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:
…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!