Archive for June, 2020

The weight of Fach

Singers often hear that they’re lucky: they don’t have to carry around an instrument, since they are themselves the instrument. A voice teacher in Berlin once told me that only someone who does not sing would say something like that. “The human body itself is not an instrument”, she said. “The instrument only exists when the body is made to work in a certain way – then it becomes an instrument”. The final result – the voice – is neither a thing of nature nor the product of craft, but rather the synergy of natural resources and technique; there is nothing new in that. The interesting element there is the “becoming”. It puts emphasis in the process starting the day someone decides to study voice that never stops under the influence of life choices, professional choices, physical and mental health, ageing and experience .

Each person will have a different take on it. For instance, the most fascinating thing about the movie with Peter Sellars’ production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the casting of identical twins in the roles of Don Giovanni and Leporello – and how their voices are not identical. Eugene Perry (Don Giovanni) has a splash of reediness in his bass that contrasts with Herbert Perry’s a tad throatier sound in the role of Leporello. Although the process is different from everyone, one can establish some regularities. For instance, lyric voices tend to reach performance level faster than dramatic voices. There is no scientific explanation for that, but voice teachers would usually answer that parts written for dramatic voices are more physically demanding, and young singers still have to develop their “muscles” and learn to manage their energy before they can be fully responsive in this repertoire. Moreover, there are lots of small roles for light voices – like Barbarina – that allow lighter-voiced singers to make a living by singing and even enjoy success early on in Rossini, Mozart, Handel and Bach. In the meanwhile, what the young singer in the longer process of becoming a dramatic soprano is supposed to do? Many would say “Well, sing Barbarina, I guess…” But if you have heard a potential dramatic soprano sing a role like Barbarina or Cherubino or Susanna or even the Contessa Almaviva, you know that it is not simple as that.

Another voice teacher once told me that she did not agree with the idea that dramatic voices are rarer “by nature”. “Nature has nothing to do with that”, she would say. “The problem is that it takes time for them to get ready to sing an Isolde or an Elektra and, while they are getting there, nobody is willing to hear them as a clumsy Donna Anna ruining perfect ensemble with otherwise lighter-voiced colleagues”. Still according to her, they just don’t find jobs, still have bills to pay and end up doing something else. When you read the biographies of true Wagnerian singers (I mean, those with real dramatic voices), you find they go into two slots: a) those who used to be under contract in a small opera house in Germany and led obscure careers until one day fifteen years later they were singing Tristan or Isolde; b) those who had a day job until they were singing Tristan or Isolde and then they quitted and embraced their musical career. If I am not mistaken, Catherine Foster was a nurse, Ian Storey was a furniture designer. In any case, it is curious to read reviews of earlier performances from singers like that. They must have nerves of steel and immense willpower in order to survive years of “uncontrolled vibrato”, “steely sound”, “inability to produce mezza voce”, “ludicrous coloratura”, “under the note” until they have their ugly duckling moment in a Lohengrin.

It is ironically and nonsensically cruel the way audience and reviewers deal with these young heavyweights-to-be. On one hand, while they are spreading their wings in lighter repertoire, they are compared to voices entirely different in grain. If they are like the proverbial wise virgin and wait for the right time to light their lamps, they will certainly need a managerial fairy godmother to look out for them and wait them blossom. On the other hand, if they are not patient enough and decide to already sing what they are fated to sing, then they are crushed with comparisons with legendary singers (who – in 9 out of 10 cases – were in group one, i.e., those who waited a bit) and usually end up in a vocal crisis before they are 40. The opposite situation – lighter-voiced singers who push their way into heavier roles – also has its problems, but in terms of practical aspects (like being able to pay one’s bills) is far more comfortable. Generally, these singers already have an established reputation and once they feel a bit too old to be playing shepherdesses and swains, they could call a career move to expand a bit their repertoire to include roles where youth is less important now that they themselves are no longer young.

