A shift in the balance of vocal power

To withdraw from one role is unfortunate. Two starts to look like contempt (pace O. Wilde).

The double-whammy that Anna Netrebko has inflicted on the Royal Opera House and the Met – agreeing at the first to sing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and at both to sing Bellini’s Norma – would not have been tolerated in former times.

Rudolf Bing fired Maria Callas from the Met for capriciousness.

Joe Volpe evicted Kathleen Battle from the Met for anti-social conduct.

The house, and the art, was always deemed to be greater than the whims of a singer, no matter how popular or epochal.

That rule no longer applies.

Anna Netrebko has not been banned from the ROH or the Met for leading them deliriously into planning productions that she would never fulfil. She has not been reprimanded, either. She can do this because she is the only living soprano with the power to command top prices in London and (almost) to fill a New York opera house that plays half-empty the rest of the year. She can do, in effect, as she pleases.

So can Jonas Kaufmann, the allround German tenor, who has cut his appearance at both houses to once a season – and has latterly cancelled both.

Both singers are now unassailable. They wield more clout than Peter Gelb and the next intendant put together.

Thankfully, neither is ego-crazed nor misanthropic. Both are courteous to a fault. But when push comes to shove, they push and the best-laid plans of the opera world fall down.

That is not a healthy situation.

kaufmann netrebko


share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • Definitely not great at all. However, they will find someone else to sing these roles. There are many wonderful singers around. In fact, last night at the Met (which is NEVER half empty as stated) a packed house heard an Elektra that was sensational vocally and dramatically. Salonen conducted the peerless Met orchestra with masterly command. They played like Gods (as usual). Nina Stemme was breathtaking vocally, as was Adrianne Pieczonka in the role of Chrysothemis. One of the best things I’ve heard at the Met for a while (though Opolais was tremendous as Butterfly as usual).

    Norman, I believe you were in NY recently. I doubt you missed this Elektra but if you did, you missed the best of the Met. And there IS a best of the Met, though you wouldn’t think it reading Slipped Disc!

  • Actually Norman, this is a very healthy situation; singers making informed decisions about what roles they should or shouldn’t be singing at various junctures of their careers. Netrebko made the right decision in withdrawing rather than going forward with the performances only to be excoriated by critics and click bait internet sites for being past her vocal prime. Singers typically have a very short period where they are in their “prime” and judging by what I heard a few years ago in Chicago, Ms. Netrebko would not be wise in taking on “Norma” at this point in her career. It’s her career, her voice and her choice. I think Pappanno handled the news in a way one would expect of someone who has spent his career working with and developing singers, with respect and consideration.

  • How many voices were ruined by Karajan and other powerful decision-makers because the singers did not dare to contradict their unwise decisions? I strongly agree with Harold Kupper that it is wise and healthy of a singer to withdraw if he does not feel up to the task. And I rather would listen to someone else than to a singer who feels unhappy or otherweise out of place in a particular role.

    • A myth! Karajan never ruined a voice, as far as I know. He gave wings to the singers he worked with and, for instance, Janowitz, Freni and Dernesch are proof of it. They were still singing many years after Karajan conducted them in some of their better roles, i.e. Janowitz in Sieglinde, Freni in Aida ( who I heard live in Salzburg in 1980 ) and Dernesch in Isolde. He wanted lyrical voices for the roles and he got them, with hours and hours of hard working.

      • There were a couple of cases where singers had to protect their voices from him, though. He wanted Leontyne Price to sing Salome for him, and he wanted Freni to sing Butterfly. They both said no because of what they were afraid it would do to their voices. (Freni recorded Butterfly for him, but never performed it on stage.)

      • Karajan never ruined a voice? And you cite Dernesch? By the early 1970s the upper part of Dernesch’s voice was already fraying thanks to taking on too many heavier roles too early in her career at the encouragement of HvK. Not long after mid-decade I heard her sing a Fidelio that was the height of embarrassment – for the singer, for her colleagues on stage and in the pit and for the amazed audience. She just could not sing what had been one of her signature roles for the upper part of the voice was in tatters. Soon after, she took a year off and then returned to the stage – but as a mezzo. She was never able thereafter to take on soprano roles.

