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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann: The All-Purpose Voice

Jonas Kaufmann was born in Munich, in 1969. He started his musical studies as a piano student while still a small child. He began vocal training at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich when he was 20, singing small roles at the Bavarian State Opera at the same time. He ran into vocal problems as a young singer, but had the good fortune to make friends with an American baritone, Michael Rhodes, who showed him a proper way to sing, and Kaufmann responded quickly and successfully to Rhodes' suggestions. His professional debut was in 1994 in Saarbrüken, and he was very soon invited to sing throughout Germany. International debuts followed in quick succession, and a major career soon blossomed for him. Because he is so well known and actively singing, there is no need to speak much of his career, since such information is easily obtained. In this case, we may go directly to a discussion of the artistry.

The most amazing thing about this popular and successful tenor is that he sings an extraordinarily wide repertoire, from Mozart to Wagner, and all the bread and butter spinto roles in between! This is most unusual, and made possible to a large extent by his vocal technique, which is essentially Italian. In the past, German trained tenors were often accused of throaty and muscular singing, a phenomenon almost certainly related to the German language. Most operas performed in Germany are performed in German, and that has implications for vocal production. Kaufmann, on the other hand, sings in a dark and covered way reminiscent of Domingo, and—even more—Giuseppe Giacomini. Kaufmann is basically a spinto tenor, and this has opened the whole range of popular Italian operas to him. Other German singers have managed the Mozart/Wagner leap, but fewer have, in the process, shone in the Verdi/Puccini middle. Here is an example of Kaufmann in a very light and lyrical piece from Così Fan Tutte, a repertoire more characteristically inhabited by lyric and leggiero tenors:

This is absolutely impeccable singing! It is beautiful, the line is there, the Italian is perfect, and the performance, as I see and hear it, is flawless. Yes, the voice is darker than one usually expects in this aria, but so what? I have always contended that sub-categories of voice genres are ultimately a bit silly. How about "tenor." It works for me!

As I say, the Mozart singer who can also sing Wagner is a known phenomenon in Germany, but here is what is much more unusual, and the main thing that marks Kaufmann as almost unique; his ability to sing the Verdi repertoire in Italian. This video, of  "La donna è mobile," is unfortunately somewhat out of synch, vocally, so bear with it please. It is worth it to hear the singing:

I honestly think that is nothing short of spectacular. To me it sounds essentially like Domingo, Corelli, or Carreras in his youth. It is a quintessential Italian spinto sound, and a remarkably good one at that. It is solid, it is convincing, and it is consistent all the way up to the B natural. The best and simplest way I can describe the Kaufmann phenomenon is that he is a great German tenor who sings like an Italian! And boy, does that ever cover a mile of territory in terms of repertoire!

Finally, Wagner. Here is a sample of his Sigmund, against the mighty voice of Deborah Voight:

I feel Wagner would have been pleased to have tenors who could sing like this. He is known to have wanted his tenors trained in Italy when possible, and this is why. Domingo has successfully sung Sigmund, at the Met, not all that long ago, to great acclaim. This is first rate singing, and I do not believe it can be faulted.

Finally, I think a word needs to be said about all the silly criticism that seems to abound on Youtube about this great German tenor. Most of it has no meaning. There is one thing that I very much like about opera, and that is that it is a "bottom-line" art form. Opera audiences are not stupid or undiscriminating. Any person (who is not a millionaire) who lays down the money required to see a performance at the Met, La Scala, or Covent Garden, is in love with opera, and expects to see the best. If they don't, they will get very vocal about it, very quickly. A singer who can appear week after week on the stages of great houses, in different countries, and find acceptance, even acclaim, is—in this day and age—a great singer by definition. There is simply no way to survive otherwise. Kaufmann has done this. He sings all over the world, in the world's great houses, in the wide repertoire we have spoken about, and almost always to acclaim. For me, that says it all.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Franz Völker: A Great And Most Versatile Tenor

Franz Völker was born in Neu-Isenburg in 1899, and began his vocal studies fairly early in life, in Frankfurt. He was only 27 when he made his debut in that city as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio. His vocal stamina, along with the particular quality of his voice, made him a natural, in the eyes of most, for dramatic work and most especially as a Wagnerian. It is perhaps not entirely certain that he would have made that immediate impression today, because Völker's voice, from the beginning, was a singularly adaptive instrument, usable and convincing over a very wide range of musical genres. It may well have been the color of his voice, more than anything else, that suggested the heroic tenor label. In any case, that was the initial impression he made, as a young man, and his rise was rapid. He was a superb singer, and engagements followed in quick succession, as is so often the case when a truly remarkable talent appears on the scene. He went on to Salzburg, Bayreuth (particularly) and Covent Garden. His most outstanding roles, for which he was instantly applauded, were Lohengrin, Freischutz, and Walküre.

He made many recordings, which is most fortunate, because his career was exclusively European, and seldom outside Germany. Having made his career during Germany's darkest hour was necessarily limiting, as far as travel was concerned. He did, however, have a major career in Germany, and his many recordings testify to his remarkable versatility; in grand opera, operetta, and Lieder. He excelled in all three fields.

His first great impression was made as a Wagnerian, and so it seems appropriate to begin with his superb rendition of "Walter's Prize Song," from Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, an opera so difficult for the tenor that Melchior, to take but one example, would not sing it. The "Prize Song" is hard enough in itself, but it is repeated in choral fashion, always featuring Walter, in seemingly endless iterations toward the end of the opera:

This is a markedly common-sense presentation, and it is a joy to hear the studio orchestra minimalized. Would that most conductors would do the same in the opera house! The smoothness of Völker's voice, all the way up and down the scale, is a beautiful thing to hear. His top was good, and the high A, which climaxes a series of progressively ascending phrases— and has been the downfall of many heldentenors who make the fatal mistake of starting the aria too intensely and too loud—is not a problem at all for Völker, who manages it smoothly and in line. All in all, a magisterial rendition of a difficult aria.

Many famous German opera singers have historically crossed back and forth across the line separating opera from operetta, and Völker was no exception. Here is the famous and ever-popular "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz," from Lehár's "Land of Smiles":

Isn't that just perfect! It is hard to imagine it sung better. A wonderful voice, excellently trained, with great dramatic operatic range and intensity, harnessed into submission for a classic show tune! I have always found Völker's extreme flexibility as a singer to be nothing short of astonishing. And admirable! For one thing, it is a sure sign of superbly trained voice. People often complain that German singing teachers just don't know how to train a tenor voice, but when the tenor is an intelligent man with strong artistic instincts, wonders can be done, especially if the tenor sings exclusively in German.

Finally, here is a beautiful example of yet a third category in which Völker excelled—German Lieder. This is much less common; many good German opera and operetta singers also try to sing Lieder or even popular music (which Völker also did) but the results are less predictable. Völker, however, like Leo Slezak, managed it very nicely indeed. Here is Schubert's lovely "Du bist die Ruh":

What can I say. Absolutely beautiful! Opera, operetta, Lieder; all beautifully done. What on Broadway would be called a triple-threat performer. This was not only a great German tenor, but a German tenor for the ages!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Licia Albanese: Vocal Melodrama

Italian-American soprano Licia Albanese was born in Bari, Italy, in 1913. An energetic and talented child, she had the good fortune to have as her teacher the great verismo soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi. In 1934, when Albanese was only 21, she substituted for an ailing soprano, singing Cio-Cio-San, a part that would become her signature role over the years. The idea of a 21 year old taking on that part is somewhat daunting, but Albanese's vocal stamina (and longevity!) was legendary. I heard her sing at age 67 at a gala fundraiser, and she was extraordinary.

Like so many Italian singers of her day who were destined for a major career, progress came quickly. Italy's system of regional theaters has always presented wonderful opportunities for young singers to be heard fairly early on in their careers, and Albanese was no exception. By 1935 she had made her debut at La Scala (in Gianni Schicchi) and she was on her way. She was excellently suited, by voice, training, looks and temperament, for the Verdi/Puccini verismo roles, and she quickly became an international presence, especially in Bohème, Traviata, and Butterfly.

Albanese's Metropolitan opera debut was in 1940, somewhat predictably in Madama Butterfly. She was to perform this signature role at the Met over 70 times. It was a great success, and she was to make the Met her artistic home for the next 26 seasons, in a variety of roles. She also quickly made America her patriotic home, acquiring American citizenship in 1945. In 1946 she did a series of radio performances with Arturo Toscanini. Albanese did not limit herself exclusively to the Met, being an artistic presence also at San Francisco. She did, however, tend to limit herself to her adopted land, and while she sang overseas occasionally, she was essentially an American soprano from that point on. In later years she became very active as a fundraiser for the arts, and for her Licia Albanese Foundation, established to help aspiring singers. Like other great Italian American singers before her, most specifically Amelita Galli Curci and Enrico Caruso, she was enormously popular here, and made very significant contributions to the arts in America.

