Lately, more and more operagoers are gripping about how one particularly atrocious singer ruined the whole show for them. “The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!,” audience members everywhere are saying.
This wouldn’t be surprising if it were only 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 between these venues? Turns out there is!
You might think that major opera houses run auditions just like every other house. At the end of last season, there were auditions and all the roles for the next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.
Instead of regular auditions, many opera houses contract their lead roles years in advance. (I wonder when Netrebko last auditioned for something.) Some houses cast half a decade ahead of schedule. This strategy is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but not for the others. My theory is that this concept of “advanced casting” is ruining audiences’ operatic experiences.
Now, a lot can happen in those interim years. A singer could develop nodes, they could have a baby, they could overbook themselves. . . the list goes on. A singer can overstrain themselves and show up in less than stellar form; it is increasingly hard to fire them. The contracts have become bulletproof. Even if the whole show sags because of an overbooked artist’s performance, the only way to replace them is to buy out the original contract AND pay the new singer’s fee.
In the past, even as late as the 1960’s, Rudolf Bing used to plan the next season of the Met as he was on the spring tour for the previous season, hiring the best of whomever was available at the time. Now, houses scramble to book a shrinking pool of “world class” singers three, four or five years in advance. Meanwhile, this strategy hangs the “not so world class but damned fine” 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 an ailing superstar.
Oftentimes, much to the chagrin of both rising stars and the people who paid hundreds for their tickets, the house will retain the original singer regardless of their capabilities. In short the art form is suffering from an overreliance on the often outdated status of lead singers, leaving both promising singers and fans in the cold.
Now that doesn’t seem economically feasible or even smart. . . Does it?