FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Why It's More Difficult Than Ever to Become an Opera Singer
Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - 09:16 AM
Two memorable performances and a conversation in recent days set my mind to thinking about the many things opera singers must now do to launch, grow and sustain their careers apart from knowing their music, expanding their artistry and maintaining their health.
On Nov. 13, I attended the concert marking the return of Kathleen Battle, age 68, to the Metropolitan Opera house after an absence of 22 years. Her frequent contretemps with colleagues and opera executives in the 1980s and 1990s are well documented. Her 1994 dismissal by general manager Joseph Volpe was for behavioral rather than artistic reasons. She was a remarkable singer and one can only wonder what more she could have accomplished had things been different. Battle’s voice and singing at this concert were often exquisite.
On Nov. 14, the Eastman Philharmonia appeared at Alice Tully Hall. This orchestra of young musicians enrolled at the Eastman School of Music did themselves proud in symphonic showpieces by Ravel and Prokofiev under the baton of Neil Varon. Also on the program was a new song cycle by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts that are settings of letters by artist Georgia O’Keeffe. They were sung by the illustrious Eastman alumna Renée Fleming. This was only the latest of many new and unusual works performed by the 57-year-old soprano. The five songs and their richly evocative orchestral accompaniment are excellent and will appeal to sopranos looking for new repertory. Fleming actively engaged with the music and text, leaving a deep impression that went far beyond her starry presence.
Battle and Fleming are, in their ways, among the last major singers who are products of another era, one in which their careers were carefully nurtured by managers, recording companies and conductors. Both worked with top maestros and benefitted from their tutelage. James Levine was important to both of them, while Battle also collaborated with Herbert von Karajan and Fleming worked with Georg Solti as a young artist.
Here they are in 1992 with the wonderful Frederica von Stade, singing the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier in a gala concert conducted by Claudio Abbado. It doesn’t get better than this.
When these sopranos were starting out, their managers knew repertory and voices — the best of them were architects of their clients’ careers. Couturiers made beautiful clothing to give these singers a signature look. It was possible to regularly make recordings of opera, oratorios and song literature — Fleming has appeared on at least 40 by my count.
Publicists engineered promotional campaigns for top singers who achieved a level of fame that often extended beyond the opera world. Unlike now, most news organizations — including broadcast media — gave extensive coverage to the arts, especially in New York. The debut recital by a promising young singer would receive coverage and all opera productions by major companies would be reviewed.
Fleming, more than any singer of her generation, understood how the business worked and made the most of it without compromising her artistry. There were three older singers she could draw inspiration from — Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne and Plácido Domingo — who were masterful in business, as well as art. All three understood how media work and how to befriend the right people on boards and in government, lending their considerable allure while quietly influencing decisions that helped keep opera strong.
The situation for young singers today could not be more different, or difficult. This became clear to me yet again when I had lunch recently with an American soprano studying at one of the top European conservatories. She told me, “I am coming to realize how much of my time must be devoted to being entrepreneurial.”
For singers just starting out, this includes keeping accurate financial and tax records; mastering and being an unblemished presence on social media; maintaining a website; finding management; creating performance videos for submission; filing endless applications for competitions, young artist programs and study grants; and obtaining proper medical care and paying for it.
In previous generations, some of these tasks did not exist or were handled by others. There are fewer opera companies than a generation ago and, to pay the bills, they tend to perform a nucleus of works (including Le Nozze di Figaro, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Traviata and La Bohéme) for which hundreds of young sopranos must compete by getting noticed and perhaps being granted an audition.
Young artists were once able to spend more time focused on their music, on strengthening their techniques and on developing their inner lives that provide a crucial resource in making music. They, and we, are missing out by their having to multitask.
These challenges affect singers of all ages. Bass Kevin Langan posted on Facebook on Nov. 14: “As I head into NYC today to audition for a prospective job, I recall I have performed with 69 different American opera and symphony organizations in my career of 38 years as a professional singer. The following quote from a good friend and colleague comes mind: ‘If you find yourself having to convince those you thought you had already convinced that you are capable ... you are most likely a singer.’ —Frank Lopardo (American tenor). Bottom line: I have never stopped loving or having the passion to do what I do.”
I contacted Langan, who told me, “I hold no grudge against the organization I am singing for. On the contrary, I would love to get the job as it is my favorite role in the repertoire I do! Life as a singer is what it is! And some of us do what must be done in order to keep doing what has been our passion for almost a lifetime!”
Wisdom, it seems, comes with age and experience. We must find ways, given how we live now, to nourish young artists and help them start and maintain their careers. They will repay us with the music they make and the beauty they provide at a time when we so desperately need it.