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Two mega mezzos respond to maestros Pappano and Luisi on singer cancellations

Antonio Pappano’s comments on singer cancellations are provoking an absorbing conversation among professionals as to what might reasonably be expected when a singer signs a contract with an opera house.

Yesterday Fabio Luisi, principal conductor at the Met, took issue with Pappano’s criticisms and urged conductors to take more responsibility for the welfare of wingers.

Overnight, responses have come in from two well-known mezzo-sopranos. Susan Graham writes to Slipped Disc:

susan graham1

…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.

Rosalind Plowright added:


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.

To which Fabio Luisi responded: 

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

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  1. James Brinton says:

    Pappano’s statement, coupled with the recently disclosed unwillingness of some organizations to pay for rehearsal (which often accounts for most of the work a singer invests in a production) now seems even more of a whine than it did originally. I suggest that this was one of those thoughts he should have kept to himself.

    • Ronald Land says:

      He definitely should have kept it to himself considering he is cancelling jobs himself for “tendonitis”. Should one have to remind him that Toscanini “wouldn’t have cancelled unless he was on his deathbed??”

    • Graf Nugent says:

      Singers may ‘invest’ most of their production work in rehearsals but that’s no use to a paying audience if said singer then cancels.

      There are also a lot of singers who show up very late to rehearsal periods. Not only are they the most handsomely paid but then also become those who pay least for their accomodation etc. Law of the jungle, my friends.

  2. Did Luisi really “take issue” with Pappano’s comments? I didn’t read it that way. Rather I read Luisi’s e-mail as amplifying and expanding the conversation.

  3. As a fan, who sang a little when I was young, I agree with Maestro Luisi and our two great mezzos.

    Now that I am attending the opera, in NYC, ( the HD camera work and sound driving me back to the real thing), I am sorely disappointed when my favorite singers are ill and cannot perform, but I also sit an worry that they are :
    Doing too much-
    Singing when sick-
    Singing a role their voices are not ready to sing-

    and on and on. i wish some great voices had had better teachers, listened to their teachers, or made wiser decisions and been able to sing longer.

    Point…. Wednesday night I attended Don Carlo at The MET. I don’t love Don Carlo, but recently I discovered Ferrucio Furlanetto. Don’t ask me why, before last year I had not heard this gifted singer/ actor/ artist live …. I was lacking….

    When “Ella giammai m’amo” began, I was so excited because I love the cello/voice combination. Many in my Family circle area still made noise/unwrapped throat candies, moved around during the cello intro-I pity them-

    then– Maestro Furnanetto began those first gorgeous notes. I always sit there and pray King Phillip will, in this , become the wise ruler, he could become… but no, I am always disappointed.

    Tuesday night, nothing mattered other than the miraculous magic Maestro Furlanetto was creating. His voice, his consummate acting in this aria was the most amazing too few moments I have had in the opera house—ever— and this year has been full of some other special moments.

    Mr. Furlanetto has never raced ( at least I have to believe) into opera roles before his voice and acting abilities were ready. How I wish I could hear him in more roles, but he has been wise, and his voice, filling the opera house Tuesday with un-forced sound—- well, I was so lucky, so blessed to be there. I–used to the glorious sound in Symphony Hall Boston, have always been disappointed in the MET’s acoustics, but Tuesday night Mr. Furlanetto broke through and filled the house with a miracle.

    Opera houses should treasure what these gifted and hardworking Artists offer us and not take advantage.

    • Christine says:

      Great comment. Agree, Furlanetto has taken his time to take on the Verdi roles. And we are all the happy recipients of his patience.

  4. Ronald,
    Jimmy Levine never cancelled, never took care of himself, and then collapsed. Now I pray he listens to doctors and health people. His is too great a genius to be gone so quickly.

    • David Boxwell says:

      I saw him downstairs at the Met in NYC last week before Parsifal began; he was in a motorized wheel chair and seemed to have shrunk to half the weight he was a decade ago. Truly sad to see.

      • David,
        I hear he’s at the MET a couple of time a week working with the young artists’ program. Sad he’s in the state he is, but great that he’s out and doing things. Music is ALL that he has; nothing else.

        I’m just thankful we had him in Boston for a while. I never heard the orchestra sound better, and even in old “chestnuts” I heard reason and clarity and transparency learned things about music I never knew before he came.

        At the MET I heard operas in new ways, too and saw singers sing like I had never heard. I pray he can really conduct this spring and next year as is planned.

  5. I really appreciate all of these interesting responses to the various issues – the discussion is extremely important and valuable for those of us working in the opera industry. Especially us ‘youngsters’. :)

    I thought I’d add a touch of humor to proceedings by quoting none other than Montserrat Caballé:
    “Drama if I sing, drama if I don’t sing. What do you do?”

  6. I comment above, and Mentioned Tuesday night’s performance. I was wrong, Don Carlo was Wednesday night.

    Want to hear what I thought of Francesca on Tuesday?

