When Singers Seem to Matter Less

Thursday, October 04, 2012 - 09:47 AM

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino and Anna Netrebko as Adina in Donizetti’s 'L’Elisir d’Amore' Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino and Anna Netrebko as Adina in Donizetti’s 'L’Elisir d’Amore' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Why do we go to the opera? Yes, we love the theatrical components—the scenery, lighting, costumes and even the choreography—and connect with some of the stories, while finding others irrelevant. But I think it is fair to say that we go to the opera primarily for the music made by the orchestra and chorus and, above all, by the singers.

You might be scratching your head, thinking that I am telling you something that is so obvious that it does not bear mentioning. And yet, in our times, singers often seem like objects that are just a part of a larger whole, seemingly interchangeable and much more desirable if they fit into a costume that is more tall than wide.

It is hardly news that the appearance of singers has been given more emphasis in the past couple of decades, especially with the increased amount of HD (high definition) transmissions from major opera companies to cinemas around the world. I suppose an argument could be made that, if you have two singers of equal skill, a company might select the one that is more “HD-ready,” as some opera singers call it. 

To which I would respond, who says that Mimí or Carmen is supposed to be pretty? Since when do we only fall in love or have an unquenchable sexual chemistry with someone who might fit a conventional notion of beauty? We respond to another person in a fevered and distracted way when that person has it (and you know what it is). If you doubt what I am saying, stand on a street corner for a quarter of an hour and look at all the couples passing by. Some may seem to make an odd pair and yet something intense brought them together.

In bringing up this issue, I am not even dealing with the question of weight, as that topic has been much discussed everywhere. And lest anyone think that it is unrealistic for a fat person to love or be loved, again look around and you will notice happy couples of mixed sizes. 

I was a good friend of the singer and actress Nell Carter. She was very short and, for much of her life, obese. She was also incredibly talented, funny, exceedingly well-read and fully engaged with the world. And she loved opera. Her husband was quite tall, of average weight and European. They certainly had their issues, and ultimately divorced after many years together, but both professed—even after the divorce—to have an incredible sexual desire for one another. In part, they liked each other's looks but, more to the point, there was chemistry. You could feel it even if you did not know who they were.

When Nell and I attended opera performances, she focused most on the voices and how the singers sang. Needless to say, but it does occasionally need to be stated, one can have a great voice and not be a good singer. Or one can have a not-so-great voice and be a wonderful singer. And then there are those rare artists who have gorgeous voices and are great singers. Nell also noticed which singers had musical and emotional chemistry with one another. As often as not, they were not “HD-ready” but were undeniably exciting because they had it. This is what made opera appealing to her. All the theatrical components were nice pluses, but not central to what engaged her about opera.

We are not talking here just about a sexual current but a deep human current that is unmistakable when you encounter it. José Carreras cut a dashing figure on the stage, but audiences also responded to his lyrical and soulful engagement with music and character. He had a gorgeous voice but could also really sing. Watch:

Another singer who had it from the very beginning, and still does more than ever, is Bryn Terfel. He combines superb singing with incisive and specific acting, remarkable naturalism and the ability to develop chemistry with anyone he shares a stage with. Here he is, young and fresh-faced, at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989. Compare this with his Leporello in 1997 and his recent Wotan at the Met, where even an eye patch and a steep set did not inhibit his impact. You can note the threads throughout these performances: presence, immediacy, and the connection of voice, word, music and physicality.

While there are some singers who still are engaged by opera companies and presented as stars whom audiences flock to see, there are fewer of these all the time. If you look like Anna Netrebko but can also sing and act like Anna Netrebko, then audiences and opera managers will beat a path to your door. But she is a rara avis.

There are quite a few excellent singers who have something to say, artistically and emotionally, but they are not being cultivated or developed. In their place, we get quite a few who have nice voices and comely appearances but are dull and unmusical on the stage. Many excellent ones fall through the cracks, don’t get much work and begin to absorb the sense of being less desirable, which then enters their sense of self. It takes not only talent but courage and self-esteem to be an opera singer.

When Marketing Misses the Singers

I am raising these points because I have detected an unmistakable trend that is more than worrisome if you love opera: Singers seem to matter less. While some opera companies, such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, still make a point in their advertising of emphasizing who is singing, many other major companies seem to be listing casts and rosters in fine print. The only ones featured are either the superstars or the pretty ones.

It is understandable, if we are discussing a regional, mid-sized company in the United States or Europe, that stars might not be in the casts. But I still think these companies should put all the names forth in bold face. Even if we do not know the singers, we learn their names and perhaps take them to our hearts. I remember, more than 20 years ago, I was in Boston and heard a young soprano who was new to me. She was a complete knockout vocally and temperamentally, with plenty of it. Her name was Deborah Voigt. I don’t know if the artist I encountered back then would be able to make her way in the profession if she were just starting today.

