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Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Great Frieda Hempel Hempel, (1885-1955) was born in Leipzig and began her studies as a very young woman,  first at the Conservatory in Leipzig, and then, shortly thereafter, at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin.  Her young voice was rather extraordinary because of its great range.  The sharp differences between coloratura and regular soprano repertoire were not so much observed in her day, when she was viewed simply as a soprano with an unusually high top register.  Her earliest roles were fairly standard coloratura repertoire, such as Rosina, Gilda, and Queen of the Night. However, even at the very tender age of 20, she sang, during her debut years around 1905, roles such as Violetta, Leonora and Woglinde.  It was this ability to sing high coloratura roles along with what today are considered heavier soprano roles that characterized her career path from the very beginning.  She sang at the Royal Court Opera in Berlin between 1907 and 1912, where she added the roles of Lucia and Marguerite de Valois to her repertoire.

Her international career began during that same approximate period.  In Covent Garden,  (amazingly by today's standards) she sang both Eva and Elsa.  By 1912 she had sung at the Metropolitan Opera, where she stayed for a good while, basically making the Met her artistic home during the peak of her career.  Again, her repertoire was very wide, extending  from the great coloratura roles of the day all the way down to Rosenkavalier and Ballo in Maschera!  Such a thing would be unheard of today, but her era was a different story altogether.  There were operas to be sung and singers to sing them, and that pretty much described the situation. Beginning around 1920, when she would only have been 35, she left the Met and started to concertize in earnest,  essentially developing  a second career, in which she was also very successful. 


I think it makes most sense to first hear Frieda Hempel in an extremely demanding coloratura aria, because it was her astonishing upper register that perhaps dominated  the largest part of her early repertoire.  I would simply ask you to remember that this great artist also sang Wagner!  Here is the famous Queen of the Night aria.  This particular recording, from 1911, is fairly rare, and you will smile, I think, at two things—the first is the cute illustration on the video, and the second is the gratuitous F above high C that she tosses in at 1:03, as though the aria were not high enough already!  This recording is positively delightful:



Now how about that!  I find myself smiling from ear to ear. A first-rate coloratura, endowed with what, to my way of thinking, is a real coloratura sound, in the class of Galli-Curci and Lily Pons.  There have been much heftier soprano sounds, driven to great heights by superb technique, but at that point aesthetic problems arise, I think. This I would characterize as Golden Age bel canto.  Now here is something that is just plain fun!


Kentucky Babe."



Irresistible!  Everybody was doing the same thing back then.  The economic potential of making records had become apparent to all, and opera singers were the most popular and respected  singers, generally speaking, of that period.  The temptation was enormous.  With all the American homes with pianos in the parlors, all the sheet music sales, and all the people buying Victrolas; well, it was inevitable.  Louise Homer, Amelia Galli-Curci, Alma Gluck, Enrico Caruso, John McCormack—they were all making "popular" recordings, usually abounding  in covered vowels and nearly incomprehensible foreign accents, but never was a particular time and a particular moment in American cultural history.  Frankly, I love it!



Sunday, December 14, 2014

John Charles Thomas

John Charles Thomas, The Great American Baritone

John Charles Thomas was born in 1891 in Meyersdale, Pa., the son of a Methodist minister.  After study for a medical a career, he won a scholarship to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1910.  In 1912 Thomas left the Peabody and toured with a musical troupe, and starred in many musicals, including “Her Soldier Boy”, Maytime, “Naughty Marietta,” and “Apple Blossoms.”  His opera career began in 1925 as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida.  He went on to sing in San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  He would remain at the Met until 1933 , singing opposite great sopranos of the day, such as Rosa Ponselle.  Thomas sang a very wide variety of songs:

Here is Thomas in opera, "O du mein holder Abenderstarn:

Here is “The Last Time I saw Paris”

And here is the”Green Eyed Dragon”

And let's not forget Gilbert and Sullivan!


