Diva distress

Nothing is quite so delicious as a delicacy imperilled.  We love our rare wines, cheeses, hard to find films & DVDs.  Part of the enjoyment is in boasting of your exclusive enjoyment.

It’s summertime, when some go to see operas in Europe,  describing what they saw, and watching the body language of the envious, pretending to be indifferent (when we’re really jealous: I won’t deny it!).  Some of the enjoyment can be shared online but it’s not the same as being there.

We watch divas imperilled onstage –and often killed in the course of the opera—but nowadays there are new dangers.  There are two that I’d like to address.

One is old, while the other is new, via a couple of social media posts from artists.  Lorin Maazel and Edita Gruberova have recently sounded off.

Maazel’s piece, titled “Opera Staging Madness“ says:

The roles of both stage director and conductor are essentially custodial, bringing into play only those actions which heighten and make clearer the intentions of librettist and composer, actions which at every turn must respect and honor the librettist and the composer. To do otherwise is to pervert and despoil the work of masters. The egos of stage director and conductor (and his/her psychological problems) are never ever to come into play.

Gruberova’s piece takes a slightly different direction.  She also alludes to the pressure singers face, saying “my colleagues did not dare to take action against disfiguring costumes or wigs since they feared dismissal from the production.”

But there’s a new concern I am hearing about.  Gruberova says

In a six-week rehearsal period, the director’s ideas come into practice after two weeks in most cases. The subsequent rehearsals are very tiring for all people involved. Conductors tend to only join the ensemble rehearsals and only then does it comes out that often the scenic concept does not match with the musical concept. Four exhausting weeks of scenic rehearsals are followed by musical rehearsals which are also attended by the conductor for the first time.[my emphasis] By the opening night all participants are exhausted and are only back in perfect shape after a few performances after the opening night.

By coincidence, in the past week I have heard three separate anecdotes of singers who are being exhausted by the rehearsal process.  In one case the singer was asked to sing with his full voice for the entire rehearsal period.  Marking –where you hold back—is now frowned upon in some circles.  In another such tale, my friend –who reported the travails of another singer in Europe—advised the singer to hold firm against the pressure of the staff and to mark anyway; they did so and apparently it worked well, but the whole time the threat of dismissal/replacement hung over them.

I can’t help thinking that part of the problem is caused by directors, particularly those who come to opera from other kinds of theatre, who may resent what they interpret as a “diva” attitude, after countless shows with actors: people who are one tiny step above slave labour.  As any director will tell you –if you say no to them—“we can always find someone else to do this job for half what we’re paying you.”

I think this also explains why the comprimario parts are sometimes over-developed, because the singer who has 3 lines will comply with the demanding director, and in the process upstage everyone.

Is opera in peril? Surely it’s always in danger—because it’s expensive, because the world economy is going down the toilet, because of Regietheater, because singers are too fat, because singers aren’t fat anymore –and the danger becomes part of its allure, the precious delicacy.

We’re so accustomed to watching opera divas in distress, that we ignore their genuine calls for help.

Edita Gruberova at her Lieder recital on July 23, 2013 at the Salzburg Festival © Silvia Lelli

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Diva distress

  1. Some great points here. Interesting how this “too much rehearsal time” complaint seems to be coming to the fore more and more these days. Both from the point of view of singer exhaustion and the high costs incurred when one is required to live away from home for long periods in expensive cities. It used to be that the complaint for many European repertory houses was not enough rehearsal time! I can’t help but agree that perhaps some of this is indeed due to directors who may not be fully aware of the physical demands of singing and that it’s just not possible to fully engage vocally for weeks on end, 8 hours a day. Good that singers are feeling empowered enough to at least voice these concerns on blogs, forums etc.

    • barczablog says:

      Hi Gianmarco, thanks for the comments. As a coach/accompanist i hear things almost as if i were a therapist or confessor, and so it’s privileged info. Certainly i can’t name names, but singers can be like “deep throat” (thinking of the source for the Watergate articles in the Washington Post) in passing info concerning colleagues. It’s sad that singers feel so pressured nowadays.
      I also wonder: is North America perhaps a safer haven for singers? The recent complaints/stories all concerned European houses.

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