When I first heard Michael Rabin perform during the Sibelius Week in Helsinki, prior to his concerto the festival's manager came out on stage. An announcement was made: Mr. Rabin's sister has suddenly died that morning but the soloist would nonetheless go ahead with his performance. All the older ladies in the audience took out their handkerchiefs and cried. I, too, was touched. A couple years later I heard Rabin again, this time in a smaller town in this country. The same story was repeated and I smelled a rat. Later I learned that there was no sister to start with.
Although it is not common for instrumentalists to make excuses, that does happen. A violinist showed up with a bandaged finger, very noticeable to the audience all the way to the last seat on the top balcony, and ended up with reviews which talked about her ‘injury’ rather than playing. Another one insisted on sitting on a stool, as a sore back is not as visible as a taped digit. What about orchestral players? When was the last time you heard an announcement that the principal oboe was going to play the evening concert, in spite of his hemorrhoids, or something to that effect? I do remember a principal string player being wheeled to the stage and off, even after the injury had healed. Once offstage she would hop off the wheelchair and walk normally.
Singers, in opera particularly, are another story. Of course the vocal cords are unpredictable, but that doesn’t account to the fact that during the course of an opera production the audience gets told time after time that Ms. Prima Donna or Mr. Helden Tenor are suffering from this and that, thus their voices are perhaps not in top shape but yet they insist on singing. Seldom is this evident in the performance, however, but conveniently this puts the singers in a taboo category: a critic or a mere mortal listener cannot possibly be critical of faulty intonation or anything else since the performer has such a ‘valid’ excuse. What would happen if listeners would demand their money back when performers admitted they were not doing their best? That would be fair after all, wouldn’t it? Or at least partial refund should take place. I bet those announcements before the start of a show or an act would be far less frequent.
Perhaps concerts, opera and ballet performances would become more interesting if there was a program insert for each show, indicating which performers were not in top shape, and for what reason. We could have a color coded or a point system for different levels of threat to a perfect performance. At the end of the year the points would be tallied and the averages published. A musician, dancer or even a conductor could get a bonus based on this. Question is: how much does a toothache affect one’s ability? What about a chronic condition, such as obesity, or just being seriously unhappy with one’s colleagues, not to mention having something stuck up the rear end?