Grin and Bear It: Why Anna Netrebko’s Smile Got the Critics Riled

A short history of breaking character on stage

“What was always a big applause moment was ‘Abscheulicher!’ in Beethoven’sFidelio,” Mr. Benson said. “I remember the only time Christa Ludwig sang it at the Met. It was the peak of her success in New York. She sang the aria, and I’ll never forget this: she raised her hands over her head like a prizefighter. It was a shared moment of triumph.”

But breaking character is by no means always about celebration or relief: Mr. Bernheimer, the Financial Times critic, remembered the tenor Jon Vickers shouting at the audience, “Shut up with your damn coughing!” during a 1974 performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Maria Callas, for all her storied focus, broke character on several occasions, including once in Anna Bolena itself.

To be fair, being Callas, she didn’t so much break character as assimilate Anne Boleyn’s drama into her own. Callas had returned to Milan in 1958 after a scandal and was received coolly throughout the first act. At the act’s finale she rushed to the edge of the stage, as the costume designer Piero Tosi once remembered, “spitting her lines directly at the audience”: “Giudici? Ad Anna? Guidici?” (“Judges? For Anna? Judges?”).

“You could not dream what she did,” Mr. Tosi said. “It was a show within a show.”

James Jorden, the opera critic for the New York Post, shared a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore captured on YouTube, in which the mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto sings the wrenching narrative “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” with utter focus, ending with her hands clutching her head and her eyes wild. That’s when the real performance begins. She stays in character for a full 40 seconds before her hands drop and her eyes cloud with tears. She begins to weep. She crosses her hands over her chest and wipes her eyes. The ovation surges. She smiles and lifts her eyes to heaven, the classic character-breaking move.

In another clip, Ms. Cossotto and—again!—Montserrat Caballé end a duet from Bellini’s Norma at arm’s length from each other. The applause is so intense that eventually Ms. Cossotto pulls Ms. Caballé in for a hug. The video director had the right idea: as the ovation continues, he superimposes the embracing singers over the footage of the audience clapping and shouting.

The clip sums up what was once opera’s special quality: the intimate, charged relationship between singers and audiences, a relationship that these moments of breaking character acknowledge and celebrate with unique power. With its stylization and its larger-than-life emotions, opera has never been about unbroken narrative or cinematic realism. It is about going in and out of the drama, in and out of realism.

For much of opera’s 400-year history, star singers would travel with their own costumes and their own arias, which they would insert into any work in which they were appearing, regardless of the dramatic context. The character break is the distant descendent, or perhaps the residue, of such indulgences. While all of this may seem absurd and risible to us, the audiences of the past weren’t less connected to the drama than we are today, with our silences at diva entrances that used to be greeted with ovations or our polite applause after arias. If anything, they were more passionate, more attuned. Opera meant more to them; its drama was more vivid.

Then something began to shift. The soprano Mirella Freni had not appeared at the Met in 15 years when she returned in Verdi’s Don Carlo in 1983. “Don Carlodoesn’t give a big opportunity for the soprano until the end,” Mr. Benson said. “So after ‘Tu che le vanità’ she got a huge ovation. In a very dignified way she knelt on one knee. And she was pretty widely chastised for that in the papers. Speight Jenkins took her to task for it in the New York Post.”

Had the AIDS epidemic killed off opera’s most ardent, knowledgeable fans? Or was it that, by late 1970s and early ’80s, long-standing European trends—a focus on the director’s role and an emphasis on cohesive dramatic values—had reached America? Whatever the reason, the break from character began to be regarded as less celebratory than selfish. “I despise the character-breaking syndrome, period,” Mr. Bernheimer wrote in an email.

These days, as we worry about opera’s future, we have bet our money on its viability as the same kind of drama as the more popular forms of theater, film and television, with the same kinds of narrative rules. But audiences for those forms are largely passive; they don’t have the opera audience’s unpredictable, give-and-take relationship with singers. Opera may, in fact, have more in common with sporting events—a narrative that is stop-and-start yet remains coherent; an intense connection between performer and crowd—than it does with other performing arts.

That was what was so moving about Ms. Netrebko’s smile. The illusion shared by an operatic audience is strengthened, not weakened, by its occasional collapse. Opera is drama, yes—thanks to people like Callas, those values were restored. But it is also sheer performance, a quality that is allowed to subvert that drama from time to time. To be serious, opera has to be fun.

“I totally understood the whole moment,” Mr. Benson said. “I wish there was more of a bond between the stage and the audience today.”

That bond, though, is still there, and it’s still strong. On Saturday, the boyish tenor Javier Camarena made his Met debut as Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Near the end of the opera, the count has a dazzlingly virtuosic aria that ends with a big high B-flat. The audience went wild, just as it had for Ms. Netrebko. Mr. Camarena stood and took it all in, and then he made a little bow, mouthing, “Thank you, thank you.” Nothing could have seemed more gracious or appropriate. Then the show went on.

As it happens, Ms. Netrebko was in the house. At intermission The Observer went over and asked her what had happened at the end of “Al dolce guidami.”

“Well, I don’t know, it was just a smile to the conductor,” she said. “It was kind of like, ‘O.K., we did it. It was good. The audience is applauding.’ It’s a beautiful moment to stay on the stage of the Met and receive all this applause, you know? It’s really a great moment. I think if it’s done just a little bit, without going too far, it’s O.K.”

