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Sick Singers

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Antonio Papanno unleashed a tsunami of frowning and growling when he bemoaned the "weakness" of modern singers recently. Many observers cheered him too; if you pay a couple of hundred quid and the star doesn't turn up it is no surprise that you would give Tony a clap. Oddly, on such occasions when the lonely walk to centre-stage by a member of the management, just before curtain up, signals something is wrong, there is often a chance that you will be party to a significant career moment as the cover steps up to the plate and steals the show.

As expected, the debate has become polarised; a good old ding dong on the Guardian website between Christopher Gillet and Peter Conrad is a perfect demonstration of how the issue divides people. The truth, as ever, is in the middle somewhere. In 24 years, I have seen both the capricious, neurotic narcissist panicking after a sneeze as well as - the more frequent - stoical, risk taking heroics of sopranos with broken feet, tenors with suppurating, inflamed throats and others with recently delivered and grave news swirling through their minds. Those to whom Pappano refers probably fell into some or all of the above categories but he has had some very public and profoundly awkward experiences recently and his frustration is understandable.

What is absolutely certain is that opera houses have a responsibility to their employees and in the vast majority of cases, we have absolutely no concerns that a singer is swinging the lead, aware as we are of the intricacies of the problem, the gravity of their condition. And we also understand the extent of their exposure when out on that stage, performing the most physically, mentally and emotionally demanding of all performance art. No disappointed audience member, for all our regret, is worth risking the health of a singer.

The real problem with Pappano's comments is not necessarily that he made them but the reaction to them by people who ought to know better. Accusations of blame fly hither and thither; it is the agents who make them sing roles they are unready for; it is the PR machine who forces them to endure unnecessary engagements when they should be resting; they are divas with pseudo-messianic complexes and so on. All of that may be a bit true, but it is yet another stereotype, propagated by the industry itself, that allows the public and anybody with malice aforethought to lazily trumpet "I told you so". Whip out the brush and slop on the tar.

I can't tell you how intensely dislikable some singers can be, but even then, there is - must be - an appreciation for what it is they do every night; it is also true to say that our critical fraternity can instil a fear that ads just enough of an added incentive not to go out there and risk a caning. But it isn't the critics' fault either. It is just simply that in 99% of cases, the singer is sick. If you or I get a cold we can sit at our desks, doped on Lemsip and trundle through our day's tasks unwatched, unnoticed, silently. That is a luxury not afforded a performer who must force their voice into spectacularly unnatural contortions, expending monumental amounts of energy in the process. We might expect them to gamely sing through it as many often do, but sometimes, they simply can't. If the weakness to which Pappano refers is perceived to be this refusal to battle on, then people have misunderstood him, because I cannot imagine he would want to risk the quality of a performance or the career of a singer. And a very real risk it is too. We still blanche at the memory of a tenor who chose not to make us aware of a throat condition but who nevertheless went on in one of the repertoire's most ferociously demanding roles. The shock and horror of watching the cataclysmic progress of his demise through the evening remains with us still. And he was destroyed by it.

The insistence that "star" performers should always fill the glamour roles should also become less habitual, with houses giving, instead, more opportunities to the talented performers that rarely get the chance. If Pappano's remarks are indicative of a general concern among international houses, then perhaps it is an opportunity to start changing the way they cast productions, relying less on the glamour and more on the talent, spreading the load, nourishing the future of the art, neutering the rampant expectations.

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