Aging Singers

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Long live Placido Domingo! Last season, I got to hear him do Simon Boccanegra at the Met, which was a great lesson for singers one-third his age. My colleague Nimet Habachy, who heard him last week, said he still sings rings around most people.

It’s not unusual for instrumentalists to perform into their 70s and 80s (pianist Artur Rubinstein gave his last concert in public when he was 89!). But singers can rarely expect their careers to last that long. As a singer, your body is your instrument, but unlike a Steinway or a Stradivarius, it doesn’t improve with age. Through a combination of good genes and career choices, some singers (like Domingo) are the Energizer Bunnies of their profession; others crash and burn far too young (think Rolando Villazón).

One of the greatest musical experiences of my life was the Avery Fisher Hall recital that Victoria de los Angeles sang in 1985, celebrating the 40th anniversary of her debut. She was 61 at the time. And I heard tenor Hugues Cuénod make his debut at the Met as the Old Emperor in Turandot at the age of 85.

Knowing when to retire has to be the hardest thing for a singer to face. Beverly Sills stopped performing when she was 50, still at the top of her game, and went on to a whole new career as an arts advocate and administrator. But how many of us have gone to a performance by an aging diva/divo, only to emerge from it wishing that we had lived with our memories?