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Friday, May 29, 2009

Great Child Singers I: Joselito

Children, especially in the Latin world, can sometimes have extraordinary singing voices; voices which can take them on to operatic fame, if the child is properly trained, and if –a BIG “if”—the voice does not break and drop drastically in puberty. The most famous such instance for a man would be Beniamino Gigli, a boy soprano who basically just kept singing the way he did as a boy. Fate (coupled with what would turn out to be thyroid problems and diabetes) kept his beautiful boy soprano voice in shape through puberty, and he went on to his extraordinary destiny. This does not, of course, happen to most child singers.

A brief look at the best known film of the enormously popular child singer José Jiménez Fernández, otherwise known as Joselito, is illustrative of many things at once. His biography is easily consulted, and there is no need for me to repeat well known stories. Joselito was a film triumph, with all that can mean. For Mario Lanza it was disaster, and others have suffered similar fates. But they were adults. Joselito made his first film at a very tender age indeed. He grew up in Franco’s Spain and his first films appeared in the mid-50’s. He was a beautiful little boy with an astonishing voice. He did not sing as a boy soprano through any kind of church training; he is not singing on the edge of the vocal chords, the way a boy being trained in a choir school would. His voice does not “hoot.” He is singing full voice, albeit the voice of a child. This at once gives it an astonishing squillo for a child, even if tinged with nasality. This nasality, however, is intentional; that’s how flamenco singers navigate the fioratura. If the last word of a phrase does not lend itself naturally to nasality, the sound ão [as in a cat’s meow] is added to nasalize it.

In the first clip, I invite you to reflect on how utterly foreign everything you see and hear is to anything known in the Anglo-American tradition. In the first place, a child of this age singing a love song to a little girl would be on the far, far side of propriety, something like the titillating “Let’s play house” kinds of things Shirley Temple did back in the 30’s. Joselito was from southern Spain, and the gypsy flamenco music is sui generis—but what vocalism it makes possible! People coming to the traditional music of southern Spain for the first time always think this music is the result of Arabic influence. It is not. It is gypsy music, which makes it ultimately, as near as anyone can tell, form northern India, a very long time ago. I’ll translate the piece—it helps to know what he is saying to her. “Once a nightingale at first light/was trapped under a flower/far from his lady love./ Awaiting his return, in her nest/she saw the afternoon grow late/and at night, near mad with love/ she sang to the river:/ “Where has my love gone?/ Why does he not return?/ What flaming rose has entrapped him?/ O sparkling brook/wandering through reed and bush/tell him that roses have thorns!/ Tell him that there are no colors that I do not possess/I am dying of love!/ Tell him to return!) We are in a very sentimental world here, but that fact has its own importance. I warn you—break out the tissues, and, if you are diabetic, proceed with the utmost caution:) All the selections this time are quite short—please see them through to the end, which is where the vocal fireworks always are in this kind of music:

Amazing singing from a child! Notice the easy emotion and the uninhibited acting, which is in fact not bad at all. Somehow this works, at least in 1958 Spain. It would not work AT ALL in the Anglo American world, and probably not even in modern Spain.

Now, to throw yet another spatula of emotion onto the situation, I need to tell you that the little girl is blind, and his love for her—while remaining a boy/girl love—will turn out to have many spiritual qualities (this is Spain). The following clip, in a church, features our little hero, girl in hand, pleading before a local statue of Jesus for help for his little blind friend. The singing is near cantorial in nature, and is another amazing piece of child vocalism, more refined than the first example. The nasality is now gone…this is not a popular song. His vocal control and concentration here are admirable. This kind of intense and sentimental religious fervor, btw, with heavy gypsy overlay, has no counterpart in the rest of Europe that I am aware of

The purity and control of Joselito’s singing here is the kind of thing that might have served him well had he made a steady diet of it. He was, however, in the hands of unscrupulous managers who exploited him mercilessly, and he never had the chance to study properly. A tragedy in the making, to be sure.

How does the film end? Did you really have any doubt? The final clip, very short, shows our little hero singing another popular song, La Luz de tus Ojos (The Light of your Eyes). You will of course notice who enters the proceedings, and to whom the song gets directed, and what has happened. This is possibly the best piece of singing, considering all factors, in the movie. In your imagination, fast forward about 15 years, and you can see this, very easily, in the opera house. All the elements are already present. Notice the high note at the end, especially, bearing in mind that this boy is not trying to sing soprano He is singing with his natural voice. The point of articulation in Spanish is much more “forward” and much “higher” than it is in English, and there are only five singable sounds in the language. Spanish has the most conservative vocal system of all the Romance Languages, and this fact greatly favors a young, high voice, and keeps it high much longer, as opposed to English, which can be death to a young voice with classical tenor potential.

Put away the tissues now, it’s over.

