So there’s a big dust-up in the opera world these days. Deborah Voigt, the pre-eminent dramatic soprano in the world, has been fired from Royal Opera-Covent Garden because her large size has been deemed inappropriate for the director’s concept of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.
There’s the Pollard view: that she really ought to get with the times, opera is primarily about theater.
And there’s the Tommassini view: this is a horrible precedent since opera is primarily about music.
Both views have their good points, but here’s some inside goop on the opera business (gleaned from my many years of personal experience working therein).
First of all, there is nothing in a singer’s contract that actually requires the venue to put you on the stage. Really. The contract (and I’m talking about the standard AGMA contract, which is pretty similar to contracts used in other countries) offers a per-performance fee to the artist, ranging from the low thousands, to $15,000 or more. In the USA, this does not include union-mandated “rehearsal money”, which is a few hundred a week for the rehearsal period. Typically, a fee negotiated by a theater and an artist’s manager includes roundtrip airfare to and from the venue, but not accomodation. An artist is expected to be “ready, willing and able” to sing all the performances he/she is contracted for.
However, if for whatever reason, the venue does not want to present the artist on stage to a paying audience of fans and critics, there is nothing in the contract to prevent them from doing so as long as they pay the artist their fee.
Why would they do such a thing?
Well, there are several potential reasons. Primary among them is that opera casting is done in advance, sometimes as many as 5 years, in order to book the “hot” talents”. Artist managers and theater executives are forced to make educated guesses on where a singer’s voice may be 5 years in the future. Will they be singing the same thing, or “older” roles, or more challenging/demanding repertory? These educated guesses take into account such seeming minutiae as vocal technique (who are they studying with? what are they learning?) to past vocal performances and legitimate criticism. Usually, these guesses are correct. Sometimes though, they’re wrong, and when the engagement actually arrives, and the singer is not ready for it, the venue may choose to hire someone more appropriate. More often than not , though, the singer sings the role anyway, damaging the voice and possibly seriously endangering their careers. (See a formerly-famous Mexican Mozart tenor, and a certain African American soprano of the 1980’s, for the gory details.)
Now, Royal Opera-Covent Garden has not said that Ms Voigt was vocally inappropriate for the role of Ariadne; hardly likely since she is the leading interpreter of the role in the world. I’m not keen on the fact that they fired her (do you think London audiences would prefer to hear a so-so singer who looks great in a costume, or a heavy singer who sounds like Richard Strauss’ dream Ariadne?), but the fact is, ROCG did nothing illegal or even immoral here. Phenomenally stupid? Perhaps. But it happens all the time.
And Deborah Voigt should cheer up. She’ll be more in-demand than ever. And she should stop the self-deluding euphimisms about “big hips”. She is a large woman. But she doesn’t have to be. She can diet and exercise and lose weight (much like her frequent stage partner Ben Heppner). In 2 years she can be svelte enough to make Maria Callas weep in her grave and reach for the amphetamines, and ROCG can beg her to come back for Ariadne, and she can refuse loudly in the grandest diva manner.
I look forward to it.