not risk vocal damage.
    There is no simple solution, as their are so many issues and they go all the way back to the colleges.

    • Fabio Luisi says:

      Dear all,
      big voices come often from big bodies, which is completely understandable (you don’t expect from a 56kg-category weightlifter to make a snatch over 200kg). But directors don’t like big bodies. They like movie actors.

      • Fledgling Professional, I have to disagree with you on one point – I am a ‘smaller-voiced’ soprano and I have found increasingly in the last 5-10 years that companies, especially the small-medium sized ones, only want bigger voices. Every one of my colleagues agrees that larger voices have been the fashion in the UK for nearly a decade. Hopefully this will change soon and give those of us in a lighter fach a chance at grant money/main roles etc.

        • Fledgling says:

          @BGE,

          This really is the problem, I was talking specifically about the trend in colleges, and the uk are not providing the bigger voices, so the work for us is all ending elsewhere. On several occasions I have been part of a company where the Susanna and Countess have indistinguishable voices. In one case the roles were cast in exact opposition to how they should have been.
          Obviously big and small are rather ambiguous words as a pebble is big to a grain of sand, so it’s up there with how long is a piece of string, but light young lyrics should not be singing the rep of a dramatic lyric.
          I was also speaking from experience, and whether it is different where you have worked, this is certainly the case in 2 of the big 3 houses here and my opinions were based on my experiences here. Obviously I can’t name names, but if I could then my point would be simply made.
          This said, it seems that everyone is in agreement that the system is not working, and consequently some really great voices are being passed over for lesser, or incomplete voices, and this is really sad. It is devaluing our art!!

      • Meastro is, of course, correct as a general matter but there are, as he well knows, many exceptions to this rule. An Evelyn Herlitizius, for example is a very slim woman slightly above average height and yet has a voice of considerable size even within the dramatic fact, while there are a number of taller, heavier singers with relatively light voices even fora full lyric.

      • Roland Mathews says:

        For example? A ” Brunhilde ” of 50 kilos????

      • THANK YOU for saying this! When waist size is more important that voice size… the industry has a problem.

      • Michael J. Begley says:

        Maestro – BINGO!!!! And competitions think you are washed up at 35, and big voices aren’t perfect by then (usually). Maybe I’m simply not that good but here’s my experience – got out of college trained as an actor, plus voice training at Peabody and Indiana University), I’m told I have huge voice, it needs time to settle. But I have this very bad habit – I like to eat 3 times a day. So off to a government job – maybe I can retire early and get back into opera. My voice keeps growing, extending – Low F to High B flat. Huge Verdi baritone. Now, I’m too old; too fat. Can’t even get an audition. I was trying, and then realized – why would I want to do opera nowadays? At the BEST then I’d learn Wotan so I can play seesaw? Learn Rigoletto so I can be a Las Vegas Pimp? Audition for Scarpia so I can do obscene things with the statue of the Madonna? Work on Renato so I can go to London and sing it sitting on a toilet? No thanks. I’d rather go back to the theatre and am starting to get a little film work.

        Now, as I said, maybe I just stink. But I feel strongly there are people out there in similar situations who don’t stink. But they are not pretty or handsome enough for today’s opera. So I laugh when people ask “Where are all the big voices?” We can’t even get auditions! They look at the pictures and right into the trash can.. That’s why a lieder singer (though, granted, a great artist in that realm) is doing Iago at the Met. Mio Dio!

        • To a point, I would agree, but at least in the US, we are certainly not short on wonderfully large voices from larger than average singers. In fact, in recent years, I believe there has been a recognition of the fact that all kinds of wonderful voices come from all size of singers. I needn’t elaborate, I believe.

      • Dr. Emilio Pons says:

        Dear Maestro Luisi,

        With all due respect, and with the freedom that your candid and honest participation in this discussion affords me without fear of retaliation, you are helping to promote three dangerous myths:

        (a) that there is a correlation between physical size and the size of a voice, which is simply not accurate.
        Off the top of my head, three of the biggest, loudest, most resonant tenor voices ever –Mario del Monaco, Vladimir Atlantov, and currently, Vladimir Galouzine– were produced by men who were/are neither particularly tall nor fat.

        (b) based on the false premise that large voices come out of big (fat) and/or tall bodies, that if a singer fits that description, he or she should determine their repertoire based on their physicality rather than on their vocal characteristics, musical skills and technical maturity. I certainly will not bash in public any of my colleagues who can be faulted for singing the wrong, heavy repertoire, simply because they happen to have fallen prey to this fallacy –but we all know who they are.

        (c) that only big voices are desirable, when in fact, what is critical is to have resonant, healthy, well-carrying voices. Diana Damrau immediately comes to mind as someone in possession of a voice which, while not massive, is nonetheless impeccably produced, and therefore, has phenomenal carrying power, and affords her the ability to sing HER repertoire with uttermost freedom and therefore to also excel as an overall musician and as an actress.

        A big, pushy voice is as aesthetically unappealing and as technically unreliable, as a wimpy, unfocused, tightly produced, under-supported voice.

      • Anonymous says:

        Bless you Maestro Luisi. Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. I’m a singer in a major US young artist program, where this is clearly a problem, but no one ever talks about it. It is the great pink elephant in the room. Again, THANK YOU for starting these discussions. We need to talk about these problems openly or we really will lose this art form.

  39. As a coach and teacher in NYC, I agree with everything Maestro Luisi says. But he’s not minding his own back yard! Just coached a girl who was told by Met casting that the UPPER age limit for dramatic sopranos is 30. What does a professional singer do with that information after reading this article? Who’s minding the store?

    • Fledgling says:

      This is really dreadful. Especially considering that most bigger voiced sops are continually told we are too young, we have plenty of time, and then suddenly the goal posts are moved and the opportunity is gone. It is the same here for me, until 28, I was considered too young for the roles in my fach, and now nearing 30 they are telling me that I should have done more by now, and am reaching the end of the window for being heard as a principal.
      I hope she is given the chance to prove them wrong.

    • This does not appear to match what the Met is doing on stage. Dalayman? Voigt? Radvanovsky? Monastyrska? Certainly the numerous Valkyries were over 30 in 2011/12. Is this a change in policy for the future?

  40. Stephen - professional nudge says:

    AAron says it right about training. Taking a one hour lesson each week is pointless. THEN, students go to coaches who they believe know as much as the teacher, but, frequently, add confusion to young singers. How often are pianists at major conservatories simply pianists that don’t know the rep, nor the language, nor the story of the opera? Say what you want about Karajan, he knew how to keep the orchestra in proper balance to the singers he was using. Nonetheless, there is just so much you can do with some scenes without throwing the entire architecture of a piece off. Some famous singers performed decades without canceling more than once a decade, and they, too, were subject to the vagaries of travel, sickness, etc. There are ways, but, I think some people don’t know what to eat, what not to touch, WHO not to touch, how much sleep is necessary, etc. I am convinced that diet has a LOT to do with health, and, there is no doubt, many can’t find their way around eating, drinking, etc. There have been MANY examples of singers singing inappropriate rep for decades, and surviving, because they stayed within there vocal means without blowing their sound up. As someone said, blowing the voice up early on is not that difficult. Knowing how to survive on 90% of ones capability MOST of the time is not taught. Everyone pushes from time to time – EVERYONE. It is those that keep it to a minimum that survive the longest.

