WHERE HAVE ALL THE GREAT SINGERS GONE?
by Joseph Shore
"Elaine, you know there was a certain kind of sound opera singers used to make – that sound we used to hear on the Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts. They just don't sound that way any more. I can't explain it."
This was the beginning of a phone conversation between two "ordinary" people who used to buy tickets to the opera but now seldom do. Two weeks later another phone call came:
"Elaine, I was listening to the radio today and all of a sudden I heard THAT sound, the sound that opera singers used to make."
She could not contain the excitement in her voice. Who was this singer that had brought her mind (and heart) back to opera? The radio station was playing an old recording of Robert Merrill!
What has happened to singing? Where have all the great singers gone? This article is going to try to answer that question by an analysis of trends within teaching and the "business" of singing.
In the March/April 1992 issue of The National Association of Teachers of Singing Journal, the highly respected Richard Miller penned an article entitled "Liederwurst" for his regular column, "Sotto voce". I thought it was a very important article and I put it on my door for my voice students to read. I am going to quote large portions of it here.
"One not infrequently hears well-intentioned public instruction in which young singers are admonished to sing lieder in a fashion that is fundamentally non-vocal. This approach is based upon a commendable realization that synthesis of word and music is a conscious aim of many lied composers, but unfortunately it forgets that expressive vocal sound is dependent upon the well-functioning physical vocal instrument as its medium. Such advice confuses desirable nuance with undesirable vocal mannerism.
It is obvious that Professor Miller combined historical perspective and modern-day analysis in a very clear and penetrating manner. It is unfortunate that such a manner did not prevail in Patrick J. Smith's article for Opera News, entitled, "Wired for bel canto". Instead, the August 1992 article appears to extol Liederwurst as the "true bel canto". Mr. Smith quotes the usually reliable Henry Pleasants to say that Frank Sinatra is an heir of bel canto!
"Frank was not the first popular singer to be guided unwittingly by the objectives and criteria of bel canto as codified by Tosi. (...) His accomplishment was to unite the rhetorical with the melodic, much as the Italian singers of the seventeenth century had done as they progressed (...) to the more sustained mellifluous manner of singing represented by the term 'bel canto'."
Mr. Smith then goes on to say that few, if any opera singers today "can reproduce bel canto with the grace, beauty, expressiveness and technical ability of those we read in the past." But POP singers today can, he implies, all because they are allowed to use a microphone!
"One interpretation of this would be to say: in today's opera world, without the help of the microphone, bel canto singing has become, like it or not, a lost art."
Mr. Smith then delivers the coup de grace by giving us the solution: allow opera singers to use microphones! Opera singers should not have to sing "loud", he says. Loud is the problem. There is too much vocalism, not enough expression. Even with microphones in the opera house, he despairs,
"I much doubt, however, that any form of aural enhancement will result in our developing a generation of singers who will rival Frank Sinatra in bel canto technique. No matter what aural help will be provided, our young singers have been too deeply ingrained with the idea of singing loud to be broken of it."
What does Mr. Smith believe the microphone does for the bel canto pop artist? It allows the audience to hear "delicate refinements of melodic line and vocal inflection, minute shadings and subtleties of enunciation and phrase." Such "preciousness" in classical singing (Miller) would seem to be the vocal miniaturism of Liederwurst.
Does Mr. Smith really believe that Frank Sinatra would call himself the great bastion of bel canto? I imagine Frank would be too modest.
I believe that Mr. Smith is confused. First and foremost, bel canto was/is a school of VOCALISM and agrees with Miller's statement: "The potential for communication of the poetry and the music depends upon VOCAL SOUND, not on parodistic vocalism." The kind of communication of the text which pop singers use is considerably less centered in vocalism. The album "Classical Barbra" which Streisand released, is a curiosity at best. It neither intended nor presented any serious competition to Tebaldi, Caballé, Sutherland, or de los Angeles!!
The exhaustive search for maximum vocal quality which the bel canto era maintained within its six to ten year total immersion program for aspiring singers had nothing to do with the kind of word communication pop singers employ!! Bel canto utilized what Miller calls "the most expressive vocal device", "legato", "sculptured into expressive phrases" to communicate the inner insinuations of sound combined with word.