In any case, the world of performing arts may be like a magic realm for the audience, but it is also the working place of artists. There are practical decisions to be made and lots of externalities determining their choices and possibilities. Sometimes we hear people say “Why isn’t she singing Senta?”, while the obvious answer in most cases is “Because she doesn’t own an opera house – and she was hired to sing Violetta”. When you have kids to feed, sometimes you just thank God for that Traviata (even if you hate it with your guts). I remember an interview with Lucia Popp when she said she felt she had finally made it when she could say no to another Queen of the Night.

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Simplicity and mystery

I had a friend who called Giuseppe Verdi’s operas “pizzaiolo music”. He said they were harmonically dull, poor in texture, the orchestra often reduced to accompaniment, and all dramatic situations ending in repeated loud diminished seventh chords. This friend is not alone – many tend to establish a hierarchy in which composers like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms have a superior status because their music is more complex. The likes of Bellini or Verdi are placed way below, because their music is “too simple” – therefore, unworthy of their intellects. While I have no problem in acknowledging that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is more complex (in every aspect) than Bellini’s I Puritani, I wonder why complexity is supposed to be a standard of quality in art. For instance, in Japanese art, concepts like iki, shibusa, wabi-sabi turn around the idea of naturalness, simplicity, spontaneity that conceal an underlying richness in sense, as much as Nature itself does.

First, I don’t believe Bach, Beethoven or Brahms would go to their desks and think “Now, I am going to compose a very complex piece of music”, but rather that their musical ideas came naturally to them that way. Second, even if we know that Beethoven sometimes struggled with inspiration, that very struggle was part of his creative process and somehow shaped his music in a very unique way. Let’s call it the shibusa in Beethoven’s music when in his 5th Piano Concerto, he brings the audience to tears with a thematic material that could be described as fragments of scales. Third, no composer creates music for the purpose of being analyzed in dissertations. Even when Bach wrote The Art of Fugue, I would say that the idea was to make music WHILE proving his point. The problem with “simple art” is that it has no leeway – it either hits or misses. It must be the result of an idea so powerful and so effectively rendered that the audience has no time to process. Before anyone thinks about it, he or she is under its spell. It has to be an act of irruption, an explosion into life. I remember once going to a pottery exhibition in Tokyo with a Japanese friend. She asked me which piece was my favourite, and I chose a perfectly shaped vase in a striking blue glaze. She laughed – that was a student’s work. Then she pointed at a blackish rather crooked pot and said that this was the masterpiece. “Only a master has such a deep understanding of the material and the technique to dare to produce in one swift gesture something unique and sincere as a piece like that”. That image is essential to the experience of music too – it is indifferent if the music is complex or simple, what really matters is the power it carries. As Soetsu Yanagi said “Beauty is a kind of mystery, which is why it cannot be grasped adequately through the intellect. The part of it available to intellection lacks depth. (…) He who only knows, without seeing, does not understand the mystery”.

I like the idea of mystery – a powerful piece of music will never be fully grasped by the listener. He or she will need to return to it, for there will always be something else to be discovered there. When the music is complex, for instance, it is easier to put a finger on its mystery. Actually, you don’t need to be touched by it at all to explain why you are listening to it anew. The stakes are higher in “simple” music. As much as the composer has no room for faking – it must be as the Japanese masterpiece pottery or an example of sosho calligraphy – the listener has no explanation in which he could hide. He either is open to it or not. Its mystery is such that it can only speak to his or her heart, it forces him or her back in his very intuition. That does not mean, of course, that the composer of “simple” music is superior in any way. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach, the most brilliant music mind in history – a cliché nobody is willing to dispute – could not help being wowed when the Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar put a copy of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico on his hand. This brilliant mind was far more than a brilliant mind – he immediately grasped the magic, the mystery, the power of communication of Vivaldi’s ability in making music out of any material without superimposing or overloading it. His artistry was an act of faith – more than anything Vivaldi has done as a Catholic priest, I must say. Any material has its mystery, if you just let it be. The young Richard Wagner too heard that in Bellini.

But then, back to Verdi, I have to confess that, while I wouldn’t call poor old Giuseppe a pizzaiolo, I see my friend’s point. When Verdi was possessed by that mystery, the very roughness of his gesture gives his music a shattering impact. Nobody who knows the final concertato in Macbeth’s Act 1 can watch the same scene in Shakespeare’s play without founding it a bit dull in comparison. I remember an interview with Waltraud Meier when she explained that the challenge in Verdi is that he was able to put an emphasis in one element of expression in a way almost unrealistic in terms of any person’s experience. When Isolde explains why she is furious with Tristan, there are hundreds of ideas and feelings in various levels – and the singer has to be quick to follow the shifts of mood. But again – this is how anyone in the normal psychiatric spectrum acts. You say “You know Mary, I hate her, even when she tries to be nice. Actually, she was very nice when she said…”. But the way Amneris is possessed by rage in Verdi’s Aida – that certainly requires A LOT of imagination from any singer, for she surely won’t find that feeling in such level of rawness in her experience. My problem with Verdi is that the “gesture” (to use my Japanese friend’s concept) is not always there – and then it just sounds void of content. I have written here that I always cringe with the idea of having to see yet another Traviata. And it is unfair to dismiss the whole opera – the scene between Violetta and M. Germont, père, for instance, is really full of feeling. It is a magic moment when the “fallen woman” decides she is willing to become “an angel” even by paying the price of her own life. It is a seduction scene – she is, of course, being used by Mr. Germont whose sole intent is to ensure his daughter an eligible (and rich) husband. And it is all there in the music. But, for that scene, you have the matadors, the gipsy girls, the carnivals, Flora and her fake jealousy fits. And there is no mystery there.

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The invisible hand

On browsing through each season brochure, every opera goer wonders why – why another Carmen? Why not at least one Janacek? Or Handel? There are so many hidden jewels, but for some reason they never go “into repertoire”. One tends to blame intendants/general managers for their choices, but the truth is that these decisions are informed by so many levels of decision making that one could accuse an invisible hand for picking this or that title. And this invisible hand often is the same one described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, especially in American opera houses, which heavily depend on donors and patrons. This is a discussion I often have with a friend  in Chicago (who is probably reading this): in order to have a relevant status in the international scene, a regional opera house has to offer something different (and thus draw audience from outside the city), but its core audience will always remain those who live there. And among locals, the ones who open their wallets are those who have a say – and they tend to like their Traviatas and Bohèmes.  That said, it is easy to call this munificent bunch of people “square” and “unimaginative”. We are talking of people who could explain their restaurant choices for hours without any shortage of ideas – because they have really been around and know their options. But when it comes to operatic repertoire, money tends to prefer the same old titles.

Indeed, I would feel bad on calling any opera goer “conservative”. Opera is about tradition and will always tend to be conservative – regardless of Régie stagings – and it is unreasonable to expect that everybody should have a musicological approach. Many a member of the audience goes to the theatre to have a good time with beautiful music and grand stagings. Nothing wrong with that. And yet many neglected operas offer exactly that – and, well, what is wrong with embarras de richesse? The more, the merrier. There actually are two explanations for the fact that these opera goers would rather stick to what they know. First, this is the music they heard Tebaldi, Scotto, Freni, Pavarotti, Domingo et al sing. You could try to convince them that Cherubini’s Les Abencérages is more fun than La Traviata, but you wouldn’t find any sample of it sung by any household name with important orchestras and great conductors. Actually, rare items generally are found in poor sound, second-rate casts and poor orchestras. Even masterpieces can sound dull or boring in these circumstances. We all have been to the theatre and said afterwards, “if I didn’t know this from the Abbado recording, I would have found it the most stupid opera in the repertoire”. Does this mean that it would be simple to solve that? Basically call Anna Netrebko, the Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann and have them record the most arcane items of the repertoire? Not so fast:  learning a new item costs time and money. And the prospect of making money from it is scarce. Even if that effort would eventually pay into making it a popular title, this takes time and, while this singer is active, he or she will probably sing it five times in his or her life. Some of these parts are long, musically and/or technically challenging and have long texts in foreign language. Putting on a new Bohème involves no extra investment. Everybody – from the Mimì to the harpist in the orchestra – just needs a couple of rehearsals to bring it into life.

