When I am old — I mean, so old that I can't hit the high notes and moving down to alto or tenor isn't a solution because I cannot hear the notes well enough to sing them on-key… well, may I perceive this all by myself and retire gracefully, rather than become a burden to whatever choral group I may belong to at the time.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's recent retirement at age 70 put me in mind of this, as well as in mind of hearing Beverly Sills’s performance when she was in the last stages of her career: her voice was noticeably tired at the end of the recital, and she was not quite on pitch with her highest notes, even if her coloratura runs were still light and silvery. But what really prompts this post is that I ratted out Ludmilla during choir practice in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, and then interpreted her absence at subsequent rehearsals as a direct result of having done so.

I am often assigned during concerts to sing between two of the choir's oldest sopranos, Marlene and Ludmilla. Marlene has inconsistent vocal quality, with a noticeable wobble at times, and it seems clear that she doesn't study her music as assiduously as she ought to. She laughs off her mistakes — but sometimes so often and so close to performance dates that I want to snap at her that it's no laughing matter. (Yeah, I get that laughter is a cover for embarrassment, so I refrain. Besides, I am not perfect either — quelle surprise — despite consistent practice.) But it was Ludmilla's increasing pitch problems that finally induced me to talk to our section leader, Sabine. Although I usually hold my pitch and prevail, having a next-door neighbor consistently sing flat is distracting and grating.

(It's one thing, by the way, to belong to a choral group whose principal function is as much social as it is musical, as was the case with at least two out of the three French choirs to which I belonged in Grenoble. Local people pay their dues, they get together to sing, they enjoy chatting together. The essentially geographically-bounded nature of those two French choirs contribute to the sociality: these are people who often see one another in other venues throughout the week: they are friends before they are choir members together. A choir such as the one here in Berlin — one with pro-level aspirations and potential, one that draws singers from all over Berlin, one that requires a level of trained musicianship to belong — is quite another thing. Although friendships do form, thankfully, our goal is to perform, and we try to sing to a standard that makes the choice of venue, the Berlin Philharmonie, seem appropriate rather than absurd.)

With all that in mind, I went up to Sabine during the break and talked to her about Ludmilla (not for the first time, I confess, but this time with some real urgency). I am not the only person to have complained about her — which is why I ended up having to switch places with a less-dominant soprano at the last minute to stand between Ludmilla and Marlene just before a recent concert. But… Ludmilla. She is a lovely woman, kind and funny, a devoted member of the choir for many years, full of good works and fundraising efforts. A widow now, with no children nearby, the choir seems to have been her major social outlet for a long time. How do you put someone like that out to pasture, how do you tell someone that they're no longer good enough to sing, how do you tell them that they've become a detriment to the group's performance?

Sabine said she would talk to Johann, our conductor, about Ludmilla… again.

Who wants the job of breaking people's hearts? When I sang with a 110-voice semi-pro choir in Los Angeles years ago, the problem of aging voices pulling down the entire choir finally became such an issue that the founder-conductor made everyone reaudition. I was one of the principal accompanists for the reauditions, so I heard nearly everyone sing—and there were some truly noticeable problems with more than just a handful of singers. However, at the end of the reauditions, no one was asked to leave. No one. Even though the conductor’s own hearing was getting a little iffy, it wasn't because he couldn't hear the problems that he chose not to ask anyone to leave. One of the worst singers was the wardrobe mistress, followed by the social chairperson, followed by the choir secretary. How do you retain people filling such key non-musical roles if they are no longer allowed to sing?

When I was the choir director for our church congregation in Pittsburgh, I understood and accepted the idea that the choir was a way to engage people, and that that was reason enough to allow musically-interested but not especially talented people to sing. One man in particular, Chris, had an okay voice, but was usually on the planet Jupiter when it came to actually learning whatever music we ended up presenting during church services. People would occasionally perceive his off-the-beaten-track tenor warbling above (or alongside) the actual musical number. It drove some choir members crazy, and once in a while drove me crazy, too. But the overarching idea of giving this man a reason to come to church ruled out refusing to let him sing: after all, he showed up on a regular basis, so it's not as though I could have legitimately used attendance as a reason.

Anyway. Ludmilla has not been present at any rehearsals that I know of since I talked to Sabine. (I was away for three subsequent rehearsals, so I have no idea if she was there for those or not. I haven't seen her since my return.) The other night I expressed my regrets about Ludmilla’s absence to Sabine, who then told me that no, she had not talked to Johann about Ludmilla and that — I'm not sure I caught it, as Sabine was talking to me in German —that there was an altogether different reason why Ludmilla won’t be singing in the upcoming concert. So my semi-guilty conscience is assuaged. I still have to deal with singing next to Marlene, however, and I swear to God if she keeps laughing off her bad entrances or notes held too long or other errors, especially during the last rehearsals before our performance, … I’ll probably keep my mouth shut. Except when singing.