Petulance, demands and tantrums Music: The purest sound often emanates from the most spoiled of opera stars. The latest example of rotten behavior involves diva Ruth Ann Swenson.

September 15, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A woman opens her mouth, a golden sound comes out -- and she dumps all her other good qualities by the wayside. What is it with divas anyway?

For once, we're not talking about Kathleen Battle. Just this past weekend, Ruth Ann Swenson gave the latest demonstration of Diva Display right down the road in Washington.

Swenson, who sang Juliette in Baltimore Opera's 1997 "Romeo et Juliette," was scheduled to sing Ophelia in two performances of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" by Washington Concert Opera. It's a role she knows well: She sang it opposite Thomas Hampson at San Francisco Opera a few seasons back.

"Hamlet" is a curiosity: a bowdlerized version of Shakespeare's brooding, existential tragedy, relegated in our more sophisticated times to the dustbin of grand opera. Nonetheless, it has two showcase roles: Hamlet, a baritone, which was sung by the fine Canadian artist Russell Braun, and Ophelia, a coloratura soprano with a 16-minute mad scene.

About 10 days before the performances, Swenson sent word through her agent that she had decided to do a recording session in Europe instead. The Washington Post used the word "jilted" in its story about Swenson's cancellation, and she deserves it.

The Washington Concert Opera says it plans to sue her, but that didn't save the performance. Luckily, a French soprano, Annick Massis, did, with an Ophelia of such shining vocal beauty that it stopped the show. She's also lovely, a slim blond woman with an expressive face, and I hope this -- only her second time singing in the United States -- opens the doors to a great deal of work for her.

She also was a joy to work with, according to people in the chorus. Don't tell her, or she might turn into a diva.

It would be painful to watch her become another Battle, whose soprano is of such melting beauty and whose petulant personality caused the Metropolitan Opera to dispense with her services. At San Francisco Opera, the stage crew cherishes its original edition of the "I Survived the Battle" T-shirts, issued after her last performances there (onstage and off). The offstage shenanigans involved a limousine and a fur coat and other

desires she thought should be gratified.

A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker published a story on Cecilia Bartoli, a coloratura mezzo with a cancellation problem. Over and above the considerable Bartoli talent, the impression left by the anecdotes was of how spoiled and unreliable she is, how inconsiderate of her fellow artists and how unaware she seems to be that her voice won't always carry her.

The story's mid-section was a digression in which writer Manuela Holterhoff conversed with artist-manager Herbert Breslin, who had never heard, and barely heard of, Bartoli. That's because he spends his life taking care of Luciano Pavarotti, selling the once-great tenor for as few performances and as much money as possible. The last I looked, Pavarotti was charging $40,000 for a recital of "Santa Lucia" and a few other warhorses. That was pre-The Three Tenors, so I'm sure his fee has gone up since then.

Breslin, and people like him, are part of the problem of persnickety singers. Egged on by their agents, they start to think they're movie stars and to demand star treatment in accordance. Why do they think we pay hefty sums to attend their concerts? For their pretty faces?

Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, the married tenor-soprano team with, it must be said, very pretty faces as well as very pretty voices, have just discovered how little their temper tantrums can buy. For several months last spring, they held the Met hostage by refusing to sign next season's contracts until certain exorbitant demands were met, including their right to veto the production design. (Breslin represents them, too.) They were finally told that other singers, with more professionalism and fewer prima-donna affectations, were just as prized by Met's audiences, thank you very much.

Maybe some of those other divas with attitude will learn from this.

Maybe not. Diva means goddess, and most divas seem to think they have divine rights.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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