Advanced Casting is Killing Opera

by Michael Davis

Lately, more and more operagoers are griping 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 venues like the Met, La Scala, and Chicago Lyric. Why would so many A-list houses have this issue? Is there some commonality between them 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 of the year, there are huge auditions and all the roles for next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.

Many opera houses contract the singers for their lead roles years in advance with an audition. (When was the last time Netrebko auditioned for something?). Some bigger houses cast half a decade in advance. Advanced casting is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but doesn’t work so well for the majority of others. Now that opera houses book a shrinking pool of “world-class” singers three, four or five years in advance, the “not so world class but still 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.

As well as making it impossible for new singers to get a chance to break out, advanced casting doesn’t even guarantee a good performance. A lot can happen in those two to five years. A singer could develop nodes, have a baby, overbook themselves. . . the list goes on. And when a star’s performance threatens to tank the show, a house can’t even fire them without having to pay their fee, as well as the fee for their replacement.

So, instead of firing them, the show just goes on. The superstar gives a horrible performance, much to the chagrin of the people who paid hundreds for their seats.

The Last Five Years: Raw Emotion, But Polished Adaptation by Madeline Raynor

The Last Five Years comes out on February 13th, but it’s an intense movie to see on a date, especially on Valentine’s Day weekend.

That’s because it’s about a devastating breakup. The movie begins with Cathy (Anna Kendrick) finding the breakup letter that Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) has written before he packed up and moved out of their apartment. She sings “I’m Still Hurting,” and the raw, emotional conclusion repeated at the end of each verse is an apt introduction to the kind of truths this film will tell: “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone/ Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on/ Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon/ And I’m still hurting.” The scene is shot in an apartment lit only by the fading dusk in which Cathy stagnates, too depressed to even turn a light on.

The same way Cathy will somehow recover from this blow, the film somehow moves forward from this hopeless scene. The film (like the musical) tells the story of this five-year relationship by presenting Cathy’s side in reverse-chronological order and Jamie’s side in chronological order. Based on the musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jason Robert Brown, every element of the show is too close to home, including its very inception. It is based on Mr. Brown’s relationship with his ex-wife Theresa O’Neill; Ms. O’Neill sued him over Cathy’s similarity to her.

Although this isn’t the first film that has told the story of a relationship starting with the breakup (see (500) Days of Summer), it is stunning for its realism. It teaches particular truths about people and relationships that are rarely so well expressed. The story is pervaded by such sadness: and even when there is a happy scene, another depressing scene from a different point in time is just around the corner.

The Last Five Years is full of micro-emotion. The songs are conversational and sometimes stream-of-consciousness, and each one covers so much rich and subtle feeling that each lyric can be segmented into two or three emotional stages. Individual songs, and the film as whole, introduce problems between Cathy and Jamie that don’t (and aren’t meant to) resolve.

Ms. Kendrick and Mr. Jordan handle their characters with just the amount of emotional nuance these complex thoughts and feelings demand. Both actors thankfully have musical theater backgrounds, so the film is not weighed down by actors whose singing voices simply aren’t good, a key weakness of so many recent film adaptations of musicals (Les Misérables, Mamma Mia). Mr. Jordan’s voice is powerful and versatile. Ms. Kendrick has a pleasing voice, if a little shrill. However, she has a tendency to over-belt the score.

Director/writer Richard LaGravenese deserves praise for a successful translation from theater to film. He had his work cut out for him: The Last Five Years is a show that relies on theater conventions. It is a two-character musical with the central concept being that the two characters are rarely on stage together: instead, they mime singing to their significant other. A film adaptation of The Last Five Years must necessarily do away with these theater conventions and thus become a different beast entirely. Cathy and Jamie being present in the film while the other is singing to them is a great opportunity to see them interact in a way that they were fundamentally prevented from doing in the musical, an opportunity which Ms. Kendrick and Mr. Jordan certainly make the most of. Even during a solo, the viewer can’t help but give attention to both actors. Under LaGravenese’s direction, the minor characters being played by flesh-and-blood actors feels natural.

LaGravenese does still utilize theater conventions: for example, during “Shiksa Goddess,” Jamie is so ecstatic to finally be dating a non-Jew that he gives Cathy wax museum-style tour of his old girlfriends, all with comically Jewish names. However, LaGravenese waits until the final scene to access theater conventions most powerfully by allowing Cathy and Jamie to exist in same space but in separate timelines for the first and last time in the film. They sing the number “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/ I Could Never Rescue You” in counterpoint: Cathy, bursting with glee after her first date with Jamie, says goodbye to him at her apartment and then migrates to the stoop of the shared apartment that she hasn’t lived in yet. Overlapping with her arrival, Jamie, having just written the breakup letter that begins the film, leaves their apartment and says goodbye to Cathy forever.

The Last Five Years is filmed with a just barely perceptible shakiness, as if to imitate home movie footage. Cathy and Jamie inhabit a New York that is Technicolor bright, except where loneliness and disconnect pervades their apartment.

This film is one to add to that elite sliver of cinema that says something true and worthwhile, if sad, about love.