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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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Half measures

When we say that 18th century Italian theatre was divided into two big categories – serious and comic – one could argue that theatre has always been like that. Even today. Yes, this is true, except for the fact that the limits between the two genres were clearly established in a set of rules and formulae every playwright should follow back in 18th century. Serious matters involved people of superior social standing – ruling aristocrats (or their mythological counterparts) – who would be tested by extreme events until a) everybody died in the end or b) a god would appear in the last second to forgive everyone and remind them to behave. Comedy was more complex – theatre was the entertainment of the powerful and they would not laugh at ladies and gentlemen being made fun of.  The solution was simple. As in real life, there always were servants to perform undesired duties. The backbone of 18th century comedy was the relationship between master and servant. In comedies, one would find parte serie (serious roles) and parte buffe (comic roles). The serious roles generally involved two young people from noble families trying to get married against their parents’ will – and their servants helping them. These young people would always be lovely, innocent, honest and incapable of doing something devious, while their servants would be charming, naughty, cunning and deceitful. In the end, they would be pardoned for all their plotting and scheming because they did it all for their young masters’ sake. Before someone asks me if the young couple would be forgiven for disobeying their parents, of course, they would. The fiancés intended by their parents generally were villains, most of them common people pretending to be aristocrats.

In terms of structure, the DNA of comedy had a glitch – in order to get what they wanted, masters would have to follow the instructions of their servants. Carlo Goldoni was probably the first person to notice that. In his comedies, masters exposed to situations almost as extreme as those in tragedies were even more dependent on increasingly bossy servants. In order to establish this pattern, Goldoni had to blur the borders of genres – and of social boundaries. For instance, in his libretto for Galuppi’s Il Filosofo di Campagna, the housemaid Lesbina calls the cards on her lady, by saying: “If you don’t do as I say, I’ll leave you alone”. Eugenia, the damsel in distress can only answer ,“Please don’t leave – command and I’ll blindly obey”. Goldoni would call these comedies “dramma giocoso”, i.e., “jestful dramas”. Once you start to tear apart categories, it is difficult to stop, and Goldoni soon realized it was difficult to write a libretto (or a play) like a dramma giocoso with characters being either entirely serious or comic. That is when he started to develop characters that were a mix of both worlds – the mezzo carattere parts. Goldoni, however, was clever to realize that the concept was problematic in political terms – a mezzo carattere role would involve, on paper, an aristocrat with flaws found in commoners, and commoners with virtues of the gentry. That is why he solved this puzzle by means of disguise. Mezzo carattere parts originally involved people assuming identities: a servant posing as a mater or a master undercover as a servant. Goldoni was also particularly bright in the way he used language to show the audience that something was wrong with a master using coarse language or a servant with too fine a vocabulary.

Mozart – a man who would never undervalue the importance of theatre – first dealt with the complexities of dramma giocoso in La Finta Giardiniera. Although Goldoni didn’t write the libretto and the unknown librettist did not call it a “dramma giocoso”, the prima donna role, Sandrina, is a Countess disguised as a gardener after having being assaulted by her abusive husband (to make things worse, she is harassed by her new boss). If it is so, why am I saying that it was Mozart’s first experience with the new genre? The rules and formulae for playwrights applied to actors too – those specialized in serious roles spoke in lovely round voices and gestured and moved about in a dignified way, while the buffi (the comedy actors) would speak in an open tone, direct way, grimace and move in a vulgar way in comparison. In opera, this would mean that serious and comedy singers would also SING in a different manner. Serious parts involved long sustained lines in complex arias with a final mood shift when they would dazzle the audience with their bravura (valor – in 18th century represented by coloratura). Buffi would sing short lines, lower in tessitura with lots of staccato, patter in simple, direct arias, more descriptive of the action than of their feelings. This means, opera had an extra advantage on theatre – when the audience first heard Sandrina sing Geme la tortorella with its high tessitura, melancholy affetto and trills, they might have thought that the gardener girl was too ladylike.

When Mozart met Da Ponte, he found a man who had very little regard for conventions and social red tape (no wonder he ended up in the New World). In their three collaborations, both took dramma giacoso to its limits, first by adapting Beaumarchais’s revolutionary play Les Noces de Figaro and then by choosing to work in their only clearly labeled dramma giocoso – Don Giovanni*. In Don Giovanni, we have two serious roles (Donna Anna and Don Ottavio), three buffo roles (Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto) and two mezzo carattere (Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni). The curious thing is that neither Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni are assuming anyone’s identities (well, in the only scene in the opera they’re not fighting, he pretends to be Leporello and she is hidden under a cloak). They are just two aristocrats who indulge in vulgar behavior. That means – although the audience was informed that these people are of high standing, what they see AND HEAR shows that, in their own nature, there is nothing noble about them. And that was a hard agenda to sell those days… And Mozart did his part in it – Don Giovanni sings two buffo arias (if you compare them with Susanna’s Venite, inginochiatevi and Deh vieni in Le Nozze di Figaro, you’ll see the similarities) and Donna Elvira receives the musical treatment for “mentally instable” women – huge intervals, contrasted registers, almost masculine music. There is a particularly brilliant moment in the score – the quartet in act 1, when Elvira understands that she has to prove Donna Anna and Don Ottavio that she is their equal. She tries to sing “like” Donna Anna when she starts Non ti fidar, o misera, Donna Anna buys it and says “Look how dignified she is”. But Don Giovanni knows how to play her and unbalances Donna Elvira, who goes back to her usual singing style from Mentitore, mentitore on. Accordingly, the noble couple comments that there is something fishy going on there. It is fascinating to hear Donna Elvira trying to behave in a patrician way whenever Donna Anna is around – especially in their trio, when Mozart clearly shows who that the really serious lady is – the one with the highest notes and the coloratura.

It used to puzzle me the fact that modern audiences insist to look in Don Giovanni for something different from what Mozart and Da Ponte wrote. Yes, Donna Anna is a bit ambiguous toward Don Ottavio, but she is still “serious”. She is even remarkably honest with him throughout the opera about the ambiguity of her feelings, but directors like to show her as a deceitful two-timing bitch. On the other hand, Donna Elvira, carefully conceived as an unreliable and improper woman (in 18th century terms, of course) is always shown today as a sincere, wronged person. However, It is easy to see why – in real life people behave mezzo carattere rather than 100% serious or 100% funny. But that means that we never hear the role as it should be sung. I plead guilty here too – when I first listened to Della Jones in Arnold Östman’s recording of Don Giovanni, I thought “what is wrong with her?” and then I realized she was singing it as Mozart and Da Ponte intended.


* It is possible to find the elements of the dramma giocoso in Così fan tutte, but they are used in such an abstract way there that explaining it here would make this text too long.

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Intelligent singers

In his 1957 book “Mythologies”, the French semiologist Roland Barthes published a curious essay called “The bourgeois vocal art”, in which he discussed a recently released recording with baritone Gérard Souzay of mélodies by Fauré. He accuses Souzay of “inoculating a parasitic intellectual dimension in the flow of musical structure” and affirms that “there is a sensuous truth in music, sufficient in itself”. Barthes particularly disliked how Souzay would fuss with consonants in a way that he considered exhibitionistic. “When singers underline words giving too much prominence to its phonetic, intending that the guttural consonant of the word creuse sound like the hoe furrowing the soil or the dental consonant in sein like a penetrating sweetness, they are exercising a literality of intention rather than a literality of description”. He would call this “phonetic pointillism” and its effect “intimidation by detail”.

Barthes doesn’t develop much in what regards “vocal art” itself, his point being the bourgeoisie appreciates art in which the paying audience could easily confirm that the artist was worth the money spent on him or her by an evident display of hard work. When I first read the text, I couldn’t help thinking of old-school reviewers like André Tubeuf or Alan Blyth dividing the world of Lieder and opera between “singers who think” and “singers who sing”. I remember conversations with friends who had seen all the great artists of the century in concert. One of them would say that only people who don’t speak German would listen to Gundula Janowitz or Hermann Prey in Schubert rather than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. As I could never listen to Schwarzkopf’s Schubert without grimacing at its absolute lack of sincerity and caricatural underlining of every syllable, I  timidly reminded him that both Janowitz and Prey were themselves German.

The controversy does not limit to German Lieder. You can find it in many guises: Callas vs. Tebaldi, Callas vs. Sutherland, Scotto vs. Freni, I myself have written something about this here, when I said that reviewers rarely praise what is obviously excellent. If one is to believe that excellence is so obvious, why reading reviews? At the time, a friend asked me what I meant by a vocal intelligence that eschewed any patina of literary insight. I told him that it was closer to the intelligence found in a soccer player that can in two seconds find his way to the ball and choose the right leg, the right amount of energy for his kick and score a goal rather than that of a professor of Philosophy dazzling his students with his ability to refer to an encyclopedic amount of reading.

Singing does require thought, but it is a different kind of thought – it involves physical ability and how you would use it to achieve a pre-established goal. So, yes, in a first moment, singers have to know WHAT they want to do with every phrase in a particular piece. And then they have to know HOW they will accomplish that. An experienced singer would be able to do this almost automatically if he or she is used to the repertoire. So, someone who has sung the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro would know how Fiordiligi should sound, but even then the part of Fiordiligi has its own particular challenges that our hypothetical soprano would have to meet when learning it. All that requires lots of micro-decisions – when to breath, how deep breathing should be, how much weight one should use on every note inside that phrase, how strongly should one support the tone, if it is worth to let go a bit and resupport afterwards, if one should sing that note open, covered or slightly covered. There is no right answer – it all depends of the voice, the phrase, the technical ability. Hiring a coach could help, but the coach does not sing for the singer. In the end, it is he or she who will make it happen and it is up for him or her to decide. What I mean is: a phrase sung with absolute naturalness is not a product of nature – it involves the singer’s agency to make it sound that way. Therefore, when a singer feels that his hard work should be more evident by showing his audience how clever they are by what Barthes calls “pointillism”, this has nothing to do with him being intelligent or stupid, but rather by his intent of drawing attention to him or herself (“rather than to the music”, some would say). Does that mean that “natural” phrasing is superior to “pointed phrasing”? I don’t think so – both can be effective, depending on the circumstances, but I would personally say that it is healthy to have naturalness as a starting point.

For instance, Kiri Te Kanawa is nobody’s example of profoundness or power of insight. Yet her extremely high level of “right decisions” in terms of phrasing made her Mozart almost exemplary in its spontaneous musicianship. I remember I once used her recording with Colin Davis of Mozart’s Laudate dominum from Vesperae solennes de confessore of an example of vocal intelligence. For instance, around 1’12’’ the appoggiatura in LauDAa sounds almost pop-like in its tiny portamento and leanness of sound. It makes her singing sound “honest” and related to her own inner musicality rather than to the obligation to classical style. Or in 2’05’’, the way she lands on misericordiA. After the long notes on SUper and NOS, which she lets both spin and gain overtones, she fines it down to this very light and slim “cordiA”. It only makes sense because she has built it up just to lighten afterwards. If she had kept it always lean (like a period-style singer), it would have had no sense of development and that particular note would be just one more note.

It is curious that the name of Te Kanawa has been often used to explain what is wrong with Renée Fleming in Mozart and Richard Strauss. In the eyes of Barthes, Fleming would be the über-bourgeois singer in her intent of showing her audience that she really “got it” by highlighting every decision in terms of interpretation. While I would rather go for Te Kanawa, I have been acquiring a secondary taste for Fleming’s in-charge approach now and then. When I listened to the broadcast of her Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata from a concert in Paris, at first, I grimaced (as I do with Schwarzkopf’s Schubert) at every heavy-handed point she was making – “see, I noticed she is not being sincere here, that is why I am singing it off-pitch, do you get it?” – but after a while, I couldn’t help noticing she really bothered to understand who is Imogene, what she was feeling and what she wanted. And, yes, even a deaf person would notice what she meant. Would I have liked it more if she had found all that within notes and words rather than adding her own “reading” upon them? Maybe, but again – we have seen Fleming in interviews and as a public persona. Would naturalness translate her personal truth?

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We often hear people saying that it is a pity Bach never composed an opera. I have to say that, although it would be thrilling to hear anything composed by Bach, that item has never been on my wish list. And this is not because I dislike Bach. On the contrary, there have been years of my life when I would only listen to  Bach. It has just never felt like there was something missing there. As much as I wouldn’t wish to hear a piano sonata composed by Verdi.

Many like to say that BWV 211, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (The Coffee Cantata) is the closest to an opera ever written by Bach, because, yes, there are characters, although I wouldn’t say that they are really involved in a dramatic situation: the girl has to have coffee and, as fun as a husband might be, he would never replace… coffee. We must be honest, even Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes has more of a plot (and, well, it has next to none). Anyway, the Coffee Cantata, charming as it is, never made me feel that Bach was sharing any insight about human nature as he does in many religious cantatas. For that matter, I have always found a bit puzzling how sensuous Bach’s duets for Christ and the Christian soul are. Actually, they are undeniably sexier than any duet ever written by Handel in his operas – and I write this as someone who really enjoys Handel’s operas.

For instance, BWV 140, Wachet auf, so ruft uns die Stimme has two such duets – the soprano (as usual) is the Christian soul (here materialized in the wise virgins who saved oil to light up their lamps and respond to the call of the bridegroom) and the bass is Christ (i.e., the bridegroom). This is a cantata with lots of mathematical parallels – and both duets, nos. 3 and 6 are separated by the two central numbers, a choral and a recitative. The first duet Wann kömmst du, mein Heil? is unanimously considered “romantic” (not in the sense of Romanticism, but in its sensuous atmosphere) with its Nachtmusik violino piccolo obligato in flickering arabesques around singers’ voices (John Eliot Gardiner sees in it the oil sparkling in the lamp). The text alone, in modern German or English, would cause some eyes to roll – Are you coming? –Yes, I’m coming/with my oil burning. While we will keep this strictly within the limits of XVIIIth century dictionary definitions, I wonder if the congregation in Leipzig heard anything other than a girl and a guy meeting in a nightly atmosphere. A friend used to say that we have to understand that Bach’s target audience was the opposite of an erudite group of people. So it was important to produce powerful, simple images so that they got the meaning right. The spiritual bond is something difficult to picture, but understanding the carnal bond requires absolutely no education. So here it is: everybody would have understood that the union of the faithful soul with Christian is really something you would want for yourself. The second duet, Mein Freund ist mein, whose text goes around My friend is mine/And I am yours/Nothing will separate us, with the oboe obligato, is dance-like with intertwining coloratura. We would joke about them, calling no. 3 the part when you’re invited up to “listen to music” and no.6 the moment when you light the cigarette afterwards. But I guess Bach meant no. 6 as the moment when the bond is made official, i.e., wedding, if you compare it with fourth aria in BWV 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (the Wedding Cantata), Sich üben im Lieben, which also has dance rhythm and oboe obligato and warns you: a lifetime of love is better than the unlasting pleasures of spring.

Actually, my favorite “romantic” Bach duet comes from my very favorite cantata, BWV 172, Erschallet, ihr Lieder: Komm, lass mich nicht länger warten. It could give Tristan und Isolde’s O sink hernieder a run for its money in its increasing harmonic tension. The faithful soul (soprano) here cannot wait to be united with the holy spirit (alto) – her line is always ascending, broken by trills, while the ever reassuring holy spirit has very regular lines and promises to appease her and promises a kiss of grace. The musical climax involves the soprano saying “komm herein” (I won’t translate that one) and the alto responding, “I am yours and you are mine”. Reading the booklet of my preferred recording (Gardiner’s with a marvellous Martina Janková), I find the words “physical comfort of the beloved”. Again, with this kind of imagery, the congregation could have no doubt about the joys of faith. If it definitely sounds more intimate and profound than Cleopatra and Julius Cesar’s Caro/Bella in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, one may argue that these two don’t need to sing about what they were doing since act 1.

In any case, if you ask me which is Bach’s most powerful romantic duet, well, it would be one without voices, the famous Largo from the Double Violin Concerto BWV 1043. I don’t think that any opera duet comes close. Last time I said that, someone asked me “how do you know it is about love?” I said, “Look at the comments on any YouTube video – everybody speaks about love when they listen to that one!” Nikolaus Harnoncourt said, “Romantic music paints, baroque music speaks”. And Bach, whose readings of Rhetoric were extensive, could put across his point more effectively than any other composer. So here goes my “libretto” for these violins:

The largo in BWV 1043 has the same structure of what is called “perfect love”. Violin 1 never refuses anything violin 2 offers, but rather develops it, makes it something higher (in tessitura too, at least at the beginning). The first motive in violin 2 actually is a question in its descending intervals. As violin 1 validates the question from violin 2, it often plays a second undulating theme – it embraces violin 2 when violin 1 says “yes” to it. These interchanges always end in a phrase that both play unison. Once they have acknowledged and confirmed each other they become one. The next episodes repeat the same structure, but one violin proposes things increasingly complex in terms of harmony. There is no problem – the other violin can always respond. The fact that more complex questions makes answers even more complex never prevents both violins to end each episode in perfect unison. The movement ends almost abruptly (again both violins together), as Bach incessantly kept on exposing these violins to more challenging environments, as in a spiral that could go on forever.