        What about Elizabeth Harwood? She was typical of singers with glorious voices who were pushed by HvK either into roles which were too heavy for them or to appear with him in a house that was simply too large for their voices.

        • Karajan took Dernesch up to her limits. She was an outstanding soprano and then an outstanding mezzo in the main roles of both repertories.

          Regardind Harwood, and as far as I remember, she only did the Countess and Musetta for him ( and recorded Lustige Witwe ). Those are not heavy roles. I never heard her live so I can’t comment about the size of her voice.

          • Karajan certainly took Dernesch up to her limits – but also beyond. Yes, she was an outstanding lyric soprano who then ventured into dramatic roles. She was also, and was to remain, a superb stage actress. But Karajan wanted lighter, younger voices in many of his productions. Being pushed into Brunnhildes, Leonores and Isoldes in large houses like Salzburg and in quick succession was simply beyond the scale of the voice. One biography claims she sang those roles “always with great warmth and womanliness, if with a voice several decibels short of the ideal.” Since the recordings were made with HvK at the start of her tackling each role, it is hardly surprising how fresh and exciting they sound. In live performance less than a handful of years later, it was clear that Isolde was becoming difficult for her. Whilst she did indeed make a very fine mezzo, it remains sad that she could not be heard again as one of the finest Marshchallins of her day.

            As for Elizabeth Harwood, I rarely heard her. It seems to have been a smallish but beautiful voice ideally suited to Sadlers Wells, Scottish Opera and Aix where she sang quite regularly. At Salzburg she sang Constanze, Fiordiligi and the Countess over 6 seasons. She herself stated she found the Countess extremely hard going in the Grosses Festspielhaus.

        • Didn’t Elizabeth Harwood turn down a role HvK offered her and was never contacted again? I heard something like that, once.

          I heard her in recital with the incredible David Lloyd in Lancaster in the early 1980’s. A glorious evening.

      • Pedro, thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments and corrections – I sincerely appreciate that. I do not fault Karajan 100% – as I said singers must manage their own resources and learn to say “no”. Understandably, ever singer wants to sing with a great Maestro – especially a talented and experienced one – and in his case: a POWERFUL ONE. But as well as Carreras sang (by your own account) he was NOT a Spinto Tenor. He was a lyric tenor for sure and it is undeniable that the roles we mentioned earlier, have heavy orchestration. It is also undeniable that he suffered rapid vocal decline. I can only think of AIDA: “Quanto mi costi!”. The late American opera critic Robert Jacobson once said of Carreras’ performance of Boheme after singing the heavy roles…. “The voice shot – the career over”. That comment annoyed me at the time, as I was a big Carreras fan! I was also a very big Ricciarelli fan: LOVED her BALLO (though I know it was the wrong voice) she was still wonderful in it at the MET. But.. in the 1980’s Karajan pushed Ricciarelli into heavier roles such as Verdi’s “Aida”. The sheer beauty of her voice brought something very touching to the role. But.. Wobbles crept in. Insecure pitch, and an uncomfortable “open-throat” quality also marred performances. Even more hazardous was her portrayal of Puccini’s murderous ice-princess “Turandot”. As with her Aida, there were revelations about the role. She brought to it a tender, human quality, and the quiet passages were often breathtaking in their lyricism and beauty. However, Turandot’s music is cruelly challenging to sing. Ricciarelli simply did not have a Turandot-sized voice. In the climaxes she sounds desperate and uncomfortable. Karajan defended his choice, saying that it was exactly that “cry of desperation” that would distinguish “his” Turandot from others. Many critics claim that Ricciarelli’s excursions into Turandot damaged her voice forever. High notes became a problem, any attempt to sing loudly became uncomfortable both in sound and pitch. Even when she returned to the lyric role of LIU…… listen to the end of “Signore Ascolta” (Marton is Turandot). The wobble is so pronounced, one could jump rope through them! So I conclude by saying when lyric voices are “pushed” attempting to sing large roles – there is a price to be paid….and not with money!