It is necessary, at the very beginning to address Licia Albanese's voice and singing style, in order to avoid instant analysis or judgments. I do not believe it is possible to describe her singing by comparison to any other soprano, except possibly her teacher, Baldassarre-Tedeschi. (I recently posted two Baldassare-Tedeschi videos on my Youtube channel. You can find a link in the righthand sidebar of this page.) I find it more helpful to compare her to male singers, specifically Giuseppe Di Stefano and (brace yourself!) Feodor Chaliapin. Quirky as that may sound, there is a reason: all are extraordinary singing actors, and they place their voices in the service of the melodrama which characterizes their repertoire. It is fruitless to compare Licia Albanese to great lyric sopranos whose fine and flute-like voices soar with abandon; she will seem thick and over-heavy in the middle of her voice and short on top. The darkness in her voice will at times seem like a bark. No, she uses her voice to serve the part she sings. Like Di Stefano, she enunciates extremely clearly; it sometimes seems as though she is speaking to you. Most importantly, she uses her voice as Chaliapin used his, to vocally portray a character, usually in the grip of great emotion, distress or outright despair. People in those situations do not trill prettily. In terms of style, Albanese, like Callas, shows great conviction in her portrayals, and conviction is the absolute bedrock of great style. Here is the "Un bel dì" from her signature role, Cio-Cio-San:

Do you see what I mean? What strikes me immediately is the characterization in the voice. Like Giuseppe Di Stefano, she sang, to a large extent, as she spoke. The enunciation is extraordinary. I sometimes forget she is singing, and think she is speaking to me. The voice is dark and highly dramatic. She is a singing actress, and this is not an exercise in pure vocalism—it is simply a part of the whole picture. One thing she had was power in abundance. I can testify from having heard her in person that it was an astonishingly big voice for so tiny a person. Yes, the voice is showing signs of wear here, at 40, but one must remember that she started singing at 21, and almost the entirely of her repertoire was verismo, with all the attendant demands made on the voice. You will hear "prettier" Bb's than she manages here, more cleanly produced, but you will seldom hear a more moving, better articulated or more realistically convincing version of this famous aria.

Here is Albanese in another Puccini aria, "In Quelle Trine Morbide," from Manon Lescaut:

This is a much more traditional bit of singing, and excellent in every way. The dramatic intensity is there, as it always is, and the vocal line is clear and well connected stylistically to the music. It is perhaps more lyrical than the Butterfly selection, and soars where "Un bel dì" cries. That, however, derives from characterization more than anything else.

Here, finally, is Licia Albanese at her absolute best; as Violetta in La Traviata. This great scene, "Addio del Passato," shows all her strengths. The recitation at the beginning is so clear and painfully felt that it easily brings tears. The articulation is so precise that it almost seems possible to understand even if one doesn't speak Italian! Finally, the singing soars, and Albanese's dramatic voice is displayed to full advantage:

Say what one will, I personally would lay down my hard-earned money any place, any time, to hear something like that!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

José Carreras: A Voice of Extraordinary Beauty

José Carreras was born in Barcelona in 1946. Like so many before him, he came from a family of very modest means, and showed marked musical talent from the beginning. He seemed naturally inclined to sing as a child, and started even then trying to sound like great singers he had heard, most especially Mario Lanza. I know so many singers who have told me that Lanza, primarily through his movies, had been their first inspiration to try to sing opera. This was one of Lanza's less well known—but very important— contributions to opera and operatic singing. Even though he himself largely portrayed an opera singer, he inspired many who went on to actually become opera singers. Carreras was singing in public, most specifically on Spanish radio, as early as 8 years of age, which made it abundantly clear to his family that he was both serious and talented. His family at this point saw to it that he started to receive music lessons at Barcelona's Municipal Conservatory.

In 1970 he appeared as Flavio in Norma; a very small first role, but one which caught the attention of the great Monserrat Caballé, who heard gold in the young voice. In the same year, under her patronage, he sang opposite her as Gennaro in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Carreras proved his patroness to have been right! He was a great hit from the beginning, and his career skyrocketed. The golden voice was unmistakable, and international debuts followed in rapid succession: London, Italy, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Vienna; all within a period of 4 years. He was on his way to greatness, in operas such as Bohème, Butterfly, Traviata, Rigoletto, and Tosca. He also did Ballo—possibly a questionable choice, because it is a very big role for the tenor, well into the spinto repertoire, and at this stage Carreras' voice was what might be called a robust lyric. By his own admission, the very top of the tenor range was not at all easy for him, while the middle was especially beautiful. This may have led many to believe that he was really a spinto verging on dramatic, but that of course would only exacerbate the difficult top, since so much more energy was being put into the middle and upper-middle registers. In a word, it's a short path to becoming a Bb tenor.  However, that was not in evidence at the beginning of the career, when there seemed to be plenty of range to sing at least a good B natural, enough for virtually all the bread and butter Italian and French repertoire, where the arias containing a high C are often sung down a half tone. (Except perhaps in Italy, where a tenor can on occasion be booed for transposing a famous aria.) Recording contracts followed, and by the late 70's, José Carreras was internationally famous, and enjoying one of the great careers of the 20th century.

Here is the young Carreras, in 1973, singing one of his most popular early roles, the Duke of Mantua. The aria is beautifully sung generally, and the extraordinary beauty of Carreras' voice is very winning, and immediately makes his character sympathetic, even in the case of very flawed and unpleasant characters such as the Duke. Also, and importantly, the high B at the end is solid at this point in his career, and is clearly a bit hit with the audience.

That is truly superb! It is a world-class rendition, and a clear announcement to one and all that a new great tenor has arrived on the scene. This is what I would call the true Carreras voice. I am not alone in wishing that he had restricted himself to this kind of lyric repertoire as long as possible. But that was not the case. Like many, many tenors before, the lure of the big tragic, dramatic roles was calling, and Manrico, Chenier, Rhadames and Canio were on the way. By the late 70's and early 80's, the problem with the top of the voice was becoming self-evident. The attractive beauty of the voice, however, was such that his fame was still intact. Here is a Rhadames from 1979, six years later:

The coming trouble, as I say, is evident. The top notes in this aria are only Bb's. This is hardly more than the top of the range of many good baritones, yet notice the effort, and the change in quality from the middle to the top notes. They are not quite in line. He hops off the final Bb so quickly that the audience is confused and starts to applaud too early and has to clap again after the orchestra finishes. Almost all spinto and dramatic tenors take a big breath and hold on to that note as long as possible, ending with the orchestra if possible for the big applause cue, which seldom fails to bring a huge hand from the audience. Many conductors will help them by speeding up the tempo at the end. That just doesn't happen here—it is a weak and disappointing ending to the aria. Yes, I know that Verdi wrote a pianissimo note here, to end in a wistful, dreamy way as Rhadames dreams of his beloved Aida. But realistically that  doesn't happen in performance. The triumphal chord progression in the orchestra begs for triumphalism in the voice as well.

Toward the latter part of his career, Carreras began to shift his emphasis from opera to the concert stage, where he could choose songs and arias that favored the strongest part of his beautiful voice—the middle—and avoided the highest notes, which had become too difficult. He recorded West Side Story and South Pacific, and was fond of singing "Tonight," from West Side Story, with different sopranos, but I feel this was largely a failed effort. Simply the wrong choice. It is almost impossible for the classically trained foreign operatic tenor to transition to any kind of Broadway tunes, even one where the character being portrayed is a dialect character. The over-blown cover and vowel formation always make the young lover character sound too old to be taken seriously. And also, the best Broadway tenors—John Raitt is a good example—simply do not cover. It just isn't an acceptable English language sound in music any longer. That day (Victorian fin-de-siècle) is long gone. It sounds too foreign. Where Carreras did excel was in Neapolitan songs, something squarely within the Latin tenor fach. Here is an interesting video, introduced by considerable pre-song applause and an introduction by Carreras himself, in English, of "Core 'ngrato." Very beautiful, and well received, even though the Bb at the end, while acceptable, is strained and seems to be nearly out of his range at this point.

