THE BLOG

Soap Box Time

03/15/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Norman Lebrecht's "Slipped disc" blog on artsjournal.com usually has some sort of tidbit, bordering on gossip, about the classical music world. During the past two days there has been a flurry of activity regarding the report of comments made by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of Royal Opera Covent Garden. An AP report noted that he apparently said:

Modern-day singers lack commitment and stamina compared to previous generations of performers, the Speaking at the announcement of the company's 2013-2014 season, Antonio Pappano said singers "are either weaker in their bodies or don't care," and need more periods of rest than previous generations.

His comments come in the wake of several high-profile pullouts from Royal Opera House productions this season. Later, Pappano told the BBC that young singers are "faced with tremendous pressure ... PR pressure, image pressure, but also vocal pressure." He also said modern productions, which are often filmed for broadcast, demand more rehearsal from performers. Travel and promotion duties also take a toll, he added. "They are expected to sing more in the rehearsals, the rehearsals are longer, cutting of operas, which used to be a big tradition, is no longer seen in a favorable light," he said. "So they are singing much longer versions of the operas, even the popular ones. Maria Callas never sang a whole 'Traviata' in her life."

Mr. Lebrecht posted a response from Fabio Luisi, the respected principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. He commented that this did not address the core of the problem. He wrote, "we, as conductors, have to pronounce a very clear "mea culpa" in this. Most singers, especially the young ones, are simply too young, not prepared enough, with technical problems and they get the wrong roles. An agent might say, "You know, darling, they are looking for a new, young and pretty Tosca in that international Opera House, director and conductor would love to have a new voice, they would love to discover a new star. That's you!" It can work maybe a couple of times, if the orchestras are not too loud, if the director is understanding, if the conductor helpful... but are they the right roles for a young soprano? Definitely not. You can sing them of course, with a fresh voice, but not for long. So they start to cancel - and then they disappear."

As a mentor and teacher of young singers and also as an experienced singer of a certain age I have some views on this subject. When young artists ask me advice I often think about the differences now from when I was a young singer. I was given many amazing opportunities at quite a young age. As a matter of fact, my young gumption made me think I could do anything but the monkey on my back doubted every accomplishment. I always felt one step ahead of the sheriff and worried about proving myself, being accepted by my much esteemed colleagues (How lucky was I to work with legends like Dame Joan Sutherland, Shirley Verrett, Lucia Popp, Anna Tomova Sintov, Von Stade, Margaret Price, Cesare Siepi, and directors Jean Pierre Ponnelle and Giorgio Strehler, and conductors that many just dream of: Boulez, Sawallisch, Levine, Muti, Haitink, Mehta, Bonynge, Sinopoli, the list goes on...?)

I do not mean to sound like "those were the days" but it was a time when if you proved yourself with these artists, then you were accepted and often re-engaged by them. I remember that although my Met debut was at age 31 I thought I deserved to be there from the time I was 23. Of course, this was preposterous. I had to prove myself abroad first and I am sure the Met "spies" were keeping track. I know my manager (For some reason in opera they are called managers rather than agents, perhaps from a former era when they actually molded a career.) talked to the Met about me for a long time until he said the casting director told him not to mention my name anymore.

Yes, in my young brain I thought I could do everything, but could I? Absolutely not. Was there excitement when I was heard by new people? Yes. Were they ready to take a chance on me? Rarely. They saw something and they decided to wait to see what would happen first. In other words, I had to earn my success and opportunities. My first manager heard me in the Pavarotti at Juilliard Master Class and put my name in a file to follow up in three years, which he did.

Early on, there was no way I supported myself on singing. I worked through temp agencies and invested in regular voice lessons and coaching. At school I never had a teacher who taught me technique. After college I found my teacher who, with extreme patience but with high expectations, taught me a lasting, safe vocal technique. Still, I was never as prepared as I wanted to be when I went to an engagement and always thought I would be fired. I would have meltdowns in lessons right before heading out of town, thinking there was no way I could possible do it. Seriously. The first day of rehearsals were so stressful. My teacher got the message through to me that I should never settle for less or even the status quo of my talent, and that I must always look to be better. I think that advice is what helps to separate the "men from the boys," if you will. I often tell my own students, "That was good but it I want it to be better."

As for travel and other pressures, they existed back then and in some ways were worse because of the nonexistence of the internet, affordable telephone calls, etc. I often wished I did not have to travel so far, dealing with jet lag, the evils of dryness and subjecting myself to all sorts of ailments from being trapped in a flying tube with a lot of people. That has not changed except that there was more leg room back then.

I believe in opportunities but I also believe in earning them. At some point in the recording industry the focus went to choosing an unknown and backing them with a commitment of many recordings and the PR that goes with it. Instant stardom. It was perfect timing with the culture of fast news, gossip, reality TV. These things always existed in a smaller scale but with the advent of cable television and hundreds of channels, more magazines than ever, then websites, webpages, instant news, it became the culture that spilled over into the classical music world.

I am not sure if there is a way to go back or even that we should. I think we as a culture and society expect sensationalism or immediate excitement. Many of us know what we should think before we even go to a performance as we have been inundated with "news" about everything from personalities and artist behavior, to what has happened behind the scenes.

I do wish the theaters would trust that experience will ultimately give them a reliable and successful product. I wish that some would trust the historical periods in which the operas are set or written in order to keep that connection to the past. Watching the events this week regarding the election of a new Pope reminded me of of this. How often do we witness a connection so far into the past? Grand lavish period opera productions have been loved because we do not live like that anymore and love to fantasize even for three hours about that time. Heck, aside from a great story, why do we gravitate to "Downton Abbey"? Or even "Game of Thrones"? As a performer I know I adored living in those historical periods onstage.
I have enough of modern day in real life and think sometimes the audience does as well.

I digress. My wish list:
1. I wish the opera world would nurture young talent and bring them along rather than exploit them.
2. I wish the more experienced artists were respected more and not judged for their age.
3. I wish the opera world will never cave to artificial sound augmentation, and will retain the excitement and emotional quality of live sound.
4. I wish the filming of opera will not replace the live experience of the vastness of the art form.
5. I wish that young singers would lake better care of themselves, set limits and always strive to be better.
6. I wish we could do away with the instant fame syndrome and not encourage it with young singers.
7. I wish for today's young talent to have the joy of a long career.

Before I get off my soapbox, I want to say that being a working opera singer is a privilege that few get to have. Much of the privilege is in being able to interpret, funnel, experience the music and words of great composers and librettists, both contemporary and historic. It is a privilege to be an emotional conduit for a trusting audience. It is a privilege to communicate through glorious music, in conjunction with fellow colleagues and talented orchestral musicians in a live "anything can happen" environment.
We have been entrusted with a historic art form. We can live with our emotions on our sleeves. How lucky is that? It can be and should be a big responsibility.