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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Alfredo Kraus: The Personification of Elegance

Alfredo Kraus was born in 1927 in Spain's Canary Islands, and began his musical studies as a child, beginning piano at 4 years of age. He was a good and highly intelligent student of music, and developed disciplined habits at a young age which stayed with him throughout his life. He would, during his long career, be consistently praised for his extremely refined musicianship. A handsome man, in the debonair 1930's matinee-idol mold, he had an aristocratic bearing that bespoke the refinements of earlier centuries. All these qualities made it possible for him to have a superb career, and he did.

Kraus' debut was in 1956, at 29 years of age, in Cairo, portraying the Duke in Rigoletto, which was to become one of his signature roles, along with Werther, Nemorino, Arturo, and Faust. (His French was good, and he was very popular in the French repertoire.] In 1958 he debuted in Lisbon, and then, in quick succession, London, Milan, Chicago and New York, and then to world wide fame. There were no scandals in his life, no self-indulgent behavior, and no health crises. He was a model of stability, professionalism and artistic consistency, an extraordinary model for serious artists.

Kraus' voice was highly pitched. The territory around high C and even beyond, held no fears for him. Here he is (at age 59!) singing "Mes Amis," from La Fille du Regiment, a notorious aria whic contains—if you listen to it from the beginning—one B natural, two Bb's and an unbelievable five high C#'s! This aria is long. I recommend you move the radio button forward to 5:10 as soon as you can, and listen from there to the end, which is where the high C# fireworks take place.

Isn't that something! And at 59 years of age, almost unbelievable. He never lost that brilliant top. And the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the audience is a clear indication of the esteem in which he was held. The clarity, consistency and seeming ease of production of those extremely high notes are sure signs of a brilliant singer, very disciplined and in complete control of his voice.

The Duke in Rigoletto was a natural for a distinguished looking man with a high-pitched voice. It was his debut opera and remained a favorite with audiences:

Absolutely perfect bel canto technique, smooth as silk. This vocal production cannot be faulted in any way. It is very traditional, and perfectly adapted to singing tenor in opera. Curiously, given the eternal insistence from most voice teachers about low larynx and extreme diaphragmatic support, watching Kraus makes it clear that his larynx is often high, and much of his breathing is clavicular. It requires a very straight posture, which Kraus had. This may seem like heresy, in the era of belting, but in fact it is for some voices and styles of singing a time honored technique which Gigli also employed. Essentially, it is the way boy sopranos or coloratura sopranos sing. This is not to say he does not support, only that it is selective and integrated into a narrower, higher sound, less dependent on deep resonances.

Finally, the role which most consider Kraus to have owned: Werther. Here is one of the earlier arias in the opera, "O nature, pleine de grâce!"

It is very, very nice to reflect upon the fact that bel canto singing, with its elegance, beauty, and stylistic refinements, did not in fact die. It lived in Kraus,and lives in others and—given the very large number of aficionados who considered his art to be perfection itself—it is not going to leave us. It will come back, because the thirst is there.


corax said...

WOW. just wow.

and you are absolutely right in your apercu about the singing of boy sopranos. i would not have made that connection without your instruction, but i saw it instantly. thanks as always for this ongoing masterclass in singing technique, on top of the history, musicology, anthropology, and sheer aesthetics you are giving us here.

JD Hobbes said...

Remarkable. He was thin, strong, and must have had a diaphram of steel. He was a straight-up singer and didn't rely on gimmicks or tricks.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You are very, very kind, sir, and I truly appreciate it.

Edmund St. Austell said...

The above comment of mine is in answer to Corax, our faithful correspondent. The following is in answer to Mr. Hobbes, another faithful correspondent:

