THE BLOG
09/17/2007 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Checking Out

By any reasonable definition, there has been an unusual number of high profile of artist cancellations lately. If this keeps up, the demand for anti-depressants among arts managers may reach record highs.

Covent Garden announced that Bryn Terfel has canceled his appearances in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen next month. A statement issued by Terfel's agent in the bass-baritone's name stated: "I am deeply sorry that I feel it necessary to cancel my performances at Covent Garden this autumn. I have had a particularly stressful family situation involving one of my children this summer which has affected the time I had put aside to prepare for this challenging role. Having begun rehearsals it is clear to me that I would not be able to perform at the standard I would wish to, and rather than progressing through rehearsal in the hope that I might make it, I feel it is better for The Royal Opera and the fantastic team working on this epic production that I withdraw at this stage."

It has been reported that many at Covent Garden, including its Music Director Antonio Pappano, are furious at the withdrawal. Although I realize that there are many in arts management who believe that career comes first and everything else comes second (especially when artists they have under contract are concerned), most of us would find Terfel's "family first -- and nothing else really matters" decision to be wholly commendable.

The depths of Covent Garden's fury were shown in the portion of its statement that stated the Royal Opera "..."expressed shock and surprise at Bryn Terfel's cancellation, acknowledging the disappointment it will bring to audiences who were looking forward to seeing him perform in a complete Ring cycle for the first time."

Anyone familiar with international diplomacy -- or arts management -- knows that this is this is tantamount to accusing Terfel of canceling on some pretext. It is close to calling him a slacker. Like a four-year-old denied the last red lollipop, Covent Garden has pitched a hissy fit and it does not care who it attacks, or how. In that Terfel's reputation is as a hard-working, conscientious artist who strives to give 105 percent at every performance and who does not cancel on a whim, Covent Garden's reaction is hard to figure out.

The German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, was reported to have cancelled all of her engagements for the next three months; according to a statement released by the Metropolitan Opera, it is due to "health reasons." Claudio Abbado has cancelled his appearances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in New York in October, also for "health reasons." One begins to wonder about the state of medicine in the civilized world.

I am hard-pressed to understand whether these are scattered, idiosyncratic incidents or whether there is something more serious at play here. Pure coincidence is always possible, but it is also possible that given the inhumane way artists are over worked these days, arts organizations are merely reaping what they have sown. The human voice can withstand only so much of the "If this is Tuesday it must be Lucia in Brussels" syndrome. Or maybe it is that a tiny uptick in the incidents of cancellation have become magnified by ready access to information previously not generally available (thank you, World Wide Web!) and by the unfortunate tendency of presenters to market around particular artists...so that when they cancel audiences are furious and managements embarrassed.

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The news of Luciano Pavarotti's death has quite literally been front page news -- even in my home town of New Haven, Connecticut. I was only a bit surprised that the press reports did not contain a statement reading "Maestro Pavarotti has cancelled all performances for the remainder of eternity."

A dear friend of mine in the opera business, when complaining vigorously about Pavarotti, paused his tirade long enough to sigh and say "But he is the voice of sunny Italy." And that excuses a number of sins.

His voice was immediately recognizable to anyone who had heard it once. That bright, clarion quality was his and his alone. In his prime -- and how his prime lasted anything near as long as it did remains a miracle -- there was none better. You would hear him sing -- on the nights when he was "on" -- and you would swear that this is what the very angels must sound like.

He exuded an openness and a guilelessness that was rare among performers. Opera singers did not do commercials for American Express cards -- until Pavarotti. He asked in those commercials "Do you know me?" and pretty soon everyone did. That goofy grin, the out-sized handkerchief, the smile that could light up an airport terminal, all made him something of a musical-marketing phenomenon. His work with The Three Tenors made millions aware (at least for a couple of hours) of opera, and he achieved a fame that not even the bomb that was "Yes, Giorgio!" could erase.

The public at large adored him; opera lovers less so after a while. Although there were those nights when he could ignite the most staid subscription audience, there were all too many when he seemed to be going through the motions. The high notes were there, but pretty much everything else was not. His work habits were deplorable, especially once he became known to the world as "Luciano!" He was unwilling to learn new roles, and he was often stale in the ones he knew. He did not act; he was Pavarotti and he did not have to. And as the performances in the opera house became fewer and fewer, and the performances in the casinos, arenas and hockey venues became more frequent, the skills diminished accordingly. Decca/London made him a star, and PBS made him a mega-star. His decision to transform himself from artist to "act" was his alone, even if it was made in consultation with his banker and his broker.

And yet...I am irresistibly drawn to those great Pavarotti recordings that literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. His Calaf in Puccini's Turandot (in what was arguably the greatest opera recording made since the Callas/DeStefano Tosca) stands out, as does a very brief excerpt from Verdi's Otello that he did on an early "Live From Lincoln Center" that is marvelous in and of itself, but achingly painful as a reminder of what could have been had he committed himself to it. It took about 45 years from the death of Caruso to Pavarotti's ascension as an operatic super-star. Since I am not likely to make it to 2052, I can only hope that his like comes around again...and soon.