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Sunday, November 30, 2014


Jacques Urlus was born in 1867 near Aachen, and grew up in Tilburg, in The Netherlands. As was—and is— so often the case with great artists, entertainers and sports figures, his family was poor, so much so that they could not afford to give him any musical training. The result of this is that Urlus was essentially self-taught, and a mighty job he did of it, for he was to become an extraordinary technician, with a near-flawless vocal technique that made it possible for him to sing Mozart, Wagner (with which he was particularly associated), and Lieder. In a word, like Franz Völker and Leo Slezak, he could sing anything he put his mind to. Essentially, it is always the same voice, and it always works well! More on this subject in a moment.

His debut was at the Amsterdam Opera House, in 1894, in a small part. After singing around Amsterdam for a while, he had the chance to go to Hannover, Germany, where he appeared in Lohengrin, to considerable acclaim. He sang for Cosima Wagner, but was not at that time given any opportunities at Bayreuth. So, it was back to The Netherlands, where he continued singing where he could. His next big move was in 1900, to Leipzig, which became his artistic base for many years. Debuts from farther afield soon came, and he went on to perform in Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt and other houses in Germany and Austria. He also appeared at Covent Garden at this time. Finally, in 1911, he did get the chance to go to Bayreuth, where he sang Siegmund , which was well received.

It was on to the Met the next year, and Urlus was now established, having sung in all the major Northern opera houses. I do not know that he ever sang publicly in any language except German, or, I assume, Dutch in some of the performances in The Netherlands.  After the Met engagement, it was back to Germany, where he essentially spent the rest of his career.

Urlus is a good example of what I talk about often in these pages, and that is the unsatisfying vagueness of our current terminology for voice types. He was a great tenor. To me that sums it up. We are so besotted with ever-finer vocal definitions, that they lose meaning after while: Heldentenor, heroic tenor (the same thing) dramatic tenor (the same thing), spinto tenor, leggiero tenor, lyric tenor, etc. ad infinitum. They are all in fact tenors, men with high singing voices. We burden our vocabulary with endless definitions, to almost no avail. Most of these definitions, when you stop and think about it, describe the color, size, intensity and flexibility of the voice. It does not invent a new category every time one tenor sounds different from another. Let's look more closely at Urlus, a good example of what I am talking about. Commonly called a "Heldentenor," a term I somewhat uneasy with in his case, here is his rendition of a popular Mozart aria, Tamino's "Dies Bildness ist bezaubernd Schön"

It is beautiful, and reminds me of what a well-known New York opera coach once told me: "Everybody likes to hear these great Mozart arias, but they don't want to hear a church tenor singing them." Indeed. Urlus' voice sounds different here, of course, from that of Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Björling, or Alfredo Kraus, but so what? They are different people, each with his own voice. If it resembles anyone else's rendition, it would be Franz Völker's. Both were eminently successful singing Mozart. And Wagner!

Let's hear Urlus move now to Verdi, and to what is commonly considered a "big" and "dramatic" aria, "Celeste Aida."  Urlus sings it with exactly the same voice with which he sang the Tamino aria:

I would say this is exceptionally well done; that it is, in fact, great tenor singing, without question. The line, the purity of the vocal production, the style, and the dynamics, even with the "as written" ending.  It is elegant and consummate singing, by any standard and in any historical period.  What I am not sure I hear is "Heldentenor."  If Lauritz Melchior is a "Heldentenor," then Jacques Urlus may not be. That is as simply as I can put it. They are both tenors, and they both sound very good in very different kinds of roles.

Finally, 2 short Wagner arias, from Lohengrin, recorded in 1907 and 1911. ("In Fernem Land," when Urlus was 40 years old, and "Mein lieber Schwan," four years later. I invite you to compare the voice, in all its aspects, to the two pieces we have already heard.

And there you have it. Superb singing on all fronts: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, and we have not even touched the lighter song repertoire, at which he also excelled. One voice, finely tuned and universally applicable. The fact that he always sang in German or Dutch, of course, helps make this happen. If he were to sing in Italian, Spanish, or French, it would be possible to talk about his particular aptitude for one or the other language, but that only adds another element to the real differences between tenor singing voices, and that is the aptness to the language of birth—another matter altogether, unrelated to voice types. Jacques Urlus was a great tenor; remarkably consistent and almost infinitely adaptable.*

*For those who wish to listen to more of Urlus, please permit me to recommend strongly the Youtube channel of Mr. Tim Shu, at dantitustimshu, one of the very best sites currently available on the web, where you can find many Urlus videos, all with erudite and reliable commentary.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Edmond Clément

Edmond Clément was born in Paris in 1867.  As a young man, Clément entered the Conservatoire de Paris, where it quickly became apparent that he was possessed of a very beautiful high lyric tenor voice.  At the relatively young age of 22, Clément made his stage debut, as did so many artists, at the Opéra Comique, in Massenet’s Mireille.  He very quickly began to earn a reputation as a superbly elegant and polished singer.  He remained a leading tenor at the Opéra Comique for the next twenty years, until 1909.

During this crucially important period, Clément perfected what was going to become the core of his essential repertoire, including Ottavio, Roméo, Werther, Hoffmann, Almaviva, Tamino,and, perhaps most importantly, des Grieux.  Also, given the era in which he sang, he had the opportunity to take part in première performances, including Falstaff, Butterfly and Saint-Saëns’ Hèléne.