That structure, of course, could exemplify many different things, but the tempo di siciliano (with its short steop-long step dynamic), the slow pace, the harmony, the choice of instruments associated to romance and night, no wonder everybody thinks of the same thing when they listen to it!


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Voices of the mind

Adolphe Nourrit sang at the Paris Opera between 1821 and 1836 and became a favorite of Rossini, who invited him to première the roles of Néocle in Le Siège de Corinthe, Aménophis in the revision of Moïse et Pharaon, the title role in Le Comte Ory and Arnold in Guillaume Tell. He was also chosen for the leading tenor roles at the premières of Auber’s La Muette de Portici, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Halévy’s La Juive, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and operas by Stradella, Mercadante and Carafa. He was considered a very good actor and dancer and his musical taste was refined – he is said to be the first important singer to perform Schubert Lieder in France. He was also a professor of lyric declamation in the Paris Conservatoire. His fame ran throughout the whole Europe. But that’s not the interesting part of his biography – this is only act 1. His problems began when he first heard Gilbert Duprez.

Differently from Nourrit, who was successful since the day he was born, Duprez did not really make it in Paris and went to Italy, where, confronted with the difficulties involved in singing the role of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, he realized it was easier for him to hit his high notes not in voix mixte (as Nourrit used to do) but in chest voice. The famous do di petto changed the history of opera and, when he showed them to Parisian audiences, everybody (but Rossini) would not want to hear anything else. But the problem remained that Nourrit was still the leading tenor in the Opéra. It must have been a bitter feeling for him when he understood that he was not on the very top of things for the first time in his life. But he wouldn’t leave it like that and he decided that, if someone else could sing high notes in chest voice, so could he.

I had a teacher who always said “once the technique is settled in a voice, it is almost impossible to change it”. As Nourrit made very little progress in his attempt to reform his technique , he was almost convinced that this was true, but then Donizetti – who gave Duprez the leading roles in the première of Lucia di Lammermoor among other operas – affirmed that he could help him in this vocal transition. The Frenchman never looked back – he left his wife in Paris and moved to Naples to study under Donizetti. I don’t know how obvious it was at the time that the Italian composer suffered from mental problems, but his influence on Nourrit was everything but positive. He never learned the technique of covering his high notes and increasingly lost the ability of singing the way he used to do, what caused his voice to deteriorate really fast. It seems his wife could hear him then and was shocked to see what have been done of her her husband’s tenor. When Nourrit finally realized that there would be no way back, he jumped to his death from his hotel room in Naples.

This is the most tragic story of a singer wanting to do something outside his possibilities, but it is curious that – in less calamitous versions, it has repeated itself with many successful versions. In her biography, Christa Ludwig recalls how her mother – a mezzo soprano – lost her voice singing the soprano role of Fidelio for Herbert von Karajan. A role she herself would insist on singing, even if it proved to rob her peace of mind. When Karajan offered her an Isolde, she finally refused – but the soprano roles finally took their toll in a vocal crisis in the early 70’s. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending – Ludwig would delight international audiences for two decades after that in roles in keeping with her natural range. But it is curious how the ambition to sing roles unsuited to one’s voice – with a very high price to pay, i.e., one’s own vocal health – is often enshrouded in a psychological process. I remember reading an interview for Diapason with French tenor Yann Beuron, in which the reporter asked him why he did not try the big roles in the repertoire that would bring him international fame. It’s been a while and I might be misquoting his very interesting answer, which was something like – I was well loved in my childhood and don’t feel the need to sacrifice my voice to get attention from the audience.

However, the psychological process involved in the marvellous French word contre-emplois (i.e., the fact of casting a singer in a part not meant for his or her voice – or an actor in a role not meant for his physique) is a two-way street. The most ardent fans will rarely think twice with the possibility of hearing their favorite singers in all kinds of roles, especially those that could harm their voices and shorten their careers. It is particularly curious how they would defend them in their contre-emplois with even more passion. It is almost as if there finally came the moment when the admirer could actually do something for the one he or she admires: defend him. When I write this, it seems that I am immune to this disease that plague all those who like opera. Well, not entirely. One of my guilty pleasures is hearing singers in roles they maybe should not sing. For instance, I want to hear Gundula Janowitz sing anything. If someone told me – you know, there is a recording of Verdi’s Aida with Janowitz as Aida, my mind would cringe, but my heart would be set on finding it. I can picture myself saying “well, I know, it’s not for her, but the closing scene is the most heavenly ever recorded”. The other day, I was talking to a friend about that priceless disc in which Christa Ludwig sings scenes of Elektra and Götterdämmerung and, in the end, we agreed “I know it would have been tough for her, but I would have loved to hear that Isolde Karajan asked her to sing!” One of the best opera performances in my life was one Walküre in which René Pape sang Wotan. On my way to the theatre, I was wondering of how challenging it should be to deal with a difficult role in the limit of his possibilities. Although one could feel that he was giving his 100%, he sang beautifully. In the end of the opera, those who were not crying should have looked for a cardiologist to see what they had instead of a heart in their chests. The next year, when he repeated the role, things did not go so smoothly, but I and the rest of the audience could not resist the idea that he was putting himself in such a difficult position for our sakes rather than out of love of Wagner (or Daniel Barenboim’s bullying, who knows). When he appeared for his curtain call, he was showered in admiration by everybody in the hall, but his facial expression was something like “no, guys, thanks, but that’s not up to my standards”. I felt relieved for him when I saw that. There are so many stories of singers who suddenly realize that the whole thing is not fun anymore – and the joy in their singing is gone forever.

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A couple of years ago, in a conversation about history of opera, a woman in the auditorium was so shocked when I referred to the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde and the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung as “mad scenes” that she immediately protested. She explained that neither Isolde nor Brünnhilde are lunatics and I could not refer to their solos with the terminology reserved to damsels in distress in bel canto operas. I observed that “mad scenes” are as old as the genre opera itself and that Wagner’s music is not isolated from the context of Romantic opera. But at this point, she decided I was talking nonsense and that was it.

At the time, I didn’t mention the influence of Bellini in the young Wagner. As much as that Wagnerian lady, one tends to dismiss the connection because, honestly speaking, how a composer whose writing for the orchestra is so shallow could be an influence on the most “symphonic” of opera composers? Yes, Bellini is first and foremost remembered as a melodic composer whose long melancholic lines were an inspiration for Chopin. But, also, Bellini was a master in accompanied recitatives. Actually, this was the first thing that called my attention when I first listened to Norma – the long scenes with melodic cells and an almost strict adherence to the text. It is said that Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot was composed with Bellini’s Il Pirata in mind. The German composer indeed tried to produce an orchestration for an aria of Bellini’s Il Pirata as a request from his brother Albert, a tenor, who only had a vocal score and wanted to insert it in Bellini’s La Straniera, which he was about to perform. Bellini himself was influenced by Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and its famous mad scene when he wrote Il Pirata, whose own mad scene is no less famous.

The depiction of madness in opera is a favorite subject, and the reason is very simple. While insane behavior is considered unpredictable, mad scenes are bound by rules far stricter than those of Psychology. Again, no surprise here – in their mad scenes, composers want to show that the character in the story is mad, and not that they themselves had lost their minds. Therefore, there is no inbuilt insanity in the music itself, but rather formulae that help the audience to understand what is going on with the character (there were stock gestures, disheveled wigs, blurred make-up and unfit costumes too). The keyword for the depiction of madness in baroque opera was irregularity – the A-B-A structure would be abandoned in favor or a rhapsodic structure of unrelated and contrasted musical ideas to show the wondering of the crazy character’s minds. That is what one hears in the most famous of baroque opera mad scenes – the one in Handel’s Orlando. Bel canto composers would take things a step ahead – Donizetti (a composer who curiously ended his life in a mental institution) developed the formula to its perfection in Lucia’s Il dolce suono. There we have all the elements masterly used: a) in terms of drama, we have a character oppressed by the severity and adversity of circumstances “staging” the outcome of his predicaments she (rarely he) hoped for; b) there are voices only the character can understand, the audience only hears them as an obligato instrument (in the case of Lucia, the glass harmonic later replaced by the flute); c) there is some sort of vocal difficulty involved, generally exposing contrasting registers in the voice; and, most important of all, d) there are references to other numbers in the opera, generally those in which the character was happy or at least hoped that things would end up well.

I would say that “d” must have been particularly interesting to Wagner. Up to this point, operas were rather a large case containing a group of isolated structures generally bound by harmonic evolution at most. Mozart sometimes would use a musical figure to illustrate something – such as the chromatic upward and downward lines depicting Don Giovanni’s “criminal intent”. In Donizetti’s mad scenes – be it the one in Lucia or that in Anna Bolena – we have a little bit more than that: we have a number that relates to other numbers in the score. Of course, some overtures of bel canto operas already summarized the thematic material of the work (as in Bellini’s Norma), but the way Bellini did in works such as Il Pirata and most especially La Sonnambula is particularly interesting – in the end of the opera, it organizes somehow what we heard before and show it under a DRAMATICALLY different light. The moment Wagner thought – what if I showed it under a MUSICALLY different light – he invented the Leitmotiv. That is why the closing scenes both in Tristan and Isolde and Götterdämmerung are so powerful – they are like that scene in Agatha Christie’s books when Hercule Poirot tells you “When Mme. X did this, she was actually doing that” – those scenes wrap the whole work up for the audience, not as a summary but as a conclusion, due to the development of music material. It is curious that, in both cases, he was faithful to some of the canons of bel canto mad scene structure – both Brünnhilde and Isolde had lost their beloved ones and they fantasize that they are alive somehow. Yes, my Wagnerian member of the audience is right – they are not mad here. They have achieved a superior level of understanding. So, as much as a mad person, they can’t make sense anymore to the rest of us. They have seen the “greater all”.

But I would like to speak a little bit more of Mozart before I finish. Yes, it is a cliché the idea that we haven’t seen Mozart’s full potential because he died too early – and I agree with that and my exhibit one is La Clemenza di Tito. It is no coincidence that Mozart’s last works were so wide-ranging in its revaluation of musical tradition, but Tito is very particular, for here he really dug dip into old forms to find really original ideas. In my opinion, La Clemenza di Tito has one of the most fascinating mad scenes in opera, which is Vitellia’s Non più di fiori. This is pre-bel canto mad scene, of course – so we don’t have references to other numbers in the score. What we have here instead is a particularly psychologically complex situation. Vitellia is a femme fatale and an aristocrat without scruples who pictures herself as the empress of Rome and will do everything she has to do to climb the steps to the throne. At least, that is what she is supposed to be. During the opera, however, she increasingly discovers, to her own dismay, she is not that person. She has acted out her fantasy of power and, in the last second, she wasn’t defeated by fate – as Lucia or Anna Bolena – she was just defeated by herself. And that is the moment when her mind wonders – all her values shattered, lost in a multitude of unknown feelings – that woman who has almost caused a revolution fantasizes only of being passive. In that lullaby-like melody, she is the absolute victim, all future generations pointing at her. She even gets her obligato instrument – the basset horn. I like to think that the “voice” in this basset horn is the voice of an idealized Vitellia, as much as the basset clarinet in Parto, ma tu ben mio would be Sesto’s idealized “vision” of Vitellia. Somehow, he sees who she really is behind the wall of tantrums and revenge plans.



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In my brief career in theatre as an assistant director in two plays, the casting policy – for budgetary reasons – was offering big parts to familiar faces normally seen on small roles. That strategy involved lots of emotional breakdowns from these actors having to deal with many pages of dialogue and a great deal of on-stage time. Most of all, the responsibility of carrying the show on their shoulders. As the director was the bad cop, I was the one who had to deal with tantrums. That is why I loved Regina. She was a woman with decades of career in theatre – most often off-stage – who took a small but key role in the second play.  She was almost always on stage, but didn’t have too many lines. Regina was always in good mood, she never created problems, she always had a wise word in the middle of chaos and she often volunteered to help with production matters. And she was a hell of an actress.