But money does not explain everything. Some operas are just troublesome. For instance, Wagner’s Die Feen. It is actually a fascinating item – when I finally saw it, I left the theatre in an excited stated of mind. It is really a forceful score – with massive use of orchestra and exciting vocal parts. It is actually more interesting than some of the usual suspects in the repertoire. But if you come to think about it – the vocal demands are extreme and you’ll need the dream-team cast to make it work; the orchestra would need a while to learn it and the ensembles are not easy to conduct. Not to mention that the staging needs are unrealistic. I have always wondered why Marschner’s Der Vampyr is not more often staged – it is really fun, the music is beautiful and there are vampires involved (there even was a soft-porn version on British television). But there is the problem of Singspiele – outside Germany, Switzerland and Austria, audiences are not so keen on hearing dialogues in German. Although nobody denies that Weber’s Der Freischütz is a masterpiece, it is rarely staged outside these countries. I personally have never seen it outside Germany.  It is curious that recitatives are less problematic in that department – nobody is too bothered by the concept itself, but many are bored when there is too much of them. This has proved a challenge for baroque items, which are usually performed heavily cut. And we get to the issue of “length” – modern audiences tend to resent the loss of time of their personal lives in a way a XIXth opera-goer would not. They had no Internet or cable TV back then, and their houses would hardly be more comfortable than the theatre. The matter of melodic attractiveness is even foggier – although it is often mentioned, this does not explain why the “general audience” has a problem with Handel, whose operas are packed with exquisite tunes.

The difficulty with baroque – and classical – items lies elsewhere. Although there is melodic invention to spare, one will not find there the emotionalism one instinctively associates with opera. And there is the problem with plots. One sees movies with stories just like La Bohème or Tosca to this day – but nothing like Serse or La Vestale. I would add that coloratura is always a controversial item – some people find it entertaining to see singers deal with technical challenging music, others find it insufferable. I had a friend whose limits were Mozart. When I showed him Pergolesi’s Salve Regina, his comment was “how does the soprano know in which ‘a’ she is?”.

Is there an easy answer for this situation? I don’t think so – it necessarily goes through having the A-team enticing the audience to discover new works. In this sense, Renée Fleming, for instance, deserves praise – her appearances in Richard Strauss’s Daphne and Capriccio drew attention to titles not often performed in big houses, not to mention her incursions in bel canto repertoire in titles like Bellini’s Il Pirata or Rossini’s Armida. The Metropolitan Opera House responded to her interest by staging some of these operas she favored. I bet many discovered them because of her. I could only hear Humperdinck’s Königskinder live in the theatre because Jonas Kaufmann sang it – and I bet that was the case for many with Tchaikovsky’s Iolantha under the advocacy of Anna Netrebko. One cannot forget some brave labels – such as Opera Rara and Palazzetto Bru Zane – that have made their share in showing forgotten items in optimal circumstances.

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A-plus for effort

The first time I have ever seen Mozart’s Idomeneo was on the Metropolitan Opera video with Luciano Pavarotti and Hildegard Behrens. It caused a great impression on me and I decided to buy my first recording, which was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s with Felicity Palmer as Elettra. For my great disappointment, it features the première edition without D’Oreste, D’Ajace. I soon discovered that Harnoncourt had recorded a CD with alternative numbers, cut items and the music composed for a tenor Idamante. There I found Palmer’s rendition of the famous aria quite gripping. My second Idomeneo was John Pritchard’s again with Pavarotti and Lucia Popp as Ilia. Of course, there was Edita Gruberová as Elettra – but my reaction to her D’Oreste, D’Ajace was complete puzzlement. She sings it perfectly, but it left me cold. I showed it to a friend, saying, “There is something missing there”. He answered, “Yes, the strain – she sings it as if it were nothing”. He was right. It is an extreme scene – and hearing it sang so effortlessly did not make it for me.

It is difficult to say what Mozart expected to hear there. If we consider that he wrote the first Elettra, Elisabeth Wendling, Sperai vicino il lido, an aria even higher in tessitura and more difficult in coloratura, I can only imagine that she had no anxieties regarding her part in Idomeneo. But the point is – Elettra has to sound beyond herself there. And Gruberová sounds pretty much in control. I have to say I am an enemy of the concept of “opera as circus” and find no fun in watching people in trouble. But the question remains – do composer expect strain as part of the music dramatic experience of their music? This takes us to Richard Wagner, considered by many the main source of “unsingable” music.

