The classical recording industry was in difficulty before the advent of the internet. One can give the churn only so many turns, and other societal shifts (in education, to give us a running start) had already been at work. But it was the internet, and the culture it has spawned, that pushed the industry’s head under for the third time. I am not going to consider—today, at any rate—the pros and cons of all the ways the internet has affected opera. I’m addressing at the moment only the ways that seem to connect to vocal development. And vocal development in the Before the First Lesson stage is only partly a matter of vocal usage per se. It’s also a matter of mental habit, of attention, of preparation for the reception and integration of the kinds of psychophysical learning peculiar to singing. While Dolora Zajick was listening to the greatvoiced mezzos of the U. of N. library, she was laying down tracks. She was taking in those sounds—big sounds, of major resonantal properties and classical registral arrangement—and imagining them as her own. She was ingesting the way those voices moved, how they made effects, how they molded Italian words on an Italian vocal line. If she was like most impressionable young artistic souls, she spent a lot of day-in, day-out head time with those tracks running through her mind, and with her physical system, silently and unconsciously, responding as if singing—singing that music that way, not some other way. This doesn’t mean that a great voice magically emerges from these processes, or that a young student is well advised to imitate instruments beyond the capacity of her own. But it does mean that a voice meant to be great is encouraged to be so, rather than something less, and that the owner brings to her lessons a brain and body better informed, better prepared, to receive compatible instruction.
Does this not still go on? Yes, but less. The structure of our secondary aural environment has changed. It is no longer oppressively restricted by corporate interests out to profiteer off the cravings of devotees and the innocent curiosities of devotee cadets (Version 1); and/or, it is no longer curated, quality-controlled, by people with some expertise and a vested interest in cultivating those cravings and curiosities (Version 2—please note the “and” of “and/or”). The recordings Zajick heard were conceived, cast, and produced by people familiar enough with the relation between artistic quality and their market ambitions to select and promote those singers and that repertoire. Some of them knew quite a lot. Then, the recordings were acquired, which is to say selected in place of others, by a music librarian, on the basis of some combination of his or her own knowledge, the information and discounts provided by the record companies, and very possibly the opinions of critics, who in turn were enabled by their editors and publishers. All along this chain, some pretty pennies (less and less pretty as we move on) were exchanged, and objects of tangible value and lasting physical presence were created and set in place. The knowledge and taste of all the people involved was certainly variable, but in most cases they knew more than we would expect from a beginning singer.