        • Michael. Thank you for your comment. Just two facts. Ricciarelli’s Liu with Marton took place five years before her Turandot with Karajan and he never pushed her into Aida – as I wrote before, she recorded it with Abbado.

    • I have no inside story on that one, and Karajan is far from being my favorite conductor, no matter what segment of the repertoire we are talking about. But I have read quite a number of memoirs by great singers, and they are unanimous to an amazing degree by praising Karajan as a tremendous conductor for singers. There must be something to it, esp. since most of them spoke after the end of their career.

      • Yes! That’s right. The only singer who in my knowkedge spoke badly about Karajan was Schwarzkopf – after his death… She was a great singer but not a good person.

        Regarding HvK choice of singers, I still think that his judgement was very good up to the end of his life, except when Michel Glotz brought to him a few substandard artists, like Helga Müller-Molinari who replaced Baltsa as Karajan’s mezzo in Carmen and in Bach’s Magnificat.

        • Which is weird, since Karajan conducted Scharzkopf in some of her greatest performances, notably in Strauss operas, but he also introduced her to Walter Legge! I’m afraid that you are right; Mme. Schwarzkopf was one of the greatest singers of the century (I still think that her Fiordiligi, her Elvira, her Marschallin are unsurpassed today, not to mention her Lieder), but not a very nice person. Although one has to admit that Karajan certainly also knew how to nurture a grudge (e.g. his firing of Baltsa after she could not make it to some performances).

          • But he asked Baltsa to be part of what proved to be his final performances of the Verdi Requiem ( Salzburg, Easter 1989 ). I was there. Superb performances from everyone concerned ( except perhaps the tenor – another Glotz singer ).

  • Finally the tables of Power are turning. Maybe Opera houses should start waking up to what it is really all about. The voices. not concepts, inflated regie ego, incompetent opera bosses or HD broadcasts.

    Let these houses suffer and let it be a lesson to the foolish who believe it is all about them.

  • “the whims of a singer…”

    What a mean and also false thing to say about AN. But we already know that you don’t like her, for reasons that would be unworthy of an educated and cultured man.

  • So untrue, and very mean. If the singers do not take care of their voices and themselves, who will? I am glad they will not let other people allow to make those choices for them. Many young opera singers have been damaged by directors and conductors who did not give a shit about the long term effects of their demands. Highly profiled singers nowadays are aware of the immense responsibility they carry. They will not be bullied. Learn to live with that. Making comparisons to truly capricious people is our of order. Singers on this level are smart, sophisticated, educated people. You are not to criticize them in such a way.

  • Dear God, you’re not seriously equating Anna Netrebko’s deciding not to sing a role that she thinks she couldn’t sing well enough with Kathleen Battle’s irrational tantrums, are you?

    • Sadly he appears to be. There is absolutely no way you can link these two actions under one umbrella. I admire Anna Netrebko for recognising she is not now vocally suited for a role that three years ago she expected she would be.

  • It seems the Met gets lambasted a lot on here because of its inability to fill Lincoln Center on a regular basis. I’d argue that it’s not necessarily that they cannot fill A house, it’s that they cannot fill THAT house. Their mistake was made years ago when they built that thing; it’s way too big and anyone who has sat in that theater and then has sat in a theater like the Academy of Music in Philadelphia would agree.

    • It’s big, but so is New York. Acoustics are not bad either, except for patches downstairs. It is a gross failure of marketing on the part of the Peter Gelb administration that has caused this hugely embarrassing problem, years in the making.

    • The Met – perhaps a bit too big but acoustically very very good.

