“The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!” says one operagoer to another as they exit the show. These murmurs of disappointment wouldn’t be especially surprising overheard at a local community theatre. But what about at the Met, La Scala or Chicago Lyric?
Lately, more and more operagoers are gripping about how one particularly atrocious singer ruined the whole show for them. But why would so many A-list houses have this same issue?
As it turns out, major opera houses do not run auditions just like everywhere else. Smaller houses hold huge auditions at the end of the season to cast the roles for the next. Major opera houses, however, might cast their lead roles half a decade in advance and often do not hold auditions. (I wonder when the last time Netrebko auditioned for something was.)
This strategy is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, yet has hurt the careers of so many others. I believe that this concept of “advanced casting” is directly ruining the experience of opera for so many.
Casting used to look differently. In the 1960’s, Rudolph Bing would wait until the spring tour of a season to cast the next one. Now casting is done with the same haste but it occurs years in advance. Opera houses scramble to book a shrinking pool of “world class” singers three, four or five years before the designated season. Meanwhile, the “not so world class but damned fine” singers are hung out to dry. It seems that the only way to make a big debut at many of these houses would be 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. A singer could develop nodes, they could have a baby, they could overbook themselves. . . and the list goes on. The issue is that now, a 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 someones 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 people who paid hundreds for their seats.
Now that doesn’t seem fair. . . Does it?