In Opera, hope blooms eternal

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-22 lineup of Saturday matinee broadcasts continues today, February 5, 2022 with a special program that highlights the first ten years of MET broadcasts, between 1931 and 1941 and in so doing also celebrates their 90th birthday

I hadn’t been born yet, and it wasn’t until I came to the United States and began to entertain the idea of studying music that I then began to listen to the MET’s broadcasts on Saturday afternoons, with Milton Cross providing lively commentary on that afternoon’s singers. I quickly became a fan of Opera, and have remained one to this day

Today’s program features a series of highlights from that decade, providing a walk down memory lane for some lucky listeners who might have actually listened to some of these artists in person or on the radio. I am not among them, so that by the time I started to sit down by the radio to listen to the MET broadcasts, the grand old days of Rosa Ponselle, Lawrence Tibbett, Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Zinka Milanov, Jussi Björling, Leonard Warren, Ezio Pinza, Bidú Sayão, and Lily Pons were gone. But, like many fans of great operatic singing I heard recordings of these stars and even collected LP’s of their singing. And, to this day any of us can go to You Tube and enjoy Ponselle’s amazing singing of any Verdi at all or Pinza’s Figaro or you name it.

And that brings me around to reflect – ever the critic – on the nature of the singing of those past greats. Regularly reviewing recordings of many of today’s singers I am often baffled by the blandness and the sameness I hear. Yes, the accuracy and discipline are there, but I miss the occasionally erratic but ever exciting individuality of a Zinka Milanov, the vocal personality of an Ezio Pinza, the thrilling devil-may-care approach of a Lawrence Tibbett, the exquisite way with the sung word of a Bidú Sayão, the larger than life sound of a Kirsten Flagstad, the no-holds-barred singing of Lauritz Melchior, the mix of manliness and sweetness of the timbre of Jussi Björling, the elegance of Lily Pons, or the superb resilience of a Leonard Warren.

Nevertheless I continue to listen and to hope to hear the kind of singing that was regularly heard back in those days. I am often amazed and surprised when I do, and never hesitate to say so. A recent recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio sent shivers up my spine while listening to the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen – already at the top of her game and still in her thirties. That’s just one instance of great singing, among many others.

In Opera, hope blooms eternal: that’s why some of us keep going back for more.