  41. This is an interesting discussion. As a great admirer of Maestro Luisi (I love you from afar) and a devotee of Maestro Pappano (he knows of my musical devotion) I am thriled to be reading this discussion. I think I’ll speak from my newer experiences though. I’ll speak not as a soprano who successfully sang a fach heavier for the better part of 30 years and cancelled no rehearsals and only one performance, but as a mentor who opens her home to young artists and hears daily about their experiences trying to “make it” as an opera singer. First let me say that anyone under 35 right now absolutely does not understand committment the way that we, who are over 50 do. They just do not. In the US right now – the way to the top is through elite programs and schools and students know this and they are willing to sing anything to be seen and heard and accepted. It’s the elephant in the proverbial room. They change voice teachers so often in schools now that some schools and conservatories have had to instutute really strict rules regarding changing major teachers. A few years ago I substituted for a prominent voice teacher at a NY conservatory. I can’t tell you how many students cancelled lesson and for the most flimsy of excuses. My boyfriend is in town. I have a headache. My summer young artist applications are due tomorrow. I could go on. The teacher assured me that this is the new normal. Really? This thing that we do implies something sort of wonderful and sacred. Something that can only be accomplished if we are willing to show up with a headache and if our boyfriend is in town. But it’s something that cannot be accomplished if the over-riding moral and ethical idea is – anything to be seen and heard and accepted. That is how we accept operas we cannot sing or accept engagements that are too close to other engagements so that we cannot prepare ourselves or get our rest and take care of our health. It starts there – early – in school. You have to show up. There are no really good excuses not to show up. We have all experienced loss, discomfort, financial hardship, illness, and bad decisions but we showed up. We have all sung operas that were absolutely WRONG for us but we actually showed up and did the work. Accepted the accolades or the criticism and went our merry way. I for one was WRONGLY cast in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler but would not give up what I learned about singing from that experience ever. It nearly killed me but it eventually made me a much better singer and more astute musician. We are all offered the wrong roles. Historically everyone was offered something ridiculous and took it – onstage or in recording. It’s part of the business. It makes biographies hilarious. I mean Joan Sutherland sang Jennifer in Michael Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage. In my opinion we are letting this young generation slip through our musical moral fingers. Last week I brought a group of young singers to a performance of an opera here in New York City. This is an opera that most of the students had performed in college and knew well. More than 30% of the notes sung that evening were just WRONG. Wrong notes on stage. Not opening night gitters wrong notes and not some super hard 21st century work wrong notes. The students sat there and watched that cast – who sang WRONG NOTES – get a standing ovation and great reviews in the New York Times and other papers. Not one critic mentioned it either. I will never ever be able to coach that experience of mediocrity getting a standing ovation out of them. Students in the US know that there is an unspoken tiered system and that if they are not getting noticed by the A level by the time they are 30 then it will be very very hard for them. Some managements in the US won’t consider a singer if they have not been through either an elite school, young artists program or won a major competition. That hardly screams take your time and make great decisions for your voice even if it takes you a while. It sends the not so subtle message GET NOTICED NOW and figure it out later. A guest artist staying at my residence was talking with students over dinner about rehearsing and issues they had faced when other artists were not prepared. One student, incredulous at the notion that anyone would be at a rehearsal unprepared, kept expressing over and over again – how is that possible? How is that possible? After a bit and in my very best Lady Macbeth I said – remember all those auditions you did where you couldn’t exactly tell the auditioner word for word what you were saying? Remember all those scenes programs you’ve done where you didn’t actually translate the whole opera? Well that’s how it starts and that’s how it keeps going until one day you are in rehearsal and you don’t know the opera. It’s what happens when no one holds you accountable and raises the bar. Lets not blame Youtube and HD and cell phones – although I take Susan Graham’s comments seriously as I have not and do not regularly have to perform under such scrutiny. Lets re-set the bar so f-ing high that it sends the message loud and clear that if you miss one voice lesson you are already behind, that singing an aria without translating the opera is WRONG, that if you make a wrong decision about an opera, you are good enough and smart enough to fulfill your obligation and learn something. Show up. Great artists show up. They just do.

    • Lauren, I love you! You add a huge dose of reality to the conversation. We have problems in our business that no one is addressing. I know you do great work with the youngins and truly try to mentor them. But you can only lead a horse to water. Again, thanks for your comments.

    • Rafael de Acha says:

      Lauren certainly makes interesting points, but I find it very hard to believe that ANY performance in NY would have 30% of the notes wrong. That just makes no sense to me. Lauren is a ball buster in every sense of the word and admirable for speaking her mind.Things are different today. They just are. Some of what she says is right on the money, but with some of it is not.. That was then, and this is now. Focus on the brilliant young musician who does show up and care and try. Help him/her succeed.Back “in our day” there were plenty of people in our schools who never went on to do anything with their talent and training. Probably, back then, they were the ones who had a headache, whose boyfriend showed up, and who didn’t learn their music. I recall trying to rehearse and even perform with people who certainly appeared to be singing a different score from the one I had learned.Where are they now? Probably somewhere teaching some of the people Lauren is talking about.

      • Wow, “ball buster in every sense of the word.” Really? You know me? Really? Charitable comment, no?
        No other blog post warranted any personal attacks and yet from someone who has never met me, “ball buster in every sense of the word.” Wow.

        Frankly, and I know this one intimately, every man I have ever been with found me to be a “ball cuddler.” You have your facts wrong sir both personally and professionally. And I am sorry for you that you are not able to voice your own opinion as so many have done on this really intelligent blog without personal abuse. I am really very evry soory for you.

        Posting this to Facebook to serve as an example of how NOT to engage in any kind of professional discourse.
        You should be ashmed and embarrassed. I am quite sorry for you.

        • John Daszak says:

          Hi Lauren! You’re not a “ball buster”….but I just hope this guy never meets you, because I know you can bust balls if you want to… xx

          • Peter Bertling says:

            Lauren:

            You are not a ball buster! You are a consummate artist who has had a profound influence on may young singer lives. I know from personally experience that YOU touched the lives of countless students in Santa Barbara when you were here to perform Seance on a Wet Afternoon. You nurtured their souls and encouraged their talents. You are an amazing woman and I am blessed to call you my friend.

        • Brian Suntken says:

          Brava! Well said. And I totally agree with your first point as well.

        • Lauren, I was taken aback by the “ball buster” comment as well – and I was confused, too, since immediately after writing it, Rafael wrote that you are admirable for speaking your mind.

          I can’t help wondering if, despite his long years in the US, Rafael – not being a native speaker of English – perhaps didn’t fully understand that the epithet “ball buster” is considered an insult.

          Just trying to be charitable …

          As for 30% of the notes being wrong – Well, if you count notes sung off-pitch or seriously out-of-tune (same thing, really) as wrong notes, then yes, it’s not at all uncommon to hear opera singers give performances with 30% or more of the notes being wrong.

          From the time I was old enough to think about it, I’ve been mildly astonished at how much off-pitch and out-of-tune singing is tolerated from operatically trained singers – far more than would ever be accepted from string players. (Or early music singers, for that matter.) All too often, volume really does seem to matter more than anything else, even accuracy.

      • Tyson Deaton says:

        She speaks the truth. I am of the 35 and above category and I know what hard work it is to (attempt to) have a career for myself and also for the singers with whom I work at various stages of the game. I’ve been following this thread for a few days now, and it’s clear that the “younger” generation needs somewhat of a talking to. Ball buster or not, there are some hard and cold truths which are not being taught at school nor are they being taught by parents. Any generation whose parents get them an iPhone when they are in high school needs to have some different priorities instilled within them. Granted, there are those today who continually amaze me with their maturity. They are the few who realize that our work is never finished. It is relentlessly and full of love, discipline and respect that “those who know and understand” attack their craft. The others are doomed to cancel, with all due respect to those wonderful artists who commented above. There are many reasons for canceling, but one really should just do their job. Always.