What happens too often nowadays is that opera companies plan seasons by selecting repertory and stage directors but only choose singers late in the game. While in the past you would strive to have the best singers on your roster that your budget allows, even that is not a given now. How do I know this?

Not too long ago, I received the brochure for the 2012-2013 season of the New York City Opera. They will do Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February and Rossini’s Moses in Egypt (Moise in Egitto) and Offenbach’s La Perichole at New York’s City Center in April. This is a very appealing offering and my appetite was whetted to know more. 

I read every word of the sixteen-page brochure and then had to read it again. To my great shock and disbelief, I realized that there was not a single mention of a singer! No casting, no discussion that City Opera is engaging singers who are exciting and interesting and just right for their roles. I recalled that I had written last spring about City Opera’s announcement of its new season and that George Steel, its general manager and artistic director, had bristled at a question of mine about what he looks for when he matches a stage director with an opera.

I am second to no one in my desire to see the New York City Opera live and flourish. It is a real treasure, not only for its history (much of which it seems unable to afford to keep) but for the promise it represents. But a great part of this company’s heritage and character is the discovery, nurturing and presentation of young singers who have it.

A very short list includes Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle, Carol Vaness and Frederica von Stade. If today’s New York City Opera does not make singers at least as much a part of its mission and identity as it does the works it presents and the theatrical elements it deploys, then its audiences may come to experience opera as a pretty but empty shell without a heart or a pulse.

Photo: NYC Opera's 2011-12 season advertising campaign emphasized opera titles over singers' names.

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Comments [16]

Julia from Temple, PA

Dear Fred,

I could not agree with you more and I feel as if I've had this conversation with nearly all of my opera friends and colleagues several times if not continuously for the past year or so. I have noticed it too, more and more, that the trend of making the singer feel during rehearsals and casting processes that they're really the smallest cog in the big machine of Opera, and the unfortunate upshot of that is that singers get chosen who are the physical ideal of what the director is looking for, and maybe not vocally superb, and normally they're put into roles which are too big vocally simply because they're young and 'look the part' to the director's mind (thereby pushing out older singers (ha, and by older I mean upper 20's and early 30's) who would be more vocally appropriate though not perhaps so ingenue-looking) thus really giving the impression for those audience members who don't necessarily know everything about Opera but are interested in knowing more, that Opera is simply a show of pretty people who can sing half-way decenly, sort of a more uptight cousin of Broadway-style-theater. Therefore, as an Opera singer and Opera lover I am seriously unsettled and like you point out, worried about the future development and staying power of Opera if it keeps on being marketed so incorrectly.

Thank you so much for writing this important article on a topic that I know is certainly pushed aside all-too-often in the Operatic world. I and my operatic colleagues heartily appreciate your advocacy!

Yours truly,
Julia

Jan. 05 2013 11:29 AM
Tom

P.S. I had a similar experience at a performance of Turandot at the Met, where Turandot was neither a strong singer nor desirable enough to put one's life on the line (even with a healthy dose of imagination). I'm not asking for only "pretty faces", but I can't deal with a bucket of cold water dousing the spark in my imagination.

Oct. 13 2012 04:43 PM
Tom

You have some good points Fred, but I have to disagree with you to some extent on "looks". Clearly, the vocal skills of the singer are very important, and it is surprising that an opera company wouldn't advertize who is singing, at least the major roles, in a production. Would Carnegie Hall advertize a performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and not indicate the soloist? Of course not. Certainly, the looks of the pianist wouldn't matter, but the "staging" of concerto isn't an integral part of the performance. But, what is the point of sets and costumes in opera if it isn't adding to the experience? While 100% realism isn't necessary or appropriate for opera productions, there is a point when one's sense of disbelief can no longer be stifled. You asked who said Carmen must be pretty. While we can argue whether "pretty" is necessary quality, Carmen must be desirable, desirable enough to make Don Jose spurn Micaela's love. And, it is pretty clear that for Carmen, this is a very "raw" desirability. I saw a production of Carmen at the met with Olga Borodina as Carmen and Maija Kovalevska as Micaëla. While Olga Borodina did a great job with the music, she was totally unconvincing (for me) as an object of murder inducing desire. As a result, the magic of the opera was lost for me. So, I think since operas are part theater, looks of the singers as well as the sets, costumes, etc. are important for conveying the story and serve to underscore the music.

Oct. 13 2012 04:27 PM
Cassio from Cyprus

A provocative piece. Where else can one get this kind of opera journalism in NYC than Operavore? The fact that NYCO is not identifying who's singing in their operas this season is yet another example of the company's mismanagement. It's tragic to see a once great company slide into irrelevance.

