Commentary Magazine


Art or Family?

Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

Gheorghiu’s understudy, Elaine Alvarez, a promising Cuban-American soprano who nevertheless lacks her predecessor’s track record, will take over the performances. Last month, the celebrated Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel suddenly withdrew from a long-prepared Covent Garden performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle in London, citing a “particularly stressful family situation.” The situation is that his six-year-old son in Wales broke a finger, which required surgery. Terfel’s wife Lesley defended her husband in the press, stating: “People expect too much of Bryn sometimes. He’s more than a singer, he’s a husband and a father, but opera companies don’t want to hear that.” The Royal Opera’s talented music director, Antonio Pappano, is reportedly “shocked” and even “incensed” by Terfel’s reaction to what may be seen by some as a common childhood boo-boo.

Time was when performing artists of the caliber of Terfel and Gheorghiu were more or less expected to deny themselves a family life, dedicating everything to their art and audience. The paradigm is the late English ballerina Alicia Markova (1910–2004) who famously renounced any private life, focusing on performing and teaching. The noted British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker has asserted that she consciously chose never to have children, because singing was “more important to her.” Are singers finally beginning to realize that striving for a happy family life may be even more humanly important than disappointing fans and enraging opera bosses? If so, they would only be following the example set by a conductor 25 years ago, when the veteran maestro Carlo Maria Giulini gave up a thriving career as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in order to care for his ailing wife in Italy, without a hint of criticism. What is good for the Italian goose is good for the Romanian (or Welsh) gander.