    • Gioconda says:

      I absolutely agree. – Standing ovations for no more than mediocre vocal results and WRONG NOTES – and nobody seems to notice or – even worse – care. Thank you for putting it so clearly

  42. I don’t know of any singers who cancel willy nilly and I have been in a major opera house for over 20 years.

    When a singer is on the international circut but not a major star they can’t afford to cancel. Call in sick once too often and you are out of a job. The singers aren’t at fault today and unless you are a major star enjoying those short ten years at the top you are often treated like a disposable product to be turned off and on like a CD and/or to be at the mercy of stage directors in weeks of senseless rehearsals, in absurd, oscene and ugly productions and where they are not interested in anything the singer has to contribute or say about the role he/she is performing.

    We also need managements that have the musical and vocal knowledge and understanding to be running an opera houses.

    Until we reject “stage director” dominated opera and their “Eurotrash” productions, especially on the Continent today and return to authentic values in how we perform opera and choosing the right singers, then there is not much hope for the art form.

  43. Thomas Tidswell says:

    At the root of the problem is the over-supply of would-be singers which creates a working environment for their instruments that doesn’t favour longevity. Some voices are stronger than others and will survive the process. Others are not and fail. It isn’t the greed, or inexperience of the promoters and others, it is the conflation of the circumstances in which the young voices are tested and, many, fail. There will always be the unfortunate who fails at the final hurdle. “Many start but few finish”!

  44. The topic which Tony raises and Maestro Luisi mentions 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.

    • Fabio Luisi says:

      I agree with every word of it.
      Thank you Ms. Plowright!

    • Christine Goerke says:

      SO well said! We are under great pressure not to cancel, and I am in 100% agreement that travel can be a great detriment. It is a different world.

    • Fascinating discussion and I totally agree with your response, Rosalind.

      Since I started on Fest contract at Zurich, it’s been a real pleasure just to be at Zurich Opernhaus and to have a life alongside work- rather be travelling and skyping family from a lonely hotel room! Why can’t more opera houses (ENO, ROH) consider this sane system?

    • So well said! Thank you!

    • Fabio Fabrici says:

      Good opera houses require their singers to be “in town” at least 24 hours before the performance starts. Once that was common sense. I’m surprised that singers even consider to get on a plane with it’s extremely dry, conditioned air, get off the plane within hours into a different weather and climate, and sing the same evening at the destination’s opera house. Isn’t that basically asking for your voice to have a very short life?

    • Ms Plowright is a professional cast in the old school mould, and she can see the pressures put on the singers of today. By being sensible and heeding the advice of another ‘old school pro’ (namely saying no at the outset) she has had a long distinguished career.

      I only wish that there was less pressure on young singers to sing roles that were totally unsuited, and recruit older singers when it is clear that their Fach was the type that takes a while to develop. As far as travel is concerned, with the inability to transport water around airports, and budget air-travel, singers who fly have to really take care in order to keep hydrated.

      Wear clothing in layers to deal with adjusting to climate. It makes applying more or stripping off (not ala Salome) just to cope with going from -3 to +29 much easier. Perfecting the cat nap is useful too.

      I’m sure Tony Pappano is getting rather frustrated as he has been left in the lurch rather often, but why are these singers taking on all of these roles if they can not fulfil their contractual obbligations? It only ends up disappointing audiences, even if the under-study is wonderful.

  45. Jeff Howard says:

    Surely it’s more a case of the right voice type for the job in hand. The composer has written for a specific voice in mind and for the dramatic effect required. This is only a reflection of the general world that we live in – horse dressed as beef being a prime example (to stay on the theme of horses). Integrity lies at the heart of everything we do and we’re sadly loosing it at a rate of knots.

    Of course the other issue is that of there being fewer and fewer jobs for singers. They are obliged to take on work which is not appropriate for them, by their own admission. Stretch or starve!

  46. I am a professional singer, too, and I agree with what Susan Graham writes. We are not robots. We are human beings. We get paid when we sing and we don’t get paid when we cancel. We guests have contracts which give generally a small rehearsal fee, if any, depending on the country, and we often have to pay our own housing , with deposit etc. Singers also pay up front for vocal coaching at our own expense to prepare, since we have to show up memorized. Then add on top of that flying to many destinations around the world, surrounded by coughing people on the airplanes. We have no guarantee of a future. Most of us retire well before retirement age, even when successful, because of the new found love for young,fresh, and lower fees in the opera world. So, why on God’s earth would we want to cancel for fun?!!! Maybe in some cases it is because people are singing the wrong rep, and it sure seems like some people are over booked as a PR coup, but I think that’s rare and clearly only for the big stars. The overbooking is probably fueled more by the fear that saying no will make you forgotten by the big houses. The rest of us are doing our best, singing the right rep, and we nevertheless sometimes get the flu. And, boy oh boy, it’s NO fun to call up your agent and an opera house or symphony to tell them you have to cancel! Many people resort to taking cortisone and taking too many prescription drugs in order NOT to do that. Everyone gets a cold, but most people can nevertheless do their job with many ailments. Singers are affected by anything that hurts their vocal chords or dries them out, like a small stomach bug. Then they have the possibility of ruining their vocal chords forever! We have to make very unpopular choices all the time, with pressures from agents, houses, conductors, etc.

  47. James Mayhew says:

    There have always been singers with long, illustrious careers (Melba retired in her 60s) and those who burned out early like Colbran. Every voice is unique, every person has different chords, personality, life. It’s complicated. What I do worry about, though, is the obsession with youthful looks on stage. And I’ve been to a few recent operas where I couldn’t even hear the singers.

  48. George Shirley says:

    One of the problems in today’s fast-paced society, wherein the focus is on youth in almost every profession, is that there is no way singers can acquire time for adequate preparation that allows them to reach the point of physical and emotional maturity requisite to deal successfully with 21st-Century pressures and expectations. Young singers in Verdi’s time were used to a pace of life absolutely snail-like in comparison with the velocity at which life is lived today. Diets were for the most part cleaner, healthier, and more hearty; travel slower and less frequent and frantic; competition less densely populated, all of which made for a far different atmosphere in which to flourish than we are accustomed to at this juncture in human history. Pressure from managers, whose profit-driven modus operandi have no place for career-building, too often encourage young talent who are “hot items” to jump into the pool before they have developed enough stamina and savvy to endure for the long haul, the irresistible allure of “stardom” and big paychecks thus poisoning the atmosphere for all concerned. In addition, tuning has risen steadily over the centuries without consideration of the fact that human throats are incapable of adjusting in comparable fashion. Yet another hurdle, the love of volume at all costs – a phenomenon nurtured and intensified by modern technology – swells the perfect storm of ruinous events feeding a vortex of turbulence that swamps many promising talents in their pursuit of careers. 

    Some criticism leveled at university/conservatory education of singers is justified, e.g., teachers long on book learning and short on performance experience, and some unjustified, e.g., inadequate preparation for the rigors of the profession. What can reasonably be accomplished in four years when the majority of entering undergraduates are, for the most part, lacking in technical training and, increasingly today, void of solid musical preparation? What can one reasonably expect following two additional years of study at the master’s level? What can one reasonably expect to accomplish in four to six years with young singers whose potential may be evident, but whose musicality is deficient; whose ability with languages, both native and foreign, is wanting in terms of accurate pronunciation, clarity of diction, and understanding of the varied layers of meaning conveyed by the spoken word; whose desire to sing is devoid of the realization that there is no reason to sing unless there is something to say, and that in order to say something, one must know the meaning of every word one is called upon to sing?