Friday, December 12, 2014

The Great Neapolitan Tenor Francesco Albanese


Francesco Albanese was born in Torre del Greco, Naples, and was a popular lyric tenor, known not only for his work in opera, but as one of the greatest singers of Neapolitan song.  His life and career were almost entirely in Italy, although he did sing in London, Portugal and South America.  As a result, his work was largely within the Italian repertoire,  but that of course is a very large part of opera!   He did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever sing in the United States.  We have an unfortunate tendency in the US to think that Italian singers who never sang here were  unsuccessful or unimpressive.  That is a silly kind of chauvinism, of course; nothing could be further from the truth.  He in fact had a very good career, and is greatly respected today.

His first studies were in Rome, with Francesco Salfi, and it was there that he made his debut, at the Teatro dell'Opera, in Gluck's Alceste  His early repertoire was to become his characteristic repertoire, which is leggiero, or light lyric roles, such as Almaviva, Fenton, Rinuccio, Ottavio, Ramiro, Ernesto (Don Pasquale), Armida, Alfredo and Nemorino.

He recorded both Ifigenia in Tauride, (1957) and La Traviata (early 50's )  opposite Maria Callas.

It was not only in opera that Albanese had a good career.  For lovers of Neapolitan music, Albanese is commonly considered one of the greatest of all singers of Neapolitan songs, which have a remarkable history all their own.  As I always hasten to point out, whenever I speak of Neapolitan songs, there is a great misconception about what they are.  It seems, for example, that nearly every operatic tenor and baritone on earth feels obliged to sing these songs, whether or not they know anything about Naples, its language, literature, or musical history.  As a result of this, many of the songs are done poorly.  In fact, the Neapolitan song has a style all its own,  because these songs have a long history and in their earliest iterations, they were art songs, much more restrained and dignified in tone than they now often appear in the hands of many singers. Further, they were, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a principle means of instructing a large and unlettered populace in Neapolitan cultural and literary history--they served as a kind of instruction in napolitanità ; which is to say in what it meant to be Neapolitan.  Therefore, a great familiarity with Naples, its music, its political history,  its language and its literature is required to do them well.  Several names come immediately to mind, including Fernando de Lucia—still the all-time favorite tenor of many Neapolitans—modern singers Roberto Murolo and Aurelio Fierro, and of course Francesco Albanese.

I think it's possible to get a good idea of just what a fine singer Albanese was by listening to him sing one of the most popular of all Neapolitan songs, Dicitencello Vuje.  When I posted this on Youtube, I included the lyrics, and translated them from Neapolitan into English.  It makes it possible to follow the song carefully.

Isn't that just absolutely wonderful!  That is what a Neapolitan song is supposed to sound like.  The first thing you will notice is that it is completely devoid of shouting, moaning, groaning, glycerin tears or schlock.  It is in fact as well constructed, singable and  dignified as many a Schubert Lied, making allowance for the theme of romance expressed in a Latin way and in a Latin language.  Of course, these tonal differences will be expressed in ways particular to both cultures, but that says nothing about the quality of the artistry, just the intrinsic nature of the different cultures, languages, and peoples.  You can hear the same differences in political or scientific discussions or speeches.  On the same Youtube page where this song appears, you can find, in the right hand sidebar, the same song "sung" by the Three Tenors.  I don't recommend it:-)

As for opera, here is "Parigi, o Cara....," from La Traviata, with Maria Callas:

Notice the restraint and the elegance of his singing.  This is classy singing, there is no doubt about it, and very much against stereotype.  I would contend that this is exactly the quality I find in the Neapolitan songs he sings, and one of the major reasons he sings them so authentically and beautifully.  A first class tenor, and a credit to Italian music!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Nunzio Todisco


