Arts: The diva's not for spurning

The soprano Cheryl Studer has sued Munich opera house who dropped her because they said her voice was damaged. What's been going on? Is there more to this altercation than meets the ear?

Philipp Blom
Tuesday 08 December 1998 00:02

The central concern of Weber's opera, Der Freischutz, is sureness of touch and the art of hitting the target. In the opera, it is the protagonist, Max, who is selling his soul to the devil in an effort to shoot straight, but at the current production in Munich, it is his sweetheart, Agathe, whose ability to hit the target is in doubt.

Cheryl Studer, who was engaged to sing the part, was found by the management to have severe vocal problems which had only become apparent during rehearsal. It was thought that her intonation was too insecure for the house to take the risk of having her as the leading lady after all. Now Ms Studer, whose fee for one performance is pounds 10,000, is suing the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, for a loss of earnings amounting to a total of pounds 100,000, including another set of cancelled engagements, in which she was supposed to sing in Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss.

"There is a particular profession by now, the travelling singer," says Dr Roland Felber, the managing director of the Bayerische Staatsoper, who believes that Ms Studer has over-extended herself. Dr Felber regrets the acrimonious situation between the opera house and the singer, who was an ensemble member of the Staatsoper in the early Eighties. "She has probably been singing too much and we think that, at the moment, she is not up to the role. These things have happened before with other singers, and we have always found a gracious way out," he comments. "I am sure we would have been able to find a good solution here as well."

The decision to relegate Ms Studer to the reserve cast is thought to have been made by the management, in conjunction with the conductor of the production, Zubin Metha. It was Ms Studer herself who made the disagreement public, after the opera had tried to settle the issue quietly.

Cheryl Studer, 43, has sung extensively all over the world. In this year alone, apart from the Freischutz, she appeared in Wagner's Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, The Valkyrie, the Rosenkavalier , Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, and Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, as well as numerous recitals. In the past two years, she also sang in works by Verdi, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Bartk, and Wagner. She has recorded works by more than 30 composers, ranging from Italian bel canto to heavy dramatic roles.

It is only logical that such a punishing schedule would take its toll on all but the most exceptional voices. The combination of the physical and emotional strains of continuous performances with those of constant travelling are a hazard every performer has to take into account. In addition to this, singers have to train and maintain a group of tiny and highly specialised muscles, their vocal cords, which usually take some time to adapt from one type of use, such as coloratura singing, to another, such as the heavier repertoire. Constant demand in opera houses and concert halls around the world, and the necessity to plan for years ahead, provide a great temptation to ignore the demands for rest made by the voice. In the case of Cheryl Studer, this life of constant strain is widely believed to have damaged her voice, a fact that has raised concerns before this incident.

The age of the travelling singer has had two distinct effects on the operatic world. From the public's point of view, there is only a small handful of international singers and conductors appearing in certain operas, and performances can be very similar, whether they are held in Zurich, Milan, or New York. For the singers, this culture produces enormous opportunities as well as dangers. They can quickly gain international exposure and are liable to strain and ruin their voices in the process, singing more demanding roles more often than they might otherwise do. This has contributed to a string of "shooting stars" on the operatic scene, who appeared to wide acclaim, only to vanish into relative obscurity after a few seasons.

The case brought by Ms Studer is seen as a test case for possible similar disputes. With many engagements made years in advance, they can often turn out to be an expensive gamble on the future state of a voice, especially with singers nearing the end of their career. The case will also show how much power opera houses like Munich have over stars like Cheryl Studer, and whether it is possible to resist the phenomenon of the travelling singer, whose career choices and itinerary may be at variance with the requirements of individual engagements.

Meanwhile, Ms Studer's replacement as Agathe in the Freischutz turned out to be less than an unqualified success. Described as "not yet ready for the role" by a critic, her aria "Softly sighing, day is dying", was a sigh too soft for the audience, while her more famous colleague transformed her absence from the stage into a shrill shriek of protest.

`How can I Work With These People?': Divas in Dispute

SUCH WAS the sweetness of her singing that managements spent years swallowing hard over the temper tantrums of soprano Kathleen Battle. At the San Francisco Opera, the crew took to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the legend "I Survived the Battle". After her years of arguing with conductors, storming out of rehearsals, and reducing fellow singers to tears, the managing director at the Met sacked her for "unprofessional actions detrimental to the artistic collaboration among cast members".

ONCE HAILED as opera's real-life Romeo and Juliet, Roberto Alagna and his wife Angela Gheorghiu have more recently been described as Bonnie and Clyde. Jonathan Miller was furious at Alagna's cavalier attitude to turning up to rehearsals. When Gheorghiu refused to wear a blond wig as Micaela in the Met's production of Carmen, the management replaced her with her understudy. When the pair of them wanted control of the production for Traviata, management replaced them both.

JESSYE NORMAN, allegedly the world's highest paid soprano, has a luscious voice, a regal stage presence, and a rather dormant sense of humour. She has a reputation for meticulous stipulations about the non-usage of air-conditioning and a complete ban on smoking backstage at any house scheduled to employ her. She recently hit the headlines with her failed Appeals Court attempt to win damages from Classic CD magazine who published a remark about her size which she deemed defamatory.

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