      The Academy of Music – visually lovely but acoustically as dry as a dingo’s armpit. Wretched place to listen. Verizon Hall better, but still not as good as the best halls (i.e. Boston, Birmingham (Dallas), Vienna, Amsterdam)

  • Does anyone listen carefully anymore ?Netrebko was barely suited for any role
    she sang.Her early off pitch work was saved most times by Beczala being her partner,
    without him her pitch was all over the place .Her yowled Lucia was painful to bear
    but she did have a dumbed down audience who thought her great and they gave
    her a career .That she ever thought of Norma is incredulous.The old house had
    better second stringers .

    • At last someone said the right thing, Netrebko might be good in lighter operas but
      not in Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi.
      I was really upset she was planning to sing Norma with her abilities, this is my favourite
      opera, so beautiful and made into a real masterpiece by Callas, listen to her and you will see why Netrebko is not suited for it.
      I am also surprised that Pappano decided to conduct Norma with Neytrebko singing,
      to be honest there is nobody now who could do this opera justice.
      Still I have lots of respect for Netrebko that she gave up that, she knew she would be
      very much critisiced and decided she will not be any good, it is one of the most difficult pieces to sing.

      • She has triumphed as Adina (Donizetti), Anna Bolena (Donizetti), Giulietta (Bellini), Violetta (Verdi), Lady Macbeth (Verdi), Leonora in Trovatore (Verdi).

        You might wish to get to a theater to hear her some time.

    • I agree. And I realize that this is a minority opinion. For me, Netrebko and yes, Kaufmann as well, are two of the most overrated singers of our times. There is a lot of media hype and marketing hype surrounding these two (Lang Lang, anyone?), which is not born out when you listen to them.

      BTW, I doubt that it was easy-peasy to fire Callas at the height of her career. As a figure beyond the small circle of the opera house Callas was way more imposing than Netrebko ever will be.

  • Having to decide your program 5-6 years in advance is part speculation for a singer. When will the powers involved wise up and create a realistic scheduling approach?

  • I have attended operas at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, since 1979, every season.
    I have NEVER seen half of the opera house empty, as suggested above. The only time I have seen some opera seats empty was in the first two weeks after the tragic September …

    On reflection, I have seen and heard many magnificent singers: Mirella Freni, Leona Mitchell, June Anderson, Eva Gruberova, Andrea Gruber, Patricia Racette, June Anderson and many others. Memorable evenings all, without Netrebko. The opera world should not become a crazed pop scene- unfortunately-judging by the present article its exactly that!

    • The gaping holes in the Met audience have been reliably and consistently reported in the last few years, and the crisis is evidently deepening.

  • After Pavarotti had cancelled 26 out of 41 scheduled performances over 9 seasons at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Ardis Krainik issued a press release in 1989 stating he would never be invited to sing in the house again. By then though, Pavarotti had for some years been lured into arenas. In such mega-barns he could earn 10 to 15 times more per night than for an opera performance, rising to up to 70 times more during the Three Tenors years – with precious little rehearsal needed. That classical arena concert era has all but ended. Yet it’s unlikely that today’s opera stars will need to take more care in case they are subjected to the “Pavarotti ejector seat” treatment. For good or bad, there are just far fewer star names now, names guaranteed to lift prices and pull in the crowds, compared to 30 years ago.

    • Whenever I see a singer (or a soloist at a hyped instrument) who is easy on the eyes, I grow immediately suspicious. And MOST of the time those suspicions are well founded, which is evident as soon as s/he opens the mouth or attacks the instrument, preferably piano or violin. Leave me alone with those beauties. Pavarotti, Caballé, Sutherland, Horne, Svjatoslav Richter, Alfred Brendel were certainly not beauty pageant contestants (forgive me for saying so), but why on earth would that matter? They were stellar where it counted. Leave the looks department to models.

      I HATE it when looks become more important than musicianship.

      • Looks and musicianship are both part of the show. I remember Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden back in 1981 with Caballé and Pavarotti. Musically very good but nobody could believe them.