I think it is important to end by reiterating that Carreras was a great tenor. There just isn't any doubt about that. I don't mean to overplay the vocal problems. He knew from the beginning—and was honest about it—that the top was not easily produced. But just consider for a moment what he actually did during his career in spite of that! The voice was extraordinarily beautiful, and won him much attention and affection from his vast audience. He was a handsome man who acted well and convincingly, and he sang with great passion. His repertoire was huge, and he became very famous. He even struggled with—and conquered—leukemia and its debilitating effects and never—ever—lost the affection of his fans. To fuss unduely about the odd Bb or B natural is ultimately over-pedantic. This was a great singer, a great performer, and an admirable individual. He deserves all the attention he has received!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Giannina Arangi-Lombardi: A Great Dramatic Soprano

I am aware that Giannina Arangi-Lombardi is not exactly a name that rolls trippingly off the tongue of the average American opera lover, but this owes simply to the fact that she did not sing in America. Her life and career was centered largely in Europe, with some excursions to Latin America and Australia. All that to one side notwithstanding, I feel no hesitancy whatsoever in saying that hers was one of the greatest soprano voices of the 20th century, and her stature among dramatic sopranos can only honestly be described as outstanding.

Arangi-Lombardi was born in 1891 in Marigliano, and she studied at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella in Naples.

(I am indebted for the information that follows to Mr. Tim Shu, at dantitustimshu Tim is among the very best musical historians writing on Youtube, and his biographies are exemplary. If you do not know his channel, I urge you to become acquainted with it, as it is a treasure trove of great opera videos.)

"Arangi-Lombardi began her career as a mezzo-soprano in the early 1920s. With growing awareness of her brilliant middle-upper vocal capabilities, she made an important transition to become a dramatic soprano in the mid 1920s and enjoyed great success as Gioconda, Santuzza, Elena in Mefistofele, the Trovatore and Forza Leonoras and in particular Aida. In fact, she became the most famous Aida of her day in Italy. Such was her prominence in the role that the Teatro alla Scala mounted several performances of Aida with her leading the cast in the late 1920s. On top of that, she undertook a prestigious central European trip with the La Scala Ensemble and Toscanini in January 1929 and performed the role in Berlin and Vienna. Together with Giuseppina Cobelli and Bianca Scacciati, she ruled Teatro alla Scala as its co-prima donna in the mid to late 1920s. She also went on a five-week tour to perform in various cities in Australia in 1928, in the company of other distinguished colleagues including Toti Dal Monte, Hina Spani, Francesco Merli and Apollo Granforte.

With the departure of Toscanini from La Scala in early 1929, she ended her career at Milan's "Temple," but continued to sing in Rome and elsewhere in Italy. She retired in 1937 after growing vocal difficulties from the mid 1930s. From 1939 onwards, she assumed a teaching career in Milan. In 1947, she accepted a lucrative offer by the Turkish government to become the director of the Music Conservatory in Ankara. It was during her stint in Turkey that Arangi-Lombardi discovered a budding young soprano named Leyla Gencer and took great interest in her training and development as an artist. Gencer was to remember her teacher with great fondness. In an interview with OPERA NEWS (published in the November 2003 issue), Gencer recalled: "Every morning at ten, she would put on her most elegant dress, with pearls, and her diamonds on her fingers, sat at the piano, and we studied. I learned my first opera arias, from Ballo, Aida, Forza del destino, and when I sang them my whole life, I sang them just as she taught them to me."  For reasons of health, Arangi-Lombardi returned to Milan in 1951 and passed away in July of the same year."

I think there is no better place to start than with Aida's big aria "O Patria Mia." Aida was the signature role for Arangi-Lombardi, and this is why:

Or, if the author should remove the embed code in the future, see:

Isn't that simply stunning! I think that is one of the most extraordinary renditions of this very famous and often-recorded aria that I have ever heard. The reason I say this is that it displays a vocal technique and a presentation that is bel canto derived. The drama in her voice—and I would even say her very designation as "dramatic"—is as much a question of color as it is of heft. Some sopranos simple power their way through the aria. While that can work, it can make the more discriminating listener frown. I call particular attention to the high C near the end, taken piano and then taken out on a long crescendo, a tutta forza! The effect is overwhelming, as is that of the other big moment at the end when she soars up to the final note on a long portamento. This is grand artistry and vocalism of the old school, and for many, even in the 1930's, it came as a revelation, as verismo had done its job by that time, and this was singing of a different order.

For something more nearly on the "dramatic" side as we understand it today, I offer her rendition of "Suicidio!" from La Gioconda:


This is great singing, by any measure. It is hard to compare it to other versions, except possibly that of Zinka Milanov. It is "darker" than the Aida aria, but is attained purely through control of color. It's the same voice, same technique.

Finally, an aria in the category of "Only Great Singers Need Apply: Amelia's aria from Un Ballo in Maschera:


Great voice, great artist, great lady of the theater—dramatic opera singing at its best!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Joseph Schmidt: A Great Tenor And A Terrible Tragedy

Joseph Schmidt was born in 1904, in Davydivka, a small town in Austria-Hungary, now a part of Ukraine. Born into a musical family, he showed promise very early, as is so often the case with those who go on to achieve musical greatness. From living in a multi-cultural geographical area, he soon began to acquire more languages than his native German. He was Jewish, and quickly became acquainted with Yiddish and Hebrew. It was natural, therefore, that his first training was in the synagogue. He was presented as a very young man of 20 in his first concert, in Czernowitz, singing a wide variety of Jewish and operatic music. His talent was so evident by that point that he was sent to Berlin to study piano and voice. He was shortly thereafter appointed cantor of the Czernowitz Synagogue.

In 1929 he went back to Berlin, where he was given the opportunity to sing the role, on the radio, of Vasco da Gama in L'Africaine. Normally, this would mark the beginning of an operatic career for most, but Schmidt was an extremely small man, only 4 feet 11 inches tall, hardly bigger than a young boy. This of course made a stage career impossible. For that reason, his world of opportunity was to be found in radio, recordings (of which he made a significant number), the concert stage, and movies, where clever photography made it possible for him to appear more normal in appearance. (Similar, in modern times, to the career adjustments forced upon Alan Ladd and Dudley Moore, for the same reason.)

The tragedy in the Joseph Schmidt story derives from the time and place of his birth. His artistic rise was during Germany's darkest hour, the rise of the Nazis. Even though extremely popular in Germany, the rise of the barbarians soon made it impossible for him to work there. His popularity in other countries seemed, I suppose, to be sufficient compensation for the German turn of events, and he stayed in Europe longer than he should have. He was touring in the United States as late as 1937, and had he stayed here, the horror of his last days would have been prevented. It is so easy in hindsight to see these things, but it is unfair. I know many Jews who lived through that era, and the stories I have heard always point up the fact that most just didn't know how bad it was going to get. Most thought it to be probably for a limited period, something like the pogroms that had historically erupted in Europe. We cannot impose upon them a foresight that few possessed. Also, not everyone had the money or the opportunity to get out. The end of the Schmidt story is painful to recount, and easily consulted, if one has the stomach for it. To be brief: in 1939, he was caught in France by the German invasion, tried to escape to the US but didn't get any further than just across the Swiss border. Interned in a refugee camp near Zurich, he was extremely poorly cared for and died in 1942. He was 38 years old. As in the case of Mario Lanza and Fritz Wunderlich, one wants to cry.

To really appreciated the astonishing technical virtuosity of Schmidt's voice, one needs to hear what is unfortunately a poor recording, privately made in 1934. I have done some audio work on this recording, in an attempt to bring out some of the sounds of the lower register, which are all but lost in the original. I believe it is at least a little better for the effort. Here is the Aramaic prayer Ano Avdoh. "I am thy servant, Oh Holy One, and I ever bow before thee and the glory of the Torah."

An absolutely astonishing instrument! Schmidt's voice soared easily to the very top of the tenor range. He could, like Lauri Volpi and a few other great bel canto tenors, sing—in line— all the way to the high D natural, something remarkably few tenors can legitimately do. Also note the extreme flexibility, owing almost certainly to his early cantorial training. The plaintive nature of the piece is very moving indeed.

Schmidt had an enormous operatic repertoire, and recorded a large number of the best known tenor arias, something that was easy for him, as he had "no fear of heights," so to speak! It was the more popular repertoire, however, that won him his biggest audience. Here is a good example, the English version of "Ein Stern fällt vom Himmel," the title song of a 1934 movie:

A lovely rendition of a pretty, lilting melody. His English was quite good, and the song is easy enough to understand. That cannot always be said, as legitimate voices often slur over consonants, especially if English is not the singer's native language. But Schmidt handles English diction quite well. (The greatest exception to this tendency was Mario Lanza, whose enunciation was crystal clear, like that of a popular singer, even in his stratospheric upper register.)