I need first to express my sincere gratitude and acknowledge my indebtedness to my Neapolitan friend Mr. Gaetano De Rosa for the photos and biographical information I have used in the preparation of this article.  Mr. De Rosa’s Youtube channel Caruso1873, which I highly recommend, is a wonderful archive of Neapolitan music. I thank you!]
 have only over time come to appreciate just how popular opera really is.  It is almost certainly the most popular and widespread of the classical musical forms, and there is no sign of decline. Quite the contrary, in fact. Such widespread popularity  makes possible the accommodation of a great variety of tastes, styles, traditions, and voice types, all of which have their audience.  This has been the case for centuries, and the particular enthusiasms for bel canto, or for verismo, or—more recently—for neoclassical 18th century opera—often become armed camps making special claims for the forms their adherents most love.  There are, correspondingly, many different voice types and acting schools that soon provide the stars and the darlings for each of the different kinds of operatic art.  Elegant, even tiny-voiced singers, so beloved of some bel canto enthusiasts, are poles apart from the giant stentorian voices which are so popular with Wagnerian enthusiasts, and so it goes.  Many singers, many styles, many fans. point this out because Nunzio Todisco is a very particular kind of singer, with a nearly unique voice, performing in an old, well-known and, for many, a much appreciated tradition.  We all need to respect the enthusiasms of others, because we are all opera lovers.  “Opera” itself is a plural word, the plural of “opus.”  It means many works, and accompanying those many works—singing, acting, dancing, instrumental music, costumes, stagecraft—are many styles of singing and acting.  Add to this the enthusiasms of different cultures and their various traditions, and we have a phenomenon that absolutely prohibits claims of exclusivity.


Nunzio Todisco was born in 1942 in Torre del Greco.  A seaman by profession, he traveled the world with different shipping companies.  A good Neapolitan, he always had a love of music and singing, and would sing whenever he had the opportunity, either in singing contests or for  family members or shipboard passengers. He was a born favorite with audiences because of his extraordinary voice, which has to be one of the most powerful instruments ever!  He also had a natural melodramatic and audience-pleasing way of presenting himself, which is sure-fire in Italy!  He was in all ways a “big” personality, with a very big voice. of his extraordinary voice eventually reached soprano Maria Grazia Marchini, who determined to meet him and encourage him to participate in the 1971 Spoleto Festival.  Justifying her faith, Todisco joined the singing competition, and won the contest!  By so doing, he  joined the ranks of such previous winners as Mario Del Monaco and Franco Corelli.  He attracted critical attention, and early critics compared him to Caruso, another Neapolitan, because of the extreme power of his voice, and the nearly wide-open vocal production, with such great carrying power.


The move was steadily upward from that point on. In 1978 he performed in Norma in San Francisco and in La Gioconda in Barcelona.  This was followed by Pagliacci at La Scala in 1981 and a Carmen on French television in 1982.  He has performed in many outdoor concerts, for which he is a natural, with a voice and style that can reach out to large audiences, even outdoors.  One thinks of Roman amphitheaters!  A passionate Neapolitan, he has performed and recorded many Neapolitan songs, much like his compatriot Francesco Albanese, a tenor of a very different kind.


I think the best way to introduce Todisco to an audience who many not know him, since his career was almost exclusively in Italy, is to show him singing for a very large audience (a prime venue for him) at a Gigli Memorial Concert, performing not an operatic piece but the old Neapolitan classic “O Sole Mio.”  It shows all the most important features of Todisco’s extraordinary voice, his singing, and his highly melodramatic stage manner, so beloved by many.  Also note a very enthusiastic reception by a huge crowd.  This is typical.  He had very many fans:


"My own sunshine is right here in front of you!"  Yes, it certainly is!
Does anyone else find themselves smiling, ear to ear?  I sure am.  As are several players in the first violin section, who seem to be getting into the spirit of it allJ  That is my invariable reaction when I hear something this powerful, honest, this uninhibited and overwhelming.  What a voice!  That has to be one of the biggest operatic voices ever, backed by a stage presence that is just as powerful.

One of the things I like so much about Todisco is his absolute honesty.  He is what he is, and he makes no pretenses or apologies.  Powerful, wide-open, even bombastic (not unlike Franco Bonisolli, in some ways), he  can make the rafters ring like few if any others.  Such a personality is infectious.


It is important to point out, however, that Todisco was a serious artist.  One need only reflect upon his many awards and the first class opera theaters he sang in.  It is the use to which he put his big personality and voice that counts.  He always did the big verismo roles, which is what his voice was suited for.  Here is an admirable “Cielo e Mar,” from La Gioconda”



That is great singing.  True, it is his own style and vocal sensibility, but he has that right.  As I said, he is honest.  He is what he is; this is how he sings, this is how he feels and sees the role and the music.  Because of that absolute honesty, it works. Not every singer is the same.  It would be a dull  opera world if they were! It is Todisco’s Enzo Grimaldo.  Period.  Audiences were very fond of him.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Regina Pacini


Regina Pacini de Alvear was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1871, and died in 1965, at 94 years of age, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.   With the exception of some performances at Covent Garden, her  life and career took place almost entirely within the Latin world, where she was celebrated both  as a gifted lyric bel canto soprano, and also as First Lady of Argentina for many years, as the wife of Don Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, president of Argentina from 1922 to 1928.  She was additonally known in later life as a great benefactor the arts. As a result, her name is not well known in the United States today, as she never, to the best of my knowledge, sang here.