    In so many ways, a voice lesson is like a therapy session in which fundamental aspects of psyche and soma begin to undergo change. Given the pressures of academic life, and the expectations for developing the whole person as singer, musician, and scholar, the proper steps taken towards fulfillment of potential will yield only partial results by the end of master’s studies. Of course, there will always be the handful of truly extraordinary talents who prove the exception.

    I do not support a narrow focus for undergraduates that targets only musical training at the expense of a broader liberal arts education. The profession offers too few opportunities for success to justify limiting a student’s possibilities for developing the whole person. Only the fundamental aspects of career preparation can be addressed in the first six years of academic study. Further maturation of voice and artistry in ensuing years must be cultivated in young artists’ programs outside the walls of academe, or in graduate academic programs focused exclusively on preparation for career entry. The pressure for “instant success” is an American phenomenon, e.g., “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent,” that influences young minds with disastrous results, making the job of proper preparation more onerous than it need be.

    • Dear George,

      You are just so wonderfully eloquent and to the point. You make me want to teach with you!! I have always been a fan, as you well know. Your writing is just so beautiful and reading it I can hear your wonderful voice. Thank you for your thoughts. Well said. We have to keep this discussion going. xoxox Lauren

      • Amparo Pikarsky says:

        “Some criticism leveled at university/conservatory education of singers is justified, e.g., teachers long on book learning and short on performance experience, and some unjustified, e.g., ”
        Thank you for bringing this up, Mr. Shirley! A teacher like that almost destroyed my favorite young tenor… but thank God, he has someone like Lauren Flanigan in his corner, serving as a teacher, mentor, and example.
        Young singers are beautiful, exquisite, fragile beings. Their development is precarious, and it’s a rare person who will guide them correctly.

    • Brian Suntken says:

      100% agreed. Well said.

  49. Back to appearance, this is nothing new. Sophia Loren “starred” as Aida with Tebaldi’s voice in a film in the 1950s…
    Regarding size, my nickname is Megawatts, I am 8 stone 7lbs, 5′ 4″ (36″ 24 36
    “!), sung Turandot, Aida, all OK,
    (that pesky Nile scene could go as far as I am concerned..)
    I agree it is more difficult for dramatic and spinto voices to get going.This is a very interesting thread.

  50. Hariclea says:

    The debate has been partially created by the fact that the press, predictably, misquoted Pappano, or quoted him only partially as you will, thus bringing only the most controversial statements and not his more detailed explanations of his concerns. There is more detail here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21767900 and here http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/news/song-and-dance-at-opera-as-director-sir-antonio-pappano-lays-into-underperforming-stars-8533125.html.

    I think it is only fair to point out that this seems to be what he truly meant : “He called for singers to plan bigger rest periods in between shows. “I don’t mean to be down on the singers. My life is singers, I adore them. I’m there for them but the business is tough. Now they’re on cinema, the PR, they have to rehearse more. The rehearsal process is much more strenuous than it used to be in the past,” he said.”
    He recognizes that the business is harder than ever and this should lead singers to take better care of themselves, allowing them to focus better and with greater commitment on fewer things.
    To me this seems pretty much along the same lines as what Mr Fabio Luisi, Mrs Plowright and other experienced singers, conductors have said here. There is no contradiction.

  51. Zeek Smith says:

    What is all of this about Musical Directors not being present. I have yet to attend (as pianist or performer) or run (as MD) where at least one MD or trained musician was not there. Granted, these are small theatres or small companies. As a young musical director I don’t understand why not to be present. Can someone please explain this to me?

    • In permanent Opera companies the MD is the overall full time musical overseer on the staff – meaning company MD. The individual production will have it’s own conductor – sometimes the MD but often a guest conductor. Generally speaking the guest conductor will have less influence over casting decisions. As casting decisions are made ‘in house’ they will be made in consultation by planning or casting departments in consultation with the Head of Music and Musical Director (if he/she is around) The crucial people in some of the meetings will be VIP guest Directors ( and sometimes guest conductors). It is quite possible that the MD will not be around for all such meetings, but the Head of Music maybe. However it is quite possible that the only ‘Music Staff’ or ‘Guest Music Staff’ present at casting meetings is somebody relatively Junior, who would not consider it their place to speak out about casting and (in many cases) this may well be reasonable, as many excellent pianists still would not profess to absolute understanding of the voices they play for. Indeed they may only be present in order to play for a couple of singers the management wanted to hear. The situation in Musical Theatre is rather different – where anybody who can play the piano is assumed to know all about singing, and would be (at least, occasionally) consulted on that basis. Most importantly, a production that carries the show-specific job-title of Musical Director is more likely to be just one show – as in MT or Panto, One off Festival Productions or Amateur Opera Productions!

      Also; most specialist Opera Directors have considerable musical knowledge of their own, and sadly (In the real world) there are plenty of Opera House Conductors with insufficcient technical vocal knowledge to actually protect singers from themselves. In a now (perhaps understandably) visually obsessed opera culture securing bankable Stage Directors is regarded as important – particularly if the house is not an International one. If there is to be a shortlist discussion about choosing the singer for a particular role, there may well be a meeting without the presence of senior music staff – and junior music staff will have a million things to be getting on with in a busy company: be it Rep Calls, Chorus Calls, Production Calls, Cover Calls or Stage Rehearsals. Repertory Houses may be working on as many as 5 shows at any one time!

      I am almost beginning to agree with those who say ‘Singers are grown-ups and must take responsibility for their own decisions’! However I do appreciate the pressure is now immense, and that singers are somewhat at the mercy of those who advise them.

  52. Ben Forbes says:

    I think we are skirting the issue. Maybe there was a “perfect time” when singers got to make smart, careful decisions about rep and when the right time was to take on a new role on but HELLO! everyone is just trying to have a career now in a medium that is quite frankly dying. Opera is no longer relevant, barely a step above broadway in the marketing sense and companies are only attempting to justify paying the people of the administration so what ever product they put on stage is just a means to the end of keeping them employed. To singers canceling well, there are two sides I think: those of us who just work for a living, do our best to get out there and do our job (or not be payed), and then there are the STARS about which, no doubt, Maestro Pappano complains (AG AP etc) who are the publicity draws and therefor can complain their ways out of rehearsal time and cancel at will because they have plenty of other paychecks around the corner. I think the argument about iphones and youtube is not a good one. So, you would go out and sing badly as long as no one was recording you? Yes there are too many “pretty young” singers out there way out of their league, but is it the singer’s fault? If someone offers you 10,000 a night for something you aren’t ready for can you say no? Seriously? Are you at 25 or 27 experienced enough to know when a NO is best? Are you sure that another offer will follow your refusal? Opera is not what it was, if it ever was. Stop bemoaning the bygone days of mentors and responsible singer that never was. It is, and likely always has been, an ugly BUSINESS. Some survive and many don’t but the machine keeps grinding on. Until it doesn’t…

  53. All the Right Goods says:

    Thank you, George Shirley, for acknowledging the extensive amount of time and dedication it takes to develop as an artist. If we as artists are expected to take time to grow and mature as singers, and to make responsible decisions for our careers and vocal abilities, then we need time. Increase the age limits for competitions and apprentice artists programs. Evaluate singers based on technique, musicianship, and physical health rather than the number on their birth certificate. A few have mentioned this already, but it is the Met that often establishes the standard for practice throughout the world; yet, the National Council Auditions have only lowered their age limit over the past 20 years, with the upper limit now at age 30.