Finally, we must include one operatic piece, even though it is in an arranged concert version, Here is a special Schmidt version of the old war-horse "Di Quella Pira," where he manages to interpolate yet a THIRD high C in the middle of the aria:) You will never hear an easier high C. It sounds like the middle of his register. His voice lay extremely high.

A great voice, by any measure. It is at least some consolation that he made so many recordings. In this way, his artistry and extreme vocal endowments live on, for new generations to enjoy and admire.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Set Svanholm: The Many Sides of a Great Musician

Today it is my great pleasure to present another in our series of guest commentators, Dr.Marie-Louise Rodén, whose photo appears to the left. Professor Rodén is Swedish but grew up in the United States and received a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. She is currently Professor of History at Kristianstad University in Sweden, and her research specialty has been the political development of the Roman Papacy in the Early Modern Period. She also has a background in classical music and is currently, together with Daniele D. Godor, preparing a biography of Set Svanholm, which will be published in 2014.


No one living in Sweden can have failed to notice that 2011 marks the centenary of the popular Swedish tenor Johan Jonatan “Jussi” Björling (1911-1960). Jussi fan clubs across the country have had a field day. Radio programs, television documentaries and biographical works have literally rained on his compatriots this past spring. I thought it might be time to redress the balance by introducing readers to another renowned Swedish tenor, Set Svanholm (1904-64.)

Early Years

Set Svanholm was born in Västerås as the second of three sons to Viktor Svanholm and his wife Beda. Viktor Svanholm came from a poor family in Västergötland and signed on as kitchen boy on a cargo boat at the age of 13. An accident with firearms cost him his sight, and two years later he was enrolled at the Manilla school for the blind in Stockholm. When he returned home after completing his education, a sermon by a visiting preacher made such a deep impression on him that he decided to become a clergyman himself. Viktor Svanholm thus became a preacher in a free-church movement, the “Evangelical Foundation for the Fatherland (EFS)”. In an essay about his father from 1963, Set Svanholm recalled that it was his task, even as a schoolboy, to play the organ in religious services. The hymns sung at these services, “with tones from Zion” made an indelible impression on him and shaped his musical sensibilities.

Set Svanholm graduated from gymnasium in 1922 and almost immediately obtained his first position as organist and choir director in Tillberga. In the following years, he completed both elementary and advanced degrees in organ and church music, as well as a general teacher’s certificate and one in music education. In 1929 he obtained the prestigious post of cantor in St. Jakob’s Church in Stockholm, which he retained until 1950. Here is his earliest known recording, (1934) where he is featured as conductor, leading the St. Jakob's choir in the Bach chorale “Jesu, nådens källa (Jesus, Font of Grace.)” It is a brief selection, but provides a good introduction to his musical sophistication and mastery of classical form. He was, from the beginning, a formidable musician:

St. Jakob’s Church was conveniently located right opposite the Royal Opera, and during his first years as conductor Svanholm had a promising tenor among his choristers – Jussi Björling. As Björling’s operatic career prospered, he started skipping rehearsals or just “marking” notes instead of singing with full voice. When Svanholm reprimanded him, Björling quit abruptly by stomping out of the church, slamming the door behind him, only to open it again. He stuck his head in to say: “Get yourself a better tenor – if you can!”

From Church Musician to Opera Singer

Both Svanholm and Björling were voice students of the well-known baritone John Forsell (1868-1941), as was the soprano Nini Högstedt (1909-98) who became Svanholm’s wife in 1934 and gave up her singing career. She then bore him six children, as Anna Russell would have put it.

Svanholm made his debut in 1930 as a baritone, as Silvio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and became a member of the Royal Opera’s ensemble in 1932. All on his own, he began reworking his vocal technique to make the transition from baritone to tenor roles. He was a lyrical Italian baritone, known as “Kavalierbariton” in German, and had always had an easy high register. One day he telephoned his old teacher and announced that he had a promising new tenor that he would like to present – and surprised Forsell by coming to the appointed meeting all on his own!

Svanholm made his debut as a tenor in February of 1936, as soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. His operatic debut followed on September 22 of the same year with Radames in Verdi’s Aida. In the fall of 1937 he began to sing Wagner, with Lohengrin as his first role. In a short time he added Siegmund in Die Walküre, Tannhäuser, Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and both Siegfrieds to his Wagnerian repertoire. Here is Svanholm as Siegmund, in an exceptionally good live recording from 1954:

Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962), the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the age, remarked in her memoirs: “For me there was only one Siegmund . . . that was Set.” It is hard to disagree with her. The baritonal, metallic quality of Svanholm’s voice was a perfect match for this role. A commercial recording from 1957 (Decca) of Die Walküre, Act I, also presents Svanholm at his very best and Flagstad as a surprisingly youthful and convincing Sieglinde – at the age of 62!

Swedish Heldentenor in the Third Reich

Svanholm’s career outside Sweden began in 1938, on the eve of World War II. Bruno Walter had heard him in Stockholm, and invited him to Vienna where he made his debut in Lohengrin. Performances in Germany, Austria, Zürich, Budapest and Prague soon followed. In 1942 he became the first Swede ever to sing at La Scala in Milan (Tannhäuser) and, in the same year, became the only Swede to appear in a major role at the Kriegsfestspiele in Bayreuth. Many vocal artists from politically “neutral” Sweden sang in Germany during the war years: Jussi Björling, Sigurd Björling, Torsten Ralf, Sven Olof Sandberg, and Zarah Leander are names that come to mind. But apart from Leander, who was criticized severely after the war for her activities, Svanholm was probably the Swedish artist most active in the Third Reich during these years. He was a member of the ensemble of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and did not leave the German stages until 1944.

There is no real indication that Svanholm was sympathetic to the political policies of the Nazi regime. One plausible explanation for his desire to remain in Germany was the opportunity of developing his interpretations of the great Wagnerian roles in collaboration with Heinz Tietjen (1881-1967), artistic director of the Bayreuther Festspiele from 1931 to 1944.

But Svanholm also had firm invitations from the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric and San Francisco operas and in 1946 finally crossed the Atlantic for a glorious decade as the foremost Wagnerian tenor of the post-war era.

International Acclaim

Svanholm’s trans-Atlantic career began in South America, where he sang Siegmund and Tristan in Rio de Janeiro. His debut at the Met was on November 15, 1946 in the title role in Wagner’s Siegfried. Svanholm was to remain under contract to the Met until 1956.

The American critics and audiences saw Svanholm as the self-evident successor to Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973), who was nearing the end of his career. Svanholm was unanimously appreciated for his athletic physique (he was only 5 feet 8 inches tall and quite trim at around 136 lbs), but above all for his intelligence, sophisticated musicianship and scrupulous adherence to the score: all of which stood in sharp contrast to the interpretations of “the Great Dane!"

To an international public, Svanholm is primarily recognized as a great Wagnerian, but in fact, his repertoire, both in terms of art song and opera, was broad and diversified. As a last excerpt, here is his interpretation of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig. This recording comes from a Liederabend in 1949 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Svanholm is accompanied by the fantastic Arne Sunnergårdh:

During his decade in the Americas Svanholm continued to sing at home and performed many roles from Italian and French repertoire, as well as Swedish rarities such as De Frumerie’s Singoalla and Atterberg’s Fanal. By 1956 he was weary of traveling, wanted to spend more time with his family, and thus accepted the position as General Manager of the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Svanholm’s years as manager, too large a subject to discuss here, can be summarized as follows: New music, Swedish music, Niche music. Many works from the modern (Britten, Berg) and older operatic repertoire (Lully, Händel, Mozart’s Idomeneo) were performed in Stockholm for the first time and the most significant premiere of a new Swedish opera was Karl Birger Blomdahl’s Aniara.

There are several reasons why “Set Svanholm” is not a household word, even in Sweden, in the sense that “Jussi Björling” is. Björling’s repertoire was more accessible to a large number of casual opera listeners than the more specialized and demanding roles that Svanholm performed. Above all, Björling made over 240 commercial recordings while Svanholm only made 15. In the aftermath of World War II Svanholm’s main repertoire was, with a few exceptions, ignored by the major record companies. A Wagner “Renaissance” eventually occurred partly thanks to the commercial success of the Solti Ring, where Svanholm only participated as Loge in Das Rheingold. However, many live recordings of this important musician have been preserved, and a number of them are available on labels such as Music & Arts, Gebhardt, Golden Melodram, Bluebell, Preiser, and Caprice.