She was born into a musical family, as daughter of the Italian baritone Pietro Andrea Giorgi-Pacini.  Regina was born in Lisbon during one of her father’s periods of residency at the Teatro San Carlos, in 1871.

Regina studied in Paris, with Mathilde Marchesi, and made her debut there in 1888, at 17 years of age.  Her debut role was Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula.   Lucia was part of her early repertoire, and I am always fascinated to think of bel canto sopranos who sang that role when they were still children.  Adelina Patti sang it at 16, as her debut at the New York Academy of Music in 1859.  Two years later, Patti sang Sonnambula at Covent Garden, age 18, just a year older than Pacini’s debut age in the same opera.  Oh, to have heard them!  It has always seemed to me so very appropriate to have sopranos of that age in roles like Lucia. I see no reason whatsoever why we could not find  child singers today—or at least teen-aged singers—perfectly capable of turning in excellent performances of both Lucia and Cho-Cho-San.  It would be a very moving experience.  All we need are conductors not determined to blow them off the stage!

Also part of her standard repertoire was Bohème, Rigoletto, Puritani, Manon, and Il Barbiere.  Theaters in which she commonly sang were the San Carlos in Lisbon, Covent Garden (where she did an Elisir with Caruso in 1902), the Paris Opéra, La Scala, the Teatro Solís in Montevideo, and the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires.

In 1907, Regina Pacini married Dr. Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, who was to become President of Argentina in 1922.  She retired from the stage, and during the First World War, the couple resided in Paris, where their patriotic efforts earned for them the Legion of Honor from the French government.

As a distinguished First Lady of Argentina, Pacini dedicated herself to cultural efforts, and in 1938 founded the Casa del Teatro in Buenos Aires, which was a retirement home for actors, similar to the CASA VERDI in Milan.  Widowed in 1942,  Regina Pacini lived on, until the great age of 94, distributing her fortune on worthy causes to the point where, at the time of her death, she was living simply, on a modest government pension.  There is  town in Argentina, Villa Regina, which was named after her.

Here, from 1906, when Pacini was 35 and at the height of her career, is an aria of a different kind, far from the florid vocalizing of “Una Voce,” and fully into the world of tragedy, and the long, languid, legato lines of Elvira’s tragic and delusional “Ah, vieni al tempio,” from Bellini’s I Puritani:

Now that is bel canto singing of a particularly high quality; there are no aesthetic breaks in the line, either vocally or stylistically; it is the kind of singing that has traditionally elicited critical terms like “transporting.”  It does indeed carry one away to another world, another sensual experience.

Finally, Violetta’s aria “Ah, Forse è Lui”.  This is not done, 108 years ago, as we have come to expect to hear it today.  She is a bel canto soprano, and a more vigorous, near-verismo sentiment and vocal style have come to dominate this opera, largely because of its subject matter.  This is a world removed from that of Rosina and Elvira.  I think it helps to remember that Verdi had only died 4 years before this recording was made, and Pacini was 34 years old.  She would have been 30 when the maestro died.  I mention these dates to drive home the point that Pacini would have had ample time to hear, sing, and prepare this opera while Verdi was still alive, and while many singers were singing Traviata, some of whom might  have prepared it under Verdi’s watchful eye.  Pacini is likely to have seen many others sing the role.  In other words, she can be counted upon to have a pretty decent idea of what other circa 1900 Violettas sounded like.  We always have to be careful not to forcibly impose 21st century standards on what is effectively still 19th century style:

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Jacques Urlus was born in 1867 near Aachen, and grew up in Tilburg, in The Netherlands. As was—and is— so often the case with great artists, entertainers and sports figures, his family was poor, so much so that they could not afford to give him any musical training. The result of this is that Urlus was essentially self-taught, and a mighty job he did of it, for he was to become an extraordinary technician, with a near-flawless vocal technique that made it possible for him to sing Mozart, Wagner (with which he was particularly associated), and Lieder. In a word, like Franz Völker and Leo Slezak, he could sing anything he put his mind to. Essentially, it is always the same voice, and it always works well! More on this subject in a moment.