    Every voice develops at a different rate, but consistency in performers can only be established over a long period of time.

  54. One of those "young singers" says:

    Thank you , thank you thank for this post. It is so refreshing to hear so many Singers, conductors, musicians and all the rest speak so candidly about important issues we face today. I am a 31 year old Soprano who has had what some would consider a quick rise in the business and have sung in many of the most important opera houses around the world, although by no means am I a “star”. I hope you can all respect my decision to remain anonymous, as many of the us “young singers” cannot afford the risk to speak so freely about these issues in fear of the consequences we may face.

    Out of all the comments, what @Ben Forbes said resonated with me the most. The singers of my generation are really just fighting everyday for survival. With each passing day that our art form loses more funding and appreciation, each job I go on seems to get harder and harder from the singer’s perspective. In the weeks of rehearsal before a production opens, with out fail, I find myself realizing that us singers are really last thing to be taken into consideration. It seems everyone’s needs (the director’s, the conductor’s, the designers’, the chorus’, the orchestra’s, etc) are put before ours. And then when it comes time to perform, the success of the production relies in many cases solely on OUR performances as singers.

    I think the big issue that we are all missing here is the lack of strong “organization”- unions. We in America have a union, but the soloists are very poorly protected, if at all. Many of our opera houses do not even participate with the union, therefore when we work at those opera houses we are not protected under of these already minimal guidelines. Most of my European friends are not protected at all by any sort of organization, and I as an American singer certainly am not protected by any union when I sing abroad. I am completely sympathetic to the financial burdens that unions can put on companies that are forced to make hard choices everyday just to stay open, and I am not naive to the fact that there are many who are affected, not just the singers. However, why is it that if the success of a production relies so heavily on the performance of the singers, are we continually over-rehearsed, forced to socialize with donors in noisy environments, forced to accept lower and lower fees with the excuse of the economy, continuously emotionally abused by management who tell us to “live up their standard or else,” encouraged to carry out ridiculous staging that is detrimental to our vocal success in that role, I could go on, but you get the point…. We do it because we know that if we don’t we will be fired, and there will be someone else to replace us in some cases before we are even out the door, and we have NO financial recourse or protection. Then lo and behold, when we have been pushed to our absolute limit and our bodies and minds can take no more, we get sick and have to cancel. Can those in management positions really not see this coming?

    I am one of those singers who does what Maesto Pappano advocates here by taking appropriate breaks in between engagements. I also take great care in making smart repertoire choices, despite financial losses and career setbacks, and even I am struggling and asking myself everyday why the hell I am doing this!?

    If we as an art form and a business want singers to take care of their instruments and we really value the quality of someone’s singing in a role above all, let’s start acting like it. And if we continually turn these discussions into “the dramatic voice not being nurtured” argument, we are turning a golden opportunity for a candid discussion into an unfair, over-generlization of the enormous problems that ALL singers face today. We are all out here, from leggiero to dramatic, just trying to survive and remember why we got into this business in the first place.

  55. A nobody who just read every single post above says:

    Good. God. I’m 21 years old and have only been taking lessons for a year. I’m a complete nobody, just a girl who heard this beautiful art form one day and became instantly spellbound. I enjoy singing, and learning, and growing. I just love opera. I love it, like you love it. Listening to it, reading about, disscussing it, but most of all learning it. I feel so good when I sing.

    Before I read this post I thought all I wanted was “to be a star” because, to me, that was synonimous with “to be an amazing singer” or “to have totall artistic satisfaction”. I admitt I’ve got quite an ego (don’t we have to in order to persue this career?) but, believe me, I never thought it would be a walk in the park, a few of the more controversial issues I’ve been aware of but, all this….I already feel anxiety because I started studying so late (seems like the time to start should’ve been at 15, seriously), now…I’m at an utter loss at my naivety.

    Is the message to take away from all this that there is no hope? That it’s impossible? That only by some miraculous stroke of good fortune will someone like me even get an audition? That even if I get auditions I won’t be able to feed myself? That even if I do everything right, and am in the right place at the right time, it STILL won’t even be worth it? That even if I do “make it big” and do get artistic satisfaction, I’ll wind up paranoid, constantly checking the scale, and trying to hide my crows feet? I can just picture my future now. All too clearly.

    Well, FUCK.

    Please forgive me my profanity, you see my hopes, dreams, and general goals in life are crumbling around me.

    And yet… I love this so much. I can’t not try. I just can’t. I can see I’m going to have to protect that love.

    Ok plan B for existence, instead of being a star, even a professional, or even a semi-professional, my new true life goal is to just be the best singer I can possibly be. I’ll still shoot for the top, rest assured, but I’ll let myself walk away and be something else if it becomes too much, if it ever feels like my love for the artform is in danger. I’ve just gotta change my thinking. Being the “star” isn’t the end all be all. Being a truely excellent musician, however, would make me very happy and proud. I would be able appreciate the art form and never take my love for it for granted.

    If it doesn’t work out for me well then, I’ll be a make up artist, a therapsit, I’ll be a high school choir teacher. I’ll be any of those things and a wife to boot! Oh! I could have kids! Then my mom would stop comlaining about how I’m her only shot for grandkids and that’s more important than a singing career. Most importantly, I will still have my love for opera, and my love for singing it. All snarkiness aside, I’m someone who doesn’t take their passion for granted. I believe in having goals and growing as a human being, you know, one of those “it’s the journey not the destination” types. I feel so good when I sing, even if it is just for me.

    Woo, now that little epsiode is out of my system I’d like to say thank you.

    Thank you, all of you, for your well-intentioned, wisdom, complaints, sage advice, gloomy warnings, and horror stories. Quite an eye opener. A facsinating read. While you all try to overhaul the system I’ll be sure to keep in mind what I learned here. Oh and by the by watch out, cause if I do “make it” well, yall are gonna be in for a ride.

    ;) Best wishes,
    a nobody

    • Good luck to you! I remember back when I was studying hearing from visiting opera singers at my University that if I had any other talent or wish, I should pursue it. And it was easier then than now. That was the only inside info from the opera world we could get, besides reading books about the great divos and divas. back before internet! But, when it’s your dream, it’s your dream. Nobody can take that away from you. It IS good to see what the world of opera entails and good for you for reading the comments. Your eyes are open, and you can prepare. It’s a crazy job, but totally thrilling. The music is the prize. But if you can afford it, do have a plan B. Be prepared that even if you are successful, you might need the plan B at age 30, 40, 50…when nobody wants to hire you anymore, if you hurt your vocal chords, if you are forgotten because you took time out for children, or whatever, when you already have kids and no time for a new study. So, get an education degree now, while you are young, or a massage therapy license, a double major in something that thrills you. Learn to really cook. It won’t hinder your career. It will give you security so you can go out without desperation and you can truly feel the choice to just say no to the wrong roles. All the best!

    • Welcome to the nuthouse! It’s a crappy profession, but an AMAZING art form!! As someone coming to the end of his 17th year, I still love what I do. There are a lot of things wrong with the profession right now! Things that make it… um, “challenging” to do a good job. But I didn’t get into this to be a star! I wanted to be the best I possibly could. I wanted to sing the very best music with great colleagues in wonderful and storied houses. And that’s what I’ve done. And I wanted a long career. I knew that it was a marathon NOT a sprint! It seemed hopeless to all of us at some point. We thought we would never have a career or never be taken seriously or never make a living. But somehow a portion of us make it. Some are just so amazing that you can’t help but see them. Some have great connections. And some of us just keep at it until all the competition we started out with quit. Kind of a last man (or woman) standing. Whatever your path is, I wish you well. It’s still the most amazing music ever written that we get to sing. Even on bad days… that’s pretty cool!