With thanks to Edmund for inviting me to “blog” and in the hope that some of his readers will either discover or re-visit this glorious voice.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Salvatore Baccaloni: The Best of The Buffos

Not all famous opera singers are tragic heroes or heroines, or archetypal gods and goddesses. Neither are they matinee-idol heartthrobs or possessed of great voices which have to be heard to be believed. No; enter the 300-pound, ludicrously attired Salvatore Baccaloni, who first waddled onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in December of 1940, as Dr. Bartolo, in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. He was to remain at the Met for the next 22 years, making both a great career for himself, and a great deal of money.

The man who would go on to become generally acclaimed as the greatest of the basso buffos was born in Rome, in 1900, where as a child he attended the Sistine Chapel choir school, and later went on to private vocal studies. He studied architecture in school, but music was his true love and he took the first chance that presented itself to try to make a musical career. His first appearance was as Bartolo, at only 22 years of age, at the Teatro Adriano, in Rome. He seems to have done quite well from the beginning, because a mere four years later, at age 26, he was singing at La Scala, in a virtually unknown opera, Pizzetti's Debora e Jaele. Baccaloni demonstrated a willingness, even as a very young man, to take small parts, or appear in obscure operas, because he loved acting and singing, and wherever there was a job, he was up front and ready to do it. This tendency remained with him for his entire life, and it was this willingness to take small parts, with any respectable company, even when he was famous, that made him one of the highest paid singers in opera. He was at the time of his death a very well-to-do man.

Like many, he owed his early success, at least in part, to having been heard and given advice by Arturo Toscanini, who was conducting at La Scala when Baccaloni was singing there. Toscanini's advice was simple: forget the serious roles—stick to character roles and supporting roles, where your comedic acting can shine. Baccaloni was very intelligent; smart enough to know, even as a very young man, that it was the better part of prudence always to follow the advice of a successful man if you want to be successful. In other words, never invest your money on the advice of a poor man. Do the opposite. And it paid off: Don Giovanni, Elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale, Falstaff, Gianni Schicci, the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit in Bohème, Alfonso in Cosi Fan Tutte, Leporello in Don Giovanni, and on and on. His repertoire is reported to have exceeded 160 roles! He was, when he chose to be, an excellent musician. He could also be outlandish and musically careless on stage, when moved by the comedy of the moment. It should be added that he was, additionally, quite a scene-stealer! But who cares, basically. It goes with the turf. Prima donnas can be demanding, tenors can be maddening, and so on—a great comedian has the right to be silly de temps en temps!

One of Baccaloni's great roles was Dr. Dulcamara, in L'Elisir d'Amore: Here is the huckster selling his snake oil medicine in "Udite, o Rustici!" (You might want to read the comments I put under this video when I posted it...I was having a little fun with it. Comedy is infectious:)

That has to be one of the best versions of this famous comic aria ever recorded. Baccaloni's enunciation is so perfect that it almost seems anyone can understand it, even if they don't know Italian! Coupled with his remarkable acting skills, it must have been a real joy to watch.

It is very important, I think, to realize that one of the things that made Baccaloni more than so many other buffos was that he could actually sing. His genius may have been comedic, but it was based on solid musical and vocal ability, witness Leporello's famous aria from Don Giovanni:

That is not only musically solid as a rock, it is fine singing by any measure.

Finally, something that fascinates me very much, and that is the quintessential understanding Baccaloni had of his own artistic historical roots, which is commedia dell'arte. I have been deeply interested in this artistic tradition from the time I saw my first Punch and Judy show when I was a small child, nearly 70 years ago. I am far from the only one—Agatha Christie was so intensely interested in commedia dell'arte (also from earliest childhood) that it was close to an obsession for her. Her entire series of Harley Quinn stories—which are both mysterious and mythical in nature, reflect this near obsession. The theater of Europe was influenced for nearly 400 years by the commedia dell'arte characters and plots, and it is likely that in their earliest incarnation, which is to say Italian street theater, they go back in part well over a thousand years, perhaps even to the days of ancient Rome. Italian opera composers were certainly well aware of the tradition, and it is very evident in Don Pasquale, which is classic commedia dell'arte. Notice the pathos in Baccaoni's rendition of "Vediamo, a la modista cento scudi....," the duet in which the silly old Pasquale (Pantalone), stupidly obsessed with the idea of marrying the very much younger Norina (Columbina), reacts with horror at the way she is treating him and squandering his money after having been falsely "married" by the devious notary (another stock figure, Scapino). The marriage is obviously unconsummated (she's too busy shopping:) and will soon dissolve, so that she can marry the young Ernesto (Pierrot). While we laugh at Pasquale, it is a bittersweet awakening on his part, and we can actually feel sorry for him. Baccaloni understands this:

Laughter and tears: the buffo's ancient art!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sara Scuderi: I Lived For Art!

Sara Scuderi was born in Sicily in 1906. Her debut was in 1925, at the tender age of 19, in Novara, playing no less a part than Leonora, in Il Trovatore! It is inconceivable today that a 19-year old girl would sing such a role, but it was a different operatic world in 1925, especially in regional theaters, and, to judge from her subsequent success, she can be assumed to have done a pretty good job. She was later signed to a 7-year contract at La Scala, where she attained fame, especially for her interpretation of Tosca, which was, by all accounts, quite spectacular. She went on to sing in all the important theaters in Italy, and throughout Europe. She was particularly well received in the Netherlands, where she was engaged for a long period. She is perhaps not so well known in the United States, as most of her career was in Europe, with some occasional forays abroad, most notably in South America.

She enjoyed a fine career, largely in the 1930's and 40's. She retired at the end of the 40's. Toward the end of her life she lived at the famous retirement home founded by Giuseppe Verdi, the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, where a rather extraordinary film was made of her in 1984, part of which we will see in a moment.

First, her signature role, for which she won widespread recognition:

Isn't that just wonderful!? All the elements are in place; the voice is well suited by color for the part, and the vocalism is excellent, but that is far from being the whole story. Notice the immaculate enunciation. Every single word can be clearly understood, and this leads to stylistic perfection; every important word is stressed, and no shade of emotion or meaning is sacrificed to pure vocalism (something that cannot always be said of sopranos in this role!) What comes through most clearly is fine artistry imbued with intense emotion and, let it be said admiringly, a dash of strong melodrama. This is Italian opera, after all! It is hard to see how this presentation could be improved upon.

It was in Scuderi's portrayal of tragic heroines that she excelled, and a second fine example would be this poignantly tragic rendition of "La Mamma Morta" from Andrea Chenier:

Much the same can be said for this presentation as was said for her "Vissi d'Arte": admirable vocalism and stylistic excellence, blended with what might be called a dignified melodrama (yes, there really is such a thing, at least in opera.)

And now, speaking of melodrama, a real treat. I would like to offer you, as a final testament both to Scuderi and the melodrama of Italian theater, this very moving film clip, made in 1984, when Scuderi was resident at the Verdi Rest Home For Musicians. To me at least, it speaks most eloquently about the very essence of Italian opera, and exactly how Italian singing actors are able to feel about their music, their theater, and their art. I urge you to watch it all—it's just 9 minutes long. Starting around 333, it is all about Scuderi. The entire clip, however, is most interesting:

Vissi d'Arte! I lived for art!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alessandro Bonci: A Bel Canto Master

Alessandro Bonci was born in Cesena, in the Italian historical district of Romagna, in 1870. Apprenticed in youth to a shoemaker, he showed musical interest and talent, and was able to secure a music scholarship at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. His first studies were with Carlo Pedrotti, with whom the great Francesco Tamagno had also studied. Bonci's training was traditional bel canto, and it was this style of singing that characterized his artistic work throughout his career. He was part of the last generation of bel canto singers, and his career overlapped the verismo school of singing most notably represented by Caruso, who was rising as an international star during the latter part of Bonci's career.

Bonci's debut was in Parma in 1896, as Fenton in Falstaff. By he end of his first professional year, he had already been engaged by La Scala, where he debuted in I Puritani, an opera with which he quickly became identified. His rise was near meteoric. He went on very quickly to the major houses of Europe, including Covent Garden in 1900. His American debut was with the Manhattan Opera Company, where he found himself in a kind of direct competition with Enrico Caruso, who was singing at the Met. He went on to enjoy a major career in all the important houses, both here and abroad, until he retired in 1925, at the age of 55, dedicating himself to teaching and concertizing.

