High drama as opera says fat lady can't sing

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The Independent Online
THE MUSIC WORLD has not seen a scandal on this scale for years. Munich's Bavarian State Opera has sacked Cheryl Studer, reputed to be one of the greatest sopranos of our time, on the grounds that she cannot sing. Ms Studer has a doctor's certificate which she says proves that she can. There have been recriminations, lawsuits and taking of sides. Opera has seen nothing like it.

Not, at least, since one fateful night in October 1993 when riot police had to fight back music lovers of the Vienna opera, enraged by the leading lady's failure to ride the high Cs in Il Trovatore. The diva's name was Cheryl Studer.

The conductor caught up in all this embarrassment, Zubin Mehta, will not forget the incident in a hurry. Nor will he forgive, according to Studer. For Mehta is now musical director of the Bavarian State Opera, the company that has suddenly found her talents sadly wanting.

If that explanation of her fall from grace is not persuasive enough, the 43-year-old American soprano, who has stood on all the great stages of the world, sung the biggest roles and helped make record companies immensely rich, has another. She feels she is the victim of prejudice, because she did not fit the physical characteristics of her role. In short, she was not German enough and slender enough to play the lovely Agathe in Weber's Der Freischutz, the pioneering work of German romanticism. "I am not blonde, I have a slight accent, and I am a bit bulky for the small hunting lodge where I was supposed to stand," she said in a newspaper interview.

Nonsense, counters the company's British-born executive director, Peter Jonas. According to his version, Studer failed to hit the right notes in six passages during rehearsals. Her Agathe was straining, so that a relatively unknown understudy named Petra-Maria Schnitzer had to step in a week before first night. It is true that Schnitzer is young, blonde, slim and German, but Mr Jonas insists she landed the part solely on merit.

The sad fact, according to Mr Jonas, is that Studer is no longer up to it. What could have been the "voice of the century" has been "ravaged by over use". The singer has sung too much. Or, to quote Zubin Mehta: "The voice is finished."

The critics have said as much, ever since that broken chord in Vienna. They accuse her of abusing her talent, not resting enough between appearances and recording contracts, and of leading too hectic a life. Despite fitting two children into her busy career, Studer never slowed down, taking on the most challenging roles in a wide range of operas. She was equally at home with Mozart and Wagner - now she must pay the price of her prolific output and extraordinary repertoire. Her bosses in Munich prescribed her a period of recuperation on the understudies' bench.

It was a humane solution, in their view, handled with the dignity and discretion one might expect of such an outstanding company. But the letter informing her, by registered mail, also let her know that the demotion would mean a substantial pay cut. Studer sent her hot-tempered husband- manager, Ewald Schwarz, to negotiate a compromise, but to no avail.

Unusually in the close-knit operatic world, Studer then went public with her grievance. When the interviews did not work, she launched a lawsuit, demanding the full DM200,000 (pounds 74,000) for the eight cancelled appearances as Agathe. It was at this point that the company discovered Studer's unsuitability for another role, that of Rosalinde in Strauss's Die Fledermaus, due to open on New Year's Eve. Last week Studer retaliated with another lawsuit, this time demanding DM100,000 for four contracted appearances she will no longer make as Rosalinde.

The cases come to court next month. The company will call upon critics as expert witnesses, while Studer intends to invoke medical evidence to show her vocal facilities are intact. By then, after her enforced rest, it might well be true.