        • I have never had the privilege of hearing Caballé on stage, but I have seen Pavarotti and Sutherland. And once they started singing, nobody gave a damn about how they looked, how much Pavarotti weighed or how they moved on stage. I was transported into another dimension by the voices, and I am willing to bet that the same was true for most of the audience.
          But it is also true that the dumbing down of music culture to an “event culture” has given rise to people who’d never have made it a few decades earlier.

          • Well I saw and heard all three at one time or another and you knew ahead of time
            what to expect- a tenor looking like a beached whale so fat that he could barley move
            about, ruining whatever drama was taking place,the voice long gone ,but hey ! he was a star.A soprano who specialized in floating pianissimos to great applause,and one who yodeled her way up and down the scale also to great applause.Did any one make out a word she sang ?

            I have seen and heard many who were” easy on the eyes” who were also great artists.
            Even the obese tenor mentioned was briefly a beautiful singer , passable in looks.
            Opera has alway been a star event, the difference that in past times you went to hear
            and see miss xx ” in” Lucia now it is miss xx “as” Lucia a subtle but great difference.This down turn began with a certain Maria ……..

          • This transition from “in” to “as” — whether it was started by MC, who as the ultimate diva was more than happy to always be the main center-stage attraction, or immediately after her, partly as a reaction to her “bigger-than-life” starry presence — is in any case a very positive development for such a hybrid aural/visual (musical/dramatic) art that is opera.

        • Pedro, therein lies the problem – which is generational – opera has always been suspended belief. Audiences ignored a singer’s size and age in exchange for beauty of tone and ease of production (Callas transitioned this practice). Opera was always about the VOICE and how the voice can move humans. BUT… we have come to a visual age and more people than not are willing to forego the voice in exchange for a visual feast. Anna should NEVER have considered NORMA. Nor should the Met or ROH have considered using her in this part – that says a lot too about those organizations. But singers have to be wise and say “no” or they end up like: Katia Ricciarelli ( and yes, Karajan DID kill her lyric voice: think AIDA, DESDEMONA, TURANDOT); and let’s not even mention Jose Carreras – one of the most beautiful tenor voices ever, singing under Karajan “spinto” roles: Radames, Calaf, DON CARLO. And you think those two lyric voices were not ruined singing through that thick orchestration and amplified volume, that was Karajan? It’s like Kathy Battle singing Brunhilde… yes she has all the notes; but it’s the WRONG voice! And if she sang it, she’d have no voice left.

          • Michael. This discussion is going on with friends at least since I first attended an opera performance conducted by Karajan ( Don Carlo in Salzburg with Freni, Randova, Carreras, Cappuccilli and Guiaurov in the Summer of 1978 ). Eight years later, in Easter 1986, Cappuccilli and Carreras were still there, but Baltsa, Furlanetto/ van Dam and Izzi d’Amico came in. Carreras sang superbly both times and even Izzo d’Amico was adequate in Elisabetta ( a DVD exists). Carreras was excellent in Aida in the Summer of 1980 again in Salzburg with Freni, Baldani, Cappuccilli, Ramondi and van Dam. Carreras never sang Calaf for Karajan who only recorded Turandot with Domingo and Ricciarelli. He never conducted it in the theatre and the recording only has not damaged Ricciarelli’s voice. The latter never sang Desdemona with Karajan ( and she was magnificent in the three performances I heard in Covent Garden with Carlos Kleiber at a later stage of her career ). Regarding Aida, which she recorded with Abbado ( I attended one of the recording sessions in Milan in January 1981 ) that was a problem, in the studio – not so much in the final LPs – but it took place several years before the Turandot recording. Karajan had his failures bur not everything in the world is his fault. And Battle was a very fine Zerlina for him, as I witnessed many times in 1987 and 1988.

      • A musician’s looks shouldn’t count for them, and shouldn’t count against them. You are biased against good looks from the outset, which is prejudice. The sound is all that matters. If a musician is too beautiful, close your eyes.

