Criticism on Fridays: Speaking for All of Us

Because Speaking Only for Oneself Turned the Opera World into a Very Unpleasant Place

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo: Oleg Laptev)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future. The choice of topics discussed, how they are researched, and how they are portrayed is conducted independently of OperaWire’s editors. 

First, I’ll say, that the work done by singers and other opera professionals is as amazing as hard, and I respect what they do a lot. And I always say, I’m not judging the singing, because I strongly believe that every artist on stage tries to do their best. But as an opera lover, I know that singing is not always perfect, and as a journalist, I understand that there’s always a more complicated reason behind that. 

And what I can and will judge is the approach, every worker of the opera industry chooses to run and to improve the environment of the whole industry.

I remember my first week-long working trip to Paris a couple of years ago. Six performances in seven days — total rock’n’roll — night at the opera, morning at the cafe — to write. The trip was supposed to end with a performance of “Tosca” with Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann. 

But the famed tenor canceled his performance, so the Opéra de Paris was looking for a replacement. An apparent choice — tenor Marcelo Puente, who was supposed to sing the role in the second cast, would replace Kaufmann during the whole run, but for the opening night, the Opéra de Paris needed a big name. Vittorio Grigolo, a famous singer repeatedly criticized for being unprepared and inadequate for this role, was chosen. 

The opening night was a disaster. Even I could not refrain from criticizing his singing.

“E lucevan le stelle” was heartbreaking, but not because of the interpretation. Grigolo struggled to follow the score and lacked the depth of sound. He also couldn’t manage legato. “O dolci mani…” presented a huge gap (both vocal and artistic) between Harteros and Grigolo. They looked like heroes of different stories, suddenly caught on the same stage.

A few days later, I attended the second show. Puente brought a truly outstanding performance, both vocally and as an actor. And, as I figured later, he kept the standard throughout the run.  

But my joy for the Argentine tenor’s success tastes bitter. And when I discuss the issues of the unbearably long for one singer runs or completely unjustified choice for the opening with numerous people from Opera de Paris, for them, it sounds needless to say — obvious and cruel. However, all those talks are off the record. No one wants to lose a job.

“Off the record” became the most annoying phrase in my profession. I’m such a huge open-ended source of the stories that will never be published.

“I don’t think you will get many honest answers because everyone is always afraid of being black-listed,” comments tenor Michelle Angelini when we discuss the problematic production of “Marino Faliero” in Bergamo.

The opera industry is a happy place, for happy people only. If you experience any problems, pain, insults, or humiliation — shut up or get out! 

Sounds awful? But what is the most horrible aspect of this situation? We accept it.

And then, casually chatting with another singer, undoubtedly on the record, I received the most frightening confession I could ever hear from the professional singer:

“I am an artist and therefore I can only speak about my art. Certainly, I am not a critic of the festival and also cannot point to the practical problems of the production. Maybe the public can judge these aspects…”

As long as the artists don’t want to point to the problems only they can see and experience from the inside, these obstacles will remain and will poison the industry, performance after performance. The public comes and goes, talks, and forgets.

But artists live their whole lives in this world, silently inheriting the problems caused by the silence of their predecessors. 

And now, let’s just take a look at what happens when artists DO speak out. Just recall J’Nai Bridges’ discussion which took place this June, when the American mezzo-soprano found herself unable to sing due to the hard emotional condition following the death of George Floyd. This harrowing event forced her to speak out. So she gathered a group of fellow Black singers for a discussion on race and inequality in opera. 

The panel has been seen by more than 70,000 people on Facebook. But what touched and hurt me most of all, was not just the struggle or rights violations, but the fact that all of those were known or experienced by most of the people who spoke or watched. But at that moment, it was being said aloud — publicly. And we can all see how the industry approach has been changing since then. Nobody would put up with the old foundations now. 

But the question beckons: Are we really waiting for some traumatic events to force us to speak? No one is alone, and all those struggles of singers are common. But to find support and achieve the rights they deserve, it is essential for them to be talked about.

Here and now. And on the record.