Sunday, September 22, 2013

Opera Singers No Longer Sing - Opera L

This is a longish essay, as I’ve been wanting to explore some ideas with
the list for some time. Let me begin by asking how many people on the list
regularly listen to old opera recordings? By old recordings, I don't mean
Callas and Tebaldi, I mean really old recordings: Patti, Battistini, Bonci,
Plancon, recordings that are now mostly over a hundred years old.

 Casta diva - Adelina Patti, 1906

 Why are these recordings valuable?  They aren't easy to listen to, taking
a bit of practice to be able to digest them, they don't really constitute
much of a musical experience, and the sound is just too poor, although
there is a beguiling antique charm to them. Nonetheless these recordings
show as no amount of writing or musicological wheel spinning can, how
singers sang and how the music was performed when opera was in its heyday:
opera singers really are singing on those records in a way that they no
longer do.

 Today, opera singers, brilliantly talented and superbly trained as many of
them can be, are automatons; they are drilled to perfection, they can sing
all the notes, but they are not in full or even in partial control of their
own music making. They render a score as faithfully and unthinkingly as a
zealot might follow a religious text, and on top of that, master conductors
are telling them when to hold a line, add ornamentation, and how to shape
the music, things they should be figuring out on their own. Conductors
instruct them how to express or how to phrase, what high notes they can
sing and how long they can hold them. They are not their own persons when
it comes to music and this is a fact demonstrated in numerous
documentaries, rehearsal tapes, etc, etc. I’ll never forget seeing Cecilia
Gasdia in Philadelphia, standing nervously with her eyes glued to Riccardo
Muti’s baton as he led her through her cadenza in Caro Nome, something that
would never have happened in the 19th Century.

 But today, opera singers are used to being led by the nose. What the most
amateurish pop singer enjoys and can do without hesitation or second
guessing, that is enjoying complete ownership of their performances, has
been taken away from the opera singer through years of academic training
and professional expectations. Individual, idiosyncratic instincts they may
have had as performers have been suppressed all along the way during their
training, and professionally in their work with conductors who control them
as completely as video gamers control their avatars.

 The result is that modern opera singers don't sing, not in any way that
would have been expected during the heyday of 18th and 19th centuries. They
long ago lost their independence and can hardly be said to sing at all in
any sense that a Tosi, a Popora, much less a Handel, Gluck, Mozart or
Rossini would recognize.

 It is elsewhere that we find singers who sing today, enjoying their
prerogatives as complete and unencumbered artists, but never in the opera
world. To hear singers sing the way Patti did, with sovereign command and
the complete control of what they want to do and without the barest hint of
interference, one has to go to the world of pop, to rock, and to country
western where a surprising amount of singing has more than a superficial
resemblance to what we hear on those old recordings of opera singers.

 During my trip this summer to the Grand Ole Opry, I was immediately struck
by the freedom and absolute command in each and every performer and the way
the stock musicians of the company follow their leads. Most, but not all,
are composers themselves, and this surely has something to do with it. It
gives them a link to the age of Baroque opera and the later bel canto age
that no opera singer today has. In the Baroque period, singers received
extensive training in composition and they were expected to compose, not
complete works perhaps, but occasional songs and most especially to compose
their own ornaments and to invent variations, particularly in singing

 When Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was premiered in London, at least one third
of the music that was sung was composed by the Orfeo, the castrato
Guadagni, who though he had sung the opera in the Vienna premiere had no
qualms about substituting so much of his own music. Even though no
recordings exist of those singers, many left indelible legacies which
influence what we hear today. That would include Guadagni, whose
ornamentations and variations in the Da Capos of Che Faro Senza Euridice
survived and have been used and recorded on more than one occasion
including a set led by Mackerras who owned the manuscript. An even more
famous instance is the stuttering by Don Basilio in Mozart's Le nozze di
Figaro, which was not Mozart's idea, but was the inspiration of Michael
Kelly who did it in spite of Mozart's objections. Now the stuttering is de
rigeur.   Verdi’s operas have also had such alterations such as when
Alessandro Bonci added the famous laughs in "E scherzo od e folia" in a
famous revival of Un Ballo in Maschera in the 1890s. This laugh has become
common practice and even Toscanini allows it in his Ballo recording:

 Italian Tenor Alessandro Bonci ~ Un Ballo In Maschera (1926 Electrical)

 Can anyone imagine a singer today doing something like that with an older
work? Singing it with an innovative twist that from then on becomes a new
standard?  The closest example I can think of in our own time is Callas’
way with Norma which has been much imitated, but not codified in the same

 It wasn't just in Italian opera that singers exercised their kingly
prerogatives. There is probably no more idiosyncratic singer to make
recordings than Feodor Chaliapin and whose performances, sometimes sung
with a technique that seems invented right on the spot, were so iconic that
singers have followed in his steps ever since:

 Feodor Chaliapin sings Song of the Flea

 Or how about Slezak in Magische Tone?

 Leo Slezak   ~  "Magische tone"   Die Konigen von Saba  -1905

 Has anyone heard these kinds of idiosyncratic performances on an opera
stage today?

Today, a Dolly Parton has more in common with Adelina Patti than Maria
Callas did. Parton didn't and still doesn't need to sit down with a Tullio
Serafin to be drilled to sing coloratura, she just does it:

 Dolly Parton - Coat of many colors

 Parton sings this lovely ballad, her own composition, with supreme
authority. This is singing that is uncannily similar in its communicative
immediacy and intuitive organic ornamentation to that of Bonci, Anselmi,
and Patti: real portamenti, ornamentation, appoggiaturas, and, again, a
total authority and absolute confidence in what she is doing. When Parton
ornaments, she's doing it to mold the music for communication, not as a
vocalise. Furthermore, when other singers sing her music, or when she sings
music that was written and first performed by others, a practice called
"covering," the result will be a song that is changed, sometimes almost
beyond recognition. This isn’t seen as a desecration, but is in fact a
prized and expected part of a singer’s artistry.

 Is there any singer in opera today who sings coloratura on their own
terms, the way a modern pop singer does? Anyone who adds portamenti, runs
and trills as they wish? Anyone who sings coloratura with even remotely the
same freedom that Patti did, and the way every singer who walks on the
stage of the Grand Ole Opry does? I understand the vast gulf between the
different kinds of music, but there is a universality to the way singers
instinctively sing floridly: it's found in gospel, it's found in jazz, it's
found in swing, modern pop and folk as well as country. It possibly goes
back to the earliest forms of vocal music, one could argue. This florid
instinct so readily apparent in the singing of an Anselmi has been
eliminated from modern opera singing:

 Giuseppe Anselmi - Rigoletto: "Questa o quella"

 It’s not that great things still don’t happen in the opera house. There
are superb singers who, though encumbered by this academic tradition, still
manage to triumph, singers like Jonas Kaufmann and Juan Diego Florez, Anna
Netrebko and Joyce DiDonato. But, gifted as they all are, they nonetheless
follow that baton as if their very lives depend on it. Even the
incomparable, soul-stirring Lorraine Hunt followed the conductor’s baton as
slavishly in fact as the least of her colleagues. Imagine what she might
have done with the 19th century freedom of a Viardot.