One day I realized that her performance only gained in depth – small gestures, looks. She almost stole every scene she was in. I say “almost” because she knew she wasn’t the star of the show and her whole acting was actually meant to help the leading actress. She would always offer her something to work with. I asked her – how do you do it? Regina explained me that small roles require a great deal from the actor, for the author gives them very little to develop from. So she explained to me how she imagined her character’s daily life, everything that happened to her outside the scenes in the play. She told me how was the character’s childhood, her teenage, love-life, family ties, dreams etc. Then she said – that is why I can always find something to add to a scene, because it is very clear to me who my character is.

I found it all so interesting and asked her if she had never been tempted to appear in a leading role. Then she answered – being an actor and wanting to be the star are two different things. Being an actor means loving theatre and wanting to be on stage; wanting to be the star of the show means taking all risks to be the center of all attentions. One thing doesn’t exclude the other, of course. Regina had  children and she was a hands-on person – so I remember she took care of her grandchildren, worked part-time in her son’s company. She was always busy. All she needed from theatre she got in her small roles.

In every opera house, there are many singers like Regina. Sometimes nature gives them voices too special to be overlooked. And I would say that, in the world of opera, it is easier to catch the attention of the audience in a small roles. How many times one leaves the theatre saying “Did you hear the Freia? Huge voice!” That story sometimes ends with unambitious singers being cast in big parts. They often are like Regina – they have family obligations, cannot travel or they just don’t have patience for all the mambo jambo. Everywhere you go, when you overhear locals in after-performance conversation on their way home, you hear “I don’t know why they bothered to hire [name a diva], when we have [name an ensemble singer], who would have done it really better”. I would like to talk about them.

In Berlin, I myself had my list of singers who deserved to be better known outside their home theatres. The first Wolfram I saw at the Deutsche Oper was Markus Brück, and I remember I wrote that I thought his performance uniformly excellent. The next time I saw this production, a more famous singer had been invited and, after the show, I was the one who said “Why haven’t they called Markus Brück?”. At the Deutsche Oper I would see him in many Wagner roles such as Beckmesser, Gunther, the Herald (in Lohengrin), but it was a most positive surprise for me when I saw him together with Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann as Michonnet in a concert performance of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. He was so well cast in that Italian role – then it was my turn to say “Why do they import baritones to these roles when they have this guy here?”. Well, that was not true. When Simon Keenlyside cancelled his Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata, the “replacement” was Brück – and his singing was one of the highlights of that performance. I remember once postponing a flight back from Berlin to see him as Falstaff, but then he cancelled and was replaced by another singer. Mr. Brück is well respected in Berlin and I reckon he is happy with his career there, but, from my part, I always felt frustrated when I told friends elsewhere “And there was Markus Brück as Wolfram” and got a “who?”-look as an answer.

However, my time in Tokyo would take me to an entirely new level of local casting. Many people outside Japan know about visiting opera companies from Europe and USA with glamorous casts, but little is written or spoken about local companies, such as the Nikikai or the Fujiwara, among others. I myself cannot say if they are still there, for now I am outside Japan. I can’t really remember the name of a Wagner festival in suburban Tokyo where whole Ring cycles were staged with local casts. The New National Theatre must be praised for their intent of having Japanese singers in A casts together with visiting stars. I could write pages about Japanese singers – and I wrote many reviews here that made me happy for the simple fact that I was exposing their names for readers abroad. But I had a Japanese “Markus Brück” there – who happened to be Wagnerian soprano Yuka Hashizume, I first saw her as Kundry and was really fascinated with her performance. I don’t know how her singing is now, but then it was a voice of so many possibilities that I wished someone would take her to Berlin, Munich or Bayreuth. I would see her again as Sieglinde – this time in an international cast, Greer Grimsley as Wotan and Eva Johannson as Brünnhilde. Again the amazing potential was there. When I write “potential”, it seems that there was something unfulfilled, but that was not the cast. She gave fully accomplished performance of both roles, but I could see that there was more there – it just needed a high-profile musical director to make her shine in all brightness. I know absolutely nothing about Ms. Hashizume – and again she was an acknowledged Wagner singer not only in Tokyo, but in the whole country. I used to think that listening to her was almost a secret pleasure. But I still wish she could have been less than a secret.


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