Sunday, August 17, 2014

800 Words: The Ideal Opera Academy

I snuck into the Ravinia Festival Friday night, and heard the most gorgeously, plushly, handsomely sung Marriage of Figaro I ever hope to hear. It was my first live experience with the musical work I love more than any other since ‘the disaster.’... It was a nice experience: not a single weak link in the cast, every singer emitting gales of aural velvet. And yet the experience was not nearly as wonderful as it should have been. Since it was a ‘semi-staged’ concert performance, it was a non-event dramatically. That's excusable considering the format, but musically, it frankly wasn’t all that great either. It was simply The Marriage of Figaro as a luxury product for rich people, with a great orchestra, great singers, and a great conductor, coming together for a performance on very little rehearsal, and each of whom performed in a world of his or her own. It was all perfectly professional, but it was oddly joyless. I've heard much more shoddily done live Figaro's which I enjoyed dozens of times more. The blues band I heard later that night in downtown Chicago sounded a hundred times more joyful.

The conductor, James Conlon, had a very relaxed, Schubertian conception of Mozart which stressed the melancholy and poetic side at the expense of drama and vitality, but it's always refreshing to hear a conception like that in an age when most conductors perform Mozart as though he is the musical equivalent of a coked up Martin Scorsese. But the Chicago Symphony, an orchestra known by everyone for their virtuosity and by no one for their beautiful sound, seemed almost completely at a loss for how to play anything more than the notes.  

It was doubly a shame because it all took place in the Martin Theater, an 850 seat theater of the ideal scale to give an ideal Mozart performance. And yet most of the singers seemed to wish they were singing Der Rosenkavalier. The only characters who truly seemed to have the full charisma and perception worthy of Mozart’s genius were the Bartolo and Basilio of Kristinn Sigmundsson and Rodell Rosell. And somebody needed to put a muffler on Mr. Sigmundsson, whose singing was clearly scaled for Wagner at the Met. Everybody else, however skilled, was just marking time - yet another Figaro in an opera they’ve long since become numb to discovering new things about. The Figaro, John Relyea, was so loud that he sounded downright Wotanish. Perhaps it was because I was in the second row, but his voice was so loud that my ears genuinely hurt - and the Count of Stephane Degout was scarcely less unremittingly loud, even if the sound he emitted was absolutely gorgeous. The great Soile Isokoski played the Countess, and even if she’s past her prime vocally, she’s still one of the world’s great singers and possesses most of the soprano instrument that a few years ago was perhaps the most beautiful in the world. But she must have performed this role so often that she has it down to a science, a bunch of stock gestures and that’s it - and would that the other singers had as many stock gestures as Isokoski has. Lisette Oropesa was extremely sexy as Susanna (I could swear she looked straight at me at one point when she said the word 'amor'...) - some of her phrasings genuinely made me gasp for breath, but there are so many more facets to this character than her beauty - the humor, the sadness, the resourcefulness, the sensibility - which seemed beyond her grasp.

This, sadly, is just about as good as Mozart will get in the opera world of today. Many of the singers were quite young, with perfect opera names like Lisette Oropesa and Renee Rapier (would you believe that singers with names like these studied at LSU and the University of Northern Iowa? I certainly couldn’t…) and in a few years opera nuts will no doubt hear all about them. But if they’re the best we have, the opera world is going to be in trouble just as deep as they’ve already mired themselves for generations.

(Enrico Caruso, the brightest opera star of the 20th century was right at the beginning. Listen to how many interpretive ideas he puts into every bar of these performance, listen to how much more hotly emotional his delivery is than today’s average opera singer, listen to all three versions of this and marvel how different each is from one another.)

Opera singers are considered the theater people of the theater world - even most actors consider opera singers stupid and egocentric... They’re alternately spoiled beyond rotten by amateur music lovers who continually marvel at their gifts and abused by teachers who continually scoff at them. They have to spend years of their prime secluded in practice rooms and cannot partake in activities the rest of us consider perfectly normal lest they damage their voices. In eras when the greatest opera singers were feted like movie stars, such seclusion made sense. But in our own day and age, there was only one Pavarotti until recently, and even the most famous opera singers are no more than D-list musical stars in the larger firmament. Singers of other genres are richer and more beloved, yet don’t work nearly as hard. So there is an enormous brain-drain (voice-drain) from the talent pool of singers who might have wonderful careers as opera singers.  No normal person would have the temperament to consider a career in opera. Yet the obsession it takes to develop great opera technique is so antithetical to the modern way of life, with so little guarantee of reward for the work put in, that the whole ecology of opera is unbelievably warped.

(Caruso’s ‘heir’, Beniamino Gigli, performs the same aria -song- in his sixties, during which he holds absolutely nothing back. The audience goes absolutely wild. He then repeats it for them with all sorts of different emphases and phrasings, and this time emotes still more - with high notes that seem to go on forever. Slides, sobs, and rhythmic elisions galore all throughout. Like with Caruso, this is the Italian tradition, one that has been almost completely lost.)

I’ve directed one opera in my life, and it turned out to be a miserable, miserable experience. There were one or two wonderful, intelligent singers who really did know their stuff, and there were some other intelligent ones who appeared very willing to learn about it. But by and large, even the best of them were woefully ignorant of opera’s larger performing tradition. They’d barely heard the names of the great singers who came before them, much less knew how each singer interpreted the arias which they were singing (imagine how far a musical theater performer would get if she didn’t know the difference between how major performers interpreted the songs she sang…). Some of them didn’t even care to hear about such history and one or two quite resented ever being reminded of it. If they weren’t passionate enough about this music to listen to it endlessly in their spare time, why the hell are they singing it to begin with?

(Pavarotti. Compare how ‘clean’ and uninflected he is next to Gigli and Caruso. In a day and age when the Italian tenor was dying out, Pavarotti became Pavarotti because he had such a beautiful voice with perfect Italian diction - and no emotional content got in the way of the pure beauty of his voice. The slides and rhythmic bends are still there, even an occasional vocal sob - different from his extremely undramatic crying at the end - but he indulges in so fewer of them than the previous great singers of his role...)

Certainly, today’s singer has it much harder than the singers of yesterday. Most of them don’t speak one of opera’s most important languages as a mother tongue, and many of them don’t really learn the languages they sing in spite of it. Some of them have been trained to have an absolutely wonderful technique, but what the hell is the point of a perfect technique if you have no desire to express anything with it?

If you go back and listen to previous generations of singers, even as late as the 1950’s, when classical music was still the lingua franca of Europe, you hear a completely different, more ingrained performing tradition. Just to use Italian tenors as an example, until recently, we had Pavarotti as the shining star of the firmament, with Placido Domingo considered the silver medalist tenor but more an excellent all-rounder than a truly idiomatic singer of Verdi and Puccini. But if you were an opera fan in the 50’s and 60’s, you could hear the great Italian tenor roles sung with all the traditions intact by Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, Mario del Monaco, Luigi Alva, Cesare Valletti, and Carlo Cosutta, and by the young Pavarotti himself in the 60’s. Each of these singers operated within completely within the tradition, and there were all sorts of similarities. Yet each sounded entirely different. And if you didn’t need a completely Italian sound and style, there were non-Italian singers like Jussi Bjorling, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Nicolai Gedda, Fritz Wunderlich, Alfredo Kraus, Jon Vickers, and the very young Domingo, whose career started at 19 (and is still going at 73…). None of these men had the star power of Humphrey Bogart or Henry Fonda, but each of them were nearly as well known in Western Europe, and all were legends among a much, much larger world public than could ever exist for them today.

And yet even in the 1950’s, opera lovers of a certain age were unanimously heard to lament the precipitous decline of vocal standards. With so many good tenors, the ability to idiomatically cast Verdi or Puccini was easy enough, but how many of these singers could idiomatically sing Massenet or Offenbach in French? How many could idiomatically sing the operettas of Lehar or Johann Strauss in German? If you can’t find the proper singers for Massenet or Offenbach, can you find the right singers for Carmen or Faust either? If singers can’t idiomatically sing Lehar or Johann Strauss, can they idiomatically understand Der Freischutz or Der Rosenkavalier? Whole traditions, wonderful traditions, were already beginning to die off completely. And once the more ‘popular’ operetta tradition was dying off, it was only a matter of a few decades before the more ‘serious’ traditions began to suffer as well.

(Verdi, Otello, Martinelli, Tibbett, Caniglia, Panizza, Met 1938)

Even at their best, today’s singers are an antiseptic copy of the singers of generations past, and many of them don’t even realize it. They’re automatons trained to have faultless vocal technique, but imparted with so little love or passion for what they do that the opera experience is empty. Listen to a Metropolitan Opera broadcast any week and then put on a broadcast of the same opera from 70 years ago and then decide for yourself which is the more enjoyable experience. The irony is that because of the pressures on today’s singers - the insufficient remuneration or job security for most of them, the gigantic opera houses and louder orchestras through which they must make themselves heard, conductors who have no idea how to accompany singers, the constant travel, and (perhaps most importantly) the rise of other popular genres and consequent decline in opera's prestige - that they have that much less motivation to practice enough to attain vocal perfection, and most of them ironically have much worse techniques than singers of yesteryear. The end result is that most live opera performances are a sad affair that fully deserves opera’s current reputation for boredom and stuffiness. Having become an addict to opera at an early age, I inevitably go to performances even though I usually find enormous fault with what I hear. But there is a good reason why I feel so alone in this interest among my generation.

Are less great operas being written because there are less great singers to sing them, or are there less singers to sing them because there are less great operas being written? I have no idea how to answer that question, but if the singers are better, then perhaps, and I emphasize, only perhaps, composers would be sufficiently inspired by them to create more new masterpieces for the operatic stage. But how do you make singers better?

Let’s think about what it took in order to become a great opera singer in the days when opera was the very center of worldwide discourse. In the days of Rossini, the greatest teaching academy for opera was, by universal consent, the Liceo Bologna. At the Liceo Bologna, no singer would be admitted unless he or she signed an agreement to remain for five years. And for the first two years, no singer was allowed to sing a single song, only vocal exercises. This was the manner in which singers were taught throughout the nineteenth century. Even in the twentieth, it was considered de rigeur that no singer would be allowed to assume a single operatic role until they were able to master a couple hundred art songs.

Let’s just say that we have an ideal operatic academy for today’s singers. How would we go about teaching them?

Bachelor’s Degree: Only vocal exercises for your first two years. You wouldn’t be allowed to sing non-classical music either. No singing karaoke or in bands, no belting out music theater tunes. During those first two years, the majority of your time would be spent learning to speak foreign languages fluently, learning harmony, counterpoint, form, orchestration, sight-singing, and piano. You would take courses that teach you the entirety of the basic operatic repertoire, and other courses that would force you to learn the long performing history of the singers who came before you and the styles in which they sang. By the end of the four years you would not only have to speak three foreign languages fluently and with good accent, you’d also have to identify dozens of singers purely by their vocal timbre and interpretations. In the last two years, you would sing in a chorus with the other upperclassmen - with daily rehearsals and a performance each week. Through the choral singing, you would begin to truly learn what there is to know about vocal security, blend, and idiomatic style.

Master’s Degree: Only when studying for a master’s degree would a singer be ready to sing solo. A master’s degree would be in one area - Songs. Over the course of two years would have to learn a new song to performance standard on every single school day - and sufficiently trained as a pianist that they’d be able to accompany themselves. By the time they’re awarded the degree, they would have nearly 400 of them down to performance standard. If a singer wanted to specialize in songs and recitals rather than operatic performance, he or she would take a third and perhaps a fourth year to learn new ones so the singer could graduate with a repertoire of nearly 1000 of them.

Doctorate: By this time, you should be so knowledgeable about your voice that you’d know precisely which roles fit into your voice properly and go about learning them thoroughly. Only doctoral students would be responsible for putting on operatic performances at the academy. At least one full opera would be performed at the academy every month, and not a single opera would be repeated over a period of at least six years. Each singer would take at least six years at the academy (none of this three-year Doctor of Musical Arts crap). Each opera would be properly cast with singers of every possible voice type to draw from. The first and second year doctoral students would be responsible for the stagecraft and theater tech, and would have to take classes with theater professionals to make sure they completely understand what they’re doing. The third-and-fourth years would be responsible for production, allotted a budget for each opera, and be responsible for hiring a conductor, director, and orchestra. They would have to take classes in the basics of economics and finance to ensure that they know precisely how to finance their performances on a tight budget. Only fifth-and-sixth year doctoral students would be eligible for lead roles (though perhaps singers earlier in their studies would have to understudy). By the time they leave, they should have performed at least two dozen operatic roles of varying sizes which fit neatly into their voice type. But more importantly, since the most crucial musical work was done in their undergraduate and master’s years, they would have the basics to establish an operatic career in any country and any town - however distant from opera’s main wellsprings.

Of course, this is a completely impossible pipe dream. And no singer, least of all lil’ ol’ me who has taken less than half-a-dozen voice lessons in his entire life, would be able to stand the stress of such a program. But to my thinking, only a program this radical would have a fighting chance of getting opera back on its feet and making it a viable artform again that could compete with the most vital of cinematic and pop music genres.

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