WHERE ARE THE BIG VOICES?
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 their opinions, but neither do I want to set out to debate the insights and views of two respected artists, 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: Wagnerian.
Was it something in the water, I wondered? Or was there a German/Scandinavian way of training voices that has been lost? Or was 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 Sweden. 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 it was not a big deal: singing as a baritone for five years when you are 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 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 Dalila one of these days.
If a voice is meant to sing Wagner it will sing Wagner if all 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 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 seven plus years I have seen a very good Meistersinger and a first class Otello in recent years 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 Andrew Manea or Sofia Selowsky or Pedro Arroyo or Kayleigh Decker on either their websites or on You Tube. And if you cannot, just simply remember those names. You will be hearing their already big voices even bigger in the very near future in an opera house near you. That is where the big voices are and where they will be going.
(phoographs counter-clock-wise: Kayleigh Decker, Pedro Arroyo, Andrew Manea, Sofia Selowsky)
Rafael de Acha
http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com All About the Arts