Without question, Bonci was an elegant and well schooled bel canto tenor. His early career was in the 19th century, and his singing exemplified the tastes of that period. As mentioned, he was particularly identified with the bel canto repertoire, especially the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Here is the great tenor aria "A te, o cara, " from Bellini's I Puritani:

An absolutely elegant and lovely example of bel canto tenor singing! The purity of the voice, the stylistic finesse, the easy top—where he picks a high C right out of the air, on a diminished tone, and pulls it out in a long crescendo! Not many tenors can do that! Everything about this rendition has authenticity stamped upon it. There is no doubt in my mind that Bellini would have been very pleased, and would have been likely to say "Yes! That is exactly what I had in mind."

There is a most interesting video on Youtube that has an old piece of video footage; a short conversation by some New York Italian-Americans, in a Mr. Luigi Rossi's grocery store, talking at one point about Bonci, and how he compared—in their minds, at least—with Caruso. This speaks tomes about bel canto versus verismo in the "popular" mind. The conversation begins at 2:40 on the following video; it should be possible, if you have a fairly fast download, to move the radio button forward to that point:

Isn't that interesting? The audience for opera is clearly changing, and the refinements of the previous century are not much appreciated by these gentlemen, obviously, compared to the more "real" and down-to-earth presentation by Caruso. Granted, Caruso was a very great tenor, and enthusiasm for him is entirely understandable, but the important thing here is that to these men, Bonci seems to sound effete. Never mind that he was portraying the Duke of Mantua, a foppish nobleman of the Renaissance. Those considerations seem not to be important to them. In other words, opera is becoming a purely vocal art.

It would be interesting to put these observations to the test. It so happens that Bonci recorded "La Donna è Mobile":

Bellini in Verdi-land? Perhaps. In any case, it is an unusual opportunity to see and reflect upon the passing of bel canto in favor of verismo. The Caruso recording is easily found, and can be compared. Probably most know it. It is very much more declamatory (and loud) and the famous cadenza at the end is included, including the roof-raising B natural. It is not really possible—or prudent—to pronounce on the superiority or inferiority of one versus the other. They are just two different worlds. They don't blend, and one has very little to say to the other. Apples and oranges.

In any case, we should not judge Bonci by the standards of verismo any more than we should judge Caruso by the standards of bel canto. Here, finally, is Bonci in a piece that is absolutely appropriate, squarely in the bel canto repertoire, "Spirto gentil," from Donizetti's La Favorita:

A lovely and elegant rendition of a beautiful piece of music! There is so much about 19th century opera and its fashions that was right. I for one think it is well worth preserving. Bel canto is certainly not is still there, and we can name a long list of singers who adhere even today to its essential principles. The sensible thing to say, I suppose, is let's have both. There is plenty of room. Let's just not swamp the repertoire of one with singers who clearly belong to the other. That would solve a myriad of problems!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Emma Calvé: Opera's First Femme Fatale

Emma Calvé was born in 1858, in Aveyron. She spent her childhood in Spain, but moved to Paris with her mother after her parents separated. She began her vocal studies at this point. Her debut was in Brussels in 1881, in Faust, but she did not find much if any success at the beginning, and small roles over the next year or so were not much of a showcase. She returned to Paris and began to study with Mathilde Marchesi, a well-known mezzo soprano of the day who had herself studied with Manuel García, the famous teacher and codifier of bel canto singing techniques. She did not now have to wait long for success. After a tour of Italy, where she watched and studied famous and successful singers, she returned to Paris in 1891 to create the part of Suzel in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. She scored a success, and was asked to create the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. That turned out to be the magic moment. Italian melodrama, the staple of the newly emerging verismo, perfectly suited her intense temperament, renowned acting abilities, and artistic instincts. Her success was huge and she went on to repeat it in London. Santuzza was ever after considered one of her signature roles, another being Carmen. Both these roles presented Calvé with an opportunity to display all her skills, which were everywhere celebrated. She was, in fact, so fiery and melodramatic in her stage portrayals that some newspaper critics were offended by such earthy and passionate emotional displays from a woman on the pubic stage. It did not conform at all—especially in Victorian London—to upper middle class notions of female propriety, even (or perhaps particularly) in the theater.

Here is a recording made in 1907 of "Voi lo sapete, o mamma." It needs to be remembered that we are dealing here with a soprano from so long ago (she was born two years before the American Civil War began!) that even her earliest recordings capture only the voice of a middle aged woman. She was, for example, nearly 50 years old when this record was made:

An absolutely fascinating recording from one hundred and four years ago! It is immediately apparent that the intensity and melodrama, if you will, of her presentation is strictly musical and stylistic in its nature. There is no shouting, no grating, gasping sobs, or any other kind of artistic indiscretion that some sopranos (especially mezzo sopranos) allow to infiltrate this piece. Her vocal instincts were always musical; it was the dramatic conception of the music and—from virtually all accounts—her acting that was so special. Indeed, she uses a vocal technique (the famously dark and intense chest voice so common in Belle Époque singing), to make her dramatic points. Its discreet use turns out to be all that is necessary to convey the emotional intensity of the music here. She leaves the essentially soprano part of her voice free from such affectation.

Let us turn to the other role for which she was so famous—Carmen. So powerful, according to contemporary accounts, was her portrayal of Carmen that it was many years before any other soprano or mezzo soprano could claim to equal it. Some record collectors claim that CD re-recordings do not do justice to the subtlety or intensity of her voice and pronunciation because record companies have "muffled" the sound in an attempt to get rid of the scratches on the old records. To put that idea to the test, here is a 1908 recording, directly from the old record, of the "Seguidilla" from Carmen. I ask you to tolerate the scratches in favor of the "live" feeling of the recording, and again, I stress the musicality of the vocal drama:

I think the old recording does give a better idea of the vocal drama being played out here.

A word is in order about the classification of her voice. The term "mezzo-soprano" was not much used in Calve's era. She was most commonly called simply "soprano." The floods of classifications were to come later, largely invented by critics. I have written elsewhere on this subject, and I do not hesitate to reiterate my feeling that much of this is simply unnecessary. There are other ways to describe voices than to create a new category every time some singer sounds a bit different from another singing the same parts. I daresay the old SATB choral designations would work remarkably well if we talked more about color, flexibility and tone, and less about mezzo, lyric, dramatic, coloratura, spinto, leggiero, profundo, etc. etc. etc. But I digress:) Let's settle for soprano with an strong chest register in Calve's case.

Actually, there is, in addition to all the drama, a lot of traditional bel canto soprano to be tapped here, as can be amply demonstrated by this lovely recording of "Charmant oiseau," from Félicien David's La Perle du Brésil, 1908:

Emma Calvé was important in her day because she led the way for women as passionate, real flesh and blood characters on the stage. That she could do so within the aesthetic framework of traditionally beautiful singing makes her all the more remarkable.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Opposing Guest Commentary On Modern Operatic Stage Direction: Are Directors The New Prima Donnas?

It is a pleasure for me to welcome Natalie to these pages, for a second time. (Photo on left). Many readers will remember Natalie (known to many by her Youtube channel name "younglemeshevist") for her piece on Sergei Lemeshev. Natalie was among the very earliest to present videos and recordings of both the great Russian tenor and the equally brilliant Antonina Nezhdanova, who are starting to become favored fixtures for serious opera lovers in the United States, again thanks to Youtube. Natalie here presents a very different view of Modern European stage direction from that presented last week by Chloe Hannah.


I read the last installment of Great Opera Singers, by Chloe Hannah, with considerable interest. (A Guest Commentary On Modern Opera Stage Direction:  Why The Hump, Rigoletto?) The article was well written and made its points clearly, which I appreciate. While I agree on some, however, I do not agree with other points which Chloe Hannah made. She writes, for example, that :

" As a designer, the visual presentation is just as important to me as the musical one, and even with my musicological background, I tire of people contesting that music is the most important of the elements opera consists of. If so, what sets opera apart from a symphony? Is it not a Gesamtkunstwerk where story, music and imagery are equals? Presenting opera in a fresh manner will call forth more enthusiasm in a young crowd than a stuffy presentation of a – let’s face it – rather obscure form of art."

This touches on the essential issue – what is opera? To me it’s a powerful art, dominated by sound and the human voice. Powerful because the human voice itself is an emotionally powerful instrument and means of communication. If one person says something important in a loud voice, it makes a significant effect on others. If the person sings something important at the top of their lungs the effect is greater. If that singing person is accompanied by a big orchestra, their voice and words possess huge emotional power. So opera at its best is a combination of beautiful, expressive, powerful sound, coupled with meaningful words. It’s neither pure vocalization nor a symphony, even if it is performed in concert, without sets or direction.