  56. Geoff Miles says:

    There is a great deal of interesting comment here from influential people. From the vantage point of one who is professionally interested in performance from the other side of the microphones, I wonder if this discussion is related to some general industry trends. It seems to me that we are often engaged in a form of asset stripping within the industry as a whole. Musicians have always had to contend with idea that their careers are made or broken by relatively few key events, but this impression of disposability, and the lack of basic human respect that goes with it is surely worse than it has ever been.

    We are very concerned with “communication”, but what I find strange is that we spend so much time focussing on aspects of communication that I would personally describe as extra (or even non) musical: whether a certain singer or conductor “looks good” on camera, whether there is an interesting journalistic “back story”, whether the artist in question is good at interviewing, or adapts well to new media opportunities.

    It might seem a strange thing to say, but personally even with a medium as visual as opera, I’m aware that when a musical performance really grabs me – I do not focus directly on the performers, I tend to focus beyond them. When the musical communication is at its highest, I’m quite literally transported elsewhere – aware of what is happening, how the musicians are breathing, moving, but somehow drawing quite a different three dimensional picture in my mind. When this occurs, it is really of very little consequence whether the artist is thin, fat, old or young, because a much deeper form of human communication comes into play. I think this is the magic that all concert goers crave, and both artists and audience members alike know instantly when it happens. I do not tend to watch televised productions because I know I cannot gain this experience from them – no matter how good the sound and pictures may be (in fact, the very clarity of both sound and picture may be part of the problem).

    The question is whether, by focussing on the priorities that we currently consider to be important for the survival of classical music, we end up creating less opportunity for these magic moments to occur. My own professional experience of working with TV suggests that this is definitely the case, despite the best intentions of all involved. Musicians tend not to question these things – generally they do not want to seem difficult, and accept the compromises or extra stress as necessary evils. However, the frustrations remain relatively close to the surface. In my own workplace we’ve opened a dialogue about this – and my impression is that much can be gained from discussing these things.

    • Fabio Fabrici says:

      A very good observation. Thank you. Unfortunately it seems not too many people on the professional side are even that enlightened and selfless, to think beyond their own egocentric agendas and are driven by all kind of motives *except* music. The orchestra musician thinks about his pay and benefits, and how his daily work can be convenient. The Diva about how she can make the next career move. The TV producer how he can pull off an impressive, expensive looking show with his name in the credits, with lots of lighting, moving camera cranes etc. The conductor thinks about how he can leave a good impression so he will be invited back. Everybody thinks about something else than the music. THank *you* for mentioning music.

      • Geoff Miles says:

        Yes – I think we can be victims of our own professionalism. The biggest misconception in this industry is that performance is somehow inbuilt and will occur no matter what. Conductors and soloists often have to be their own performance psychologists, because the professional machine that surrounds them can pay little attention to this crucial aspect. You could say this is part of the deal of being at the top of a demanding profession, but to quote Donne out of context “no man is an island” and even the greatest musicians are affected. Once we take the uncomfortable step of relinquishing the narrow perspective of our own professional areas and look at the wider picture we find that everyone involved is actually looking for the same thing. If there is one function that an administration should be performing it is to open up this discussion – but the challenge is to do it in such a way that noone feels their professional status is threatened.

        • Fabio Fabrici says:

          I wish you were right, but it is not my impression that everyone involved is looking for the same thing. Actually many – at least in the tutti ranks – seem to be not looking for much in the core of their profession at all: making music. Most just have a job and want to keep it – or more precisely the income that comes with it – with as little effort as possible.
          As far as conductors and soloists are concerned it depends. Some enjoy making music, some don’t but don’t know what else to do to make a living. Some love making music but hate performance in front of the public. Some are the opposite or are absolutely indifferent toward music but just *love* to show off in public. There also individuals, who love music *and* like to perform.
          So “the same thing” you mention in my experience is just that every individual seeks satisfaction of his or her needs. Music is at least as often a tool, a vehicle, as it is a purpose.
          But I applaud you for having started a process, where you talk about this in your organization. It is most important to try to see things from other people’s perspectives. But it requires active looking. No management can forcefully open the eyes of those, who do not like to see.

          • Geoff Miles says:

            I recognise the attitudes you mention of course, and it may seem that I’m naive in thinking that there is a solution. I think that many in this industry feel undervalued – not necessarily because they are badly paid, but because they feel that the industry is under threat, and that there aren’t so many who care about or appreciate what they do. This might apply to a rank and file musician, a sound engineer whose job is insecure, or a tv cameraman who has been forced to work freelance because of cuts. In this atmosphere relatively trivial issues regarding working conditions, salary or whether someone forgot to fill up the coffee machine become a big deal. In short people become inflexible – and they can appear cynical. I’m not sure that this sort of situation solves itself, and management is often wary of provoking discontent, so the frustrations are left to simmer. I would say that as far as an orchestra is concerned a good conductor (or what I consider to be a good conductor) has the ability to cut through this and make an orchestra feel valued. When this happens – even if it doesn’t reach every member of the orchestra, the effect on performance is huge. I think that if an orchestra is given the right feedback, and makes the right choices about who it should be working with, then a lot of these issues begin to solve themselves. That is much easier said than done, but a general openness to discussion from the entire production team is a good place to start.

  57. Bravi to George, Lauren, Christine, Laura, Susan…… So many great colleagues passionately concerned that we bequeath something alive to the next generation of singers (next generation of stars, I could care less). What happens in a coaching- and a production in a University is in many ways an extended coaching- determines the patterns that a singer or instrumentalist will hold for a lifetime. The number and substance of reasons for missing rehearsals – at the Universities on both continents where I have done productions recently- have grown increasingly inane. All we can do is maintain the best standards we know, as there will always be players and singers who have the potential, drive and humility/humanity that marks the best artists, as embodied in the standards of the work of so many of my friends who posted here. But I am going to grill those young men and women on their translations today like you can’t imagine!

  58. By now of course this discussion has gone completely viral among our community, and no one is paying closer attention to it than our emerging artists. Their voices are naturally underrepresented here, as they can’t risk annoying the powers-that-be – but I’ve been hearing from quite a few of them and thought I’d share some of their concerns about what’s making their jobs more arduous and their careers harder to develop:

    - Many opera companies are now engaging directors who have made their careers primarily in film and theatre. They may bring tremendous vision and creativity to the opera stage, but because they are not highly experienced working with singers and may not even understand how to read an opera score, they will often demand staging that is too physically acrobatic to be compatible with good singing and micromanage the singers’ movements in a way that leaves little head space for musicianship.

    - The point was made that in earlier eras operas were more likely to have extensive cuts that made the job easier on singers, but these days cuts are sometimes made not for artistic reasons but to squeeze the length of a show into the three-hour window that will companies from racking up costly overtime charges from the unions. So there’s often less down time for the singers and shorter intermissions. Some European houses are greatly compressing rehearsal periods and extending the work day up to 10 to 13 hours in areas where there’s no union protection for the singers.

    - As far as singers being asked to do rep that’s too big and heavy too soon, there’s another side to that coin: an unwillingness to cast some young singers in what they are ready for right now because they’re being kept on the back burner until they do become ready for the bigger stuff. They won’t likely ripen very well if they aren’t continuing to perform.

