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LONDON (Reuters) - One of the world's leading opera conductors, Antonio Pappano, on Wednesday criticized singers for pulling out of productions too easily, saying at times this was due to illness but at others simply due to a lack of commitment.
The outspoken comments, sure to cause a stir in the operatic world of huge professional pressures and fragile egos, came at a press briefing to outline the upcoming season at the Royal Opera House in London, where British-born Pappano is music director.
Covent Garden, home to the globally renowned Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies, has suffered a series of cast changes in recent years, some of them at the last minute.
Among the most dramatic was the decision less than a week before curtains went up in December to replace American soprano Jennifer Rowley in the rarely-performed Meyerbeer epic "Robert le Diable" due to a "musical problem".
Since then German soprano Anja Harteros has pulled out of the role of Elizabeth of Valois in "Don Carlo" in May because she was "not able at this point to stay abroad for an extended period of time as originally planned", according to a statement.
Pappano did not mention names, and defended the opera house's decision to stage "Robert le Diable", but did not hold back in voicing his opinion of some of today's top opera stars.
"It happens a lot," he told reporters, referring to cancellations. "It happens more and more. There's something about this generation of singers, that they are weaker in their bodies or don't care.
"I don't know what it is, but it's something that is very very frustrating for me personally."
Asked afterwards to expand on his remarks, he explained it was partly a health issue, with common colds tending to last longer than, say, 10 years ago.
"You can imagine singers. That's a real problem. And there's so much travelling involved now with good singing. I think that people are overbooked, they're over-committed, too many new things, the stress on them and the amount of PR."
Pappano, 53, who received a knighthood in 2012, said singers of today appeared to be physically weaker than past generations.
"I mean (for Spanish tenor Placido) Domingo to cancel, (he) would have to be on his death bed. It's just a different generation.
"It's taken much more lightly today, the idea of contract, the idea of a commitment. It's true."
He called on opera stars to take longer rest periods between roles to cut down on the risk of illness and exhaustion.
In the 2013/14 season, Pappano will conduct new productions of Wagner's "Parsifal" and Verdi's rarely performed "Les Vepres siciliennes", a co-production with the Royal Danish Opera which will include a major ballet section featuring 32 dancers.
The productions are part of a celebration of the bicentenaries of the composers who were both born in 1813, while Strauss, born in 1864, will also be honored next season with performances of "Elektra", "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "Die Frau ohne Schatten".
New Zealand's Kiri Te Kanawa will make a rare appearance in "La Fille du regiment" in March, 2014, to mark her 70th birthday, while Simon Rattle, the British conductor in charge of the Berlin Philharmonic, will lead "Les Dialogues des Carmelites".
"We engage with some of the major, difficult, juicy pieces," Kasper Holten, director of opera, said of the new season, details of which are on the website www.roh.org.uk.
"I think the way to be sexy for your audiences in a world where everybody is fighting to get your attention is to really trust in your own quality."
The 2013/14 Royal Ballet season will include a new full-length work based on "The Winter's Tale" and a new production of "Don Quixote" to be created by acclaimed Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta who will also play the lead role in some performances.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith