It’s a miracle that any opera ever gets performed

Opera is an extraordinary thing, and its triumphs rest, like no other art form, on the physical and musical capacities of very rare individuals

Share

Sir Antonio Pappano, the music director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, gave way to some long-held frustration this week.

He was launching the new season, but could not restrain himself from responding to questions about last season’s rare revival of Robert le Diable. It was one of the 19th century’s favourite operas, a work of unusual spectacle, but its composer Meyerbeer is more familiar in history books than in performance these days.

Sir Antonio drew our attention to the catastrophic series of cancellations and substitutions that preceded the first night of the production. The production was postponed to permit the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez to take part. Florez then pulled out, deciding that the role was too heavy for his voice after all. Another star, Diana Damrau, cancelled when she became pregnant, and was replaced by an American singer, Jennifer Rowley. Only a week before the first night, it became apparent that Rowley simply wasn’t up to the role. She was dismissed. Finally, the role was taken by Patrizia Ciofi.

The whole thing came very near catastrophe – opera buffs will appreciate the difficulty of finding a soprano who can step in and sing the lead in Robert le Diable at a week’s notice. Sir Antonio gave way, in retrospect, to exasperation. “It happens more and more. There’s something about this generation of singers, that they are weaker in their bodies or don’t care. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something that is very, very frustrating for me personally.” Pappano said that Placido Domingo, from a previous generation, “would have to be on his deathbed” before he’d cancel.

Opera is an extraordinary thing, and its triumphs rest, like no other art form, on the physical and musical capacities of very rare individuals. A really great voice is not a common thing, and only rarely appears connected to a great musical intelligence. A great voice may appear, connected to a great musical intelligence, but they turn out not to know what you hoped to put on, or not to like Janacek one bit. Or they fulfil every single one of these criteria, and, amazingly, happen to be available; and then they come down with a cold. Most operas have at least five or six main parts that can’t be skimped on. It is amazing, when you come to think of it, that an opera ever gets performed. There are just too many things to go wrong.

But it’s surprising that Sir Antonio gave way to such irritation, because the Opera House is going through a glorious phase. Tony Hall, who was the chief executive from 2001 until leaving to become the BBC’s director-general, has been a triumph. Covent Garden has undertaken hugely successful outreach programmes, getting big audiences through cinema broadcasts. (There was one memorable week when one of its broadcasts outsold Skyfall.)

Pappano himself has been a very successful and highly visible music director. The house has developed singing talent, in the main house and in the studio theatre, and, very notably, has established an excellent record in commissioning new operas. Three new operas in the past decade have been huge successes – Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and George Benjamin’s superb Written on Skin, currently packing in a young and engaged audience. That is a new thing. If the opera house could move from promoting English composers to mounting new work by world composers, it would make the final shift from a museum to a centre of living culture. It has not yet staged the defining operas of the past 40 years by Ligeti, Messiaen or John Adams. The journey of transformation may be just beginning.

Does it matter? Opera, surely, is an expensive minority interest that hardly touches anyone’s lives. But to have a superb institution at the head of national cultural life, at the top of its game, transforms everything. It makes London seem that bit more exciting. I can understand Sir Antonio’s irritation at changing manners among singers and frequent cancellations, but he should perhaps shrug, and understand what a great moment he has helped to create. One suggestion: as the music director, he might like to ask singers to come earlier, and hang about the city and the opera house a little more. I fear that all that transcontinental flying, with countless bugs flying about in dehydrated air, is at the root of his little problem.

A gilded wheelchair? That’s what stars do

I felt so happy when I heard about Lady Gaga’s wheelchair. She has been obliged to cancel much of a tour after developing synovitis, but has made the most of a bad situation. She has let it be known that she has commissioned a wheelchair with a leather seat and back, and plated with gold by jewellery designer Ken Borochov of the label Mordecai.

Some people really know how to behave like stars, I must say. Not for Lady Gaga the falling out of nightclubs and telling all to redtops. No whiny appearances on reality TV shows. Just wondering out loud how she can pimp up anything that seems to be required of her by asking a top designer to cover the whole thing with gold leaf, and then socking a sunshade on top.

Surely, that’s what we want from our stars. We don’t want them to be just like us, and to be glimpsed hoiking their Waitrose ready meals into the back of the Toyota Prius. We don’t want them to wonder out loud about whether now is the right time to have a baby or hear about their difficulties with weight loss. We want them to live, magnificently, behind massive castle walls, to spend their time lolling on leopardskin chaises longues stroking pythons, being drip-fed beluga, and to be wheeled about, when peaky, in gold-plated wheelchairs. What do you mean, you didn’t sign up for that? If it wasn’t in the job description of International Megastar, it certainly ought to be.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Jack Warner  

Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Tom Peck
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?