    This art form now faces many concerns. Opera is a multi-faceted industry that is undergoing some interesting challenges these days. We need to keep the companies afloat financially, build new audiences, evolve to suit the changing tastes and needs of our culture. But as a teacher, my primary concern is the well-being of the singers. There’s less work to go around, so the supply of eager young voices has far out-paced the demand, and while it’s no one’s intention it has unfortunately become all too easy to treat this talent pool as expendable.

  59. I can see both sides to this arguement.

    However as a young singer, given it was obvious when I was twenty that I was going to end up as a Dramatic Coloratura Soprano with Spinto/Dramatic weight when not doing vocal gymnastics, I was advised to wait before embarking on a professional career until my late 20s at the very earliest.

    By the time I was ready, I had missed my opportunity for nearly every Young Artists Programme, yet vocally I was only just ready for the repertoire I now have ease in learning.

    Physically, I’m small. 150cm tall, 36″bust, 27″waist and 40″hips, with the physique of a singer, a voice suited to the Italian Coloratura Roles by Donizetti, and the spinto/dramatic roles of the 19th Century Composers.

    I’m so glad I did not sing these too early, or the instrument would be ruined.

    I’ve sung as a Concert Soprano, and taught whilst raising children. Technically the instrument is secure, and bomb-proof. If an agent was to say, ‘darling, this is the perfect opportunity to sing Lucia, then vocally, I’m ready, at the age of 27/28 I was not.

    There is so much demand on singers today to sing these roles far too young. Much better that they sing music better suited to a younger voice and leave the big stuff to the maturer singer. Make-up and hair-dye and wigs can make a middle-aged woman look very beautiful from the distance of an orchestra-pit, or the back of an auditorium away.

    Wouldn’t it be better for these young singers, who are people after all (not an expendable commodity) to be treated with a bit of respect.

    As far as the ‘flaky super-star’ is concerned, well if the talented 20 something is not just fodder for the agent, then they’ll have to watch their back. The Susan Graham’s of this world who do not like cancelling, but are excellent singers, will take their place. There is little room for celebrity when there are excellent singers sitting in the wings who rarely cancel, and deliver the goods reliably.

    In the main, the show does go on, but agents, when a singer says ‘no’ they are attempting to look after themselves, surely as their agent don’t you have a vested interest in doing that too. If they say, “I’d love to, Butterfly is a wonderful part, perhaps in a couple of years”, they are savvy, and a good long-term bet, rather than one you can make a quick buck on, only to leave on the scrap-heap when they crash and burn.

    If you think it is possible you try living with a diary which as Rosalind Plowright puts it reads, Tuesday Aida Rome, Wednesday, travelling, Thursday rehearsing La Traviata Berlin, Friday La Traviata Berlin, Saturday, Fly to London, Rehearse Verdi Requiem, Sunday Verdi Requiem Royal Fesitval Hall. Monday, Day off, Tuesday-Thursday 3 days in Maida Vale Studios recording Verdi Requiem. All of these are either as the Prima Donna or the Soprano Soloist. Now, apart from hardly seeing your nearest and dearest, you are going to see lots of departure lounges and hotel rooms… not exactly a sustainable schedule.

  60. As a manager/agent, I and my colleagues are very concerned about younger singers singing roles for which they are not vocally suited because of age, technique, fach, or all three. We do not push our artists to do this because it is no good for them, and it certainly is not a smart long-term business decision for us! Agents who do this know exactly what the cost is. To say they don’t is ridiculous. However, to vilify all agents generally is careless and insulting. We always tell our young (and intermediate) artists that their career is a marathon, not a sprint!!! There is always the choice to say no.

    This problem is certainly a symptom of bad choices. Global financial strain has surely had a hand in valuing the bottom line and sensationalism over artistic integrity, as well as failing to educate our administrators. However, it is our job as members of the artistic community who do feel differently – singers, managers, artistic administrators, critics all – to keep pushing for smarter choices for our artists and for our companies. Without that, the entire genre is at risk.

  61. About the body-size / voice size issue.

    I weigh 65kg.
    My dimensions are 150cm tall and now I swap back to imperial
    Bust – 36, waist 27, hip 40
    body mass index greater than 25, but yet I’m not exactly ‘fat’ because the musculature that I’ve developed to support a Spinto/Dramatic Coloratura Voice weighs a considerable amount.

    I’ve gone from a (UK 8 to UK 12) dress size as a result of the musculature.

    So to address Maestro Luisi’s comments, one does not need to be huge, but one does need the muscles to support the voice.

    The anomilies are that my neck length is proportionally long, and that I have a larger hat size than is average for someone of my height..

    Other things to note in singers are the dome of the head: is there resonating space) and does the singer have high cheek-bones?

    Everything that suggests that the nasopharangeal tract has been designed to accomodate elastic vocal folds and that there is good scope for resonance means that there is likely to be a good instrument. The physics are right. As far as the rest of the body is concerned, well providing the singer builds muscle not fat, then they will have what it takes… another reason why it is better to look after singers rather than expect them to be marvellous at 23, their instrument is still under construction.

    I am grateful for the agents who commented. It is clear that it is the industry that is broken rather than any one bit. Maybe Maestro Pappano has done it a great service. However everyone has to take a long hard look at the current aesthetic and pre-conceptions to see whether they bear any substance in hard facts.

  62. I’ve said “no” way more often then “yes” in spite of the pressure from teachers, manager, etc. and now at 51 am enjoying the PRIME of my Lyric Soprano voice performing Strauss’ Four Last Songs with full orchestra and recording 21 songs of Rachmaninoff as well as roles that have been worth the wait. The pressure is immense for young singers and we must be voices of reason for those within our care.

  63. As a composer AND singer, I suffered through voice lessons with a teacher who wanted me to find the “chocolate” in my voice by singing louder and lower. I’m a silvery tenor – light and laser beam like – at the time there was no darkness to my voice at all. I’m 54 now, not a professional singer, but just now able to color my voice from light to dark – singing better than I did in my 30s. It takes the right teacher with the right approach and the right repertoire. I’ve had to accept that I’m a better jazz singer than I every will be classical, but I use my classical training everyday for warm-ups. Also (knock on wood) I haven’t been sick with as much as a cold for 2 years. Being healthy allows the voice to grow. My upper and lower register has extended by 5 pitches each direction and though I don’t sing those notes YET – I *DO* plan to.

    Forgive the comments from someone not in the circle…

  64. Dave Glo says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, especially when you have artists at the level of Susan Graham, Fabio Luisi, Lauren Flanigan, Christine Goerke et al contributing. These are people who will still be discussed in decades hence.

    My comment is this however: does anyone think that singers from decades and generations past didn’t cancel? That careers were cut short? That even great singers had insurmountable issues? We only seem to discuss the singers who had long and famous careers: Kraus, Freni, etc. I’m sure they had dozens of colleagues who fell by the wayside. Even during Donizetti and Verdi’s time, there were singers who survived long careers while others, including Verdi’s second wife, had to retire very early. Do we really know why Ponselle had vocal issues so early? Or why recent singers like Sills, Scotto, Jones took on vocally unsuitable roles, artistry notwithstanding?

    My point is that, yes, travel is much faster today, teaching may not be as strong, physical appearance has taken more priority. But vocal difficulties, cancellations, and early retirement are not new issues. They’ve been around as long as there have been professional singers.

    • Amazing discussion. Thoughtful, eloquent, inspiring.