We should perhaps clarify here that the term "bel canto" ("beautiful song") originated with the invention of opera itself in the late 1590's, early 1600's. The Florentine aristocrat, Count Bardi, supported a select circle of intellectuals (the "Camerata") in their desire to recreate the ancient Greek stage traditions, utilizing "monody" or lyric solo as the main musical component. The so-called "First Golden Age of Singing" occurred during the 17th and 18th century as this new art-form, "opera", flourished in Italy and other parts of Europe. Many of the founding intellectuals were composers and the first voice teachers. We have the vocal pedagogy textbooks of Tosi from the 17th century and Mancini from the 18th century. They are in complete agreement.
Bel canto does not simply refer to the period of Bellini and Rossini (early 19th century). Bellini and Rossini were called bel canto composers because they were in line with the First Golden Age of Singing of the 17th and 18th centuries.
There may indeed be some heritage of bel canto present within the pop singing of the crooners. But it is a heritage of SOUND quality, not preciousness of interpretation. Horst Guenther writes in the May/June, 1992 issue of The NATS Journal:
"Why is the situation in understanding classical vocal sound today – here and in Europe – so much more difficult than it was in the past until around 1950? (...) All singing, all perception of vocal literature I experienced in my youth, was based on the same SOUND QUALITY: opera, operetta, oratorio, lied, mélodie, light classical music, dance music, folk music – all was based on the same vocal technique – with stylistic changes – and the goal was to make the voice, the sound, beautiful. There was no conscious misuse of the voice as there is today in rock with its vocally destructive tendencies. Singing in every form had to please and not to hurt the ear. From the first singing impression my mother gave me by singing 'volkslieder' until my professional singing, there was a direct line. The mental image was gradually developed and had one direction: to sing beautifully. Today the situation seems to be totally different."
Let's think a moment about Mr. Smith's hatred of "loud" singing. He makes no distinction between the "loud" voice and the "big" voice. We might assume from his article that they are one and the same and both the enemy of bel canto. A noted vocal historian, Cornelius Reid, disagrees. In Bel Canto, Reid writes:
"In any discussion of tonal volume a very real distinction should always be made between a 'big' tone, or one that is well resonated, and a 'loud' tone, which is nothing but noise. 'Loud singing' is both inartistic and injurious to the voice and is to be avoided at all costs. A 'big' tone is the very essence of musical quality and indicates that the tone is being well resonated."
Bel canto stressed a 'big' tone rather than a 'loud' one. I think we can safely say that the earlier conception in this century that the bel canto tone was an overly "light", quasi-falsetto, tone has been disproved, as Reid's research shows. The great teachers of the nineteenth century, Garcia, Lamperti and Marchesi, all thought they were carrying on the pedagogy of Tosi, Mancini and other bel canto maestri from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is only in the twentieth century that the line of transmission has broken down.
In 1893 Lamperti, widely regarded as a 19th century heir of bel canto, emphatically explained that the bel canto technique of the 17th and 18th centuries aimed for a voice that would have been appropriate for Verdi, had the singers lived during his time!
"It is wrong to believe that after studying (bel canto) the Italian method of singing (the one and only true method of good singing) it is impossible to interpret and sing dramatic music. Were not Malibran, Pasta, Grisi, Sonntag, Cruvelli, and Cattalani great dramatic and technically sublime singers, who excelled equally in Norma, Otello, Semiramis, and similar roles? If these singers had been contemporaries of Verdi and Wagner, as they were of Bellini and Rossini, they would have been technically complete and at the same time truly dramatic singers, who could have sung Norma and Die Walküre, Aida and Semiramis equally well. (...) In these times, when the demands of the singing art are growing vague, let us return to a study of physiology and the older Italian method!" (Lamperti, Vocal wisdom, 1893, p. 11)
It is a common error to assume that the melismatic music of Rossini or Bellini was intended to be sung with a very light, soft tone. Their coloratura is intended to be sung with full "appoggio". Their musical style was different from Verdi and Wagner and therefore presents different demands, but the vocal technique was the same, as Lamperti boldly states. (In modern times, recall that when Marilyn Horne sings Rossini's coloratura she sings it with full "appoggio".)
All that is really necessary to convince oneself of the accuracy of Lamperti's appraisal is to read the critiques concerning the voices produced by the era of bel canto. Words have not changed that much from the 18th century. For example, Mancini wrote that Farinelli's voice "was thought a marvel because IT WAS SO PERFECT, SO SONOROUS AND SO RICH IN ITS EXTENT, BOTH IN THE HIGH AND IN THE LOW PARTS OF THE REGISTER, THAT ITS EQUAL HAS NEVER BEEN HEARD IN OUR TIME. THE QUALITIES IN WHICH HE EXCELLED WAS IN THE EVENNESS OF HIS VOICE, THE UNION OF THE REGISTERS, THE ART OF SWELLING ITS SOUND, THE PORTAMENTO, A SURPRISING AGILITY, A GRACEFUL AND PATHETIC STYLE, AND A SHAKE AS ADMIRABLE AS IT IS RARE" (Mancini, Practical reflections on the figurative art of singing, Milan 1776, p. 33). Agility would not have been "surprising" had his voice been light or quasi-falsetto. But the "surprise" is quite understandable when one notices that Farinelli's voice was described as "so SONOROUS, so RICH." Words like these would be used concerning Caruso at the beginning of the 20th century! Bel canto did not produce quasi-falsetto small voices. It produced the chiaroscuro, big tone of great voices. Opera presented a consistency of desired vocal quality from the 17th century until the 20th century. The changes in vocal timbre produced by the demands of "verismo" were slight in comparison to the many aspects of similarity. The occasional harsh tone of verismo is supported on the foundation of beautiful tone. In modern times, one needs only to remember Corelli's and Bergonzi's performances of Bellini as well as Puccini and Verdi to see the great connection of tonal quality between the two golden ages of singing. When this connection is missed by writers it is usually because they have not analyzed the writings of the various artists/voice teachers of the two golden ages of song.
At the end of the 19th century, Garcia despaired of the damage he might have caused by the experimental changes he made in vocal pedagogy and advised people to GO BACK to bel canto methods. In 1894 he wrote in the London Musical Herald:
"Avoid all these modern theories and stick closely to nature. I do not believe in teaching by means of sensations of tone. The actual things to do in producing tone is to breathe, to use the vocal cords, and to form the tone in the mouth. The singer has to do with nothing else; I used to direct the tone in the head, and do peculiar things with the breathing; and so on, but as the years passed by I discarded them as useless, and now speak only of actual things and not mere appearances. I condemn that which is spoken of nowadays, viz., the directing of the voice forward, or back and up. Vibrations come from puffs of air. All control of the breath is lost the moment it is turned into vibrations, and the idea is absurd that a current of air can be thrown against the hard palate for one kind of tone, the soft palate for another, and reflected hither and thither."
I hear someone asking at this point, if ANY mention should be made of scientific study of the voice. Do not Garcia's words condemn ANY scientific investigation into voice? No. They do not. Cornelius Reid, a strict adherent of bel canto, writes: "To apply the latest developments of modern science toward facilitating vocal study is most desirable and a trend to be encouraged" (Reid, ibid., p. 176) We can agree with that. Garcia's sad statement of repentance should not be exaggerated.
As we know from scientific studies of the singer's formant (that big acoustic boost in the upper frequencies found in great opera singers), the 'big' tone is far, far, greater in amplitude (i.e. louder) than the speaking voice. Since modern pop singers do not usually generate a singer's formant, the amplitude of the voice radiated from the mouth is small, about the same as the speaking voice. Microphones are essential to allow the audience to hear them. Classical singers generate the singer's formant which greatly boosts the amplitude of the radiated voice, producing the 'big' tone which carries over the orchestra. That big singer's formant boost also raises the amplitude of the partials near it, changing the essential auditory impression of the whole voice.