Where is this opera advertising you speak of? I don't see much, at least on the streets of NY. The posters outside the Met identify the full casts. The Met's website does a good job of identifying full casts and the Playbill gives biographical and performance histories of all the principals. I encounter the occasional advertisement on a bus or in the entrance to the subway, often featuring Anna Netrebko, the diva du jour, but how does that differ from movie posters touting a new film with George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts? Regular operagoers are generally coming to the theater to see the stars and hold out hope that they'll encounter a break-out performance by an unheralded young singer. But should Otello's Rodrigo get equal billing as Desdemona?

Oct. 08 2012 07:55 PM
Cara De Silva from New York, NY

As always, you are right on target, re the good, and, here, the bad. This account of a filthy-lucre-has-its-way-again trend that diminishes art must leave any opera lover outraged and heartsick. But recognizing what is happening before it becomes the new way of casting (or not casting) is a start to being able to protest it.

Oct. 08 2012 09:48 AM
Sean Christensen from New York

A very strong article that underlines very significant changes in the opera industry nowadays. It is definitely the case that, with opera catching up to its other media counterparts, i.e. with the HD-singers, ad campaigns, etc, it is becoming more and more of a financial investment for companies. I find it odd that within this attempt to make opera more marketable, more palpable to audiences, they would leave out one of the most crucial aspects of this art, the singers.

One could imagine that this decision stems from a reluctance to take risks, to not divulge the singers because companies assume that if those singers are not superstars, or at the very least "known", less people will attend, and that they'd rather build their advertisement on the product itself, the opera. So you want to go see Carmen, not see Youghoon Lee and Anita Rachvelishvili (even though that's the Met, a whole different ball game).

It seems that opera companies want to work on the visual aspects of their performances, adding fluff here and there to wow audiences. In truth, I haven't seen enough productions around the world or even locally to add any more testimonials about the topic that Fred outlined. I loved how you left the crux of this article to the end. It should definitely come as a surprise that the very thing singers work so hard at - emotionally engaged singing, etc - takes a seat on the sidelines in the race to stardom.

As a young singer still in grad school, I hope that the future of my career does not involve constantly bending to the will of the leaders of the industry.

Please write more on this subject when you get a chance Fred.

Oct. 07 2012 11:03 AM
BH from Germany

As a singer, I truly appreciate your article. For those of us who are not superstars, we are very often at the mercy of producers, regisseurs, conductors and agents who do not value or respect us, or feel obliged in any way to do so. We are replaceable and they do not hesitate to let us know on a regular basis that we are. Agents demand commissions for work they had nothing whatsoever to do with getting us and ask for steep retainers for doing little or nothing at all if they do not think you are important enough or an easy enough "sell", regisseurs often ask us to do things onstage that are personally humiliating to us not because it serves the drama, but rather to gain notoriety for themselves and create controversy (particularly common in Europe) and conductors often fail to keep orchestras reasonably under or breathe with us -- some are so preoccupied with the orchestra that they barely acknowledge that there are singers onstage at all. These are all worst case scenarios to be sure, but still they are very, very common. And it is absolutely typical, certainly here in Europe and very definitely in regional houses, to never see the name of a single singer on the advertising of a new production. I personally find this unconscionable, but this is the reality. It gives me some hope for the future of this great art form that there are still some out there who truly and deeply care about us. Thank you for being one of those people.

Oct. 07 2012 07:50 AM
Paolo from Modena, Italy

Well, that's not something new. Singers and actors seemed to matter less and less during the 20th century in favour of conductors and directors, alongside the rise of totalitarian regimes such as communism and nazism where the individuality was despised and charismatic leaders adored. But that's silly: in opera singers are the stars, in theatre actors are the stars. They have always been and always will be. Conductors and directors simply have the power to ruin or not to ruin things. And singers will be always valued for their singing, not for their looks. The problem is that artistic directors in all the world are simply not qualified for the job and think that good singing is something from the past, that to be "modern" you have to cast thin guys and dolls that scream (I won't make names). And audiences are not accustomed anymore to recognize good singing and often they simply swallow what they are given... But they get bored.

Oct. 06 2012 04:23 PM
Anne from NYC

Thank you !!! I've already voiced my disappointment to New York City Opera that its marketing repeatedly ignores the vocalists - won't even list them at all. I hope more of us will join in and get them to start mentioning their vocalists. I mean, why pay for a NYCO ticket if they won't even tell you who's singing???

