Perspective

On Twitter yesterday, the comedian Sarah Millican announced – very apologetically – that she was ill and was having to cancel last night’s gig.  Today, she tweeted again: “Oh and to those saying ‘man up’, can I just say this is the first tour show I’ve cancelled due to ill health in over 220 shows. So f*ck off.”

As it happens, the subject of the attitude of some fans toward performers has been much discussed this week among opera Tweeters.  In the midst of a couple of weeks peppered with cast-change announcements from Covent Garden and elsewhere, I and many others – especially some performers – have been disappointed by the sense of personal affront displayed in some more than usually petulant reactions from certain ticket-holders.

Live performance is part gift, part gamble.  If you invest in it, the rewards are extraordinary and a source of constant variety. But there has to be some degree of acceptance that something might go wrong, or at least not turn out quite as you expected.  I’ve turned up for a performance to find it cancelled due to an unexpected technical problem; I’ve been all the way to Rome and found a performance cancelled due to a strike. And when you get into the matter of casting – the bit of the experience that, on a show by show basis, hinges upon living, breathing human beings – you have to make an allowance that not everything can be predicted.  If you want certainty, I’m afraid you’ll need to go and see a film instead, or listen to a CD.

A few points, then, to lovers of live performance.

1. There are hardly any performing artists out there who cancel capriciously.

They can’t afford to.  Firstly, on a brutally practical level, they won’t get paid if they don’t turn up.  And if they have to not turn up on two or three occasions in succession? Well, as anybody in any profession should know, perpetual unreliability ultimately results in unemployability. In the massively competitive and mainly freelance world of opera, it happens more readily than in other careers. What artist would willingly put themselves into that position?

Most of the time, the person who’s cancelled will be at least as disappointed about it as you are.  S/he will be keenly aware of not only the disappointment of not performing, or the disappointment that it will cause to some of the audience, but of the professional bridges it may burn, especially if it isn’t the first time.  There are very, very few in the opera world who are popular and famous enough to be sure that the opera company they let down today will still ask them back next season, and that if that company doesn’t, somebody else will.  And the vast majority of those who ARE that popular and famous conduct themselves with professionalism and wouldn’t do so anyway.

As for the diva who’s such a big name that she still gets work at the major houses (and sells them out) despite being so unreliable that Covent Garden always rehearse her alongside a second-cast soprano who already has scheduled performances of her own?  Who always turns up on the nights when the critics or HD-relay cameras are in, but cancels other performances seemingly randomly?  Well, the less said about her the better. She’s ONE singer, among thousands.  And for all I know, she too may have very good reasons.  Which brings me on to…

2. When a singer cancels an appearance, they are not morally obliged to tell you why.

I can appreciate why they sometimes want to.  When a big-name artist has built up a bit of a reputation as a serial canceller, and they’re obliged for some good reason to cancel something new, keeping the fans on side is probably an astute move.  But for the vast majority of artists in the vast majority of circumstances, a simple “health reasons”/“family reasons” explanation should be considered acceptable.  There aren’t many jobs in which, in order to take a bit of unavoidable time off, you are expected to divulge the minutiae of your health or family problems to the general public.

When Simon Keenlyside pulled out of the Royal Opera’s recent revival of Figaro, I found it disheartening to read his detailed and heartfelt statement via his fan site as to why he had had to do so.  I’m sure it placated a few people, but I’m sad that he felt the need to release it.

And as for those serial cancellers (of whom, just to be clear, Mr Keenlyside is not one) – when I buy a ticket, my agreement is with the opera company, not the artist.  If I have an issue with the company charging high prices for tickets while continuing to employ guest artists who cancel more often than they show up – IF I believe that a certain artist is terminally unreliable – then it’s the company I should be expressing displeasure with, not the artist.

3. One man’s serial canceller is another man’s paragon of reliability.

That diva I mentioned above? The exception to the rule?  Well, somebody I know has been hearing her since she debuted at Covent Garden twenty years ago, and has never managed to be there on a night when she hasn’t turned up.  Just saying.

4. Do you really want to hear somebody brilliant give an awful performance?

Because if somebody who’s unwell feels under pressure to sing a performance they really should have cancelled, it’s entirely possible that that’s what you’ll get.  I’ve been to a few.  It’s painful to witness, and must feel a hundred times more horrible to be the performer doing it.  It’s to nobody’s advantage – especially if having been pressurised into performing has knock-on implications for their next performances or, more importantly, their vocal, physical or mental health.

5. Not having heard of somebody is not a reason to be angry or disappointed.

If your favourite singer cancels and is replaced by somebody you hated last time you heard them, fine – return your ticket (though for goodness’ sake, don’t hold a grudge against the canceller for foisting an inferior artist upon you – he or she is not responsible for the management’s casting decisions, nor for the availability at a day’s notice of other possible exponents of the role).  But if your favourite singer cancels and is replaced by somebody you’ve never heard of, which has happened to me more times than I can count, that’s cause for five minutes of disappointment and an entire evening of potential.

