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Commentary

Ruth Ann Swenson (1996)
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Ruth Ann’s Rampage: Nobody Wins

Based on reading the New York Times’ account of Met opera soprano Ruth Ann Swenson’s distemper with her home company in New York, published Thursday 5 April over the byline of Daniel J. Wakin, it is hard to find either motivation or reasonable expectation of reward for any of the participants in this travesty – reporter, newspaper, opera manager Peter Gelb (who comes off best), or, least of all, the distraught diva.

Perhaps Swenson has played too many mad-scene heroines on the great stage at Lincoln Center and has gone a touch daft herself? After twenty Lucia di Lammermoors and a few Puritani Elviras, Swenson knows how to pull off a scena. But her angry denunciation of the Met, and especially General Manager Gelb, in the Times may well come back to haunt her as well as the newspaper editors who made the, in my opinion, unfortunate and unprofessional decision to print such clearly un-fit ‘news.’ The lady feels ‘snubbed’ and some of her trophy roles are being given to arch-rivals. Head for the hills!

Swenson, a native New Yorker, made a successful Met debut in 1991 as Don Giovanni’s Zerlina, and has sung leading roles at least 225 times for the company, according to the Met’s archives, including not only the many Lucias, but 49 Gildas (perhaps a house record) in Rigoletto, 25 Rosinas in The Barber of Seville and dozens of La bohemes, Elisir d’Amores and so on. Alas for Swenson, this all came to a screeching halt last autumn when she was sadly diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery followed, and as recently as six weeks ago, according to the Times, she was completing chemotherapy. Her famous long mane of red-gold hair is gone, “I have peach fuzz,” she says – no problem on stage as the Met’s wig department is renowned.

The problems derive from the fact Gelb has reduced Swenson’s upcoming performances of Violetta (La traviata) in season ‘08 from nine to five and given four of them to Renée Fleming. Ouch! Is there any poisonous snake or spider more lethal than a diva threatened by another? Swenson’s angry tone, claiming weight discrimination, perhaps age discrimination, and just plain “he does not like me” on the part of Gelb rings a little hollow.

Swenson came back from her cancer treatments only a few weeks ago to sing (presentably) Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, including the broadcast, and as I write is singing Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, which will be featured on the Met broadcast of April 21, and will air several times on the Met’s satellite connection via Sirius Radio. . .; hardly a lack of exposure for any singer. In addition, Gelb is quoted by the Times as commenting during the Cesare rehearsals that Swenson “is singing beautifully... she not only survived this marathon opera but flourished in it... That’s the uniform consensus of the artistic staff and her colleagues.” Gelb tried to water down the complaints but may have added fuel to the fire by mentioning, “Any time we can get Renée Fleming to sing at the Metropolitan Opera is a good day...for the opera..”

Critics have been divided on Swenson’s Violetta finding she sings the demanding coloratura showpieces of Act I well enough but in the later acts of the dramatic Verdi chestnut can lack in theatrical effect. Fleming, on the other hand, is generally praised for performing the entire role splendidly.

So what was behind all this display of hubris and, perhaps, sour grapes? No one really knows, but this observer can make some guesses: chemo is miserable treatment; not only does your hair fall out, but you lose energy and often feel ill and terrible. So, do you go on one of the world’s biggest stages and sing a major role six weeks after completing such a course of medication? And do you talk to the New York Times? Unwise, to say the least. In the Times article Swenson claims to have little knowledge of public relations or press technique (“I am not a PR animal”), so she probably did not expect how chilly are the waters into which she has strayed. Was she ill-advised? Quite possibly. Finally, one has to wonder if Swenson was aware that Peter Gelb is the son of Arthur Gelb, for many years top editor of the Times and one of their revered elder statesmen – the Met manager has ‘a friend at the Times,’ to say the least. Anyone who seeks to air grievances against the mighty Met had better find a different venue from The Paper of Record, just for starters.

How much better it would have been if Swenson, herself, had announced she was cutting back on Violetta and thanked her friend Renée for taking on four performances to help share the burden! How much better it would have been for Swenson to pay tribute to the great opera company and express her appreciation for all the opportunities it has given her! She might even have said she hopes to return to the Met frequently in fresh health and voice to sing many more times over future years Instead, she said “I totally comprehend” where Elizabeth Edwards ‘is’ in terms of cancer treatments and the Edwards’ decision to include Elizabeth in John’s presidential campaign. “You can’t crawl under the covers,” said Swenson. True. But you don’t set the covers on fire before you depart.

I cannot imagine walking into the Met to sing the prima of the Handel opera (April 6) with all the Times’ poison drifting around the place, inflammability that Swenson herself uncorked. I do lament the “new journalism” of that newspaper and other media that will take a scandalous story just about anywhere they can find one, with little respect for damage done to the participants. Yep, Ruth Ann should have kept her yap shut, but the Times should never have poured the hot lead. Nobody wins.

© 2007 J. A. Van Sant

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