Warning: We’re losing our best comprimarios

Warning: We’re losing our best comprimarios


norman lebrecht

September 24, 2015

Speight Jenkins, the former Seattle Opera director, is worried that the most experienced character actors in opera are being replaced by cheaper, younger substitutes. He has written a thoughtful, detailed essay on the risks:

The other day one of the excellent character artists in opera wrote me that he was going into another business: he likes to perform in the United States, but many companies, both large and small, have stopped engaging mature performers and were using young artists instead. This could be much more a disaster to opera than it might seem.


strauss salome five jews

[..] Some character roles demand mature voices and could easily harm young and still settling voices. Take the five Jews in Salome, four of whom are tenors. Strauss created some of the most difficult small roles in opera for only a few minutes for each because he believed opera would always take place in repertory opera companies where there were plenty of singers who could ideally fill the roles during an eleven-month season. That was the case, certainly in Europe, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Our current American system in which everyone in the cast is assembled from scratch in almost all of our opera houses never occurred to him. The fact remains: if any one of the Jews can’t handle the difficult vocal line, it harms the whole, and these are parts that should not be sung by developing voices.

Read Speight’s full article here and share your thoughts below.



  • william osborne says:

    There’s value in looking at the problems of American opera casting and a “disaster” it might be causing, but Mr. Jenkin’s blog is notable for its myopic view which overlooks far more serious problems facing American opera. Boston, Minneapolis, and Seattle, for example, rank 256, 257, 258 in the world for opera performances per year. . Those three major American cities are even outranked by a couple Turkish cities like Istanbul and Izmir.

    I wonder when Mr. Jenkin’s, or anyone else in the American opera world, will address the problem that Seattle, Minneapolis, and and Boston are outranked by places like Maribor, Olomouc, Passau, Cottbus, and Györ. That’s far more of a disaster than a loss of “character singers.” When one considers the suffering this lack of support for the arts causes so many opera singers, and the damage it does to our society, the silence of Mr. Jenkins and many others reflects a serious loss of moral and social consciousness.

    • Scott Chamberlain says:

      Mr. Osborne, I’m curious as to where your statistics come from. This article from earlier this year listed a wide variety of operatic performances and companies in Minneapolis (well, and St. Paul–its twin city on the other bank of the Mississippi River). Is it just “grand” opera? Because there are a whole host of other opportunities to experience opera around town. Not snark, but curiosity. http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/twin-cities-home-many-opera-gangs/

    • Brian Hughes says:

      It seems as though every time an article even remotely related to opera companies appears on these pages, Mr. Osborne finds it necessary to denigrate what exists in the U.S. by comparing to the rest of the globe (primarily Europe). I am happy that opera and symphonic music enjoy the level of support available outside the Western hemisphere; of course, while opera was being first created in the courts of Italy, the first settlements in the Americas had begun to appear. Symphonic orchestras and opera companies in the U.S. are basically creations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries–an extremely short history in comparison. Obviously there never existed nobles and oligarchs to support music in the court or chamber.

      One simply has to realize that this is an apples and oranges kind of comparison. I’m certain that the enlightened people of Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle are thankful that they have any opera at all.

      • william osborne says:

        So let’s follow your logic. Europeans were developing massive armies and fighting destructive wars long before America existed, so we shouldn’t have much of a military. In reality, we spend more on our military than all the rest of the world combined. We seem rather selective in which traditions we carry across the pond.

        Never mind. Our problem is a lack of comprimarios. Forget our disastrous lack of opera performances per capita which gives them almost no work to begin with. Our political narrow-mindedness leads to a lack of logical observation and a notable moral myopia…

        • O Mercer says:

          I do not mind comparisons with Europe, but I think it is worth exploring the idea that Opera is in decline in the United States. I feel like there are fewer opera houses, lower fees and lower attendance than fifteen years ago. I am wondering if there is supporting data. How many real opera companies currently exist in the NE coast area? By “real” I mean companies that have a minimum of ten people that are full time staff. A minimum of four fully staged operas per season with costumes, sets, orchestra etc. A minimum of 20 performances a year. I feel like there are far fewer than 15 years ago.

  • MacroV says:

    As a Seattle native who experienced many years of Mr. Jenkins’ tenure, I would assume he would have loved to have done more productions/performances, but it comes down to money. While he was a superb fundraiser and salesman for opera in Seattle (like his legendary predecessor Glynn Ross), there was only so much he could do given the number of seats to fill and revenues he could generate, and minimal government subsidy. The Seattle Opera House seated 3,000, double the size of most of the European houses you mention.

    And one must also consider quality vs. quantity: Most of the US houses, Seattle included, are not repertory houses. Every production was done once, for 8-10 performances – maybe revived a few years later. But in Seattle, every one of them was well designed, thoughtfully directed, produced, and presented, with the same cast throughout the run (or an A and B cast, both very good), and some terrific conductors. This was not a place repetiteurs. In Prague, where I’m living now, there are three opera houses and probably 300 opera performances a year. A lot more interesting repertoire in my opinion, but it’s probably a rare night that the quality approaches even an average night in Seattle when Mr. Jenkins ran the place.

    • william osborne says:

      Prague had 350 performances last year. Boston, Minneapolis, and Seattle all had 28 even though they are far richer. I have no doubt that the productions in Prague are excellent.

      Washington had 53 productions, Philadelphia 49, and LA 47. These three cities have the 11th, 9th, and 3rd largest metro GDPs in the world. And yet they use pick up musicians, often rented or shared staging, and hire famous singers for short runs with very little rehearsal. Even if the sets are elaborate, the lack of rehearsal with the singers often results in relatively simplistic park-and-bark productions.

      It is true that these large American cities can draw on very high level musicians, since they have access to so many who are very well trained and yet massively underemployed. This makes it even more outrageous that these orchestral and choral musicians have so little work and that only a small demographic experiences the productions. So why all the silence from the opera world about these problems, including Mr. Jenkins? As I said, this silence reflects our social and moral poverty.

      • MacroV says:

        You’d be surprised at how poor and sloppy some of the repertory performances are in Prague. Decent house singers but productions that look ratty and uninspired, and orchestra musicians who are probably quite good but are understandably tired of playing Magic Flute for the 300th time, with decent but hardly spectacular conductors. I do love the chance to see a lot of repertory you might not see elsewhere (Smetana’s “Libuse,” anyone?), but it’s definitely more quantity than quality.