Monday, May 31, 2010
Tito Schipa: Ultimate Tenore di Grazia
Tito Schipa (1888-1965) is perhaps unique in opera: he was a very popular operatic tenor, sang in all the major houses (with the exception of Covent Garden), had—and still has—legions of fans, and yet he seems at first glance to possess almost none of the characteristics generally associated with operatic tenors. He was basically a Bb tenor (and barely that), and his voice was quite small, and even bit husky. He sometimes reminds me more of Tony Bennett (also a great singer, incidentally) than he does the great opera singers of his day: Lauri Volpi, Caruso, Gigli, Martinelli, etc. What then was the secret of his great success?
The answers are not hard to find, and they are a great lesson to all who aspire to sing: first, he was a superb musician. No endless fermatas, no invented notes. Even more importantly, he was a master of style: the precise reason for any song or aria he sang was always clear to the audience, and, more importantly, to him. His enunciation was crystal clear, and one can understand every single word he sings. He possessed, in abundance, a musical and stylistic understanding sufficient to make him an absolute master of musical line. Line is perhaps the greatest of all the artistic attributes necessary to sing beautifully, and—all too often—one of the rarest. By linking notes (legato),the singer can create a flow of sound that swells and diminishes, according to the composer's intentions, and when this ebb and flow is connected to a corresponding linguistic syntax that accompanies the music, the total effect is stunning; the kind of thing that brings audiences to their feet shouting. The public responds much more to beauty than it does to anything else, even pyrotechnic displays of fioratura, trills, and ear-splitting volume. All have their place, but beauty is always first. (In this regard, I would venture that small opera houses are the greatest boon there is to beautiful singing. Six-thousand seat houses always necessarily put a premium on volume.)
The proof of all this is in the listening, so let us move to a good example: Here is the famous tenor aria from Von Flotow's Marta:
Isn't that lovely? No big sounds, no particularly high notes (did anyone else notice that even this modest aria is transposed down one-half tone?) Somehow it doesn't matter. It works, and it's lovely; that does matter.
There are of course limitations to this kind of singing as far as repertoire is concerned. He would simply have been woefully out of place in things like Aida, Otello, Andrea Chenier, and so on, even if he could have sung them. The big operas cannot be part of what a singer like Schipa does. But there is nothing wrong with that—there are plenty of operas left where his style of singing does work. A principal instance would be The Elixir of Love, and here is one of the best known and best loved tenor arias in the entire repertoire. Turn your speakers way down, this was recorded by the poster at a very high volume:
Now, isn't THAT something! It is hard to imagine it sung better. The only competition he has as far as this aria is concerned is Ferruccio Tagliavini, another superb tenore di grazia. I think it is worth saying that the limitations of which I spoke work in the opposite direction also. Big tenors often think that because they have huge voices, they can sing anything in the repertoire. Not so. They can sound ridiculous singing music like this. It soon becomes the proverbial "bull in a china shop," and the dramatic and aesthetic qualities of the piece are just blown to pieces. Let them leave this music alone—they can make plenty of money doing Aida and Otello.
Finally, here is a fascinating clip someone has posted, taken from an old movie, apparently now lost, in which Schipa sings to his own guitar accompaniment. I call your attention to the extreme purity and clarity of his enunciation. It's so pure that I swear you could understand it even if you don't speak Italian!
A great and unlikely opera singer whose career and whose success contain so very many lessons. Any singer anywhere, singing any kind of music, can benefit from studying the artistic legacy of Tito Schipa.
at 11:02 AM