      • Can’t say I’ve ever seen Sviatoslav or Alfred in opera. Damn, they should never have taken on those roles. They didn’t remotely look the part!!

  • Is catering to singers really that new?

    When Pavarotti was unable to learn a new role, Don Alvaro in “La Forza del Destino” for a January 1997 revival at the MET, Volpe kept the singer and replaced the opera.

    “In the case of ”Forza,” Mr. Volpe reasoned that Mr. Pavarotti was a greater attraction than the work itself, and in the absence of another tenor with Mr. Pavarotti’s drawing power — Placido Domingo was unavailable — he decided to hold Mr. Pavarotti to the dates and change the work.”


  • The success of Netrebko depends on the dumbed down audience she attracts .
    That there has been a steady decline in attracting an audience knowledgable to
    the operatic art is a given . Contempt for the audience can be witnessed by
    the last Levine -Domingo nonsense,or the contemplated Netrebko- Pappano Norma idiocy .One might sit back and think are they out of their minds ? no they are not,
    but they do know that they have an audience that is quite stupid, and will put up
    with anything as long as they have their second rate stars,the latest Tosca in Vienna
    more than proves the point .

  • M2N2k- MC was a disaster for the art form and has brought us to the likes of Netrebko &
    Kaufmann. Kaufmann is the more clever of the two in understanding the limits
    of his audience and plays them to a T. MC “played” the ultimate diva giving her fans
    a performance without parallel until the tragic end when even her fans hoped she
    would go quietly , but the results still linger , it gives hope to those possessing
    minor abilities that they to can “make” it if a shrieking off pitch soprano can be thought
    of as a diva …so we get the Kaufmanns ,and the Netrebkos of the world .

  • At the time of Maria Callas’ operatic stardom, most singers were still delivering their arias facing the audience from the center of the stage as if it were their solo recital, so what we have now is a much more vibrant and exciting art form. Different opinions about her notwithstanding, MC has contributed quite a lot to the enhancement of operatic world. And if she is the reason that we have someone like Jonas Kaufmann, then we should be grateful to her that much more because he is a superb singer – one of the finest operatic tenors of the last half-century.

    • Here is Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in a Covent Garden performance of Tosca. I don’t see them “delivering their arias facing the audience from the center of the stage as if it were their solo recital”.
      Youtube has many other comparable examples from the 50s and 60s.

      Many of today’s productions distort the libretto or leave too little to the imagination. Take the finale of Act I of Macbeth at the MET: do we really need to see the dead king? Is that realistic or sensationalistic? I find it distracting at best. All the horror is already in the music.

    • Don’t know which provincial opera houses you attended but standing center stage and
      belting out aria was not the norm in the opera house I attended. That one could believe
      MC contributed to the art confirms my thoughts on a dumbed down opera audience and
      yes results in the thinking of Kaufmann as a superb singer .

      • Never having lived in provinces, I have never attended any “provincial opera houses” either, but the gradual transition toward more dramatically vibrant presentation of operas during the last six decades or so is unmistakable. Our disagreement about JK “confirms my thoughts” that in some cases, for whatever reason, you are unable to recognize superior musical quality which is a pity. Besides his technical mastery, including intonation that is as precise as that of any singer, the richness of his voice’s quasi-baritonal timbre, with laser-like focus and powerful projection, as well as his highly refined musicality – impressive variety of coloring and imaginative phrasing that is expressive yet tasteful – are absolutely outstanding.

    • Your comment about singing center stage is not backed up by video clips from the 1950s and 1960s.

      Here are Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca, Covent Garden, 1962. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, a frequent collaborator of Maria Callas. Where is the “center stage” singing?


      • That is exactly my point: MC deserves credit for using her considerable star influence to push the opera world away from static productions that ignored dramatic aspects of the genre. It does not mean that every single liberty taken by modern directors is good. But in general, this change has definitely helped to keep the art form alive.

  • >