The press likes to drum up a lot of theories on the pressures facing young singers today. For the past three years, the story has focused mainly on the HD Broadcasts and the supposed pressure on young singers to care for their bodies. The operating philosophy seems to be: Peter Gelb and his big bad HD broadcasts are favoring beautiful singers with small voices over more qualified singers who may not exactly look the part. While there may be strands of truth to this, it’s a tempest in a teapot.
Lest anyone forget, the Metropolitan Opera has been filming singers since the late 70’s for the “Live From The Met” television broadcasts. What’s more, a singer’s appearance has always been of somewhat of a factor because, whether or not people are willing to admit it, opera is theater and thus a visual medium. Surely Maria Callas’ beauty was part of what made her such a legendary stage animal. If anything, one could say that the HD broadcasts are simply abetting the body-image problem, and not the cause of it.
It’s my feeling that we are missing a larger, more pertinent issue altogether: the youth factor. More than ever, in our society of instant gratification and obsession with prodigies, burgeoning singers are feeling the need to find success very early and very fast. We are a youth obsessed culture, and the opera world is not exempt from this. An operatic voice takes long to develop and true artistry takes even longer to cultivate. It is the rare singer that develops a full-bodied operatic voice at a very young age and, sadly, the singers that DO develop early, get all the glory while slower to develop singers are overlooked despite the fact that they could turn out to be superior artists one day.
A perfect example of the youth factor is soprano Angela Meade - a very talented, very young soprano who rose to prominence after winning the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Ms Meade’s ascent to operatic stardom can only be described as meteoric. She has a big-bodied physique, yet she’s had no problem scoring a spot on the Met’s prestigious roster of star singers. No one could accuse Ms. Meade’s physical appearance of being an impediment to her career. Ms. Meade is already a darling of the critics, garnering glowing reviews in almost every major arts publication for her rich, full voice and for being very young. No singer in recent memory has had the kind of success Ms. Meade has experienced. (She’s already scheduled to sing the lead in “Ernani” and share the run of “Anna Bolena” with Netrebko next season at the Met.)
What troubles me, is the fact that very little has been made of her deficiencies as an actress. Yes, Ms. Meade has a luminous voice, and she seems destined to be the great “Norma” of our time. But opera is theater and excellent singing is only half the battle. Ms. Meade has openly stated that she does not consider herself an actress - a fact I find bothersome. As Zachary Woolfe noted in his review of her Norma at the Caramoor Festival, “She scrunched her face up to connote ‘anger,’ did a little half-smirk when she was being ‘friendly,’ and closed her eyes and laid her arms across her chest to be ‘at peace.’ Meade, who in real life is pleasant and warm and normal, will need to make a huge temperamental leap on stage if she is going to be more than just an excellent singer.”
But Ms. Meade is just starting out and she may very well develop her skills as an actress and become one of the great artists of our time. Yet, more and more there is tremendous pressure on young singers to rush their careers. Many young artists feel stunted because they’re voices are taking longer to develop and their careers seem permanently on hold. For all anyone knows, there could be a wonderful young soprano somewhere, just as talented as Ms. Meade, who’s a born actress, but just needs a little more time to develop. Will she be ignored because she didn’t find success at a very young age?
The opera community needs to realize that the idolatry of young prodigies is just as, if not more, perverse as hiring a singer based on physical attractiveness. I know so many young singers today who feel like failures because their road to an opera career is slow going. Opera is a complex art form, and we need to acknowledge that a great artist is more than just a young face with a big voice.