Kashudo (歌手道): On Operatic Legends: Honoring their strengths and acknowledging their weaknesses

Opera, like life remains eternally paradoxical to me. Oddly enough, while the movers and shakers are trying everything possible to “modernize” opera, they too often underestimate the cult-like nature of the relationship between opera fans and singers. This cult-like relationship also exists between young singers and the idols who inspired them. No singer grabbed my imagination the way Franco Corelli did when I first discovered him in earnest. I immediately began practicing “Ah si ben mio”, which was the first track on my Corelli recording. I was a baritone in graduate school and was able to sing that aria. It should have been a sign! Eventually I discovered the acoustic analyses of Richard Miller who explained why Jussi Bjoerling was a superior singer based on spectrographic analysis. I was up in arms because I considered Maestro Corelli the quintessential spinto tenor, practically without peer on recording. My mind was not changed as to Corelli’s worth but it did make me realize that my idol was indeed not a god! He was a human being who had flaws, even vocal flaws.

This sobering moment marked the beginning of my vocal pedagogy. If Corelli was human and flawed technically then it was necessary to understand what those flaws were. Only by understanding these flaws could I be certain that I address them in my own singing and in that of my students.
Not unlike the dangerous post Sept 11 patriotism that threatened anyone who spoke one critical word against the American government, there exists an unwritten rule among many operatic fans that the legends of opera are untouchable. Surely the legends of opera deserve our respect and honor. Yet they are also subject to our criticism if the operatic art form is to go forward. They are not gods. They are extraordinary artists and to understand what they do, it is our duty to dissect what they have left us of their skill in order to really emulate it, indeed to better it.
In the same December 13 1994 Met broadcast of Pavarotti and Domingo’s silver anniversary performance and interview referred to in the previous post, Pavarotti spoke of Giuseppe Di Stefano, the idol of his early years. Apparently the young Pavarotti had been contracted to sing his first Cavaradossi in Germany somewhere and upon Di Stefano’s advice cancelled that engagement and did not sing the role of Cavaradossi for more than a decade. This is the respect that Pavarotti had for the legendary Di Stefano. Yet in a different interview Pavarotti said that unlike his idol, he learned to “cover the voice”. It is widely accepted among aficionados of Italian operatic tradition that Di Stefano’s voice was ruined because of his practice of singing the passaggio “wide open” or “uncovered”. In that sense one could say that Pavarotti lived the paradox of his relationship with Di Stefano. His admiration of the elder tenor did not prevent him from seeing the fatal flaw. Being able to assess his idol’s error, Pavarotti became a modern symbol of Italian singing. Had he followed Di Stefano blindly, he could have suffered a similar end. Their voices were in fact very similar in size and elasticity. They both had facile top notes but approached the acoustic passaggio very differently.
Recently, I discovered some clips on youtube of the legendary Leontyne Price and was surprised that there were moments in which her voice did not respond as perfectly. My two live experiences of Ms. Price left me so stunned that I doubt in those days I would have had the presence of mind to be aware of any flaws. But indeed she is human and she had bad nights, and she made repertoire choices, particularly in her choices of concert repertoire that were not always ideal. In a sense I am glad. Because it gives us a glimpse into how the masterly soprano dealt with difficult moments.
Whether it be the tendency of my idol Hermann Prey to sing flat or my other idol Sherrill Milnes’ inability to deal with the passaggio recognizing the human frailties of these singers make them that much greater not less. It brings light to the fact that they were singers just like us in the beginning, who dealt with their short comings and managed their remarkable assets so masterfully as to leave an indelible mark on the history of our great art. I intend to analyze the voices of the great singers with emphasis on what they did so well technically. We will indubitably find a common thread in what made them so technically secure. I will also analyze what did not work and why they may have experienced problems at certain points in their careers.
Why should I chose to do this at this point? We are closing upon my 100th post. I have dealt with many technical issues in the past 21 months. Dealing with those issues relative to how they were approached by our greatest singers is an interesting next step. I believe it will offer a glimpse into why the past generations were indeed better at this art form, as well as understanding why singers of our times, by and large, have more fragile instruments than their esteemed predecessors.
There was a time when it was absolutely clear that operatic singing was something very different from other genres of singing. In the process of attempting to democratize opera (a good thing) the business has managed to reduce opera itself to something that “anyone can do”. Well, not anyone can sing opera. Opera is the vocal equivalent of Olympic sports. In high school I could run very fast, but I could not enter an Olympic event and expect to win. Far from it. But I think if I had been trained, I might have developed the strength and technique to become an Olympic level winner. Likewise, many people develop very strong voices by virtue of the environment they are in and certain anatomical genetic gifts. It should be understood that no one is born with a perfectly developed operatic voice.
Paradoxically babies come with vocal instruments perfectly ready for operatic production. If we continued to use our voices in the way that babies do to express their primal needs we might develop spontaneously like lions who produce deafening roars or like the neighbor’s dogs who are able to bark incessantly keeping us awake at night. But our civilization for all its positive aspects robs us of much of our primal instincts including vocal expression. The physical, “athletic” part of operatic training is essentially the achievement of the strength necessary to produce a primal sound consistently. That primal utterance is what carries to the human ear with natural efficiency because the human ear is designed to hear that primal sound. No orchestral sound reaches the human with the same intensity. In terms of the physical training of the instrument, how many singers in our times produce a primal sound on every note of their voices? What does that mean and how can we judge? How do I determine that operatic singing is primal? All of that will be explained in the discussions that will ensue.
© 09/27/2009

3 thoughts on “Kashudo (歌手道): On Operatic Legends: Honoring their strengths and acknowledging their weaknesses

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  1. Eagerly anticipating this series of analyses! Very true that we can learn from the mistakes of our idols. I can relate to Pav's idolizing of di Stefano, and your idolizing of Milnes and Domingo. My favorite singer has long been the young Jose Carreras, but I understand that his vocal approach was not quite right and his career choices devestating to the gorgeous voice of his youth. It is important for us to understand what was good about our heroes and what held them back. There has never been a perfect singer. We can learn from them all.


  2. Looking forward to the continuation.

    I find Di Stefano's advice to Pavarotti about Cavaradossi particularly interesting in light of his 1953 recording of Tosca with Callas and Gobbi – a fantastic recording! I think the role was too heavy for Di Stefano, and he shouldn't have sung it, even though he did an admirable job. I couldn't help wondering if it wasn't his tendency to make his voice too dramatic that did him in more than anything else. Pavarotti did sing dramatic roles too sometimes, e.g. Calaf, but always in his own voice – he never tried to make it heavier than it was, but I think Di Stefano did.


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