Song and dance at opera as director Sir Antonio Pappano lays into underperforming stars

Royal Opera House chief claims current crop lack commitment

Arts Correspondent

The Royal Opera House’s music director has taken aim at the “current generation” of opera singers, questioning their commitment after a rise in cancellations and suggesting their bodies were “weaker” than their predecessors.

Sir Antonio Pappano, who has held the role at Covent Garden for over a decade, did not name individual singers, but his criticism is sure to send tremors through the opera world.

The RoH has been hit by increasing numbers of big stars pulling out of productions in the run up to first night, and the British-born conductor hit out today.

“It happens more and more. There’s something about this generation of singers who are either weaker in their bodies or just don’t care,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s something that is very frustrating for me personally. I have to conduct these guys.”

He added: “Physically the organisms are not as strong. For Domingo to cancel he would have to be on his death bed. It’s just a different generation.”

Their commitment was also taken into question, that previously “a contract was a contract. The attitude is not the same,” adding it was taken “much more lightly, the idea of a contract. The idea of a commitment.”

The outburst was sparked by a discussion of Robert le Diable, a rarely performed work that was hit by a series of problems with its stars. Tenor Juan Diego Florez was signed up to star but pulled out after a change of heart.

Patrizia Ciofi was brought in two days before first night after the institution deemed that American soprano Jennifer Rowley – herself brought in when original star Diana Damrau withdrew due to pregnancy – was not up to the job. 

Another performer, Marina Poplavskaya, originally pulled out of the same opera due to a medical condition but subsequently returned. In July she replaced Anja Harteros in Otello, who withdrew “due to personal reasons and with great regret”.

At the time Kasper Holten, the director of opera, apologised to the audience saying “I am sorry that we have had some many cancellations this season.” Harteros had also pulled out of performing Don Carlos in May and La Boheme a month earlier.  Irish soprano Celine Byrne, who replaced her, withdrew six days later due to health reasons.

Some stars have built up reputations for cancelling at short notice. “Perhaps the ROH isn’t prepared as it should be,” one industry insider said.

Sir Antonio’s comments came at the announcement of the 2013/14 seasons for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. 

Erica Jeal, deputy editor of Opera Magazine, said: “I can see why Pappano would be so frustrated, cancellations have been a big problem at the Royal Opera House.”

She continued: “Everyone at his level is frustrated, although it’s unusual to express it publicly, especially at a press conference.”

Sir Antonio believed the increased pressures on singers are not helping and that the “commitments of the business are bigger, the stakes are bigger”.

“A lot of people are getting sicker and sicker. It’s a problem,” he said. “There’s so much travelling involved with singer. People are overbooked, overcommitted, there are too many new things, the stress on them and the amount of PR… you can’t imagine how much non-musical activities singers have to do today.”

He called for singers to plan bigger rest periods in between shows. “I don’t mean to be down on the singers. My life is singers, I adore them. I’m there for them but the business is tough. Now they’re on cinema, the PR, they have to rehearse more. The rehearsal process is much more strenuous than it used to be in the past,” he said.

Sir Antonio will conduct Wagner’s Parsifal and Verdi opera Les Vepres siciliennes in the coming season. There will also be a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss.

The Royal Ballet will include a new production of Don Quixote created by Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta and The Winter’s Tale, created by Christopher Wheeldon.

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