/Simon Keenlyside: If opera singers are ill, why bother singing at all?

Simon Keenlyside: If opera singers are ill, why bother singing at all?

[My review of the production is available here on LDN.CARD]

Last night at the Vienna State Opera House a weary Simon Keenlyside took to the stage to sing the lead role of Rigoletto. Unaffected by his appearance audiences were thrilled as his stage performance seemed to be going well. The opera started off strong: a sturdy Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra was led by seasoned conductor Myung-Whun Chung and there were some superb singing from its cast, which appeared to guarantee a night of success for Verdi. But in Act II, as Keenlyside sang “Cortigiani” in a scene with Gilda (Erin Morley), audiences across the globe (in the Vienna State Opera House, listening via radio, and watching the live stream) were shocked to hear that chunks of words were not being sung. Awkwardness swept the stage.

Nervous Morley glared over at Keenlyside to await her cue and the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra continued to soldier on to the bitter end where audience folk felt compelled to boo at the stage. Act III was salvaged however by last minute cover singer Paulo Rumetz.

This winter season has welcomed discussions regarding illnesses and classical music. On this occasion Keenlyside had been announced ill prior to last night’s premiere of Rigoletto and hadn’t showed up for rehearsals. Just before Rumetz entered the stage, audiences were told that Keenlyside ‘had lost his voice.’ The question lingers: if opera singers are ill, why bother singing at all?

One thing we must consider is the extraordinary precautions singers take to ensure they remain healthy and fit for their performances. From their perspective, they don’t want to disappoint their fan base, risk their career or in monetary terms – loose money either. We can – just about – imagine what an international opera singer’s lifestyle looks like. We can assume, alongside the stress and long, endless hours spent on showcasing their art and perfecting their voices, that there’s the mounting pressure from their agents/PR representatives who encourage them to perform brilliantly on stage productions, including some productions they are physically unfit for, perhaps, to appease their audiences and numerous opera companies. Or, without stating names, there’s also the odd egotistical and ‘diva’-like singer who adamantly want to take centre stage irrespective of their health status. Now, bearing these things in mind, is it worth the singer’s physical welfare and time to perform in an opera even if they are sick?

This could lead to a cataclysmic demise for a singer’s stage performance as we saw last night with Keenlyside. Not only does this jeopardise the quality of their performance, which exposes their lack of ability on the night, leading to a potentially bad review but could add nasty repercussions on their career.

I admire Keenlyside for having the intention of singing in the first place and trying to hold out as far as he could in this production; but I fear that his decision to do so compromised his overall performance last night. As the opera progressed his acting and singing was at risk – the spark that he began with just dwindled towards the end of Act II.

This isn’t the first time that Keenlyside has had to battle with illnesses during productions. This summer he had to cancel performances also as Rigoletto in Covent Garden. Yet put plainly: everyone get’s sick. There’s really no excuse to get angry with a singer if nature battles with their immune system, particularly during the winter season. It was worrying to hear audiences at the opera house booing at the end of this act. (There were also some booing at the curtain call and I wasn’t sure if this was directed at the Keenlyside or the production team.)

Last year, Covent Garden’s renowned conductor Antonio Pappano offloading his frustrations about modern opera singers making last-minute cancellations for productions as he said ‘they are weaker in their bodies or don’t care’. Pappano aired his opinion based on his professional insights in the Royal Opera House, which unfortunately the general public were not privy too. His feelings at the time reflect the views of opera customers who paid hundreds of pounds to see their favourite singer on stage.

This has generated huge debates about the responsibilities of singers, agents, opera houses and audiences; yet we must attempt to see the view of opera singers with busy schedules. They travel internationally mostly away from their families and friends, and have to make multiple appearances in the public eye. The stress, the fatigue, the rehearsals and their exposure to others, who are potentially ill, are rife. There is very little that lemsip and regular vitamin C tablets can do for them, which can remedy us ‘average Joes’ who don’t live the manic opera-star life.

I didn’t appreciate the audience members who booed at Keenlyside yesterday. No upset audience member is worth jeopardising the health of a singer. I’d prefer to pay a lot of money to see a good opera performance where all members are well for the stage. Opera singers are not gods (or goddesses) and audiences shouldn’t have higher expectation of them when they are just as susceptible at catching illnesses as ourselves.

Other opera singers who received flack for cancelling performances due to illnesses:

  • Roberto Alagna (Numerous incl. 2006, La Scala)
  • Jonas Kaufmann (Numerous – Allegedly ill before Manon Lescaut at Munich this year, but pulled through. Cancellation at ROH, Les Troyens 2012)
  • Angela Gheorghiu (Numerous – Faust, Met Opera 2011)
  • Rolando Villazon (Met Opera – Ring Cycle, 2009)
  • (Too many to mention)[Am happy to extend this list, please message me]

Piotr Beczala as Don Giovanni Mantua vocally charged,hot&exceedingly good on the ears @WrStaatsoper @BarbicanCentre pic.twitter.com/3woknJg1je

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) December 20, 2014

Paulo Rumetz replaced Keenlyside and have to admit… was a better #Rigoletto @WrStaatsoper pic.twitter.com/HSYqVAAOhJ

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) December 20, 2014

Audience of @WrStaatsoper is as confused as the rest of the world #PoorRigoletto #coughcough
Cinema @BarbicanCentre pic.twitter.com/MGDMnXGzfL

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) December 20, 2014