by Michael Davis
Lately, more and more operagoers are griping about how one particularly atrocious singer ruined the whole show for them. It is becoming commonplace to hear, “The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!”
This is something that wouldn’t be surprising if it were happening at your local community theatre. . . but it isn’t. It’s happening at venues like the Met, La Scala, and Chicago Lyric. Why would so many A-list houses have this issue? Is there some commonality between them that someone might identify? Turns out, there is!
One might think that major opera houses run auditions just like everywhere else: at the end of the last season of the year, there are huge auditions and all the roles for next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.
Many opera houses contract the singers for their lead roles years in advance with an audition. (When was the last time Netrebko auditioned for something?). Some bigger houses cast half a decade in advance. Advanced casting is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but doesn’t work so well for the majority of others. Now that opera houses book a shrinking pool of “world-class” singers three, four or five years in advance, the “not so world class but still damned fine” singers are hung out to dry. The only way to make your big debut at many of these houses is to land an understudy gig and step in at the last minute for the ailing superstar.
As well as making it impossible for new singers to get a chance to break out, advanced casting doesn’t even guarantee a good performance. A lot can happen in those two to five years. A singer could develop nodes, have a baby, overbook themselves. . . the list goes on. And when a star’s performance threatens to tank the show, a house can’t even fire them without having to pay their fee, as well as the fee for their replacement.
So, instead of firing them, the show just goes on. The superstar gives a horrible performance, much to the chagrin of the people who paid hundreds for their seats.