Lately, more and more operagoers are gripping 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 the Met, La Scala, Chicago Lyric. It turns out many of the A-list houses have a similar casting protocol.

Many opera houses contract their lead roles years in advance, and lots of times without an audition. (I wonder when the last time Netrebko auditioned for something was.) Some bigger houses cast half a decade in advance. This strategy is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but not so well for the majority of others. My theory is that this concept of “advanced casting” is what is ruining the experience of opera for so many.

In 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. Now that the pool of “world class singers” is shrinking, opera houses are scrambling to book the stars three, four or five years in advance. 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 problem is twofold. While René Flemming can have a baby, strain her voice and still overbook, the up- and-coming soprano doesn’t even get a shot. Even if the whole show sags because of Flemming’s performance, the only way to nix her and put in a ringer is to pay out Flemming’s contract AND pay the new artist’s fees. The contracts have become bulletproof.

So, instead of firing them, 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? 


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