One can talk endlessly about vocal technique, about the rules of effective singing, about training the tenor voice especially, about acting, and all the rest. But when you are talking about sentimental Italian opera, (how’s that for redundancy?) the simple fact is that, at least historically speaking, it makes a very great difference where you were born, when you were born, what language you grew up speaking, and how expansive the emotional climate of your culture is. If all these are right, the vocal and musical training is all that is left. It they are wrong, all the training in the world is seldom enough.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Jan Peerce: An American Original And A Sentimental Favorite

The saga of Jan Peerce’s career must leave a European singer wide-eyed with astonishment. Possessed of a great tenor voice, Peerce was a success story that happened not “because of,” but "in spite of.” I knew Peerce slightly, having had a long and pleasant conversation with him at a social event in North Carolina some years ago, and having been involved with him on several other professional matters. I always had the highest possible regard for him. He was an amazing man; one of the most hard working, serious and dedicated musicians you can imagine. He was both a popular and  ethnic triumph here in the United States, and an international singer of great reputation. His beginnings were certainly not auspicious, especially for a public performer. He was born Jacob Pinkus Perelmuth, in Brooklyn, in 1904, the poor immigrant son of Russian Jews. He was a short, stocky, plain man with very poor eyesight. He had no professional connections, and no money. As a boy, his mother saved pennies so that he could study the violin, and he became good enough to perform popular Jewish music in public. It was soon discovered, however, that he had an extraordinary tenor voice, and he abandoned his violin for vocal studies and was finally heard by enough people so that he was able to find a job, in 1932, at Radio City Music Hall, largely singing popular music and sentimental favorites. His story from there is easily consulted. There is a particularly good video biography on the web, nearly an hour long, narrated by his good friend Isaac Stern. It is in six videos, easy to follow. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this extraordinary tenor. His met debut was in 1941. He became particularly associated with Arturo Toscanini. It has been said by many that he was Toscanini’s favorite tenor, and it is not hard to see why.

He, like Lawrence Tibbett, Mario Lanza, Gigli, and others, made films, and Peerce also made popular recordings, many of them songs for the Yiddish audience. To fully understand Jan Peerce, it is necessary to view him both within the traditions of Yiddish vaudeville and cantorial singing. He was on TV and Radio a great deal during the 40’s and 50’s, and was very widely known and admired in America, and this in a time when it was not always easy to be an ethnic and publicly proud Jew. His cantorial work was extensive and excellent. I think it is important to hear him first singing a well known Italian song, to gauge the extraordinary quality of the voice. Here is the old warhorse "O sole mio," which every tenor, I suppose, feels compelled to sing from time to time:

Can anyone deny that this is a great tenor voice? I think not. I would go so far as to call it one of the outstanding voices of the 20th century. Peerce was remarkably consistent. I don’t believe I ever heard him when he was not in good voice. But this is only one side of this many-sided man. His recording of “The Bluebird of Happiness,” hopelessly corny as it would be today, was in fact the number one song on the hit parade in 1943. It is at this point that the listener coming to Peerce for the first time really must bear the traditions of Yiddish vaudeville in mind. ( If you don’t know it, just listen first to Sophie Tucker singing “A Yiddishe Mama.” It is on Youtube.) In “The Bluebird of Happiness,” the fractured English phrase “So be like I,” The long rolled R’s, The highly over-dramatic 19th century recitation is perhaps an acquired taste outside Yiddish theater:

His recordings of cantorial music are excellent. His recording of the popular and stirring “A din toire mit Gott,” [A plea to God] is the best I have ever heard. An old rabbi challenges God, asking him what he has against the Jews, why he berates and abuses his people. “The English and the Italians say a king is a king, but I say that only God is king, etc..” This song is short…do please hear it to the end, which is extremely dramatic and shows the intensity and richness of the voice to an exceptional degree. The ending of this prayer will send chills up your spine:

Finally, to end, here is the international Peerce, under Arturo Toscanini, singing a passage from Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations.” To save a little time here, you can move the cursor forward to 3:05, (as soon as that much has downloaded), which is where Peerce starts to sing. Prior to that is Toscanini looking most forbidding, and an orchestra and chorus looking most petrified:) Peerce was an exceptionally good musician and stylist, however, and Toscanini, whose violent temper was legendary, never, in his 17 year association with Peerce, said a single cross word to him. This tells us something.