As for its visual side, everyone would like to see great acting, extraordinary sets, costumes and direction, but this side of operatic performance has its limits, largely because artists are selected for their musical and vocal abilities, not for their acting skills or beauty. The genre is so demanding vocally that it never enters anyone’s mind to teach a voiceless actor instead of a talented vocalist. If a talented vocalist doesn’t have acting abilities they nevertheless will be permitted to perform on the stage and perhaps will improve their acting. Similarly, no one dares to make ballet dancers sing during their performances. We know that Broadway musical artists can sing and dance very well, but ballet is too demanding to have artists do anything except dance. Such are laws of the genre. Opera has its own laws. No one ever banned Caballe , Gigli , Caruso, Tagliavini or many other great singers from the stage because all they could believably do was stand there and sing! They acted with their voices and it was easy enough to imagine them as beautiful heroes.

And then there is a purely technical matter—opera is so demanding vocally that most artists can’t move too fast, because they must control their breathing and voice. True, we can now see very athletic singers (Netrebko, for example) who can perform standing on their head, but I would suggest that it is at the very least questionable if their voices compare one hundred percent to those of the greatest singers of the previous generations.

It needs to be remembered that there have been—historically—many composers who were also good directors, especially Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. They had already directed their operas by debut time, and it was sufficient, generally speaking, to just listen to their music to imagine the emotional state and actions of the characters. There simply is no absolute freedom for directors there.

Libretto, I feel, is as important as music in many operas because composers took it seriously when they wrote the music. They imagined characters and their relationships— otherwise the music would have been different. So it seems to me that the modern habit of neglecting libretto only creates a "schizophrenic" effect. The recent Bolshoi production of “Onegin” is a great example. Its director is obsessed by the idea of confrontation between individual and society. He shoves this idea into every production of his, even if an opera doesn’t need it. In his version, Lensky became a creepy, nervous character; he insults Tatyana and shoots himself accidentally. The Larins became a bunch of stupid "pigs," always eating, shouting, drinking, and falling under the table. Olga became an aggressive bitch. The result was very interesting—a second set of characters suddenly appeared: musical ghosts. While artists performed something outrageous on the stage, the music and the lyrics created "ghosts" of real  and absolutely different characters –the ones Tchaikovsky and Pushkin had written! These two parallel worlds (scenic and musical) created a schizophrenic effect, which the director didn’t plan. It was fun, even if unintentional! I think one of the reasons many modern directors are booed by audiences is because of their often egregious self-indulgence. These might be classified generally as a kind of lack of professionalism—laziness, ego, logical inconsistencies, and general ignorance of tradition(s). Even if they intend to depart from them, they should be aware of what they are departing from. Otherwise, we are treated to trendy outrageousness, which can easily degenerate into a tiresome kind of inverse snobbery.

Traditionally trained Russian singers were shocked when they went to Europe and saw what they were being asked to do by some directors. The directors had no notion at all about Russian operas, and shoved politics, Stalin, vodka, Rasputin and other vulgar stereotypes at them from the very beginning. Basically, they were insulted: "My idea is the main thing!" "Russian classics should be staged like that—inside out!"

Yevgeny Nesterenko explained it by the term "directors’ mafia.". No matter how the audience reacts , critics will call it a "success" or a "thought-provoking production" as though directors are real "kings" of opera, even though many singers and musicians understand their parts better than directors. A couple of examples: The Queen of Spades in a Latvian National Opera production. The production is visually ugly, though "inventive." The Countess decides to open a bottle of champagne and is killed by its cork( at 3:50):

Then there is the so-called “Brokeback Onegin”—a Polish production. Lensky and Onegin are gay. A scene which replaces Gremin’s ball:

There is a strange system at work in opera theaters. Singers and musicians have their duties. Singers must sing their part beautifully and precisely, just like the composer wrote it. Otherwise they would be booed , criticized or fired. The same is true of musicians and conductors. Directors seem to be the only ones who feel they do not have duties—they have only “absolute creative freedom” which, if it fails, won’t be seriously criticized, at least in theatrical circles. As for timelessness – it seems to me that some operas are timeless, others are not. It’s impossible to replace Tsar Boris by a modern President, even though riots, wars and revolutions still happen and problems of power are the same. Perhaps La Boheme is timeless, but La Traviata is not so timeless. It’s hard to imagine now a modern man can endanger his sister’s reputation by his relationship with a woman like Violetta. It’s not a contemporary problem.

I do agree with ChloeHannah about comic operas, however – they give MUCH more latitude to directors.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Guest Commentary On Modern Opera Stage Direction: Why the hump, Rigoletto?

[I am pleased to present, for the second time in these pages, a commentary by "ChloeHannah." It was she, you may well recall, who did the piece some time ago on Anne Sofie von Otter, which was so well received by our many readers. Today "ChloeHanna," whose self-portrait appears to the left, speaks about a subject which has arisen many times in the Comments section of this blog—modern stage direction. "Chloe" is well qualified to speak on this subject, not only because of her university degrees (including a Ph.D.) in musicology and interactive media, but because she is still quite young, and offers our readers a point of view from a significantly younger generation than most of us belong to (speaking only for myself, of course:)

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My gratitude goes to our favourite blogger for offering me the opportunity to write about modern opera performances. He asked me to do this a while ago and I was reluctant because of the lack of video examples. But taking into consideration the kind curiosity of one of Edmund’s readers, I decided to give it a go.

I favour the modern production to such an extent that it has become an integral part of the opera experience to me. If I see that an opera is performed in traditional attire I am likely to skip it altogether. I would rather see it performed concertante than have to sit through yet another evening of hoop skirts and fake candles. I have visited the opera around 500 times, and a good chunk of the performances were traditional. If an opera follows every word of the libretto literally, the evening will either annoy or bore me.

Musicologists and opera lovers can be very protective of this form of art, and in the past I have had some aggressive responses to my point of view, so I would like to say that I do not want to press my opinion upon others, nor am I attempting to provoke the reader. Anyone is entitled to their own view.

With this disclaimer I hand you my thoughts on opera as I see it performed in central Europe. The few photos I was able to gather, and all examples mentioned are taken from my local theatre in Basel, Switzerland. It acts as a typical example of what a medium-sized, open-minded opera house presents today.

1. Innovation

First off, a modern production is new. Whether I personally love the performance or hate it, whether it be intellectually stimulating or just fun without any deeper meaning, it always guarantees the viewer something to ponder, a new interpretation of a well-known story. Part of the challenge is trying to crack the director’s thought process, much like attempting differential equations. What fun!

2. Visual Experience

A new interpretation can lead to visually enticing stage and costume designs. By no means is it all graffitied brick walls and miniskirts. This side of rococo furniture, the visual world of a modern designer is limitless and thus unpredictable: I have seen Macbeth take place in an airport terminal; La Bohème at a ski resort:

I have also see Lohengrin in a giant’s kitchen. Other performances are abstract in nature but nevertheless stunning. The sheer size of an opera stage offers so many architectural possibilities, from Maria Stuarda’s world jutting out dangerously across the orchestra to the many atmospheric facets of stage lighting upon a simple white background in Ballo in Maschera.

As a designer, the visual presentation is just as important to me as the musical one, and even with my musicological background I tire of people contesting that music is the most important of the elements opera consists of. If so, what sets opera apart from a symphony? Is it not a Gesamtkunstwerk where story, music and imagery are equals?

3. Humour

A new interpretation can lead to hilarious situations on stage. Certain operas call for humour, and what better way to entertain an audience than by redefining the libretto in an unpredictable manner? We all know the witch lives in a gingerbread house, but I have rarely heard as much laughter as when she appeared in a fridge, her high heels sticking out from below the appliance as she walked on stage and beckoned Hansel and Gretel through the fridge door.

If someone asks me which operas I like to see most, I always reply Rossini. I’m not even that crazy about his music; my preference lies closer to Stravinsky. But when it comes to modern stage performances of Rossini’s operas, I know the evening will be memorable. Barbiere’s Figaro as a dragonfly with a large ego, the rotund tenor as a bumblebee, and Rosina’s butterfly entangled in the mean-spirited spider’s web was a production I returned to see over and over.

