Saturday, August 18, 2007

Too Important to Ignore

Article from The Guardian Limited:

Angst, drugs and alcohol: that's opera

A Wagnerian tenor says singers are turning to stimulants because of commercial pressures

Kate Connolly in Berlin
Sunday August 19, 2007
The Observer

It is a world characterised by doping and extortion, by stressed performers under extreme pressure to reach beyond what is humanly possible in order to satisfy hungry sponsors' needs.

The disgraced world of cycling? No, this is a description of the stately world of opera, which is increasingly becoming the domain of drug and alcohol abusers, according to a top-class tenor.

Endrik Wottrich, a popular fixture at the annual Bayreuth festival in Germany, has revealed opera singers are turning to drugs and other stimulants to cope with the pressure from the increasing commercial demands on them. 'No one talks about it, but doping has long been the norm in the music world,' he said in an interview with music critic Axel Bruggemann in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 'Soloists are taking betablockers in an attempt to control their angst, some tenors take cortisone to ensure their voices reach a high pitch, and alcohol is standard practice.'

Fear of failure had reached such a height that 'almost any means is seen as justifiable in order to live up to expectations'. Wottrich compared the opera world to the Tour de France, discredited in recent years because of drug scandals. He also talked of extortion being rife, especially employing claques - groups hired to heckle or applaud performers.

Wottrich painted a bleak picture of opera singers being treated as advertising icons, forced to travel and perform so regularly that they were getting sick, exhausted and ruining their voices.

Days after he was forced to pull out of the role of Siegmund in Die Walkure at Bayreuth owing to a heavy cold, Wottrich, 43, said his symptoms were not unusual. 'The stress levels are too high... the whole opera world is sick. There are standards expected of us that are just not possible to realise,' he said.

His claim would appear to be borne out by the high numbers of star performers who have dropped out of this year's Salzburg Festival in Austria, mainly citing sickness or depression, much to the distress of organisers. They include Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, the Mexican tenor, American tenor Neil Shicoff, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, and Magdalena Kozena, the Czech mezzo-soprano and partner of British conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Most of the performers have produced doctors' notes stating they are sick or stressed. Netrebko has laryngitis and Villazon is suffering from depression.

But festival organisers claim some of the singers are abusing their celebrity status and have talked of turning their backs on the stars in favour of less famous yet qualitatively high-level performers. The strongest criticism has been reserved for Netrebko, whom Salzburg Festival bosses accused of being 'unreliable' after she pulled out of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, for which tickets were selling on the black market at € 300.

German-born Wottrich, the boyfriend of Katharina Wagner, the 29-year-old opera director and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, said singers were treated like machines. 'We're faced with the choice of performing and then being attacked for failing to hit the right note, or calling in sick only to be attacked for taking things too easy. The fact that Anna Netrebko has been accused of being unreliable is a cheek. I know from reliable sources that she has laryngitis. Of course she cancelled the performance because she knows the festival hype and knows that every false note she sings would be the death of her in every city in which she is considered a star.'

The Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova said that opera was on course to destroy itself through a form of 'cannibalisation', whereby promoters were ruining stars with their demands. She said opera singers were increasingly turning to drugs to cope with the demands of their jet-set lifestyles and to plastic surgery to improve their looks.

Wottrich said: 'The comparison between opera and cycling is not so off the wall. The real fear is no longer good old-fashioned stage fright, but comes from this completely new dimension that has forced its way into opera ... managers who have a locust-like approach to their singers, knowing that a voice can earn millions within just a few years, and there are many who want to cream off as much money from that in as short a time as possible ... it is prostitution.'

[Dr.B--Bold text is my addition. My sources also say that Anna has had laryngitis. It's time to start saying no to greedy, out of control managers. Make them book you a vacation. One month out of every six sounds about right to me. Or fire them.]

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