A man for all seasons, and a true American original!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Lawrence Tibbett: Almost Great

Some opera singers are called great, and one is never quite sure why. Others perform extraordinarily and are not singled out for great praise. One of the reasons many are called “great” is that hyperbole abounds in fine arts criticism, simply because music and dance directly engage the emotions, and a positive affective reaction to something is usually strongly defended. It is hard to say why we fall in love, and even harder to say with whom or with what. Lawrence Tibbett is an American original. Blessed with a magnificent voce—lyric, powerful, wide-ranging and remarkably flexible— he quickly rose to the top of the operatic world. At the time of his Met debut in 1923, he was a mere 26 years old. He sang an astonishingly wide range of roles, from the French, German and Italian repertoire, all to general acclaim. His ability to pronounce foreign languages was extraordinary. By the early 30’s he was appearing in movies, lighter operettas, and was commonly heard on the radio. I think one does not have to look much further than the wide degree of exposure in the popular media to answer the vexing question of why he is not called “the Great Tibbett.” When we look at other famous American baritones and basses—Merrill, Milnes, Warren, London—we do not associate them with musical comedy or film. In fact, I know from personal experience that Merrill went to the opposite extreme. Gordon MacRae once told me that Robert Merrill was constantly after him to have a go at opera, but MacRae said that he just never felt he could deal with the foreign languages. And, not coincidentally, he did not need the money. Robert Weede was in a similar situation. He did a Rigoletto, in his youth, that was widely praised, but one long stint in Most Happy Fella was sufficient for him to abandon opera altogether. Money is usually the reason. Opera is demanding and requires great discipline, a lot of travel, a decided gift for languages, and great physical stamina. After the proliferation of the popular media, especially the movies, it was just so much easier to make money, doing much less, that the temptation was enormous. But it can come at a terrible price, Mario Lanza being one of the most prominent tragic examples. But that is another story for another time.

There are a large number of videos of Tibbett on the Web, and it is easy to consult them. Figaro was one of his most acclaimed roles, and it is not hard to see why. The following video features both Tibbett and Milnes doing Largo al Factotum, and fortunately Tibbett is first. His section is only 4:20 long, and well worth listening to, because it is the essential Tibbett: many shades of color, comedy in the voice, excellent Italian (listen to the closed ‘e‘ on “verita.” Only someone who has studied Italian stage diction seriously will do this.) As for high notes, we hear an A natural and a final G. But it is the extraordinary flexibility that stands out. At 3:50 he does the very high-speed “Ah, bravo Figaro, bravo bravissimo….” faster than anyone I have ever heard, including Italians. An amazing recording:

Just a few lines from “Il Balen” will tell the story of Tibbett the singer of dark and heavy roles:

Some problems are beginning to show up here. It’s a wonderful rendition, but he is uncovering the voice and starting to belt some notes around f# and g natural.  Bad habit, and almost certainly related to all the singing in English he was doing. Covered vowels in English annoy the musical comedy audience. They sound foreign. I’m willing to bet that it was taking its toll on his opera singing. As was alcohol. Sadly, Tibbett was a two-fisted drinker of near legendary proportion. That does not conduce to longevity in opera. The Tibbett that most Americans knew, from the radio, can be heard here:

That is simply beautiful. Such vocal talent! I wonder if anyone noticed the open F natural at 1:29. That’s what you have to do in English. It will destroy an opera voice eventually, but there is no choice if you are going to make a serious career of singing to a popular English speaking audience. You will lose them altogether if you don’t open up and belt the notes out at that level.

There are examples of Tibbett in movies on the web also. They are perhaps best avoided. His movie acting, like that of most American and Italian opera singers, ranged from the unimpressive downward to the execrable. Opera singing is simply too expansive an art; film is merciless to the degree it narrows in on the smallest gestures. Movie actors act mainly with their eyes….anything else quickly becomes too broad. Tibbett was hardly the only one to embarrass himself on film. Lanza’s acting was laughable, as was Gigli’s. Today we have the dread example of Anna Netrebko, a lovely woman with a lovely voice, and next to no discretion as far as presenting herself in public.

No one questions Lawrence Tibbett’s talent or natural endowments—they were extraordinary—but sometimes even a great voice and stellar musicianship aren’t quite enough. There is an ineffable quality most often called “star quality” that has to be there for the reputation to endure, and it very often revolves around the issue of discretion.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Enrico Caruso: The Greatest Tenor or The First Media Triumph?

I bought my first Caruso record when I was about 17 years old, lo these many years ago. I still remember it: Celeste Aida. It was a very large double-sided 78. I pretty much played the grooves off it. In the intervening time, I have, to the best of my knowledge, heard every available Caruso recording, and there are hundreds. Additionally, I personally knew two people who heard him at his zenith, around 1918. After all that, and uncountable discussions on the subject, I cannot answer the question I pose in this piece. I can raise it; possibly even suggest an answer, but I cannot answer it. As in the case of Chaliapin, those who are called great in the world of operatic singing usually escape analysis, by virtue of the title “great,” bestowed upon them by generations of opera lovers. Caruso is commonly known as the “Great Caruso.” And for most people, that is enough said. Disagreement is neither encouraged nor appreciated. He became a generic brand name for “Opera Singer,” so that easy and common praise for an aspiring young male singer became “a little Caruso,” “another Caruso,” “the new Caruso,” and so on. Additionally, Vesti la Giubba became his calling card, associated with him by almost everyone in America at the time. Ordinary individuals, with little sophistication or knowledge of classical music at all, nevertheless came to know the name of Caruso, and imagined him portraying the tragic clown. It was a name they could drop with confidence, if the occasion arose, being assured of no more challenging a response than an acquiescent nod of agreement. Here is the Caruso calling card:

Certainly a great dramatic voice; heavy, intense and driven. A voice for the theater. He had conviction, and that equals style, and the style is verismo, writ large. From the very beginning days of his general fame, to challenge this in any way was heresy, and this has to do with the audience. Here is a magnificent video that, for me, tells the story of Caruso very directly. I urge you to listen to it all the way through; it is only 5 minutes. It is largely commentary on Caruso, the most interesting being the comments of the elderly gentlemen in Luigi Rossi’s Grocery store, explaining Caruso’s success in their own words and from their own point of view, which I will not characterize:

Whatever else one may say about this, it does catch the mood of what verismo meant to these men in Luigi’s Grocery store, and how it put paid to the whole style that preceded it, (bel canto). It is interesting that they mention Bonci and Di Lucia. This is the popular audience I have spoken of on other occasions. The earlier singing did not appeal to them so much as the new verismo did. For these men, Caruso was a hero, the Italian boy made good, one of them, man of the people, who gave highly dramatic and easily understandable presentations on the stage, and so on. The enthusiasm spread to a large American audience coming to opera perhaps for the first time, and the imprint—via New York—of the Caruso phenomenon was a lasting one, and it was characterized by the kind of immigrant enthusiasm evidenced in the video. In a way, this is a shame, because it contributed in part to the stereotyping of the Italian operatic tenor in America that survives to this day (and was exploited rather calculatingly by Luciano Pavarotti.) We all know the stereotype: extrovert, (or sextrovert), a fat man with huge appetites, eccentric, with an extremely high voice that is so powerful it shatters glass—etc. ad nauseam. One must be fair. This silly image is not an Italian creation; this is an American reaction to something that had not previously been part of the American experience, and was not well understood by many. Further, it was a reaction made at the most superficial level possible. For Italians, these singers were just part of their theater and their music. Caruso did not ask for this, nor did he consciously cultivate it or deserve it. He was in fact a simple, decent, very hard working man with a great commercial voice who earned his reputation on the stage, giving a truly huge number of performances in his life (hundreds at the Met alone.) He was exhausted by 1920, when he was only 47 years old, and had made plans with his wife Dorothy to retire. The problem for Caruso was that he rose to fame at a time when there was something like a planetary conjunction of technological and societal forces. He almost single-handedly established the fortunes of the RCA Victor Red Seal division. People in Kansas who knew nothing about opera knew his name and very probably had a record of his, along with one of John McCormack and Amelita Galli-Curci. He appeared in a film (his acting wasn’t all that bad, actually); he came along as verismo was becoming a serious aesthetic school of opera performance, and, perhaps most importantly, he came along not only at the time of the big Italian immigration to America, but also the rise of an upper middle class in America, which wanted to participate in the classical arts, and was willing to embrace opera as an exotic plant imported into America from Italy. So powerful and long lasting was this influence that New York opera is only recently beginning to disengage itself from it.

My opinion? Given my personal attraction to refinement and elegance in the fine arts, my love of bel canto opera and classical ballet, it has never been easy to be very enthusiastic about Caruso’s musicianship or performance style. Yes, I know….a long time ago, bad recordings, and so on. But they aren’t that bad. Caruso had almost no education, musical or otherwise. His vocal refinements were close to non-existent, and, as a result, his singing is monochromatic. His single mode is forte singing, in spite of several Italian songs such as Vaghissima Sembianza, which he sang mezza voce. One of the people I knew, who had heard Caruso about the time of the First World War, commented simply on the power of the voice. This was a common reaction, often found in reviews of the time. Now, on the positive side, it cannot be denied that he possessed a great voice; largely untutored, but great. He was essentially a Bb tenor, who could occasionally come up with a very powerful B. Whether he ever attempted a high C cannot be demonstrated because, sadly, many of the recordings were doctored to make the voice seem higher, “Studenti udite’ from Giordano’s Germania being one of the most notorious examples, recently corrected, thank God. Another was Di Quella Pira, which, once adjusted downward until the characteristic sound of his voice is in evidence, proves to be possibly a B, and probably a Bb, which would be a full tone and a half down. There are those who question whether Caruso was in fact a real tenor, or a high baritone. I think the truth is that he was simply the progenitor of the dramatic tenor; essentially a Bb tenor with an enormously powerful voice and a very convincing melodramatic style of singing, quite popular at the time.

Mainly, he was the Great Caruso.