4. Political and Social Issues

A modern interpretation of opera can be uncomfortably true to the spirit of the opera. Operas are not always fun. Some are downright tragic. I recently saw an incredibly difficult Aida. I can’t say I enjoyed the evening in a feel-good-There’s-something-about-Mary kind of way, but it has indelibly changed my view on the opera. Aida is about war, and war was what was shown on stage. How utterly out of place are Verdi’s enchanting, exotic dances in such a horrifying piece? It is something I had never before considered, and I am grateful for the questions the director provided me with.

Modern opera directors are often labeled the enfant terrible, the provocateur. Their operas are booed at, the singers are interrupted by angry outcries in the audience. But the ideas are nearly always rooted in the original piece. (As a side note, I feel compelled to say that if an opera speaks of sex, which frankly occurs a lot, do we really have the grounds to protest against some steamy action on stage?)

5. Timelessness

Every single opera libretto is timeless, I am convinced of this. Must Rigoletto have a hump to manifest his social marginalisation? He may blame his misery on his physical deformity, but we all know that his moral bankruptcy and habit of throwing married ladies into the arms of a ruthless womaniser are greater issues. What could the deeper reason for Rigoletto’s behaviour be? I have seen six different productions of the opera, and the answer was never the same twice.

6. History

In an historical context I usually point out that ‘back in the day’, opera was a very different type of entertainment. Singers carried a suitcase with their favourite arias, and the stage director would simply mix and match. It was not a strict, by-the-book form of art. The auditorium was not dimmed, talking and drinking was allowed, and prostitutes lured in the boxes. Barring public prostitution, I do wish we could regain some of this lax attitude, because it might also help with my final thought:

7. Attracting a younger audience

Opera has so many facets! Let us colour and animate it to draw a younger audience to the theatres. This tends to be the only argument conservatives will agree with. Presenting opera in a fresh manner will call forth more enthusiasm in a young crowd than a stuffy presentation of a – let’s face it – rather obscure form of art.

These are my thoughts on modern opera. I am only sorry that I don’t have any videos to show just how fantastic, beautiful, hilarious and fascinating some of my visits to the opera have been. But for all the modern efforts made by this central European city, the theatre has yet to embrace the technologies the world wide web offers.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Luciano Pavarotti: The Artist And The Persona

For reasons I am not quite sure of, there are three tenors I find it hard to write about: Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo. I am not sure why. I did finally write about Caruso last year, when I finally found the key for the discussion, and that turned out to be the fact that he was the first media triumph in the history of American classical singers. I know he was Italian, by birth, but he quickly became Amerca's tenor, lived here, married here, and had his great career at the Met while under contract to RCA Victor. Many singers of Italian background were to follow, in all kinds of music, from Galli-Curci right up through Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. But what about the modern tenors Domingo and Pavarotti? My instincts tell me there is something other than music at work in both cases, and it's just plain tough to get one's head around the voice and artistry per se, without taking many other things into consideration.

There are two reactions a foreign singer can have when he or she lands in America and determines to make their career here. One is to retain an old-world elegance and artistic seriousness, and the other is to discover American show business, and the enormous money to be made there. A good example of a great tenor who retained his artistic seriousness and personal dignity was Giuseppe Giacomini. And he paid the price for it in America. He was basically elbowed out of the country's opera scene, back to Italy and Austria, where he was greatly respected. He did not, you see, play the celebrity game. Tony Curtis once said that fame is a separate career, and if you want to be a famous artist, you must dedicate as much or more time to the cultivation of fame as to your art per se. I imagine you can see where I am going with this: I respect the great voice of Luciano Pavarotti, the near-manic energy he poured into his career in America, and the magnificent effort on his behalf to restore bel canto (for which I, for one, remain eternally grateful!). He did all these things. He was a wonderful tenor, with an uncommonly good voice, with a top range matched only by some of the greatest tenors of all time, such as Lauri-Volpi. All this I grant. He also strove relentlessly to make himself famous, and could, on occasion, play to the gallery in a way that some serious opera lovers found annoying. He was very big, extremely fat and projected a jovial, near-riotous ebullience at times. In a word, he played to the American stereotype of opera tenors.

I believe that Pavarotti's greatest contribution to opera seria was his dedication, along with that of Dame Joan Sutherland, to the badly needed revitalization of bel canto. Here is a 4 minute segment from a BBC documentary on La Fille du Regiment. (As a bonus, we get a brief glimpse of Juan Diego Florez at the end:

Of course, great bel canto artists of the 19th century would seldom if ever sing those high notes full voice. The voix mixte was the approved French method of singing notes above the staff. In this clip, the music critic's remarks and obvious enthusiasm were typical of the way the young Pavarotti was received. To be able to sing so high, with such force! I still remember the New York Times article that followed his premiere performance of La Fille du Regiment in New York. The full page article, with large-point headlines at the top, declared "MAMMA MIA, WHAT A TENOR!" It was shortly afterwards that we were treated to an album, with a picture of a sea pirate on the cover, with the title "King Of The High C's" (To be read, obviously, as" King of the High Seas.")

From the very beginning, then, there was this aura of excess, ebullience, physical strength, and enormous physical presence (of the 350-pound variety!) Everything about Luciano Pavarotti was big, big, big. Part of the artistic price paid for this was that he, like his predecessor Enrico Caruso, sang monochromatically. There were very few colors in the voice, the singing was hardly elegant, and it was sometimes unmusical. Many in the audience were coming to hear the fat man sing very high, as loud as he could. That was how it all began, with the nearly unsingable "Pour mon âme," with its many notorious high C sharps, almost always sung down a half tone. Not that Pavarotti couldn't sing above C. He did, often, especially in the great bel canto favorite "A te, o cara," from I Puritani."

By 1972, it had been a long time since audiences had been treated to this kind of voice in I Puritani! This kind of full-throated singing, up to such an altitude, harkens back to the days of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Bravo, Luciano! How much he gave, how much he did, to restore bel canto opera to its appropriate place in the repertoire! For this, every lover of great and beautiful singing should be eternally grateful! I know that I am!

As the career went on, the voice of course began to darken somewhat, and Pavarotti began to make what I consider the classic mistake. He took on heavier roles. There is a kind of confused thinking that seems to take over a tenor's mind when his voice begins to decline, and that is to think that because the voice has darkened in color, and the luster has gone off the top notes, and the uppermost top notes are no longer there, that it is time to start singing Manrico, Rhadames, Calaf, and Chenier! Whoa! That is to miss the main point, is it not? The voice has begun to lose its color, sheen, squillo and range in the first place because of all the demands that have been placed upon it! Hardly the time to start thinking that somehow this makes it appropriate to sing Andrea Chenier! All that does is hasten the decline of the voice. But, be that as it may, that is what Pavarotti began to do, in the 1970's, with predictable results. He was hardly the first, and I'm sure he will not be the last, unfortunately.

One ambition that never abandoned him was the lust for fame, however. The TV talk shows were still there. I once saw him on Johnny Carson, trading jibes with Loretta Lynn, probably the greatest female country music singer of all time. Great exposure for her, maybe not so great for him. I can remember her saying, "You know, y'all are FUN!" Yes. I'm sure he was. Then there were the "Three Tenors," about which I will say nothing, and of course the famous "Nessun Dorma," which became the theme song of the Italian national soccer team in their quest for 1st in the world championships. This got picked up later in the movie Bend it Like Beckham when the Pakistani-British girl soccer player, toward the end of the movie, made her big penalty kick to the accompaniment of "Nessun Dorma," and of course made the winning goal. More recently, we have been treated to a female food-fight in Drew Barrymore's premier directorial effort, "Whip It," when two opposing girls' roller derby teams start beating each other up to the accompaniment of "Di Quella Pira." This kind of thing can spread. In any case, Pavarotti began marching straight into show business. He and Frank Sinatra became friends, and it seemed, toward the end, that he had begun to wish he were Andrea Bocelli, doing duets with Italian rock stars like Zucchero. The end was near.

I want to stress, finally, that which was best, which is to say that which rose to heights sufficient to match the extraordinary fame. That would be the first half of the very long career, when the Great Pavarotti (and he WAS a great singer!) took himself and his art seriously, and when he brought a huge amount of attention to opera in this country, in the same way Mario Lanza and Caruso did. What he and Joan Sutherland did for bel canto simply cannot be over-estimated. Two of the greatest voices of the twentieth century, given to singing, brilliantly, some of the greatest 19th century operas ever written! Think of it! Yes, for this he deserves our undying admiration. As to the rest, who cares? As the great American poet Ezra Pound once said, "What thou lovest best remains; the rest is dross."