      While I support any efforts to change the many agreed-upon systemic problems mentioned in this thread, I do think it does ultimately come down to each singer doing what they feel is best for themselves. Below are some thoughts to add that may help singers and their mentors make more informed decisions so that they do not end up needing to cancel the engagement once they are experiencing the realities of actually doing a role in a production, which I believe was Maestro Pappano’s principal complaint, if I understood correctly.

      Thanks for the great discussion!
      Nic

      Fach and Repertoire
      When deciding which roles you should be singing—and when—there is the obvious question: can you sing all the notes? But making these decisions is a much more complicated business. Here are some thoughts to consider. It’s a long list, I know. Apologies.

      Can you sing all the notes written for the role easily? Can you easily sing (and sustain) a third above the highest note written for the role.

      What is the tessitura of the role and do you sing very easily in that part of the voice?

      Can you sing the heaviest and most dramatic segments of the role easily and several times in a row in the studio?

      Is the majority of the role written in a sostenuto or declamato style and to which of these does your voice respond better? Is there a lot of syllabic writing (declamato), especially near either of the principal passagi?

      Is your voice the type that takes a while to “warm up”? If so, what are the vocal demands in the first act?

      What is the “flow” of the role? Where are your vocal resting places and how long are they? In terms of the production, do you know if it will be one of those approaches in which you are onstage during times when normally your character would be able to be offstage taking a break? Will the intermissions be taken where they are called for in the score (this is an especially important question for the German theater system offers)?

      What is the orchestration for the heaviest and longest scene you have in the piece? Look especially for brass and woodwind writing, especially sustained writing.

      Does a significant amount of the vocal writing lie near or within the lower passagio? If so, what is the orchestration in those segments? Do you traverse the lower passagio easily and with good squillo?

      What are the emotional/dramatic demands of the piece for your character. This is a highly underestimated aspect of decision-making. The emotional/dramatic demands can wear out a voice in a snap. Is your voice the type of voice that responds well to a high adrenalin, “neurotic” dramatic situation? Further, the heaviest of those types of scenes usually occur in the second half of the role. Is your voice one that tends to get stronger as you sing through a role or does your voice feel freshest and most powerful early on in the evening?

      What articulation type of voice do you have and what type does the role call for? Leggiero, Lirico, Lirico-spinto, Spinto, Dramatico. If it is a Lirico-spinto role, does your voice really respond well to spinto articulation? Or is your voice really a lirico, albeit a large or full lirico?

      SIDEBAR: This is another topic that is not discussed enough. Our industry tends to view this simplistically. In other words, we tend to think of leggiero voices as small and dramatico voices as big. While this is often the case, what these signifiers also mean is what balance of airflow and muscular engagement does your voice respond to best? Leggiero voices, for example, respond best to an onset that is “caressing” with the breath, with a corresponding muscular engagement. A Spinto voice type responds to a more vigorous balance of muscular engagement to breath, from the word spingere (to push). A dramatico voice type responds to a declamatory engagement, i.e. even more muscular engagement relative to the breath flow. It would be just as damaging to a dramatico voice to sing a leggiero role than the more common opposite.

      A classic case in point is the role of Tosca, which be a Lirico-spinto voice type, with a high ability for shifting articulation gears quickly. The test for this role is in Act 2, where smack in the middle of an intense spinto scene, the singer must shift gears to sing “Vissi d’arte”. Hearing that aria alone to determine casting for this role is complete folly. When I hear auditions for that role I ask for the most declamatic, dramatic, “angry” aria on their list, followed immediately by “Vissi d’arte”.

      Another example is the role of Rodolfo. Usually the audition calls for “che gelida manina”, which of course is essential to hear. What we usually don’t hear is the Act 3 scene between Rodolfo and Marcello, where the tenor must have a spinto capability.

      What size theater (seating capacity of the house) will you be performing the role in?

      What is the acoustic of that theater (especially important in the German theater system regional houses, where the acoustic is designed also for drama—which means a dryer acoustic. Extremely easy to sing the bloom off the voice and unintentionally push in this type of theater acoustic) and what is the acoustical balance between pit and stage in that theater?

      Who will be conducting? Is it a conductor known for controlling the dynamics and maintaining transparency of orchestral sound or a conductor who “guns” it with the band? Also, is the conductor known for demanding (or inspiring) full out singing during the entire rehearsal period?

      Who is the stage director (producer)? Is it a director who demands “high octane” emotional performances or physically strenuous action? Also important, is the director known for demanding (or inspiring) full-out rehearsals (even if you mark vocally)? Is the director known for “through-composed” regie, in which your character is likely to be onstage more than indicated in the score?

      Will this be a new production? Inevitably, new productions involve much more emotional stress than revivals. Do you, as a person and performer, respond positively or negatively to stress?

      What roles will you be rehearsing and performing before and after this engagement? If the roles are substantially different, is there enough time between the engagements—especially if it involves a rehearsal period—for your voice to acclimate?

      What is the career pressure level of the engagement relative to your present career status? Is it a career upward move, lateral move or a downward move? And what is the career and press exposure potential of the engagement?

      • Nic Mini, although expansive, you have not mentioned the fact that many singers take months to sing a role into their voices. You mention the word “easily” three times at the beginning of your comment. If I had taken that advice, I would never have sung Leonora in Trovatore or Aida, to name but two.
        If we liken the voice to the body’s reactions at being introduced to working out in the gym, we can see the similarities.
        Granted, the voice must be suited to the role, but many singers who can sing arias and sections from an opera easily may be quite unable to sustain a whole evening performing the role on stage wth orchestra,
        Sadly, we singers cannot fully cover everything in your comment, we find out through a practical process, making mistakes as we go along, often, in public, unlike painters and writers etc.

    • Gioconda says:

      No – there have ALWAYS been the meteors which did not last, the matinée idols with only moderate vocal resources, those who cancelled more often than others, those whose temperament drove them into a repertory which fit neither their voice nor their vocal skill etc. YET – I am absolutely convinced by what I can hear on CDs and read about old performance reviews and contemporary witnesses that the average standards of BOTH mediocre singers and the top top singers was much higher. Listen to rather moderate voices like Giuseppe De Luca or Tito Schipa – but my god: how they could SING.

  65. Nic Munns points about fach were very interesting. I write this as I adjust to a new fach.

    I always could sing all the high notes (check list no 1) and sustain the voice a third lower (check list 2)

    For a coloratura fach, I also needed tremendous agility – still there, (check)

    It is the dramatic darkness and intensity that is now there. I always had these notes, and was comfortable singing on them, now (and this is due to being a 40 something not 20 something) there is far more projection and weight. Furthermore like the notes above the stave, I’m happy singing on them.

    So as far as fach is concerned I am still a Dramatic Coloratura, but now am on the dramatic end of spinto too.

    Great as far as I’m concerned as a soprano – new things to learn, new roles within the voice.
    However, I mention this as one of the smaller lighter Dramatic Coloratura/Dramatic Spinto Sopranos this was where the voice looked like it was heading 20 years ago, it took that long for it to mature despite hard work and two children.

    I can now look at all bar the biggest of Wagner roles for repertoire, yet as another singer has suggested be 13 years above the age limit for the average Wagner competition. (and at 60kg in weight, resemble a Walkurie who can fly).

    Yet there is the small matter of auditions and getting work. Far harder once you are in your forties than for a Soprano in their 20s. I do teach. I don’t treat it as a cinderella profession either, I love it. Gigs and jobs will come with tenacity. However it isn’t an easy business.

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