By this time, when Clément was in his early 40’s, he began to spread his wings, as it were, and appear outside Paris.  While today we assume that it is natural to move abroad as opportunities present themselves, this was not always the case in the early years of the 20th century.  For one thing, travel was expensive and difficult then, and there is nothing like a transatlantic trip by steamer to wear one out.  Not everyone is constituted to be able to tolerate long trips by boat and rail.  It was common enough for artists who lived in Paris to have their entire careers and never leave Paris, even then considered by many, if not most, to be the world’s greatest city.

However, for Clément it was off to Madrid, Monte Carlo and Brussels.  He did not sing at Covent Garden, but he did manage the big transatlantic trip to New York, to perform in the 1909-10 season at the Metropolitan Opera. This was, however, the heyday of Enrico Caruso, the star tenor of the Met’s roster, and verismo singers such as Enrico Caruso were all the rage at the time, and were basically polar opposites to elegant bel canto tenors such as Edmond Clément.  Clément and others certainly had their audience also, but it was not, shall we say, that of the Italophile Met and its New York Italian immigrant fan base.

He found a very much more appreciative audience in Boston, at the Boston Opera House, where his extremely elegant and polished singing, coupled with his equally refined stage presence,  were greatly applauded. He was a natural Roméo, and a good Don José.  It should be mentioned at this point that  Clément was a superb musician, and a very handsome man, with considerable acting skills.

The year following his Boston triumph saw the outbreak of WWI and Clément, a patriotic Frenchman,  returned to his homeland and joined the Army.  While he did survive, he was  wounded, and was never quite the same after the war.  While he did sing a little, it was nonetheless a period of decline.  He gave a recital at age sixty and died in 1927,the following year, in Nice.  He is remembered, even today, thanks to his records, as one of the most precious and elegant of tenors, the very exemplar of French elegance.

To begin, here is Clément in what may be his signature role, des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon:


Talk about elegance!  That is certainly one of the finest recordings of “Le Rêve” to be found.  Clément scores at every important point in the aria: style, legato, precise enunciation, and simplicity, something often overlooked, which should not be, because it is the bed-rock foundation of elegance!  It is too easy to be excessive, but the true test of an artist’s ability to demonstrate with perfection the intentions of the author is to adhere to a clean, precise simplicity, and at this Clément excels.

Here is a piece that shows an uncommon breath control and command of legato singing, the tenor aria from Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche, “Viens, gentile dame:

If we can imagine a very long string, or piece of thread, wrapped into a ball, unwinding from the first note of the aria to the last, we have a very reasonable visual image of the legato line extending from the beginning to the end of the aria.  It reminds me a bit of McCormack, but even finer.  This is an elegance that can only be called remarkable.

Finally, here is a song, and while it is not an operatic aria, it is what I always refer to as the oldest continually sung love song of them all, Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour.” Written in 1780 by Jean Paul E. Martini, “Plaisir d'amour” is a very good candidate for being the greatest love song ever written. It has been sung constantly from the moment of its creation until the present day, which is now over 230 years.  It has been sung by folk singers, great opera singers, pop singers, including Elvis Presley, and countless thousands of amateurs.  The song is an absolute classic of beauty, elegance, structural perfection, and essential text: “I loved her, she said she loved me, but she ran off with someone else, now I'm miserable.  The joy of love lasts only a minute, its pain is life-long.”  It doesn't get much more basic than that.  In a word, it is a song tailor-made for Edmond Clément:



Sunday, November 16, 2014

French Tenor Paul Franz


French tenor Paul Franz was born François Gautier in Paris in 1876.  He took the name Paul Franz and was always known  by that name.  He did not begin to study voice until he was 30 years old.  He won a major vocal competition in 1908 and made his debut at the Grand Opera in Paris that same year, in Lohengrin.  The Paris Opera remained his artistic home for 30 years. He retired in 1938.  His voice was brilliant and powerful and his stage  presence most impressive, all of which made him a great favorite with audiences.  He was able to sing big roles, such as Rhadames, Otello, Samson, Don José, Le Cid, and Wagnerian roles such as Sigmund, Siegfried and Tristan.  Paul Franz died, in Paris,

in 1950.

Here is the tenor aria "La fleur," from Carmen:

Ignore the address above and go to Youtube and look up the aria "La Fleur" under Paul Franz

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Eula Beal

Eula Beal


Eula Beal (January 25, 1919 – July 29, 2008) was an American contralto. During her relatively short touring career, she performed with distinguished collaborators not only in concert on the US West Coast but also in Concert Magic, a 1947 film billed as "the first motion picture concert." [1]

Beal was born in Riverside, California. Touring the United States as a concert contralto in the 1940s, she appeared with orchestras including the Phoenix Symphony[2] and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With the latter ensemble, she performed in two works by Gustav Mahler: his Eighth Symphony, under Eugene Ormandy at the Hollywood Bowl,[3] and Kindertotenlieder.[4] Beal's operatic appearances included interpretations of Erda in Wagner's Siegfried and the innkeeper in Boris Godunov with the San Francisco Opera during the 1948 season. She also sang at Radio City Music Hall and the Tanglewood Festival with the Boston Pops.[5]

Here is a wonderful rendition of Schubert's lied, Der Erlkonig: