In an interview with Mezzo-Soprano Dolora Zajick, Opera authority Brian Kellow laments in his very fine blog, Follow Kellow, the scarcity of dramatic voices in the many vocal competitions about which he writes. Later, in the interview, Ms. Zajick discusses the issue further, echoing the interviewer’s own views. Ms. Zajick gives the opinion that today’s conservatories and college music departments shy away from the standard repertory, opting instead for rarities that will bring atention to their institutions, rather than to heir students

Kellow further states that “In New York, for instance, it’s well known that there is a reluctance for many teachers to commit to the extra time and care needed to train dramatic voices. Generally, lyric voices turn into finished products much sooner, and teachers who desperately crave a reputation in the business for turning out top talents, perhaps can’t be blamed for focusing on lighter voices.”

I am not completely in agreement with those opinions, nor do I want to set out to debate the insights and views of two respected artists. I’m opting instead for sharing my own findings by way of opening up the discussion.

My friend Jim Slouffman made us a gift of a multi-DVD collection of the operas of Richard Strauss. In almost every instance the casting is beyond reproach, featuring some of the great  voices of the past century, Another collection of CD’s I recently acquired features (mostly German) singers associated with the Dresden Opera during the first half the 20th century. The repertory is largely Strauss/Wagner, and so are many of the voices: Straussian-Wagnerian.

Was it something in the water, I wondered? Or was there a German/Scandinavian way of training voices that has been lost? Or i it perhaps that only Scandinavians (Flagstad, Melchior, Nilsson) and Germans are physically equipped to handle the rigors of the Wagner/Strauss canon? What about George London or James Morris or Ramon Vinay in their time? What about today’s Christine Goerke and Jay Hunter Morris?

I then went on a brief search trying to find an answer to the questions I had asked myself. Laboriously I came up with some snippets of information.

Birgit Nilsson, soprano – Studied with several teachers on scholarship at the Royal Conservatory in Sweden. Hated them. Made her professional debut at the age of 26 (Agathe in Der Freischütz), and felt so awful about her performance that she contemplated suicide. Luckily she gave that up and bounced back. The rest is history. Nilsson recommended the stage as the best and only teacher.

Kirsten Flagstad, soprano studied voice as a teen, made her debut at 18 and sang small and big roles in fledgling operetta and opera companies in Scandinavia. It was not until she was 33 years old that she sang her first Isolde and, in her own words, “found her voice.”

Lauritz Melchior, tenor studied with the same teacher. Debut at age 23. Sang baritone roles for the next few years. Retrained as a tenor and made his debut in the title role of  Tannhäuser at age 28.

Hans Hotter, bass-baritone played the organ and conducted a choir and learned singing pretty much on his own. Debut at age 21. By his mid-20’s he was singing many of the Wagnerian bass-baritone roles.

Back in the day, so to speak, there were no opera workshops. There were no Diction and Movement and Vocal Rep classes. Singers were able to make their stage debuts early in life and get their stripes by dint of hard work and trial and error. Nobody seemed to get into vocal trouble in those days. In some cases – Flagstad and Melchior – there were false starts in the wrong vocal category, but the errors got quickly righted.

But it was not a big deal: singing as a baritone for five years when you were really a tenor is one heck of a lot better than waiting tables for five years or floating from young artist program to vocal competition to audition in the hope of getting one foot in the door.

But this is America and that was Europe and we live and sing in a different world.

Opera houses are bigger, much bigger today, even in the “regions.” Two tenor friends have started their careers in Germany. Over eighty opera houses there, with year-round seasons. Average size in the mid-hundreds, not in the four digits. One of them sings small roles in his home theater and guests around Europe singing bigger roles, oratorio and concerts. Not much of that is available in our neck of the woods.

So, I will happily settle for very well trained lyric tenors and lyric mezzos and lyric sopranos and lyric baritones who can sing the Almavivas and Rosinas and Susannas and Guglielmos for a few years until their voices mature and hopefully graduate to the big boy/big girl rep.

Look at Joyce Di Donato just now in her late forties moving into roles like Adalgisa and Semiramide. Or any number of other singers who wait for the big roles until their voices are ready. Elīna Garanča is fazing out Octavian and Rosina and gearing up for Donizetti’s Leonora. I would not be surprised if she goes from Carmen to Eboli and Dalila one of these days.

If a voice is meant to sing Wagner it will sing Wagner as long as all of the surrounding circumstances make it possible: the right management, the right timing, the right venue.

As for Verdi, I see no problems, meaning that if you have a Trovatore or a Luisa Miller to cast, as the MET does this upcoming season, you will find somewhere in the world the right singers for Azucena and Di Luna and Manrico and Miller and Count Walter.

Here in Cincinnati, where we have lived for the past nine years I have seen a very good Meistersinger and a first class Otello at the Cincinnati Opera, both cast with many American singers.

Meanwhile the University of Cincinnati has been training and turning out some very fine young singers who sang on the stages of the College Conservatory of Music everything from Donizetti to Britten, Poulenc and Mozart. Mercifully no Verdi or Wagner, which would be both silly and suicidal when performed by young people in their early twenties.

Among those voices I have been listening to over the past few years there are a few that belong to singers already at the start of very promising careers. And the voices, to my ears, are big enough. When you have a chance, find baritone Andrew Manea or bass-baritone Brandon Morales or baritone Tyler Alessi or tenor Pedro Arroyo or mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker on either their websites or  on You Tube. And if you cannot, just simply remember those names, don’t worry: you will soon be hearing their sufficiently large voices in the very near future in an opera house near you.

(photographs left to right: Brandon Morales, Tyler Alessi, Kayleigh Decker, Pedro Arroyo, Andrew Manea,

Rafael de Acha

http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com All About the Arts

3 thoughts on “WHERE ARE THE BIG VOICES?

  1. Hi, Rafael,

    I simply had to respond directly to you regarding this posting because you continue to teach me so very much about voice, even when I am on summer break!

    Thanks for all you do to educate me and so many others. It is very much appreciated.

    Regards, Pam



  2. Very nice writing as always! Here’s my (unsolicited) opinion. I think among the problems are money, the young artist structure in America, the house desires for wunderkinds from the Met auditions, and dare I say American voice teachers. Money: the question becomes what to do with oneself if not graduate school. Of course, voices like these have no place in graduate programs that are looking for serviceable voices to sing Albert Herring. Nothing against Britten, my first love. Young Artist structure: this too is a fault to wanting a 23 year old when can be sold to another company in two seasons in lyric rep.
    Wunderkinds: as you know from theater and tv, it’s never the current big thing you want to sell, but the next big thing. This is totally what allowed me to apprentice Santa Fe at 22 with a great high C, but no artistic depth!
    Finally the American voice teacher: this is not to say there are not tremendous pedagogues in America, but, my biggest complaint about many of my colleagues is their desire for overly bright classical sounds, and the idea that singing any heavy rep or technique will cause harm. Now, having found my adult voice, I know for a fact the pitfalls that can found in pigeon-holing a sizeable lyric voice as something less than it is.
    Ok, off my soap box. You know Richard Miller was already pointing to this happening in 1977 in the first edition of National Schools of Singing. No size, no color. Just lyric and white.


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