Which leads me on to…

6. There’s a good chance you’ll get somebody even better, or at least somebody interesting.

Remember what a vintage year 2011 was for sopranos in Verdi and Puccini roles at Covent Garden?  I can think of five about whom the press and audiences raved (I didn’t manage to hear all of them, regrettably!), every single one of whom was either a replacement on that occasion or somebody whose original big break with the Royal Opera happened under similar circumstances.  In one case, both.

And it’s always been the way – fifteen years ago I heard an unknown 24-year-old Peruvian tenor called Juan Diego Florez storming the Royal Festival Hall as a late replacement for Giuseppe Sabbatini in a Royal Opera concert performance of Donizetti’s Elisabetta, ossia Otto mesi in due ore. Replacing an indisposed star is a time-honoured way of getting a big break, and lord knows there are enough excellent artists out there who long for such an opportunity.

One point, though, to the opera companies…

Ticketholders appreciate honesty and transparency.

When I buy a ticket for a performance, my agreement is with you, not with the singer.  You know casting is a selling point, or people wouldn’t expect you to publish cast lists in your marketing material.  If a certain person can’t appear, it’s only reasonable for me to expect you to tell me about it with as much warning as reasonably practicable.  And when the reason given for a cancellation is something which would have been known about by the management some time in advance, it rankles when the audience isn’t told about it until they arrive.

Similarly, if a headline singer is fully intending from the outset to miss a certain performance, it’s dishonest for the management not to disclose this and give proper billing to the alternate artist.  I recently learned this to have been the case with a performance some time ago by a UK regional company for which I travelled some distance out of interest in the singer in question; had the company been honest, I could have opted to book for a different night.  Or indeed, to choose to travel for both – the cover in that instance was an acquaintance of mine making her role debut.

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I enjoy catching my favourite singers in as many performances as I can, and of course I hope that they won’t cancel – especially if I’ve planned to travel a long distance.  To date I’ve actually been pretty lucky with my absolute favourites (or rather, they’ve been lucky with their health and reliability) though my propensity for loving female singers in a certain age group brings yet another factor – family planning – into the equation. Hours after I started thinking about formulating this blog post, the Royal Opera lost Diana Damrau from their upcoming Robert le diable due to pregnancy.  It’s just one of those things, and a factor that makes planning to attend live performances even more of a gamble.

Disappointment in somebody’s absence is a compliment to them.  But hurtful comments, gossip and speculation are unnecessary and give “fans” and “music lovers” a bad name.  I use those quotation marks advisedly.  There are times when a bit of perspective is required.

Wanderlust

Considering that my operatic travels to date have been comparatively rare – London alone being packed with so many performances that I already struggle to find the time or money to see everything I’d like to – 2012 so far has been something of an odyssey. Following a flying visit to Birmingham in January for the final Meistersinger of the Royal Opera run, and a trip to Hamburg at the beginning of February for La traviata and Aribert Reimann’s Lear, March took me on opera trips to four different corners of the UK (from Scotland to the south coast) as well as to the usual range of venues in my home city. A further excursion awaits next weekend.

This frequency of travel is not sustainable. I have a full-time job, Monday to Friday office hours on the whole, without a particularly generous leave entitlement. And travelling at the weekends causes me loss of income from my Sunday-morning church singing job, without which I would struggle to afford such trips in the first place. I’ve now built into my budget an allowance enabling me to lose an average of one Sunday’s choir fee every two months – but even then, I find myself wanting to use up many of my free Sundays on weekend singing events elsewhere. Plus, I love my Sunday job – it’s an important part of my life, and I don’t like missing it too often.

But the Hamburg trip in particular – which turned out to be a good deal cheaper than I had feared it could be, and which could easily have been cheaper still – made me yearn to travel more often than I have to date. Before that point, I hadn’t left the UK to see an opera since 2008 when I spent my birthday in Paris with friends, seeing Don Carlo at the Opéra-Bastille.

I work 15 minutes’ walk from London’s Eurostar terminus. Getting to Paris or Brussels is fast, easy, and under certain circumstances cheaper than a trip to somewhere like Edinburgh. If only the Opéra-Bastille, Châtelet or La Monnaie would do Saturday matinees, I might be nipping off on a Friday night on a fairly regular basis, getting back to London by Saturday evening. But no, sadly the standard matinee slot across much of Europe is Sunday, which is far less convenient. There’s another problem, too – few of my favourite singers and directors seem to be in favour in Paris or Brussels! It tends to be a choice between chasing them further afield and waiting for them to pop up in the UK. Until now, I’ve almost exclusively done the latter.

While I’m on THAT subject, wouldn’t it be nice if my favourite singers always worked with one another, and with my favourite directors, to create a brief and well-co-ordinated list of things I long to go overseas for? Or at least in concurrent productions on consecutive evenings, in the same easily-accessible European city…

For now, having worked out a wish-list on the back of an old envelope, I note with some dismay that almost all of my annual leave allowance for next leave year, which runs July-June, is provisionally spoken for. A couple of favourite-singer/ideal-role combinations here, a couple of favourite-director/interesting-project combinations there, and all my time – never mind all my money – is swallowed up. And that’s before some companies have even made their season announcement… At least I know I’m going to have a brilliant time!