Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Ruth Ann Swenson Mess

I've tried to avoid this, but I really can't for much longer. Let me just say that I have extreme respect for some one to go out on stage at all, at any time in their lives. But to go out on stage in front of scrutinizing and thoroughly terrifying opera buffs (because as much as we want to deny it, we're too hard on some people) only weeks after finishing chemotherapy for breast cancer, or any other kind of cancer!
People first complained about her article in the New York Times Arts section which stated:

"...“It’s hurtful,” Ms. Swenson said. “I’m a New Yorker. I’ve sung here for many, many years."..."I’ve never let them down.” She added: “It’s so stressful to get up onstage and realize that the top guy doesn’t like you, and there’s nothing I can do about it..."

"...Mr. Gelb acknowledged some dissatisfaction with her past performances. But he disputed that her career at the Met was over..."

"...“I think I’m not skinny enough for him,” Ms. Swenson said. “Excuse me, I’m not some giant person.”..."

"...Ms. Swenson said she was aware that her words could burn bridges with Mr. Gelb. “He doesn’t like me anyway,” she said, “so what do I have to lose?”..."

People were saying that Ms. Swenson was trying to get pity and was just plain being a cry baby. I think that these allegations are unfair and untrue! I think that Ms. Swenson was trying to show how some opera companies are trying to make it more about drama and (let's be frank) sex appeal than about musical abilities. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. Obviously, there are people who think that this is so. Between Deborah Voigt's public weight "issues" and the increase in skinnier singers, it may not be unlikely. There are full-figured opera singers to be sure, more than half of the men are a little more than "full" and some women, Ms. Sweson included, are not super-model thin. Opera has remained for a long time an art that does not care what you look like, just how you sing! I am hoping that it stays this way; we can't be pushing singers on a scale at every audition, it would be unheard of! And cruel!

Last week the NY Times printed a review for the Met's production of Handel's "Guilio Cesare" with David Daniels and Ruth Ann Swenson as Cleopatra. The critic had nothing but good things to say about Ms. Swenson! She, as we hear, received a little more than enthusiastic applause during the curtain calls, and an every-praising review. So... What do people have against her?
People say that she is not much of an actress. Well, neither was Cornell Macneil! Pavarotti was sometimes a "stand there and sing" type of guy, too! At some points opera was a "stand and sing" art form, whether it was intentional or not. There is that story about Corelli and Tebaldi in Boheme where each stood on an opposite side of the stage and sang to their fans on other sides of the house, not caring whether Mimi and Rodolfo were supposed to touch hands.
People also say that her vocal quality has not been as good as past years. Well, there are a few factors that could contribute to this... One, is age. Everyone gets old. We can handle a few wrinkles, can't we?? I mean, Domingo hasn't even retired yet, so I think we can handle it! Two...People, people people people! Did you miss the part where Ruth Ann Swenson had breast cancer? Cancer and chemo can do things to you! You don't get off scot free! It's ridiculous that someone thinks that she will come back unaffected!

I'm not sure what to think about this problem as a whole. Even though I just put my two cents in, and you probably think I have a strong opinion about it. I'm inclined to like Ruth Ann Swenson a lot, and I am hoping to see her next season in 'La Traviata.' I understand that Peter Gelb wants to make opera more popular, but he can't push out talented singers.

This has been prying on my mind for a long time, and I want everyone to know that this entry took me days to write. =) I didn't know whether to set up a riot on Peter Gelb or to sit back and see what happens. I would really like to see his reaction and/or comeback to all of this!!!


Oberon said...

Swenson has been singing very oddly for the past 5-6 years. She has adopted a very strange technique that weights the lower portion of her range and thins out the higher range.

Gelb is clearly banking on Gheorghiu, Netrebko, Dessay, Mattila, Damrau and Fleming for future seasons and he is entitled to have the artists he wants. Swenson has been singing a long time and is simply past her prime. Her remarks about Gelb will probably mean that he won't call on her any time in the future if something opens up.

Swenson was a top-fee artist during the Volpe era and if she is still singing as well as she seems to think she is, she should have no problem getting engagements at other venues.

I stopped going to her performances about nine years ago after a very bland and vocally 'perched' Lucia.

Anonymous said...

Ruth Ann Swenson is an amazing soprano, perhaps the best in in her generation within her type of soprano voice. My opinion is that unfortunately when people don't like something (for whatever reasons their might be) they conclude that no one else should like it either. This is sad because it takes away the opportunity of others to hear and enjoy beautiful art and in this case in one of USA's best opera houses. The fact that we now have some artists that lack complete operatic talents is very sad. The opera world seems to be mimicking television. Its becoming very commercialized and all about looks.
I agree with opera houses trying to reach audiences of all kinds. However, they can do this with new appealing stage sets, publicity, and including more contemporary works that people relate with and can musically understand. They shouldn’t sacrifice the voice. This is what keeps opera true.
Also, what does taking Swenson out of their roster mean to other people affected with cancer? It shouldn’t be the end, she had a very successful Cleopatra this year, she still has the goods to sing this repertoire and she still sounds better than most sopranos.

-Opera Lover

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

To Oberon:
I've known Ruth Ann since our days together at AVA. She has always had "weight" in the lower part of her voice. It's nothing that she does on purpose. Can you not say that her Cleopatra was NOT simply amazing?! And chemo really WILL plump you up!

Norm Cross said...

I am a little dishearted at reading about all of this controversy with Ruth Ann Swenson. I have had the pleasure of working with Ruth Ann in two operas at the Dallas Opera in the past few years, and the last one (Rodelinda)was perhaps my favorite and most memorable. The time on stage with Ruth Ann and Ewa Podles was incredible, and I can personally attest to the amount of work and rehearsal that we all put in to make the scenes in Rodelinda very dramatic. The interaction between all of the players on the stage (diva and supers) still sends chills up and down my spine. And the audience agreed too. She is one of the reasons I am coming back for my 6th season.

Anonymous said...

Just want to say I think she is a big diva and really is using the cancer to get her way. She is currently doing Merry Widow in Dallas and has taken two songs from the Danilo after saying she felt bad about taking his songs. I think it is very immature to think because of her cancer she can get her way.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Rossini who said "Opera is voice, voice, voice". I took in 3 performnces early in Oct.This year and heard really only one good voice --Netrebko. Aida was a dismal failure (vocally), Figaro had not one good sound. If the Met does not get back to outstanding singers, it will lose its appeal. Swenson is truly an outstanding bel canto soprano and will always be loved by those who appreciae beutiful singing.

Mr. Natural said...

Gelb is a glitz-freak with a vision of opera as Studio 54. Comparing Swenson with Netrebko insults Swenson. Netrebko is gorgeous with a technique that's here today, gone today. He recent work as Juliet ranged from superb (the poisoning and death scenes) to a Zinka Milanov sound-alike in anything that required coloratura. Swenson came back from her surgery and chemo with a slightly weakened top, that is all. As for her using the NY Times, it worked, didn't it? She's still on the roster. The only kind of publicity an publicity hound like Gelb can't tolerate is anything that embarrasses the Company, and Ruth knew it.

Carol said...

I attended Hartt College of Music with Ruth Ann during 1977-1978. She was a lovely person and was such a wonderful singer at age 18. I was 17 back then. Both of us have gone through treatment for breast cancer. I wish her all the best.

DrewmanSJ said...

In searching Google for anything on Ruth Ann Swenson, I came across this blog. As a fairly new opera fan, being exposed to Ruth Ann Swenson's glorious voice two years ago has been sheer HEAVEN.

In my opinion there is no other soprano. She has the prettiest, most feminine voice I have ever heard in my life...not to mention being the master of the colortura technique.

I've always had a soft spot for beautiful women's voices who can really get up in heaven's range and Ruth is a GODDESS.

She appears to not be the favorite of the opera world for whatever reason. These are just the breaks we all get in life but her ability and technique are what always win me over in anyone.

