Monthly Archives: December 2017

Before the First Lesson: Second in the Series, Plus Updates

In my first “Before the First Lesson” post (Oct. 27) I discussed endocrine disruptors, one of several human intrusions on the natural environment that I think may be affecting the state of many young voices before they’ve even encountered formal instruction. Today I’d like to take a look at a couple of ways changes in everyday technology—the secondary environment that at an accelerating pace is displacing the primary one—are contributing to the early conditioning of voices. And below, I’ll offer corrections and extend the discussion with respect to my recent posts on Norma and Thaïs.

The presence of a secondary, technologically determined aural environment is now taken for granted, and while I’ll be speaking here about changes to it that have occurred within a single lifetime, I think we tend to forget how recent its very existence is. It has cohabited  with opera, for instance, for only about one quarter of the artform’s history, and creatively speaking that quarter coincides with the descent (at first gradual, then precipitous) from the summit opera had reached by the late 1800s. I’m not saying, quite, that technology has killed opera. But there’s an ugly synchronicity there. It happens that I entered the scene at a propitious time for the coupling of opera with this secondary environment. I am always conscious of belonging to one of only two or, at most, three generations who perceived the presence of this environment, largely through the electronic media—radio and recordings—as a great boon to opera and classical music. And so it certainly was, at least in the sense of extending their reach. For much of that time, including my childhood, this extended reach was by ear only, and a monaural ear at that. The exclusive ear-engagement is a highly particularized form of acquaintanceship and habituation, not known before, and not so generally since, that period.  It’s already “unnatural”—eliminating, as it does, the entire visual component of the operatic experience—though in my case countered from an early age by the reality-check experience of live performance.  It is also intense in its private manifestations, and pervasive enough in its public ones to have become an accepted feature of the social landscape.

In the December issue of Opera there is an article by Brian Kellow on the Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, a project established by Dolora Zajick and several colleagues to try to address the dearth of such instruments—a situation which, as my readers know by now, has my ongoing attention. Zajick speaks about her own early (1970s) listening experiences in the music library at the University of Nevada, where, she says, ” . . . they had stopped buying records by 1962.” As a result, ” . . . all they had was Barbieri, Stignani, Simionato, Arkhipova, Ferrier . . . I thought that’s what everyone sounded like.”  Then she moved out into the world of audition and competition judges, academically trained coaches, and other gatekeepers, and the pressure to squeeze her voice down to a “safe” level was on. I infer from her account that she had not been immersed in operatic singing as a child, and hadn’t much exposure to live performance. But she did have those recordings of real dramatic mezzos and contraltos (she also mentions Dame Clara Butt) as models, and no one to tell her, at that early stage, that she shouldn’t try to sing like they did.

Extermination, Salvation, Frustration: Ades and Massenet

In the end, I caved. I had fully intended to honor my oath, sworn and upheld last season, to waste no more time, energy, and money on the new operas the Met hauls into view once per annum. It was a fully informed pledge, taken after many years of obligatory open-mindedness, and it served me well, but all too briefly. “Man up,” I said to the mirror one day. “We really need new operas.” I did have an excuse. On my previous encounters with the operas of Thomas Adès—the EMI recording of Powder Her Face and the Met production of The TempestI had detected in the music’s gestures and structures something of a genuine theatrical sensibility, a feel for the scenic event. In the writing for the Duchess in Powder (a compelling performance by Jill Gomez) I even heard the gift of not merely sympathizing with a difficult character, but of getting inside her and writing from there. That gift, the supreme talent of a composer Adès has derided (Verdi!—no Brownie points there), is nowhere to be heard nowadays. So, although the world of Powder will not draw me back except in the line of duty and The Tempest fell well short of its daunting task, I forked over the bargain tariff of $87.50 for a front-row Dress Circle box seat for the Nov. 7 performance of The Exterminating Angel.

I have never seen the famous Buñuel film that is the opera’s source. Naturally, I’ve by this time boned up on the sources of all the operas that come around in canonical canon—plays, poems, mythical epics, etc., by Shakespeare, Schiller, Hugo, Pushkin, Sophocles, et al.—and have usually done the same when a historical rarity comes along. With new operas, though, if  I don’t already know the material, I like to pretend I’m Mr. Average Operagoer, and see if the work makes its case to him, just as a new play or movie or dance piece would need to do. In that respect, Exterminating Angel presented an immediate obstacle: it introduced many characters, major and minor, almost immediately, and except for those of a couple of the low-voiced men, scarcely a word from any of them was understandable. If a composer is writing a through-written, dialogue-based opera (there are in fact a few set pieces, but with a single exception they, too, are dependent on the word, not on vocalization), it does behoove him to give the singers a fighting chance at comprehensibility. Mr. and Ms. Average Operagoer probably use the subtitles. Perversely, I like to focus on the stage and listen for sung words, words that are simultaneously captured and released by the beauty and power of the singing voice. That way, the onstage events and emotions come directly and uninterruptedly to me, and the verbal content does not constantly assert itself over the music via the scanning eye. So I leave captions to foreign movies.

After a while, I found that with some guidance from the program’s synopsis, I could distinguish the female characters by the colors of their dresses, considerately selected for ID purposes. The men, in evening dress and, except for the basses, vocally indistinguishable pending more  extended inspection, revealed themselves grudgingly, in a couple of cases only after intermission and further consultation with the program. Still, the general progression of the action came into hazy focus as the evening went on, and the story’s intended cumulative force could be detected. Because of the film’s standing, the dramatic situation of this work is an item of cultural familiarity: at a late-night post-performance supper in an elegant home, the guests are prevented from leaving by a mysterious force. Then, after a lengthy detainment in the course of which they are reduced to the condition of starving savages, they are inexplicably released, to wander dazedly back into the outside world. The mood is Existential (upper- and lower-case “e”) and Absurdist (ditto with the “a”).