Reducing Exhaust Fumes, the Operatic Way

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In a sad yet unsurprising twist earlier this week, the Metropolitan Opera announced that James Levine has drastically reduced his conducting dates for the remainder of this season. Out are the performances of Das Rheingold (inherited by the gifted Fabio Luisi, himself rumored to inherit the Met upon Levine’s increasingly imminent retirement) and Il Trovatore (taken over by Marco Armiliato), in is the new production of Die Walküre and the revival of Wozzeck, which sustained an earlier cast change this month when Alan Held replaced a scheduled-for-surgery Matthias Goerne in the title role.

As seasonal bugs and sinus infections run rampant, a few cancellations and switch hitters are not unanticipated this time of year. However, the idea of a late-winter/early-spring flu has recently become a year-round ailment for some artists. And it’s no shock: Artists today are, on the whole, more overworked and overextended than their predecessors. Many spend more time on the road than they do at home, seeing more of the Delta airport lounge than their own living room.

Mariinsky maestro Valery Gergiev (below, right), who has often made light of the physical toll his demanding schedule exacts, fell victim to such a jet-setting lifestyle earlier this month when he was instructed by doctors to remain in St. Petersburg and withdraw from conducting two performances of Boris Godunov at the Met. Even more ridiculous was the notion that, after canceling his March 9 performance, he asserted that he would be in town for the March 12 matinee—in between conducting performances of Ariadne auf Naxos in St. Petersburg on March 8 and 10 [update: Gergiev's St. Petersburg appearances were ultimately canceled due to illness]. Levine boasted a similarly taxing schedule in October, shuttling between Boston and New York for his music directorial duties on an almost daily basis, which included an October 9 matinee with the Met and evening performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

But it’s not just about the travel. Musicians such as Levine and Gergiev are also expected to perform on top of flitting from one airport to the next. For musicians in their 20s and 30s, such tasks can be somewhat conceivable every so often, but Gergiev is 57 and Levine is ten years older. Yes, this is all part of their jobs, and yes, running companies like the Mariinsky and the Met are no small tasks, but the scheduling and performance expectations heaped on conductors of a Levinian caliber are unreasonably absurd. They place an inordinate demand upon the artists, they leave the organizations in a precarious situation and they let audiences down when the inevitable cancellations occur. As Parterre pointed out last fall, when strains such as this are put on anyone—let alone a man in a precarious health situation—it’s hard to expect anyone to live up to such expectations. And those involved in enforcing these rigorous schedules “deserve to have it blow up in their [expletive deleted] faces.”

While the Met has a well-earned reputation for presenting some of the brightest stars in the operatic firmament, it has also recently garnered some harsh criticism for the number of promised artists backing out (often at the last minute and occasionally with a cold that they expect will last for a full month). Naysayers assert that this all part of the live theatrical experience, but then marketers place a huge amount of stock in well-known faces appearing on the stage (and HD broadcast). Clearly something’s gotta give, but what that something is remains a gray area.

Programmers and booking agents can be more judicious when planning seasons and artist schedules, but the artists themselves ought to be more aware of how much stress they can perform under. However, is it fair to audiences to keep a certain soprano out of their area for two years out of consideration to her schedule? (Or is it better than promising said soprano only to have her back out at the last minute? Or does it matter anymore with HD?) One can demand audiences mitigate their expectations, but such expectations are fueled by the organizations that make the promises in the first place. Like performances themselves, the administrative details are a collaborative effort. There’s no one person that can answer the question of how to underwork an overworked artist.

To borrow an ideal from the culinary world, perhaps the problem could be best solved by an operatic slow-food movement. Good music is good music regardless of the name, and wouldn’t a New York appearance by Gergiev be more of an event befitting the legendary conductor if it were to happen once a year rather than once a month? In the early days of opera, even up to the last century, many top-flight singers stuck with one or two houses a season and still managed to create indelible impressions on the world (case in point: Beverly Sills).

What do you think? Would locally-sourced singers, like locally-grown Swiss chard, arrive to the ear sounding fresher and more palatable?