Monthly Archives: October 2017

Before the First Lesson⎯First in an Occasional Series.

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.

Lotte Lehmann and the Bonding of the “Registers”–Part 2.

The exemplary balancing of the sound families (“registers”) in Lotte Lehmann’s voice at the fulcrum in the lower-middle range, about which I wrote in my last post, is subject to only the slightest shifts on all her recordings, early and late, opera and song, live and in-studio. It can be mapped with an almost eerie exactitude on the wonderful Suor Angelica excerpts (1920) that Michael Aspinall, in his Marston notes,  rightly singles out among several fine Puccini interpretations . The centering of the transition on E-natural, with a half-to-full-step tolerance depending on vowel, loudness, and direction of movement, will be clear to anyone following these performances with the music at hand, as will the equality of strength on either side of the center, and the absence of vowel modifications while passing through. And anyone who, like me, has heard many a pretty voice descend to nothing much on Susanna’s low A, or even just her C, in “Deh, vieni non tardar”  (here, “O säume länger nicht”), or to a hollow scratch on Ariadne’s A-flat at “Totenreich”  can hear what’s supposed to happen in Lehmann’s 1917 inscription of the former and her 1928  traversal of the latter. (This last is beyond the scope of this Marston collection of acousticals. But if  response is encouraging, Marston hopes to go on to  at least the Odeon electricals).

As we move from the 1918 account of the Act 11 Freischütz scene (see last post) to the 1925 version, some changes can be heard that are not attributable to improvement in recording technique. (In fact, I rather prefer the sound of the earlier recording, though better instrumental playing and leadership may be largely responsible.) The general direction of these changes is apparent in the same opening phrases of which I wrote two weeks ago, and though they are subtle, if you A-B them on these excellent transfers, you’ll hear them. On the very first interval, we are aware of two things: first, the voice’s tonal format has matured ever so slightly; and second, that opening portamentoed downward fifth to F#  with its open “ah” now stays more definitively on the “head” side of the registral DMZ—the touch of open light chest mix is gone.  In the next bar, the swell-and-diminish on the B-natural  of “bevor ich i-ihm” is more filled out, and even more bewitching. A few bars along, the beautiful “Welch schöne Nacht!”  is still perfect, but a different shade of perfect. The “ö” of “schöne” is a touch darker, with a little more of the “o,” or even “u,” and less of the “eh,” in the umlauted vowel. This gives the sustained upper F# a more gathered and marginally heftier texture, then carries the voice down the scale to a low B on “Nacht” that has a detectably deeper tint and an even more settled feel. This is not because  more “chest”  has been added, but, on the contrary, because just a bit more “head” (let’s say 10%) has overlain the entire descent. (Note that in 1918, she sings “Wie schö-ö-n die Nacht ,”  with a breath comma after the middle C# on “schōn,” then a new attack on the F# for “die,” and finally a clearly defined “chest” for the B on “Nacht,” whereas in 1925 she sings (as in the score) “Welch schöne Nacht,” without the break for renewal of breath, and with a more blended chest on the low B. It all goes together.)