Oct. 06 2012 02:26 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

Thank you, readers, for your comments, and especially you DK for your candor. Just to be very clear, I did not mean to imply in my article that the singers we hear in theaters are the only ones with self-esteem but rather that I hold most singers in such high regard that I don't want comments and opinions from managers, stage directors, journalists or audience members to nick their self-esteem. It is hard enough to do that job and, as you describe it, it is like being on a tightrope.

Oct. 06 2012 01:26 PM
DK

Interesting point of view about excellent singers, courage and self-esteem.

I would venture to say that courage and self-esteem were not lacking at the time I was presenting myself as a candidate for work as an opera singer. I would present it more as a tightrope that one walks--and at any point along the way, you may be knocked off by a careless accompanist at an audition, a stage director who cannot see a tall Desdemona with a short Otello (although I pointed out that Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti were a credible loving couple!) , indifferent intendants who I hear receive money per auditioner from the government to hold auditions and know already that they won't be hiring you as they already know their cast, or, I would respectfully submit, that those who do the hiring can sense that you are not a singer who will be persuaded to perform in a bedroom, handing over your personhood for a role in an opera. Or even, that you have an opportunity to audition, but your physical condition was not optimal, but you sang anyway, not knowing if you'd get another chance (after all, hundreds of singers to choose from, the role must be filled and let's just get on with it!).

I could go on (and on) with observations from my experiences and the experiences of other singers I have spoken to, but may I relate a comment from a former Italian professional singer who happened to be running a shoe store with her husband--she shrugged her shoulders and said to me, Signora, it is a pig's business, this business of opera.

And I had always believed that knowing one had a beautiful instrument, used powerfully and well, knowing you were a truthful performer with something to say and the openness and courage to say it, would convince people with the power and position, to put you on a stage in response to what they had experienced of such a performer.

I was not fortunate enough to find such people. I do believe they exist, but I did not find them, and/or gain access to them. I believe I often sang auditions for people who did not know what was in front of them. Or, I had no connections that would encourage them to listen to me with a special ear, so to speak.

What more to say... Is it to be believed, that singers who don't have a considerable professional career, although they wanted one, lack courage and self-esteem--or is it those who are in a position to hire, business pressures to hire the already-established, the taste of the directors involved or what they believe the public will like and buy, an established performer who wants to place a girlfriend in a job, etc.etc.etc?

I am so happy sometimes to hear singers with beautiful instruments who move me with their performance--Teresa Stratas was an example of encouragement for me to reach such a level of achievement.

Wonderful singers have walked the tightrope and got to the other side--a successful professional career. I have enjoyed hearing such singers, and continue to look for more of them.

Oct. 06 2012 12:29 PM
Nancy C. Helwig from Cincinnati

As always, a very insightful blog. We have been distressed for years that many companies (we subscribe to 3) ask season ticket holders to renew without a clue about singers. It may be nice that a new production is coming, but we would also like to know names of singers that are signed. If there is a problem doing that, perhaps the company should plan farther ahead.
Also of concern is the trend toward homogenous, unrecognizable voices from pretty people. Give me a big, lush, striking voice any time over a cute face who can sing the notes!

Oct. 06 2012 04:29 AM
MAK

Maybe artists need better agents and arts schools need to teach business savvy. Singers/artists are, in fact, small businesses and need to be able to better protect and promote their own "it" so they don't "fall through the cracks" and to ensure a healthy, mutual relationship with companies- one that doesn't seem exclusively at the favor of the company....and I wholly agree, Fred, I'll take smart, interesting, funny & kind (along w/ a little sizzle) any day!

Oct. 05 2012 03:29 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I had this same reaction to the NYCO season announcement. WHO is singing? Additionally, I noticed that the so-called "2012 - 2013 season" is taking place entirely in 2013.

Oct. 05 2012 10:59 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

P.S. And there was an intermission called for in "Das Rheingold" (even written into the score and parts) for the sole purpose of affording the audience an opportunity to patronize Sherry's Restaurant!

Oct. 05 2012 10:01 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I agree that singers --- and I'll add conductors of depth and experience --- are sadly missing from many of today's productions: a lamentable state of affairs. A sign of this visual-oriented era we're in, when musical literacy of the general public is low to non-existent. As one bitterly disappointed by the two Metropolitan Opera live streams, I'm sticking to favorite recordings. (I'd hoped to find one or more newcomers who "has it", but was woefully disappointed. We know that in Mozart's day, the conductor's name wasn't listed on the playbill, and that went on well into the 19th Century. Upon looking at the casts at the Metropolitan Opera at the turn of the 20th Century, one is in awe. Nellie Melba would complete the "Mad Scene" from "Lucia di Lammermoor" and call for a piano to be brought onstage to accompany her singing "Home, Sweet Home", et al. And Alma Gluck favored "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny." So it seems every era has its drawbacks.

Oct. 05 2012 09:55 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

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