Yes, what you say is true,Mr. Hobbes, although, as I indicate in the piece, I believe there was a moderated and mixed use of the diaphram in this kind of singing. It could still be a strong diaphragm, however, as he was, as you correctly indicate, in wonderful shape generally, and bore himself with uncommon elegance and grace.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I always thought that Kraus was a “giant” among opera singers of the second half of the 20th century, but I couldn’t explain it. Now it’s great to read the opinion of the professional musician, which explains it perfectly.
Aside from the beautiful voice and skills he had charm and spirituality ; (other tenors with these qualities, who come to mind are Giacomini, Tagliavini, Lemeshev (of course:))) . His appearance was very suitable for romantic characters like Werther, but without charm and intelligence he would have not been able to “own” the part.
As I understood, he worked without scandals with other great stars like Callas.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment, my friend. Yes, in many ways he was an admirable man, an excellent model for serious artists for whom the music is always first.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, very intersting. I discovered Kraus only last year. I never before followed classical singing, and was never much impressed by most popular singers. One day I clicked, almost by accident, on a Kraus' recordings on Youtube, and that was a shock. By now i've heard and read most of what is available, and to me, he also personifies integrity. I find it amazing how the way he sang is the same way he looked, carried himself, lived, and even died.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for your comment. Welcome to the world of great singers! You happened on an excellent example to start with, for all the reasons outlined in the article. Youtube is a goldmine for developing an interest in the great classical singers, of whom there are thousands. There are great finds awaiting you. You might want to have a look at virtually anything by the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, who is credited almost universally with having the most beautiful tenor voice of all time. You could, assuming it is still there, find a great video of him by googling - gigli sonnambula - It should take you to a scene from one of his many movies, where he sings astonishingly well. He was fat, plain, and couldn't act, but nobody cared. The voice was everything. Thanks again for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

I write this as I am listening to a 1952 recording of La Traviata with Callas -they were great together in this live recording(audience coughs including).

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, indeed! Two first class voices and two masters of style. some people overlook Callas when they are ranking great stylists, but they should not. She was a wonderfully sensitive singer, and as for Kraus, what more can I say! Thanks for your comment--I appreciate it.

Royka said...

Thank you for this article on Mr. Kraus. I feel very lucky to have discovered your wonderful opera blog.

When I first read in Wikipedia that Alfredo Kraus was a belcantist, I found the term very vague and confusing. Is it an operatic style? But then kraus had had a successful career in other operas too.

Thanks to the illuminating discussions on the subject in this blog, I think I'm getting a grasp of it ;) Before that, I thought i was imagining things when I sensed some similarities between e.g. Schipa and Thill's ways of singing :)

Another thing that is interesting to me is the open/closed phonation debate. Since I don't sing, it shouldn't make any difference to me. But as I started paying attention to it, when listening to different recordings by different singers, I felt that the open voice created a certain directness and sincerity which are very endearing, making the portrayal more humane (to me, Bjorling's heros are always angelic or mythological characters, rather than normal human beings!). Maybe I should not make such a comment, being a total layman when it comes to classical singing, but from what I hear in a singer's voice or their facial expressions and postures, it seems to me that singing with a covered sound may need more strength (push), while in singing with an open sound, controlling the voice projection might be the more challenging part. And it's based on this assumption that listening to a singer like Wunderlich sing confidently in full, open voice, without losing any precision, has always been a thrilling experience to me. Speaking of Wunderlich, I would love to read your professional and insightful opinion of this tenor.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I certainly appreciate it. Yes, you are quite right: the open sound preserves more of the natural conversational quality of the voice, and it comes across as having more character. Heavily convered sounds tend to erase the differences between voices, and it is often hard to tell one singer from another, because the individual vocal qualities have been smoothed over, as it were, in favor of the dark, more nearly cello-like instrumental sounds. To some, the covered sounds are more "operatic" and the open sounds more musical-comedy-like, but I find that a dubious distinction, actually. And curiously, it is exactly Fritz Wunderlich that I intend to write about tomorrow (Sunday, the 23rd), so, if you would care to tune in tomorrow, (I usually get the pieces out by early afternoon) we can visit this magnificent tenor, whose untimely death remains one of the greatest musical tragedies of the 20th century. Until tomorrow:-) Edmund

Royka said...

Wow! What a coincidence! This is great news (esp. for a rather impatient person like me ;). I'm obviously looking forward to reading your next article! Thank you, sir Edmund, et à bientôt! :-)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Je vous remercie beaucoup. Maintenant, tout ce que j'ai à faire est de l'écrire :-)

Darren Seacliffe said...

I have to agree that Alfredo Kraus was celebrated for his performances of French opera and bel canto as well as his vocal longevity. (It's incredible that he was able to take on the 14 minute long aria 'Ah mes amis' from Fille at age 59 as well as Pavarotti did in his prime.) The article is good but I feel that it's missing something very important: Kraus was not only celebrated for his French and Italian opera performances,he was also noteworthy for his performances in Spanish opera (zarzuela).

Now,let me share my experiences with this singer: I first listened to Alfredo Kraus sing on the Bohm Cosi as Ferrando. His voice was very elegant and beautiful but I didn't like the way he sounded, the words of the Italian language didn't quite suit the way he spoke. The same feeling I had of Kraus stayed so I generally avoided his records as a rule until one performance I heard changed my opinion of him completely.

If you think Kraus is good in those,you should give this video a try:

(This is an extract from the recording Kraus made of the zarzuela La Tempestad by Ruperto Chapi. The recording was slammed heavily online but this song alone was its redeeming asset)

I've heard Kraus sing quite a number of times,and I don't think his voice can get more beautiful and his singing more elegant than this. He really takes on this song with a tender and graceful approach. What's more important is that the sound of his voice is perfect here. Doesn't this show how Spanish opera brought the best in Kraus' singing? Perhaps this might explain why he championed it,his efforts to squeeze zarzuela into his hectic performance schedule all the way into his old age.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Seeing how zarzuela brings out the best in Kraus' singing, not mentioning it in an assessment of his singing is quite a major oversight. It's not that this is a glaring oversight, zarzuela's rarely talked about in the West so I'm not surprised that very few people have heard of it, let alone listened to it. It's just that I'd like to use this comment to draw attention to this undeservedly neglected and richly rewarding genre.

For more examples,based on the limited listening experience I have had in zarzuela,I can at the most offer the below for reference:
(A duet between Alfredo Kraus and Angela Chamorro from Chapi's zarzuela La Revoltosa. The musical number that kindled my interest in zarzuela)
(Kraus singing an aria from Jacinto Guerrero's Los Gavilanes. This aria is delivered well by most singers in general, as far as I've listened but Kraus brings a special touch to it)
(This is from one of Kraus' earliest recordings,I've not tried it yet but this was recorded before the Cosi in the 60s. Presenting Black el Payaso by Pablo Sorozabal)

Darren of Singapore (aka Firuzens on Youtube)

Darren Seacliffe said...

If anyone's interested in any more zarzuela extracts,please feel free to try the following:
(Carlos Munguia in a short hilarious extract from El Rey Que Rabio by Ruperto Chapi)
(Manuel Ausensi in the classic Spanish aria 'Un donde fue' from one of my favorite zarzuelas, La Dogaresa by Rafael Millan
(Teresa Berganza in one of her best performances in zarzuela, as Paloma from Barbieri's El Barberillo de Lavapies, the Barber of Seville with a Spanish twist)

In assessing Spanish opera singers,if they've done zarzuela before, especially Berganza, Lorengar and Kraus, one musn't neglect their performances in zarzuela because as far as I've listened, at times their zarzuela might surpass their opera performances.

Manuel Ausensi,I think,is most famous for his Figaro on the earlier version of the Barber of Seville which the great Berganza sang in the 60s. He's good but if you want to hear him at his best, you've got to catch him in his zarzuela recordings. As for Carlos Munguia, as far as I know, I don't think he made any opera recordings or sang much outside Spain so I'm not surprised that his name was not raised before.

Please don't get me wrong,I'm not Spanish,I speak no Spanish and can't understand a word of it. I'm just a Singaporean who has listened to a wide range of operas from several genres: operetta, opera, and zarzuela.

I'm sorry if this comment was too long but I feel that this is the best way for me to alert people to zarzuela which I feel is something that should not be passed over despite its regional exclusivity.

Please do let me know your thoughts on this comment. I might not know much about singers but I've taken on quite a number of operas in my listening time.

Darren of Singapore (aka Firuzens on Youtube)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent comment! I agree with you. I will happily take this as an important addition to the many praiseworthy things that can be said about Kraus. And you make a most interesting point about Spanish versus Italian. His voice does in fact slot perfectly into Spnish, with the result that every single word is perfectly clear and understandable. This is invariably an aid to the elegance which I strove to celebrate in the article. The zarzuela piece is an excellent vehicle for his voice, which is very much at ease, right up to that rather spectacular high D natural at the end! That is rarified territory for almost any tenor, and the somewhat heavier Italian phonation that is characteristic of even the most lyric Italian tenor could easily have detracted from the overall flow and spirit of the aria, whereas in Kraus' case it is perfectly in line, and perfectly consistent, both musically and aesthetically, with the rest of the piece. Yes, extremely well done! Thank you for an important addition to the general repertoire of Kraus arias to be appreciated!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Thanks,more importantly,I was hoping for feedback on the other singers whose clips from YouTube I uploaded. I understand that Berganza's a great singer in her own right so perhaps an aria by her ought to be slotted into her own article but as for the other two singers, I'm curious to hear everybody's thoughts..

