Opera is a complex business.
It is a basic fact of the business that some singers sell more tickets than others. This is the explanation for Placido Domingo’s amazing extended career. If people want to hear him and he can still do it, why shouldn’t he sing?
The reason someone makes news for canceling a performance is generally because one would have purchased the tickets specifically to hear that person. If Rolando Villazon cancels, it’s news. If Joseph Calleja cancels, it’s not news. No offense, Joseph.
If the opera is booked and advertised as Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner together in Tristan und Isolde, it is news when Ben Heppner does not appear.
The higher the demand for the singer, the greater the regret when they cancel.
This brings us to the singers themselves. Some singers have sturdy, robust voices that will take them through virtually anything, but even these people can get laryngitis. Domingo falls into this category. He successfully completed Iphigénie while ill. He still cancels when it’s necessary. Another very famous singer with a robust voice is Anna Netrebko. She still gets laryngitis.
It is a curious phenomenon that if the performance is being filmed, the singer is more likely to appear. That is how I managed to see Pavarotti and Freni in La Boheme.
Every opera singer who becomes famous and in demand doesn’t have this kind of robust voice. We may love them because they are interesting as all hell, because they bring something interesting to the stage that no one else does. Because they create magic.
It is the magic combination of fragility and insane demand that creates the problems. When Cecilia Bartoli was younger, she would generate headlines due to cancelations, but no more. Now she knows herself, knows where the problems arise, and carefully avoids them. She tightly controls her repertoire and her schedule to reflect her physical limitations. She still can get laryngitis just like anyone else.
I think the trick is to know thyself.
People cancel for pregnancy, surgery, a death in the family, and sometimes because someone made them a better offer. Poplovskaya was probably booked somewhere else when she stepped in at the Met.
In their desperation to sell tickets and make money opera managers and apparently also agents try to drag all the blood they can out of the singer while they are hot. Let’s make money while the sun shines. Not everyone has the fortitude to resist.
Singers are overbooked. They are also outrageously booked into major roles they have never sung, and never even practiced. Then the opera manager inflates himself into a puffer fish and howls when the singer tries out the role in private and discovers, “Wow. I can’t sing this.” No one is obligated to humiliate himself.
The opera world always has a desperate need for the robust voice, the one that can sing Wagner and Verdi, and perhaps a little heavy verismo, for endless performances with no ill effects. Such people do exist, but they are not the majority. I never got the impression that Birgit Nilsson was overextending herself. If you overbook anyone into heavy repertoire, he will wear down.
My only problem with this whole scenario is that the attention is always focused on the singers. Everyone gets pissed off at them and rants about their egos, etc. No one ever turns to the manager or agent and says, “Why did you let this happen?” I would have thought it was part of the qualifications for the job that you were at least minimally aware of what was possible for the particular singers in your charge.