I once had a teacher who guaranteed “Wagner’s music is well written for the voice – the tessitura is central, there’s always a Luftpause, he chooses consonants that help you project when you need it and there rarely is a high note in an uncomfortable vowel”. Before I asked her anything, she added, “The problem is the size of the orchestra”. Yes, so the secret is – your voice has to be naturally big. I would say I have seen some pretty big-voiced tenors hold for dear life in Tristan und Isolde. For me, the experience of watching the third act is literally hearing someone dying. There is this impulse of standing up and shouting “someone help the poor man!”. At first, that used to make me feel uncomfortable: listening to cracked high note after cracked high note in an increasingly hoarse voice is the sort of sadistic pleasure foreign to my idea of entertainment. I remember one performance – unfortunately broadcast – where the tenor was so impossibly tired that he started to rewrite the whole music. There was a point when he was just speaking Sehnen, sehnen… Anyway, I later developed the idea that this is an aural image of Tristan’s spiritual breakdown. It’s not pretty to hear – but that’s what it’s all about. But then we can always ask ourselves – did Wagner really want this?

As we know, the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld didn’t survive four performances in the role. His widow, the very peculiar Malvina née Garrigues, would accuse Wagner of killing her husband (she also tried to make him marry her in the process). Truth be said, nobody knows the cause of his death. Although he was only 29, Schnorr was seriously overweight. In any case, according to contemporary reviews, he sang well. So if he was suffering there, it seems that nobody noticed. Wagner himself affirmed that Schnorr was not physically exhausted: “As a matter of fact, neither during nor after the performances was there ever detected the smallest fatigue in his voice, or any other bodily exhaustion; on the contrary, whilst solicitude for their success had kept him in constant agitation before the performances, after each fresh success he was restored to the gayest of moods and the most vigorous carriage.” He added: “The inexhaustibility of a genuinely gifted nature had thus become right plain to us, from our experiences with the voice of Schnorr. For that mellow, full, and brilliant organ, when employed as the immediate implement for achieving a task already mastered mentally, produced on us the said impression of absolute indefatigableness.” We know Wagner tended to exaggerate in his opinions, but the keyword there is “genuinely gifted nature” – even if the composer would stress the fact that, once a singer masters his technique, his (or her) interpretation (he calls it a “spiritual” dimension) would make him (or her) able to deliver a musical and dramatic performance within his possibilities to full satisfaction.

I personally dislike interpretations that literally infuse in the singing what the “spoken” voice would carry. For instance, many a soprano willing to prove she is not just a canary tends to look for an exhausted or sickly tone in the third act of Verdi’s La Traviata. They invariably fall short of expressing the nuances of feeling in the libretto because their whole interpretation is hijacked by the immediate description of the sickness, as if the singing line were a depiction of the character’s physicality rather than its PERSONALITY. That said, in my few years working with theatre, I learned from one director I worked with: if a cat walks on stage, it’s now part of the cast. That means, you cannot pretend that something happening in front of the audience is not there, vocal exhaustion included. Some singers are very quick to use acting with the voice (something Birgit Nilsson would define as “this is what you do when you cannot sing what is written”) and this makes them naughty about what they should be singing. But in any case – I find it reckless to go on stage knowing that you have the wrong voice for the part.

The role of Tristan is a particular case – the genuinely gifted nature Wagner refers to is indeed rare. The role is written in a way that it insists in a very uncomfortable part of the tenor voice (and its unending amount of high g’s over a loud orchestra is an evidence of that) and very few people can really sing it in a way one can really show abandon and focus on purely “spiritual” matters. Most tenors I have seen in the role are barely surviving in the third act. I would mention that – right in the beginning of his international fame – Andreas Schager sang in Tokyo a Tristan entirely surprising to me in its absolute vocal control. He was in pristine form right to the end. However, I cannot say that this opened for him and the audience a universe of spiritual richness. Nobody walks on a tight rope with a metaphysical mind.

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