Great opera singers..Do they refer to great opera-trained singers who sing in opera and all its related genres or great opera singers who sang exclusively in opera? There's a myriad of singers out there in the latter category and much more in the first.

There are times when I wonder if zarzuela and operetta are part of opera. I wonder if those opera singers who weren't as noteworthy in opera who could stand up to great opera singers who could tackle these genres have a claim to greatness in opera. I understand that it's a remark which is pretty controversial since zarzuela and operetta are normally regarded as the 'brothers' of opera which are more lightweight.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Perhaps someone will have an answer to your comment, down the line. People do write in sporadically, but not in any predictable way.

Thank you for your comments and questions, they are very interesting!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Hmm, this is very interesting. As far as I am concerned, Kraus was a great lirico leggero tenor, whose excellent technique stemmed from the years in which he refined his technique onstage in the zarzuela, and of course the Teatro del Zarzuela in Spain also hosts opera. For me, zarzuela is a genre of opera, like the French Grand Opéra, or Italian verismo. Operetta is something different, something lighter, like what Americans call "musical theatre."

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for a perceptive and incisive comment! Much appreciated. Your comments on the Zarzuela are particularly interesting. Thanks again!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Kraus refined his technique onstage in zarzuela..this is the first time I've heard someone say this..If that was so, this makes his singing even more amazing..I always found him more enjoyable to listen to in zarzuela than in opera..In fact, it was his zarzuela performances that made me appreciate his operatic singing in a new line. I usually found his French and Italian opera singing wasn't really smooth although the elegance of his singing was there until I heard him in zarzuela. It sounded very different to me after that. I feel the Spanish language suits the way he sings much better rather than French and Italian.

Hmm..I think zarzuela's more a bridge linking the two genres of operetta and opera. There are some zarzuelas which are quite light and frivolous, which provide great musical entertainment but on the other hand, you've got other zarzuelas that may not be as long as the average opera but contain just as much drama and action. It's a pity the genre doesn't receive much attention outside Spain and Latin America. The fact that it's a mixture of both operetta and opera makes it a genre which I feel is considerably significant in the history of opera.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you for an interesting comment. I have come, of late--thanks largely to Mr. Florio-Maragioglio-- to think you may well be right!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

A true comment. Operetta, Opera and Zarzuela are different aspects of the same thing. Some operas are very light, such as Barbiere della Siviglia, and yet the comic opera Carmen is tragic.

Zarzuela is extremely significant in the history of performing arts as the Spanish manifestation of lyric-dramatic theatre. In America, there is the Board-way musical, in France the opéra-comique and the Grand-Opéra, and in Italy we have opera seria and verismo.

I think it is an European thing, because operetta does not really exist in English-speaking countries, and even in Europe it was always more popular in Austria and Germany that Italy or Spain.

As for Kraus, I am sorry, but I disagree about the smoothness: for me, all his singing was smooth, in any language. However, I think in his native language he had better tone colouring.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much. I certainly appreciate your comment!

The Balch said...

Thank you for such a fitting tribute to an extraordinary voice.

I am fortunate enough to study with an extremely knowledgeable voice teacher. He actually emphasizes many of the things I've seen you bring up in posts and in the comment sections of your entries: approaching from the top down; using the falsetto voice as an aid in developing the upper range; phonation with as little effort and strain as possible; a balanced resonance, rather than the larynx-crushing approach of people like Melocchi, etc.

I asked him early on to recommend professional tenors to listen to, and the first thing he said was "Alfredo Kraus." I was a Kraus devotee from the moment I heard his Ferrando, and I'll continue to use him as a model until the day I die.

I guess that people argue about technique often--what works, and why. It seems to me that the proof is in the pudding. Here is a man who sang from the age of 29 up until his death in the 90's, and the whole time he sounded like a 20-year-old. The best advice my teacher ever gave me was to "sing young," and boy, did Kraus do just that.

Your comments regarding his breathing got me thinking, and I happened to come across a transcript of a Q&A he did where he discusses his technique, including his thoughts on the breath. For anyone who's interested, here's the link:

This may or may not be accurate or authentic, but I see no reason for the person in question to falsify such a transcript.

As always, I am looking forward to your next post.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I could not agree more with your teacher's advice. Kraus was perfect in his production. You are fortunate to have so insightful a teacher!

Gerhard Santos said...

I truly enjoyed reading your wonderful article. Thanks for sharing! *GOD BLESS*