I saw her in 2006 in the Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco and knew in earlier years she played Susanna (boy, I wish I could've seen that) but she sang Countess Rosina and was GLORIOUS. I wanted to hear all her beautiful high notes and was amazed at her incredible range and fabulous acting ability. She was such a delight to watch and listen to and I was lucky enough to get 6-row center seats.

The applause she received at the War Memorial Opera house was THUNDEROUS and went on for such a long time...more than any other person in the cast. I couldn't contain myself and screamed out among the applause and she looked over in my direction. Perhaps it was shock of someone screaming out (yes, it was Brava! at first but then it turned into Woo'ing...but other people were doing it too). Whether she was looking at me or not I don't know but I thought she was. It gave me chills to be in her presence.

I LOVE Ruth Ann Swenson more than any other soprano and although two of my friends are always introducing me to other sopranos, I'm always comparing them to Ruthie and although they are very talented, they don't even come close to how I feel about Ruth Ann Swenson. Thank you, Ruth, for giving me so many wonderful hours of pure JOY.

joana said...

Ms Swenson is the best soprano of our time, we are so lucky to have her in our generation. She is also much better than the older generation like: Callas, Tebaldi, Sutterland, etc.
Her repertoire is much larger and diverse than that of: Netrebko, Gheorghiu, Dessay or Fleming.

Ms. Swenson sang many, many roles much more than the four sopranos I metioned above. It is unfortunatelly that she does not have enough recordings. Ms Gheorhiu has way too many recordings but her repertoire is just of 5 or 6 roles.

Another unique quality of Ms Swenson is that she sounds much better on a live performance than on the CD which is not true with all the other sopranos.

I'v heard Fleming on a live performance of La Traviata at LA Opera, I was sitting in the orchestra, and I was shocked what a small voice she had and she used too much chest voice in the first act, it was very unpleasant.

Ms Swenson is the best Lucia, Violeta, Cleopatra, etc.

I've heard Ms Swenson in the Countess in San Francisco and she was Fantastic, she is the QEEN OF PIANNISSIMMO'S. Her acting is also great. She has the best technique and she sings so effortless that's why all the other sopranos are gealous on her.


I love her, she is my favorite soprano of all time.


Anonymous said...

I've known Ruth Ann and her husband David for years, from my days in the chorus at SF. She's one of the few artists I've heard in my life that genuinely thrilled me. I recall so many fantastic performances: Lucia, Ines (L'Africaine), Nanetta (Falstaff), Semele, and one particular outdoor concert at Stern Grove that rings in my ear to this day. I now sing in Europe, and am constantly frustrated by this trend of 'trendiness' in opera. Dessay, Netrebko, Fleming...all disappoint next to Ruth Ann. I hope she sticks with it for years to come and continues to give pleasure to those of us who know what singing is, and more to the point, is about. Robert Presley, London

Steve Curylo said...

I knew Ruth Ann Swenson at Hartt College of Music between 1977 and 1978. We were singing waiters together at a restaurant in East Hartford CT!! She had a great voice way back then and I've always enjoyed her performances. I haven't heard her sing since a March 2003 Traviata at the Met, in fact it was a Saturday radio broadcast. She had put on weight but still sounded great. We met briefly after the performance and she signed my "i carry your heart" CD booklet. I hope she gets back to the Met and continues a long, splendid career.

Jim and Joy said...

This whole thing with the Met is an assault on good taste.

I first saw Ms Swenson at the San Francisco Opera and was completely incanted; her voice was like a convention of angels.

One notable night she sang Gilda. During ‘Caro Nome’ everyone was completely fixed on Ms Swenson, no coughing, no audience noise, no rustling sounds during pauses; everyone on the edges of their seats. When the aria was finished there was seconds of silence and then the place went wild. I have never heard singing like that and thanked the gods that I lived during her time.

I hope the Met comes to their senses. Ruth Ann Swenson is an operatic treasure. - Jim Cifelli