 What puzzles me is why this happened.  What happened to stamp out the
singer’s prerogatives in opera? Some blame the rise of the conductor, but
there have been authoritative conductors in pop music as well -- Paul
Whiteman was every bit as influential in his sphere as Toscanini was in

 It happened gradually, I think. In the 1930s one can still hear a lot of
individuality in singing from singers like Schipa and Mojica and Tauber,
each of whom not coincidentally had huge careers as pop singers. (I had
hopes that Grigolo coming from the pop world would bring this kind of
sensibility to his opera performances, but no, in the recent Met Rigoletto,
he sang well, but just like any academy graduate.) I guess we can go back
to Toscanini for the answer in part. Many know the old story of how Richard
Tucker objected to singing the high C in Celeste Aida in a diminuendo.
Toscanini compromised by letting him sing it full out if he finished with a
diminuendo, citing for authority a letter by Verdi to him, allowing this

 Richard Tucker- Celeste Aida- 1949

 One can be sure that when Masini sang Celeste Aida, he didn't ask the
conductor's permission to sing a high note his way. (Maybe that's why Jean
De Reszke cavalierly omitted the aria altogether, giving for his reason
that his fans came to their boxes too late to hear it.) The opera singer
who perhaps has come closest in our time to exercising the divine right of
the singer is Cecilia Bartoli who had the bravery (some would say temerity)
to actually substitute an alternate aria (also by Mozart) in place of “Deh
vieni non tardar” when she sang Susanna at the Metropolitan Opera. Bartoli
could do it because she was that rarity, a genuine commercial superstar,
immune to the usual critical reaction. Her experimentation has been a mixed
bag -- for one thing her technique is more limited than her ambition, and
she has struggled when she attempts to sing in the high soprano range.
Furthermore, I don’t believe she has any imitators or followers and seems
to be a one off. As far as I know, no other singer at the Met in my
lifetime has attempted what was once common practice in opera.

 Timidity has also encroached on the world of classical instrumental and
symphonic music. The most idiosyncratic soloists are looked upon
suspiciously, while the most circumspect are lauded as great artists. Thus
the contrasting critical receptions of Lang Lang (ridiculed, but
nevertheless adored by the unwashed audiences) and the blank,
expressionless Leif Ove Andsnes who is called a genius.  The controversial
Glenn Gould was reviled by much of the music establishment in his heyday
and for what? For playing it his way. Gould was a throwback in fact and no
wonder he's now so lionized. He's endlessly fascinating, unlike many of his
contemporaries who were so praised in their day, but whose recordings can
often barely be distinguished from one another’s. Why has the dull become
so fashionable in classical music? Why must personality be banished?
[Recall the spectacle of Claudio Abbado walking out of a recording session
of a Mozart concerto because he didn't like the pianist’s choice for the
cadenza, something that was traditionally exclusively the prerogative of
the pianist!]

 The only creativity we get in our opera productions today is the
regie-minded directors, putting Mozart on the moon or in toilet bowls, rats
in Wagner, etc, etc. Ok then, why not get as creative with the music, mix
it up, sing it differently, add stuff, subtract stuff? There’s been a
little movement in this direction – the Peter Brook Magic Flute, originally
staged in Paris, and then at the Lincoln Center Festival three years ago,
was brilliant and daring, deconstructing the work with incredible intimacy
and connecting with a young audience in a way that the Met, with their
streamlined Flute, can only dream of doing.

 "A Magic Flute" by Paeter Brook

 The Pina Bausch Orfeo ed Euridice was also a deconstruction that I’d like
to see more of:

 Pina Bausch - "Orfeu e Eurídice":

 But even in those productions, for all their creativity and interpolation
in acting, staging and dancing, the singing was in the modern academic
tradition, hardly discernable from any other performances of those works.

 All I know is that, more and more, I'm finding modern opera singing
lacking in individuality and personality.  I'm finding it increasingly dull
and mechanical. I wish a genuine HIP singing revival would happen -- maybe
a bunch of young singers could get together and present operas without
conductors, the way they were given in the 18th Century when one of the
instrumental players might just tap the music stand with a bow or a stick
to keep things together.

 Maybe with opera in the tank, with more and more seats empty and venerable
companies on the ropes or closing up altogether, the music establishment in
their desperation can tinker around with all of this, free the next
generation of singers to really sing again. Make opera singing thrilling
and adventurous and idiosyncratic.

 Or maybe having a familiarity with older recordings isn't so good after

 James Camner

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