“The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!” Lately you hear more operagoers gripe like this about how one particularly atrocious singer ruined the whole show for them. These horrendous singers are ruining the opera experience, and “advanced casting” is to blame.
A-list houses like the Met, La Scala, Chicago Lyric experience this criticism on a regular basis. Why do so many A-list houses have this same issue? Is there some commonality that someone could identify? Turns out, there is!
You might think that major opera houses run annual auditions like theater companies or smaller opera houses. At the end of a season, houses hold auditions and all the roles for next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.
Many opera houses contract their lead roles years in advance without an audition. (I wonder when Netrebko last auditioned for a role?) Larger houses cast half a decade in advance. This strategy is only lucrative for the well-established and well-managed singers.
In the 60’s Rudolph Bing planned the next season of the Met while on tour with the previous season; just a few months in advance of the new season. Now, opera houses scramble to book a dwindling pool of “world class” singers years in advance. Meanwhile, the “not so world class but damned fine” singers hang out to dry. The only way to make a big debut at many of these houses is to land an understudy gig and step in at the last minute for the ailing superstar.
Now, a lot can happen in those 2-5 years. The issue at hand is, a singer can overbook herself, show up in less than stellar form, and it is increasingly hard to fire them.
The contracts are bulletproof. Even if the whole show sags because of a singular performance of a world-class star the opera house loses lump sums of money if the star gets fired. The only way to nix the star and pull in a ringer is to pay out the original singers contract AND pay the new artist’s fees.
So, instead of firing the stars, the show just goes on, much to the chagrin of the people who paid hundreds for their seats.
Now that doesn’t seem fair. . . Does it?