Saturday, October 31, 2009
DAVID DANIELS: PATHFINDER
[Dear readers: This is the first of what I hope will be several guest articles from our faithful and very knowledgeable correspondents. I am privileged to count, among my acquaintances, many distinguished connoisseurs of great music. Regular readers of our comments section will recognize today's author by his nom de plume JING, which I respect here. Let me say only that I have known our author since our university days together, lo these many years (half a century!), and we share more than a few happy memories. A distinguished theologian and discriminating lover of great music, he shares with us today his singular insights into the art of his friend David Daniels, the internationally recognized alto whose work will be familiar to all my readers --Edmund St. Austell]
Full disclosure on a personal note: My wife and I have, for the last fourteen years, been close personal friends of the great countertenor David Daniels, and I confess that we are adoring and shameless fans. As a person, David is extraordinarily appealing. He is one of those “what you see is what you get” people. He is utterly incapable of striking poses or being a different person to different people. The fact that he is a world-renowned opera star is still something that somehow seems new and incredible to him. He is down-to-earth and plainspoken, and while he may sometimes appear nonchalant, he is, in fact, amazingly focused. He is a totally devoted artist of incredible integrity.
I have seen Daniels in numerous opera productions, from his first appearances in the musical world through his Met debut and first Carnegie Hall performance (the first solo recital ever for a countertenor at that venue). On the opera stage, he is an excellent actor and projects his voice and personality with great confidence. In the recital setting, whether it be a large hall or intimate space, he is personally charming, relaxed and in utter command of his art. His first CD established him as an authoritative interpreter of Handel. But over the years he has ranged widely beyond this, refusing to allow himself to be pigeon-holed as solely a Baroque or period singer.
David grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Both his parents were singers and his late father was a college voice teacher and professor of music. His family was and is extremely close and supportive. He dreamed, from an early age, of being an opera singer. In high school he excelled in sports, especially basketball. He later attended the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and pursued his not untypical dream of being the next Franco Corelli; but, try as he might, he did not have the vocal characteristics of the tenore robusto. Transferring to the University of Michigan, he kept at it. But he never told any of the faculty about his “other voice.” In the shower, at parties, or wherever, this other voice would sing soprano or alto arias. One day, when he felt he had finally hit the wall as a tenor, he made a cassette recording of the other voice, played it for his voice teacher and said, “Tell me what you think of this singer.” After listening for a few minutes, the teacher said, “That’s you. And it’s beautiful.” And from that moment forward, David Daniels was a countertenor, and an extremely good one; he was in fact the first countertenor ever to be awarded the Richard Tucker Prize. Here he sings at the award gala. (The recitative is long, and the aria proper begins at 3:35. Feel free to move the radio button forward when you can, if you wish.)
I think his story is significant because it illuminates Daniel’s role as a pioneer. Artists like Marilyn Horne (his great friend and early champion), had been leading the revival of Baroque opera, but there were simply no males to be cast in the castrato roles. Singers like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin were attracting audiences, but they always tended to remain musical curiosities to all but a small following. In this regard, the performance history of Guilio Cesare, generally regarded as Handel’s greatest opera, is telling. The role of Caesar was originally composed for the castrato Senesino, but when the popularity of Baroque opera and the castrati declined, Giulio Cesare was rarely performed. In the sixties, a staged revival took place at the New York City Opera (there had been two concert performances at Town Hall prior to that), but Caesar was played by the great bass-baritone Norman Treigle. Later productions then featured female stars singing and acting the role of Caesar. Daniels debuted in this opera at the Met, but in the role of Sesto. Jennifer Larmore was Caesar. His duet with contralto Stephanie Blythe (“Son nata a lagrimar”) was acclaimed by the New York Times as the most beautiful few moments of the entire Met opera season. Last year we attended the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Giulio Cesare with Daniels in the title role. He had performed it earlier at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, with Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. The opera was staged in the setting of British Empire India. The performance lasted nearly five hours! But, amazingly, so brilliant was the production that there was never a single dull moment: not one. There were none of the odd time-filling, useless stage movements to accommodate the da capo style, and none of the planting of the singer on stage just to sing. My wife and I were blown away, and at dinner afterwards, David was passionate about how it really is possible to have Baroque opera that is well-sung, interesting, entertaining and great drama. And the same was the case in a production of Tamerlano, at the Washington National Opera, with Daniels in the title role.
Here is the aria “Furibondo” from a live performance of Partenope. (Perhaps not the most elegant staging or quality recording, but you are sure to sense Daniels’ stage energy.)
Talent and timing are both critical, and the opera world was ready for the emergence of male singers capable of performing these classic roles. But it was Daniels, above anyone else, who was the one who effected the breakthrough, especially in the United States. The excellent Andreas Scholl was gaining popularity in Europe at more or less the same time, but his focus was less on opera performance and much more on oratorio and some of the dustier corners of the Baroque repertoire. I still find it a bit odd that despite an established career in European opera houses and concert halls, the European critics still tend to refer to The “American Countertenor Daniels,” and are among the loudest to complain when he has the audacity to range beyond what they consider his “proper place” in the Baroque, eschewing the “proper sound” of the countertenor – “eerie, vibrato-less, and uncanny.” Listen to something from the album “A Quiet Thing.” One of my favorites, yet one least appreciated by some critics.
In fact, there are some wonderful roles for the male alto beyond the Baroque; the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention only two.
Daniel’s success has made it much easier for new countertenors to emerge. And many of them are quite good, in America and Europe. We are now entering a time in which, as with other voice types, there will be great debates about “who is the greatest.” (You know my opinion about that!) So be it. Daniels’ career is now secure and established, and I am convinced he will continue to expand his musical horizons. His superb vocal gifts and brilliant artistry stand on their own. I believe that David Daniels will always occupy a unique place of his own in the world of opera – that of an authentic and courageous pathfinder.
at 10:41 AM