Operatic tantrum may cost star tenor dearly

LONDON (Reuters) - Opera is no stranger to sensitive singers and demanding divas.

French tenor Roberto Alagna gestures during a news conference in Milan December 11, 2006. Top tenor Alagna stormed off stage on Sunday after he was booed in the middle of a performance at Milan's La Scala opera house, forcing a costumeless substitute to replace him and drawing criticism from organisers. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

But star tenor Roberto Alagna’s dramatic walkout during a performance at Milan’s La Scala opera house in response to boos in the crowd may be a tantrum too far, critics warn.

Not even Maria Callas, arguably the ultimate operatic prima donna, did what the 43-year-old Frenchman did on Sunday, leaving fellow performers stunned midway through an act and forcing an understudy wearing jeans to rush on and take over.

“I can’t recall any incident where an artist has walked off stage leaving colleagues open mouthed for no reason other than a bit of barracking,” Norman Lebrecht, a leading opera commentator and critic, told Reuters.

“This could be the end of his mainstream career.”

Lebrecht and others said opera houses would now be more wary of hiring Alagna, unsure how he might react under pressure and knowing that his name would long be associated with the walkout. The fact that he is threatening to sue La Scala will not help.

“It’s another fall in his stock,” said Neil Fisher, classical music and opera editor at The Times newspaper in London. “It all adds up to a rather bad prognosis.”

As well as being a leading singer -- at one stage Alagna was dubbed the “fourth tenor” and seen as a successor to Luciano Pavarotti -- he is one half of opera’s “golden couple” with his wife, the hugely successful Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu.

Whether she will be dragged down by the controversy remains to be seen, although the singers perform together less than they used to which may help her ride the storm.

“She is very independent minded,” said Lebrecht. “My guess is her agent will be telling her to build a firewall around this.”


It is not the first time the couple have been in trouble.

Gheorghiu was replaced during a production of “Carmen” by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, reportedly for refusing to wear a blond wig. And the couple were withdrawn by the same house from “La Traviata”, apparently over an argument about set designs.

Their behavior has won them the nickname of “the Bonnie and Clyde” of opera, and Gheorghiu has been called “Draculette”.

At least they are in good company.

Callas once refused to continue with a performance of “Norma” in 1958, although she did complete the first act.

Tenor Franco Bonisolli yelled abuse at the orchestra and conductor for playing too slowly in Sicily, and, when he was whistled at by the audience, stuck two fingers up at the crowd and stormed off stage.

Not that the opera world was entirely without sympathy for Alagna. The Daily Telegraph’s opera critic Rupert Christiansen urged him to take a deep breath and come back singing.

“Are you a true operatic trouper or just a tenor whose vanity got the better of him?” he wrote.

Christiansen and others pointed out that the La Scala audience was notoriously picky, and had booed greats like Pavarotti in the past.

“They (La Scala) still regard themselves as the holy temple of opera,” said Fisher, adding that he would put both the Met and London’s Covent Garden ahead of Milan today.