The fact that almost no-one has ever heard British soprano Kate Royal’s voice before EMI has decided she is the world of opera’s new hot (litterally) property has fuelled good old debates about British classical music marketing and about looks in opera. Before I say anything about Royal, I have no problem about saying what I think about these two issues:
a) It is hardly British classical music industry’s fault if WE follow the trends they establish. For example, if Paraguay’s music industry decided to invest billions of dollars in order to satisfy the Paraguayan audiences’ thirst for classical music with massive releases of Paraguayan opera singers in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Barcelona and Milan linked with contracts with these cities’ opera houses, maybe we would be debating right now the Paraguayan version of Kate Royal. The problem is that Paraguay is not the only country in the world where music record companies prefer to invest in their national versions of April Lavigne et al. If you think that the audiences in New York (of all places) still wonder why they have to deal with underequipped British sopranos in main roles while there are hundreds of unemployed talented North American singers around, you have to concede that money is not necessarily the explanation.
b) It is hardly someone’s fault if one has good looks. As I have written before, it is curious that only women have their good looks used against them. When a baritone or a tenor is good-looking, this is considered a quality. This is particularly perverse because I have often observed that beautiful women in serious jobs tend to feel that they have to compensate their “disadvantage” by working even harder to prove themselves worthy of their positions – and frankly I don’t recall any bad singer promoted to stardom just because of looks. It is arguable that there might be better singers around albeit less pleasant to the eyes. But isn’t that true as a general rule? If you think of the cinematographic industry, in which even “ugly” roles are given to people like Michelle Pfeiffer!
Back to Kate Royal, I have only heard her on the Gramophone August issue’s CD, in which she sings Ravel’s Vocalise en forme de habanera. I have no idea of how her voice sounds live (or how she deals with words, for instance), but the voice as recorded is certainly charming and there is fine musicianship there. Gramophone says she has the right voice for Mozart – and there is indeed a bit of Kiri Te Kanawa in that sound. I have to confess I am curious.
Gramophone also reserves a track of its CD to Nicole Cabell, whose feats are more widely known, not only from Cardiff Singer of the World, but also from live performances in places like the Bayerische Staatsoper. Hers is a most puzzling voice. Her So anch’io la vertu magica from Don Pasquale shows a singer with a rich velvety voice really homogeneous throughout her range – her extreme notes extraordinarily comfortable. Although she never distorts her line, she is able to infuse her performance with sense of humour and nobody would mistake her Norina for a well-behaved modest girl – but there is something unsettling about her singing, as if her vocal personality did not belong to the light repertoire, although her voice does not seem to be heavy or forceful enough to tackle something more dramatic than that. Maybe this is a sign that, if she is patient enough to wait for her voice to blossom, maybe we’ll see her in big lyric roles in the next decade – but who knows? I confess again I am curious to see more from her.