  7. I think we pigeonhole singers far to easily in the prima Donna role. Our two singers probably speak for the majority in that they only cancel when they have to. Having travelled quite a bit by air myself, I can say that aircraft are a hotbed for infection as everyone’s germs are being pumped round and recycled. Hence the sheer quantity of travel these days adds to the strain and health risks.

  8. Tendonitis? Gee and golly. How weak and uncommitted. Right?

  9. Very interesting observations from Ms. Graham and Ms. Plowright.

    Two questions come to mind. First, can either of these situations – less trained singers performing rep too quickly, and far more traveling than in the past – be altered in any way to improve the situation for the singers?
    In other words, what can be done? Or, are we looking at a new era of shorter less impactful careers?

    Second, does the far more extensive scrutiny of the internet era overall, in particular the blogosphere, make it even more difficult to say no? It seems to me I have seen criticism of singers increasing (and often becoming far more uncivil) with each year. This must create a very difficult circumstance.

  10. Carlos Fernandez says:

    I couldn´t agree more with Rosalind Plowright! And would add, that in many cases, singers are singing the wrong roles, have not defined or found their Fach and not being helped by managements that are happy to use them for heavy roles while they can sing them but then complain two years later when the singers are in serious vocal trouble as a result. Do people really appreciate what it is like to sing a major role in a major opera house? The mental and physical strength our singers need?

  11. Petros Linardos says:

    Norman, thank you for having professionals join this debate. This is Slipped Disc at its best.

  12. When I saw and heard Ms Plowright sing Amneris in Wellinton, New Zealand, she was the one who held the show. For me, the most exciting night at the opera, ever. Slightly off topic, I know, but I think Ms Plowright undervalues the contribution made by the mezzo.

  13. Susan Alexander says:

    I am very glad Tony made his comment, because it has spawned a very interesting and necessary discussion.

  14. Hedwig Fassbender says:

    I might add that, as a teacher, being lucky enough to teach more and more young singers who successfully start a career, sometimes I feel like the evil witch when I have to say: “this sounds very tempting, but don’t sing this part yet, it will not do you any good, it’s too early, etc.”, when, on the other hand, big houses offer too big parts to too young singers and the agent is pushing on the other side. It is not so easy to say No for the young ones. I guess those of us who are still around after 30 years of career know, but getting it across is hard work!!
    BUT: there are places where young singers can grow under good care – Frankfurt is a good example; Bernd Loebe does give them time to develop, as far as I can see!

  15. How wonderful to have singers join the debate – and with such powerful and thoughtful insights. “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.” – TRUE WORDS Mz Plowright!

  16. Precious says:

    I must say I have learnet as a young dramatic Soprano and I am lucky I have the best teacher who thought me how to keep healthy ,she told me to sing at least three roles Then some concerts inbetween and ALWAYS sing Mozart to keep my voice healthy

  17. Alexander Brown says:

    As a retired singer and now singing teacher, I can only agree wholeheartedly with the comments of Ms Graham and Ms Plowright (with whom I had the pleasure of being a fellow student). I constantly tell my pupils the same thing: learn the big roles, but WAIT before you offer them to the public – learning the notes is one thing, but putting the whole role into your body so that your muscular (as well as musical) memory takes over and you can sing the role even if you’re not 100% is quite another. Gigli said the number of time you sing in a year with 100% of your vocal capabilities can be counted on the fingers of one hand! In the end, only the singer him/herself can decide whether to go on or not – it is HIS/HER responsibility to look after a fragile instrument with which he/she has but a few years to make a career. I can honestly say that today, conductors and agents, not to mention directors and stage managers, seem to be more important than the singer – which was NEVER the case in the days of, say, Caruso or Gigli. Young singers are pushed into roles that are far too demanding for them – I suspect that conductors like this, because they can bully the young, inexperienced, not-so-famous singer into submission – and then throw them out when they find another young hopeful (unless the first young singer, WITH A GREAT DEAL OF LUCK, becomes famous in the meantime. I can also say that conductors today often have no comprehension of vocal technique, and often let the orchestra play far too loud, drowning the singer of forcing him/her to scream (literally) in order to be heard. The result? Tired, worn-out, wobbly voices with ever more cancellations…

    • The eras of the director & young conductor. I can only hope the pendulum will swing again soon……

  18. David Walsh says:

    Maestro Pappano has identified a problem that has not to do with singers trained in an ‘older’ culture, such as the two esteemed mezzos who have commented above. They work very hard, indeed, to look after themselves,
    to accept and prepare for roles thoughtfully, and to manage their careers responsibly and with distinction. That is the reason for their success and longevity. There is among some of the current generation, and at all levels of talent, a lack of real commitment and passion for the art itself. These performers take shortcuts, feel a sense of entitlement, and spend more time cultivating their image than their artistry. In this respect, I agree with Pappano and feel that his remarks have generated a healthy discussion about the current state of ‘opera-making’!

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