“I didn’t do it last night,” she went on with a laugh, “because I was criticized for breaking character. I smiled a little bit, but not that much. I reduced my smile.”


  1. I think its wonderful the bond that Anna Netrebko has with her audience, and no Critic should say anything about that unless they just have an agenda against her because they are jealous of all of the adulation she gets everywhere. The more often critics act that way the more they will be ignored by the public and their opinion will become mute.

  2. Roger Evans says:

    Bravo. I couldn’t agree more with this article. There’s another story of an occasion in Germany when Montserrat Caballé broke character beautifully. Late in the opera careers of both great ladies Marilyn Horne had apparently gone out of her way to support Caballé in some temporary anxiety about her vocal state for the first night of SEMIRAMIDE. During the audience’s wild ovation after Caballé big aria, she kissed Horne’s hand in acknowledgment and gratitude. Nothing could have been more graceful and appropriate. And any spectator that doesn’t feel honored to witness such a moment between two great divas probably doesn’t belong in an opera house.

    I felt the same way about Netrebko’s small gesture.

  3. Awebern says:

    That Tristan with Vickers was in Dallas during the opening of third act.   I was not at that specific performance, but was at others.  The Isolde was Roberta Knie.  I was in high school and have not forgotten them….phenomenal.

  4. Bel Canto Imp says:

    The quotes from Bernheimer’s review hardly suggest he was “upset” at all. He reports that it happened, no less, no more. Tommassini doesn’t appear to be suicidal about it either and Midgette is mildly sarcastic. Obviously the paper has space to fill…..

  5. Opera lover Rick says:

    There was a wonderful 1975 performance of Tosca at the Met with Magda Olivero.  After Vissi d’arte, the audience justifiably applauded hysterically, in response to which Olivero ever so slowwwwwwwly began to lower her head in a nod to acknowledge the ovation, which only increased as she completely a very graceful nod that probably lasted a good 2 or 3 minutes.  It was glorious!  When so well earned, let’s enjoy the moment!

  6. Gavin says:

    Mr. Clarke et al,

    When will proponents of a singer ever realize that if someone has a opposing opinion, it does not mean they are jealous of the accomplishments of the person about whom they are critical.

    It means that all things being equal, their opinion–as valid as yours–displeases you and possibly brings shame to someone that you admire.

    In matters of taste there is always going to be dissent.

    In matters as technical as singing specific notes and dynamic markings on a page ACCURATELY there is nothing to argue.

    1. Gene Bivins says:

      I doubt Netrebko feels any “shame” because of what a critic says about her, unless her voice cracks or she does a pratfall. She was sailing and she smiled, out of character perhaps to bring the endless applause to an end. Audiences don’t care, in moments like that, whether a singer holds character, or they wouldn’t go on and on with the applause. Get over it, critics. If you don’t enjoy performances any more, don’t go!

  7. reiner says:

    Oh for pete’s sake, Senesino had *contracted* Farinelli to come and sing in the opera company he was *managing*.  They were not “bitter rivals” at all.  Senesino realised that his stage career would come to an end, and was shaping a management career for himself instead.  He was running a rival opera company to Handel’s, and pulled the sensational coup of grabbing the hottest talent in Europe – Farinelli.  He had even given Farinelli the young hero role he himself had sung many years before.  Can’t you do even *basic* research?

  8. Chris M says:

    Of the four critics you quote, only one appears to be upset by the smile, so I’m not sure what the point is.

  9. Joe Pearce says:

    I loved this piece. I really wish Mr. Woolfe would write something like it for the New York Times, where the prevalence of Tommasini-type attitudes of this-can’t-be-any-good-because-it-has-16th-century-costumes-in-a-16th-century-opera, or the-costumes-look-too-real-,like-they-come-from-a-Hollywood-Henry VIII-epic, or the-music-is-totally-accessible-so-it-must-stink-on-ice have been endemic in recent years. Watch one of those old Mario Del Monaco videos from Japan, where he comes running back onto the stage after “E lucevan le stelle” to take a bow (he also does it in, of all things, NORMA, in a late-in-his-career German performance), or even worse for the purists, some Salzburg performances from the 1960s (under Karl Boehm, for God’s sake!), where Reri Grist sings Susanna or Zerlina (I forget which at this point) and comes bouncing back onto the stage after having vacated it, just to take a bow and acknowledge all the applause (as do several other Salzburg singers of the period).  Break the dramatic action?  Screw the dramatic action!  ANNA BOLENA isn’t WOZZECK, and shouldn”t be sung, acted, directed or otherwise interpreted as such.  That is something that Opera People, most especially critics, used to  understand, but has been lost in the Wilson-LePage New Era of Opera, augmented and supported by critics who are scared to death of NOT embracing the avant garde for fear that they will be their own generations’ Eduard Hanslick.   And while I’m at it, Mr. Woolfe was ill-advised to use that line about this older style of appreciation having gone by the boards because of all the fans Opera lost during the AIDS epidemic.  He can take my word for it that straight opera-lovers acted and reacted exactly the same way (and, ironically,  there seem to have been a great many more of them in evidence in the pre-AIDS era than is now the case; go figure).

  10. Jena says:

    Breaking character is unprofessional and takes away from the art. Thank God America adopted the European trend of treating opera as an art form and not a “sporting event”. Opera is so much more than a sporting event. It is, as the article says, “…a cohesion of dramatic values”, and that is what I find most beautiful about opera.