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Monday, May 31, 2010

Tito Schipa: Ultimate Tenore di Grazia

Tito Schipa (1888-1965) is perhaps unique in opera: he was a very popular operatic tenor, sang in all the major houses (with the exception of Covent Garden), had—and still has—legions of fans, and yet he seems at first glance to possess almost none of the characteristics generally associated with operatic tenors. He was basically a Bb tenor (and barely that), and his voice was quite small, and even bit husky. He sometimes reminds me more of Tony Bennett (also a great singer, incidentally) than he does the great opera singers of his day: Lauri Volpi, Caruso, Gigli, Martinelli, etc. What then was the secret of his great success?

The answers are not hard to find, and they are a great lesson to all who aspire to sing: first, he was a superb musician. No endless fermatas, no invented notes. Even more importantly, he was a master of style: the precise reason for any song or aria he sang was always clear to the audience, and, more importantly, to him. His enunciation was crystal clear, and one can understand every single word he sings. He possessed, in abundance, a musical and stylistic understanding sufficient to make him an absolute master of musical line. Line is perhaps the greatest of all the artistic attributes necessary to sing beautifully, and—all too often—one of the rarest. By linking notes (legato),the singer can create a flow of sound that swells and diminishes, according to the composer's intentions, and when this ebb and flow is connected to a corresponding linguistic syntax that accompanies the music, the total effect is stunning; the kind of thing that brings audiences to their feet shouting. The public responds much more to beauty than it does to anything else, even pyrotechnic displays of fioratura, trills, and ear-splitting volume. All have their place, but beauty is always first. (In this regard, I would venture that small opera houses are the greatest boon there is to beautiful singing. Six-thousand seat houses always necessarily put a premium on volume.)

The proof of all this is in the listening, so let us move to a good example: Here is the famous tenor aria from Von Flotow's Marta:

Isn't that lovely? No big sounds, no particularly high notes (did anyone else notice that even this modest aria is transposed down one-half tone?) Somehow it doesn't matter. It works, and it's lovely; that does matter.

There are of course limitations to this kind of singing as far as repertoire is concerned. He would simply have been woefully out of place in things like Aida, Otello, Andrea Chenier, and so on, even if he could have sung them. The big operas cannot be part of what a singer like Schipa does. But there is nothing wrong with that—there are plenty of operas left where his style of singing does work. A principal instance would be The Elixir of Love, and here is one of the best known and best loved tenor arias in the entire repertoire. Turn your speakers way down, this was recorded by the poster at a very high volume:

Now, isn't THAT something! It is hard to imagine it sung better. The only competition he has as far as this aria is concerned is Ferruccio Tagliavini, another superb tenore di grazia. I think it is worth saying that the limitations of which I spoke work in the opposite direction also. Big tenors often think that because they have huge voices, they can sing anything in the repertoire. Not so. They can sound ridiculous singing music like this. It soon becomes the proverbial "bull in a china shop," and the dramatic and aesthetic qualities of the piece are just blown to pieces. Let them leave this music alone—they can make plenty of money doing Aida and Otello.

Finally, here is a fascinating clip someone has posted, taken from an old movie, apparently now lost, in which Schipa sings to his own guitar accompaniment. I call your attention to the extreme purity and clarity of his enunciation. It's so pure that I swear you could understand it even if you don't speak Italian!

A great and unlikely opera singer whose career and whose success contain so very many lessons. Any singer anywhere, singing any kind of music, can benefit from studying the artistic legacy of Tito Schipa.


JDHobbes said...

Yes, you are quite right about his singing and pronunciation. There are several postings on YouTube of him offering advice to others that are interesting. When I think of pronunciation, I also think of Andrea Bocelli, who is more of a crossover singer, but whose language is very clear.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Good observation. Yes, clear enunciation serves several purposes. First, of course, it is a thoughtful gesture to the audience. It adds a lot to a song to be able to understand it! And also, it facilitates vocal production for a singer, especially one with a high voice. Fernando de Lucia made a big deal out of that when he was teaching Georges Thill. There is a great video on YT where Thill imitates what de Lucia told him all those years ago: "Ma-es-tro! Per cantare bene, bisogna ap-ri-re la BOC-CA!" :)

corax said...

as always i feel completely spoilt by your wonderful offerings on this blog. what a rich feast you continually offer us.

this latest delicacy, for example ... i have been trying for years to put my finger on what it is about schipa that i love so much. it has always struck me as odd that he is so high on my list, because his voice seems 'matte' rather than 'high-gloss' -- i don't know how else to put it, but you will understand what i mean. anyway, for opera i much prefer [ceteris paribus] that there be that 'gloss' to the voice -- or at least that the singer be capable of producing glossy tones when they want to.

