Opera is new and shiny and still star-scourged
By Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I had a mini Twitter flame war with the Canadian Opera Company's boss, Alexander Neef. It started with his tweet: "Tristan & Isolde @bay_staatsoper : Heppner, Stemme, Gubanova, Held, Pape, Nagano #favouriteopera #dreamcast". Allow me to translate a little. We are talking of a production of Wagner's magnificent opera (also my favourite, in passing) at one of the greatest opera houses, The Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Montreal's own Kent Nagano (who, I know for a fact, knows his way around this work) with our own great Ben Heppner as the male lead. Dream cast indeed. Except for one thing...which I tweeted: "Wow! Heppner actually showed up?" (Google "Ben Heppner cancellations" and see why this crack is not really funny.)
...celebrity no-shows are a plague on the opera houses of the world.
To paraphrase Mike Birbiglia, what Mr. Neef should have tweeted was...nothing. But instead he bridled and tweeted back, "Your lack of respect for one of the greatest Canadian artists makes me really sad." Mr. Neef had sniped at the absolutely wrong opera queen, one who had bought tickets for a Ben Heppner Tristan which never happened (his Isolde, the magnificent Karita Mattila was also a no-show), a Bryn Terfel Ring Cycle where Mr. Terfel was a No-tan and a Faust at Neef's own COC (when the great Richard Bradshaw was boss) where conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin flitted off at intermission. That's a lot of cha-ching for a poor scribe (I pay my own opera tickets, thank you). So Mr. Neef's piety begged a response. "If you actually paid for tickets to see Heppner and kept getting replacements...maybe you'd be sadder." Neef, clearly not a fan of smart-asses, left it there.
"How about you stop hiring the divas'n'divos and give us some new talent which will thrill us as much as this new, nifty and challenging production!"
What he probably would have said, in a private moment (and which many company bosses have said out loud going back to Rudolph Bing at the Met) was that celebrity no-shows are a plague on the opera houses of the world. Even as companies like the Met, Royal Opera House and even the COC are hunting for new audiences by doing new productions of new works - often pushing the limits of the genre itself - they are shackled by a star-system that is truly broken. You cannot tell young opera newbs, "Do pay $250 to have a listen to this world-renowned tenor (soprano, conductor)! Oops!"
With this structure, two things can happen, only one which is good. The opera newbs stop going to the opera. Or... Opera newbs say, "How about you stop hiring the divas'n'divos and give us some new talent which will thrill us as much as this new, nifty and challenging production!" That, to my mind, would be the good thing.
...the fainting fairies have bought themselves seats here or with the heavenly choir...
But opera changes verrrrrrry slowly. Here we are - half a century after Maria Callas diddled Bing and was fired - still futzing around with stars who are truly worthy of their reputations but who consistently believe their own press.
There was a time when standing rooms worldwide were peopled almost exclusively by an army of fainting fairies who would allow their favourites anything (Terrence McNally has a little fun at their/our expense in his play The Lisbon Traviata - even as he affirms his love of Callas with his Masterclass). Now the fainting fairies have bought themselves seats here or with the heavenly choir and standing room has a more demanding and pissy crowd (though it's hard to imagine anyone more pissy than an opera queen in bitch-mode).
Mr. Neef should stop defending the absent stars. Obviously, out loud, he should say nothing; but it seems to me his job is clear: bring on the new voices while reminding them - during their rise - that opera crowds no longer suffer insult and are more fickle than ever. Stars are nice, yes, but let's not make our houses into black holes.