His debut was at the Amsterdam Opera House, in 1894, in a small part. After singing around Amsterdam for a while, he had the chance to go to Hannover, Germany, where he appeared in Lohengrin, to considerable acclaim. He sang for Cosima Wagner, but was not at that time given any opportunities at Bayreuth. So, it was back to The Netherlands, where he continued singing where he could. His next big move was in 1900, to Leipzig, which became his artistic base for many years. Debuts from farther afield soon came, and he went on to perform in Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt and other houses in Germany and Austria. He also appeared at Covent Garden at this time. Finally, in 1911, he did get the chance to go to Bayreuth, where he sang Siegmund , which was well received.

It was on to the Met the next year, and Urlus was now established, having sung in all the major Northern opera houses. I do not know that he ever sang publicly in any language except German, or, I assume, Dutch in some of the performances in The Netherlands.  After the Met engagement, it was back to Germany, where he essentially spent the rest of his career.

Urlus is a good example of what I talk about often in these pages, and that is the unsatisfying vagueness of our current terminology for voice types. He was a great tenor. To me that sums it up. We are so besotted with ever-finer vocal definitions, that they lose meaning after while: Heldentenor, heroic tenor (the same thing) dramatic tenor (the same thing), spinto tenor, leggiero tenor, lyric tenor, etc. ad infinitum. They are all in fact tenors, men with high singing voices. We burden our vocabulary with endless definitions, to almost no avail. Most of these definitions, when you stop and think about it, describe the color, size, intensity and flexibility of the voice. It does not invent a new category every time one tenor sounds different from another. Let's look more closely at Urlus, a good example of what I am talking about. Commonly called a "Heldentenor," a term I somewhat uneasy with in his case, here is his rendition of a popular Mozart aria, Tamino's "Dies Bildness ist bezaubernd Schön"

It is beautiful, and reminds me of what a well-known New York opera coach once told me: "Everybody likes to hear these great Mozart arias, but they don't want to hear a church tenor singing them." Indeed. Urlus' voice sounds different here, of course, from that of Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Björling, or Alfredo Kraus, but so what? They are different people, each with his own voice. If it resembles anyone else's rendition, it would be Franz Völker's. Both were eminently successful singing Mozart. And Wagner!

Let's hear Urlus move now to Verdi, and to what is commonly considered a "big" and "dramatic" aria, "Celeste Aida."  Urlus sings it with exactly the same voice with which he sang the Tamino aria:

I would say this is exceptionally well done; that it is, in fact, great tenor singing, without question. The line, the purity of the vocal production, the style, and the dynamics, even with the "as written" ending.  It is elegant and consummate singing, by any standard and in any historical period.  What I am not sure I hear is "Heldentenor."  If Lauritz Melchior is a "Heldentenor," then Jacques Urlus may not be. That is as simply as I can put it. They are both tenors, and they both sound very good in very different kinds of roles.

Finally, 2 short Wagner arias, from Lohengrin, recorded in 1907 and 1911. ("In Fernem Land," when Urlus was 40 years old, and "Mein lieber Schwan," four years later. I invite you to compare the voice, in all its aspects, to the two pieces we have already heard.

And there you have it. Superb singing on all fronts: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, and we have not even touched the lighter song repertoire, at which he also excelled. One voice, finely tuned and universally applicable. The fact that he always sang in German or Dutch, of course, helps make this happen. If he were to sing in Italian, Spanish, or French, it would be possible to talk about his particular aptitude for one or the other language, but that only adds another element to the real differences between tenor singing voices, and that is the aptness to the language of birth—another matter altogether, unrelated to voice types. Jacques Urlus was a great tenor; remarkably consistent and almost infinitely adaptable.*

*For those who wish to listen to more of Urlus, please permit me to recommend strongly the Youtube channel of Mr. Tim Shu, at dantitustimshu, one of the very best sites currently available on the web, where you can find many Urlus videos, all with erudite and reliable commentary.