schipa never, ever seems to 'go there.' it may actually have been part of his laryngeal limitation. and yet -- and yet -- one doesn't miss it here in the least. one is content to let schipa be schipa, and to sing as he sings, and the performance never seems like some sort of consolation prize. on the contrary: he seems to me to be a special treasure, entirely sui generis and thus irreplaceable, and as though he were the sole custodian of certain particular secrets of the music -- indeed the only singer to whom one could appeal if one wanted those particular secrets revealed. the 'schipa effect,' if you will.

i think you have done better than anyone else has done [or could do] to explain what this 'schipa effect' might be. i would in fact go further and say that we now observe the 'st austell effect' at work: it is consistently *you*, esteemed sir edmund, who succeeds in getting to the heart of what makes 'great opera singers' great. you, like schipa, are tui generis and irreplaceable. no wonder there was a general public outcry when you threatened to pull the plug on this treasure of a blog.

Edmund St. Austell said...

OH, my dear friend, I'm blushing! You are very kind indeed; I don't deserve it. These little forays into criticism are only a chance for one individual with a life-long interest in opera to celebrate what seems really good, really special, really different from other kinds of music. Such a grand and rich tradition is its own reward. It is so old now, and has, historically, so many enthusiasts, that it is like studying the pyramids, or the history of Rome, or China. There is just so much there. It is too easy to talk about the good old days, and how nothing is as good as it used to be, etc., but I don't know that that is true, really. When I think back to when I was a boy, I remember that it was very hard to hear opera, except on the radio on Saturdays, or on a record. But word! YT is just alive with videos and recordings....every great singer who ever lived (post recording instruments) is there to be seen and heard. Opera from the Met can be seen in theaters in many locales, there are tons of opera houses other than the Met around, famous singers like Pavarotti just loved to be on television, and so forth. I know that the American popular musical culture has overwhelmed the world, and is everywhere, but I think the fact is that ALL music has overwhelmed the world and is everywhere. There is simply so much more there these days, and even if our share is smaller than a rock band's, who cares? After all, quality has always set its own parameters because the audience is necessarily limited, but the point is that it remains a BIG audience anyway, and there is no sign of it disappearing that I can see. Thanks so much for your lovely comment, and let me tell you how much I appreciate having readers such as yourself...another perfect example of quality!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Sir Edmynd. Yes, Schipa was an artist who knew everything about singing; he had all possible colors in his voice. A great master. In my (unprofessional) opinion there are two main types of singers – those who have a good voice and those who have singing talent,( and there are various combinations of these two qualities)Artists of the second type can sing brilliantly almost without voice (Tony Bennett’s timbre is hard to describe, though he was a great singer). Schipa’s voice can’t be called “golden” or “silvery”, though it’s pleasant, but his best quality is musicianship and artistry. Another thing I like about him is his intelligence and charm. It seems to me that he understood lyric tenor roles better, than modern singers do .
Your though about big and small theaters is very interesting.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, you assess the situation very accurately and perceptively. By and large, Schipa's fans just enjoy listening to him sing. They aren't looking for spectacular effects, or spectacular voice, they just like to hear him sing. It's almost always pretty, musical, and easy to understand. And small theaters, I think, are a great thing. Not all opera is grand:) It can be lyric and gentle. Schipa once said that all you had to do was get the voice up to the lips, and when it came off the lips, it would be heard. There are other singers, like Lily Pons and Amelita Galli-Curci, who probably would have agreed with him. The thing about "big" voices is that they sound very spectacular up close, but they don't carry that well. This is especially the case in Wagner, where the orchestration is quite thick. That's one of the reasons Melchior sounded so good in the opera house. His voice had that "ring" that Italian and French vioces are famous for; it cuts right through the orchestra. I can imagine that Lemeshev, to take a favorite example of yours, who had so much "squillo" in his voice, carried very well to the very last seat in the highest balcony at the Bolshoi, even when he was not trying to sing loudly.

Thanks as always for an excellent comment.

JD Hobbes said...

As I observed in an earlier blog comment, Tucker had the same ring to his voice. I sat in the back of a large auditorium, with a full orchestra, and was very impressed. Quite remarkable.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, exactly. If someone presses down on the voice, and does not permit the shorter cords to vibrate freely, it's like a wet towel thrown over the voice. The singer him or herself will think they are making a huge sound, but they are just hearing their own voice through bone conduction. It sounds huge to them, but it's deader than a doornail out in the audience.

Nate said...

