Advance Casting is Killing Opera

“The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!” This is something that is now commonplace to overhear at the opera.

This wouldn’t be surprising if it were happening at your local community theatre. . . but it isn’t. It’s happening at the Met, La Scala, Chicago Lyric. Why would so many A-list houses have this same issue? Is there some commonality 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, there are huge 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, and lots of times there is no audition. (I wonder when the last time Netrebko actually auditioned for something.) Some bigger houses cast half a decade in advance. A lot can happen in those 2-5 years. A singer could develop nodes, they could have a baby, they could overbook themself. . . and the list goes on.

This strategy is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but not so well for the majority of others. I assert that this concept of “advanced casting” is what is ruining the experience of opera for so many.

As late as the 1960’s Rudolph Bing used to plan the next season of the Met as he was on the spring tour for the last season. His pool of talent was smaller and more local. He didn’t have the luxury of pulling in the big shot tenor from the Ukraine. In those days, operatic casting was more fluid. If a singer couldn’t perform, they got fired. Point blank.

Now, opera houses scramble to book a shriveling pool of “world class” singers three, four, or five years in advance. These are the singers that are so famous that they dictate the terms of their contract, and those terms are tight. Meanwhile, the “not so world class but 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.

The issue is that now, a superstar singer can overbook themselves, show up in less than stellar form, and it is increasingly hard to fire them. The contracts have become bulletproof. Even if the whole show sags because of their performance, the only way to nix them and pull in a ringer is to pay out the original singers contract AND pay the new artist’s fees.

So, instead of firing them, the show just goes on, much to the chagrin of the rest of the cast and the beleaguered audience. In this flawed system, the hard working “middle class” of singers aren’t afforded their fair chance at fame, and the audience leaves in a huff, feeling used.

And the superstar moves on. . . absolutely oblivious.


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