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May 10, 2011

To announce or not to announce an indisposition before a performance

Over the weekend, the Baltimore Symphony orchestra performed Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," one of the most profound works in the repertoire. It depends as much on the two vocal soloists as on the orchestra and conductor to make its full musical and emotional impact.

I had high hopes for the tenor, Simon O'Neill, considering his strong track record in hefty operatic roles, including Wagnerian, and impressive places where he has sung them, including Bayreuth. On Friday night, he didn't sound so good.

I remember thinking that he must have been indisposed, especially when he reached the final high A and, unless my ears deceived me, took it an octave lower.

However, no announcement was made concerning his health, so I chalked it up to just another tenor strained by Mahler's cruel demands (I've heard my share). But then I learned something very interesting from a treasured reader of this blog (y'all are treasured, of course, in this era of obsessive page-view-click-counters).

The comment-poster attended that same performance and stayed for the post-concert chat with BSO music director Marin Alsop. He says Alsop disclosed that O'Neill ...

had been in the hospital Friday with kidney stones.

I think an announcement should have been made before the singer walked onstage -- the audience didn't need to know the intimate details, just that he was a bit under the weather, but had agreed to go ahead.

Many's the time singers do perform after such a revelation, only to sound so good that people wonder why the issue was raised. But better to be safe, I say, to set up a sympathetic environment, than risk having a performance judged harshly for what might be the wrong reasons.

I remember attending a vocal recital in Washington early on in my writing days. The baritone sounded little more than adequate. As I was heading to the door after the performance, a woman rushed up to me (not sure how she knew who I was -- I didn't wear a name tag) and said, "You should know that my husband has been very sick, but decided to sing anyway." I replied -- and wrote in the review -- that the audience should have been told that, not just the critic.

I know this sort of thing can be a difficult decision for artists and for everyone else involved in a concert, but I still think no harm is done simply letting listeners in on the possibility that the performance might not be totally up to par because of an unforeseen indisposition. (I draw the line on announcing: "So-and-so begs you indulgence because he/she can't stand the color of the hall, or was still upset by the outcome of last night's game or 'American Idol' episode, but will try to do his/her best anyway.")

Sure, the actual performance might not sound any different if the artist in question were in the pink of health. And, sure, an artist might over-use the excuse announcement. Still, it seems to me that it's wiser to err on the side of sympathy than risk having any notes leave an unpleasant taste in the ear.

Do you agree?

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:39 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes


I was there on Sunday. Few apologies were needed. He took the high A in falsetto and certainly seemed up to the demands of the rest (from the sixth row at least). The guy's clearly the real thing.

Of course an announcement should have been made. From the performer's point or view, she or he gets the benefit of the doubt about the performance and also gets points for carrying on. From the audience's point of view, what's wrong with transparency about this sort of issue? Nothing that I can see.

I was at Saturday's concert in Strathmore. He sounded a little pinched, as if he had a cold. I would have appreciated an announcement--I would have been pulling for him, and that would have resulted in my enjoying the concert even more than I did.

I suspect that some level of "machismo" is involved, in that maybe the singer didn't want to be seen as making excuses or begging for sympathy. OTOH, sometimes illness is such that geniune physical trauma to one's body, like treatment for kidney stones, just overpowers one's willpower and attitude that "I'm going to get through this without looking like a wimp".

Dear Tim and readers.
I appreciate your thoughts and concern. To be absolutely honest, although I had some abdominal pain, I was surprised that my voice became affected during the performance last Friday evening. If I can ask your indulgence - I guess spending most of the day at the hospital with an IV in your arm, CAT scans etc and much blood being taken affected my tone, strength and ultimate vocal power. Apologies. Simon

Thanks very much for writing. You have nothing to apologize for. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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