I have little to add to your excellent commentary, Edmund, as well as the remarks of your well-informed listeners, except for a couple of thoughts about Schipa in comparison to other lyric tenors. Like McCormack, Schipa's voice was small and not noted for its wide range and high notes; yet unlike McCormack, he was still mainly successful in the operatic arena that included all those brilliant tenors you mention, whereas McCormack's forte was the concert platform. And, like de Lucia, Bonci, Anselmi, and others, Schipa was an elegant tenore di grazia; but unlike the others, he did not have at his command--or did not use--the elaborate fiorature that was the stock-in-trade of those earlier light tenors, as it is of today's Juan Diego Florez. By the way, Galli-Curci, whom you referred to, regarded Schipa as the GREATEST tenore di grazia, surpassing even Bonci.

Nate said...

Schipa can also be likened to McCormack by virtue of the fact that both tenors had crystal-clear diction. In fact, the only other classical singer I can think of whose diction was that clear is the American baritone, John Charles Thomas, and, in the pop field, Frank Sinatra.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Nate, for a characteristically erudite and thought-provoking comment. You are right. The lack of fioratura is yet another of the "limitations" that had completely escaped my attention. But you are absolutely right. How fascinating! That makes the question even more pointed--what was it that he had that served him so very well! He and Galli-Curci, of course, were a pair made in heaven for bel canto. I think I've listened to their "Verrano a te" about 50 times. It's just absolutely beautiful, and works every single time. I'll say it again, how very, very interesting! Thanks for a great comment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And again, your comparison to Thomas and Sinatra is spot-on. Thanks.

The Balch said...

Thank you, as always, for a thoughtful introduction to a powerful artist. I only recently became acquainted with Schipa's work, but I have to say he's become one of my all-time favorites. I'm currently reading a biography of Schipa authored by his son, and came across some things that I thought might be of interest to you.

It's interesting that you compared him to Tony Bennett. According to Tito Jr., the elder Schipa was wild about jazz music--so much so that, in the 1920's, he announced that he was attempting to write a jazz opera, almost a decade and a half before the premiere of Porgy & Bess. Here's a quote where Schipa describes his process while preparing to sing Werther:

"Then I began to study the words of the libretto. But I did not study them alone, nor did I start to sing them-no, no! I take the rhythmic values first. Not the melody, you understand, but merely the 'swing,' and the rhythmic values."

I remember being amazed that an opera singer would ever use the word "swing" while discussing classical music. I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise; his sense of time was phenomenal.

Here's one more quote regarding diction and pronunciation, which came as a huge surprise to me:

"In modern music there is the so-called "declamatory" element, which in my view is a useless accumulation of one word on top of another. While previously, in a vocal melody the overall meaning of the words was expressed in synthesis, and the missing words were suggested, because the ear didn't always catch them, or because they were only hinted at, now one word is piled on another, and (I repeat) uselessly, because as soon as the voice begins to rise to the high register, there is no singer, however good, who manages to pronounce clearly... In the higher registers the singer, in order to be able to emit true and pleasing sounds, resorts to "special" vocal techniques which allow him to avoid distinguishing the syllables: in other words he seeks to eliminate the contractions of the words in his throat, and contents himself with vocalization. It's an unavoidable technical necessity."

Really odd for someone whose diction was so clear the manager of a smaller Milanese theater once came to his dressing room to warn him that he had made enemies of all the libretto-sellers. "When you sing," he said, "they don't sell a single copy!"


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! What a fascinating comment. You have given me and other readers of your comment some really important facts and observations to chew on, toward a new discovery of this wonderful bel canto artist. Thanks again!

Gerhard Santos said...

GREAT PHOTO! I am really enjoying reading your well written articles. Thanks for sharing, Sir Edmund. *GOD BLESS*

Mark Giugovaz said...

Again just from my personal experience, Schipa had a strange relationship in Italy. In the North, he seemed to be really admired and respected. Going south, by Rome there was certain comments on his vocal limitations. In Naples, going back to the dinner I mentioned on the Caruso post, a nobleman who had sort of taken me under his wing that night said he had a 'paper' voice. In Catania, I remember a man saying 'what a great artist! What a pity he can't sing."

I would love to find out what he did to justify such hatred? Sure his voice wasn't special, but he did more with a paper voice than Carreras did with his 'beautiful' one. Thanks Mark.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I think the situation there, Mark, is similar to the Caruso one. Schipa was a little too popular in America to suit the Italians. There is a national or chauvinistic pride involved in both cases. Also, the Italians have many, many great tenors in Italy to admire. They tend to be bigger, more robust tenors with fully developed upper registers that are squillo-laden to an astonishing degree. If you have a chance, and are looking around in Great Opera Singers, check out the piece on Mario Filippeschi done by guest columnist Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragoglio.