The questions I most frequently hear from people who, wisely or not, consider me a source of knowledge or informed opinion on matters operatic and vocal, are: “What’s happened? Why aren’t there any great new operas?” and, “What’s happened? Where have all the great voices gone?” Unless the questioner and I have extended time and compatible surroundings (think of a late closing time at your favorite quiet restaurant, life inside a Beckett play, a nonstop to Ulan Bator), I generally mumble something like “It’s a long story” or “It’s really complicated.” Sometimes I’ll throw in something about microphones, or, if I really want to shut it all down, I’ll just say “I’ve no idea.”
But I do have ideas, many of them. The problem is summoning them in intelligible form, vetting them, and prioritizing them. I do accept the premises of both questions. That is, I don’t attempt to argue that we have plenty of great new operas or great grand-opera voices. That would not get me much of a hearing. With respect to the first question, my principal theory⎯⎯which is that the presence of a socially urgent metanarrative (as in: they had one, we don’t) is a necessary precondition for the generation of a significant body of work in the artform⎯⎯is elaborated in Opera as Opera, and I won’t recycle it here. The second is also debated in my book, and at some length. There, it is discussed chiefly in relation to vocal technique and the influences of our education and training system on the development of young voices. Those are certainly central concerns. We are faced with the fact that with a huge pool of postulants and an unprecedentedly extensive training system in place, we aren’t getting a minimally sufficient supply of major operatic instruments. What’s taught, and in what context, is inescapably implicated. If we aren’t seriously seeking grand opera format in our work with young voices, or facing young singers with the demands of grand opera roles, we can’t expect a race of grand opera warriors to spring fully armed from the soil. But, if I may continue the metaphor, there is also the matter of what’s been scattered on the soil to begin with⎯⎯dragon’s teeth, or those little packets from Burpee’s?
So today, and from time to time in posts to come, I’ll be offering thoughts about the state-of-being of today’s beginning singer⎯⎯the teenager with a nice voice, some musicality, and some indicated interest or ambition⎯⎯as he or she starts professional study. That person may be very talented and vocally mature for his or her age, but I can safely promise you that he or she will present a radically different set of strengths and weaknesses, vocal and personal, than those of the 19-year-old Fyodor Chaliapin, the 18-year-old Rosa Ponselle, or, as I suggested in my post of Sept. 30, the 16- or 17-year-old Lotte Lehmann. I’m not going to rank these considerations yet. I’m quite sure that “microphones” escapes my lips first-off because it assuredly belongs at or near the top of any such ranking, along with several broad sociocultural influences that can be, at one and the same time, socially progressive yet sources of collateral damage when it comes to great singing. At some point, I’ll try to pull all these together, arrange them in a hierarchy of importance, and separate those that seem beyond our control from those we can do something about. For now, I’ll simply enter them here, trying to provide solid evidence where it exists and fair warning when I’m thinking in more speculative mode.