Opera and Voices and Obsolescence
As I was reading the postings on one of my favorite Facebook pages, I came across a fervent post from someone who raised a point that many of us have noted, but not analyzed or commented on as we should. This is a shame because the topic of the posting warns of a danger to opera, especially the Wagner operas.
The Wagnerian Wagnerian and others have bemoaned Mime voices being given the role of Siegfried. In essence, this was the complaint of the individual commenting on the Against Modern Opera Productions page, but this individual saw the danger as much greater--he saw a danger arising from the music schools--that by accepting the smaller voice as the new standard, we would soon be without the great operatic voice simply because it is no longer being taught, being hired, and being appreciated. No offense to Jay Hunter Morris, but I cannot and do not want to imagine a Wagner world without a Melchior, a Vickers, a Jerusalem, a James King, or a James McCracken. I would rather listen to recordings of Peter Hofman’s adenoidal high notes than a Siegfried with a Gerhard Stolzelike voice in the title role.
The Boulezian and I have discussed this growing problem on Twitter, but probably not as deeply as we should. I hope that I am not putting words in his mouth when I say that he has expressed concerns about the current state of singing. We have searched for up and coming heldentenors and while he praises Jonas Kaufman, I find that individual on the smaller voice side. When I seek the big voice singers, the few I find struggle with extreme notes, flexibility, and balance. Opera, as we have known it, is about to change, and not just as a result of modern or Regie productions.
Once again American pop culture is a culprit. The “standards” it sets, and I use the word loosely, are easy, average, and small. Most of us know the history of opera--that it began long before electric lights and microphones. The opera houses and theaters were able to overcome the lighting problems, but it was left to the singers to fill the house with their voices. Composers wrote for these big voices. Singers sought ways to attain them. The story of the change from the “head voice” to the “chest voice” is fascinating and when it took place scared Rossini the first time he heard the transformation. However, the chest voice takes training and the larynx must be built up for it. Pop music makes no such demands. In our pop culture, we look for the easy, and, as a result, we spread the small voice into all areas.
Once upon a time the singing of the American National Anthem at almost any event was the province of the great operatic voices which had the range and the power to meet the requirements of the piece. Now it is sung by anybody who has gained any fame and the results are emulated even at the local level. The style has become a small voice, singing around the notes without attacking them directly, and adding appoggiaturas to every other note. Never mind what the composer’s intent might have been, just slide through it.
Imagine a world in which these small voices surround a truly great voice, for instance, a Birgit Nilsson with her laser tone. Wolfgang Windgassen could barely stick with her; how could today’s and tomorrow’s singers hope to. The solution, of course, will be to dismiss the great voice, the big voice, in favor of the small. Our opera world is in danger. It will be killed by pigmies, and we will be a lesser civilization as a result.