We might use as an example, the voice of the great tenor Jussi Björling. Björling's voice was NOT always "loud" but it was always "big"; that is to say, it was always the fully resonated, chiaroscuro tone of bel canto, and the singer's formant was very strong. That enabled him to sing literature which was dramatic as well as lyric, even though he produced less volume of sound than many other voices.
What does an acknowledged bel canto artist have to say? Mr. Smith would accept Marilyn Horne as an heir of bel canto. She has this to say about singers today and amplification:
"The microphones are coming. It's just a matter of time before the older generation that understands what a disaster microphones would be is safely out of the way. And when they come, that'll be the beginning of the end. Who will really learn to sing? There won't be any need to. The same thing will happen to opera that we have seen happen to Broadway. When I was young there were any number of well-produced, attractive voices in musicals. Today you have George Hearn, maybe one or two others, and that's it. There is no market for a good sound." (New York Times, March 24, 1991)
No market for a good sound! Why? Part of the reason could lie in disinformation spread to the public like that found in Mr. Smith's article. Mr. Smith quotes an anonymous opera company administrator as saying, "I would always choose brutal, large sound over lovely, small sound." This one statement is given as proof that "loud" is the enemy, and that the singing profession has been taken over by those who like "big", insensitive voices, who shout at the audience. But is this quoted, anonymous administrator really giving us the standard for voice selection in opera today? Hardly! He seems to be the exception. Big voices are not usually the voices of choice. Matthew Epstein of Columbia Artists is quoted in the New York Times saying: "It is true that small voices, quick studies, and attractive singers are more sellable in this country." Conrad Osborne is quoted in the same article saying:
"What the opera profession thinks it wants, in this time of rapid regional expansion, is a certain type of mechanically facile young performer (a quick study and top reader, obediently flexible in rehearsal) whose singing is neat and unthreatening and who can be described with the oft-heard phrase,'attractive, moves well, excellent diction.' But we cannot care about or believe in a note they sing or a word they say, for much the same reasons that in life we often do not believe or trust persons whose preoccupation is with being attractive, moving well, and possessing excellent diction.
Some of these small voiced singers – "attractive, moves well, excellent diction" – end up on big stages where they have difficulty being heard. Incapable of making a "big" tone they have to force to make a "loud" tone. Mr. Smith tells us that the answer is to give them a microphone. Hardly! The answer lies in an analysis of the training and selective process which the profession uses. Neither is the "interpretive" technique of Liederwurst a cure for such singers. The cure for such singers is vocal technique which gives the big, chiaroscuro tone of bel canto. The cure for the profession is selection, support, and development of such genuine talent.
Great artists of the previous era decry the mediocrity of the voices selected today for careers and the approach in the profession which emphasizes singers' LOOKS rather than their SOUNDS. The great bass, Boris Christoff said in his Opera News interview:
"Take this very expensive competition I am involved with here in Paris, with young people from all over the world. They have to sing Ravel and Poulenc – no Verdi, no Puccini. With the exception of two very fine black Americans, in these three days I haven't heard one timbre that impressed me. Does this depend on faulty teaching or has the idea of personality gone so that all of these voices sound alike? (...) If directors and conductors are responsible for what is taking place, the main fault lies with the people who are running the opera houses without the necessary preparation, and who no longer respect composers, librettists, and art in general. Singers do not stand up to them, as money is more important to them. (...) To please Karajan, at one time I even went so far as to accept to sing Ramfis for him, a part for which I have no sympathy. The soprano was a beautiful black woman, but I could not hear her. I asked the conductor how we could reach opening night with an inaudible protagonist, and do you know what he replied? 'She looks the part, so we shall have to forget the rest,' a view I could not share." (Opera News, Jan. 29, 1983)
Boris Christoff's singing serves here as an example. This great artist sang lieder beautifully, especially Russian volkslieder, as well as the grandest roles of opera. One can hear the same voice used in the service of delicate lieder as is used in the title role of Boris Godunov. He did not change his essential voice. Coloration and interpretation were accomplished within the more subtle framework of legato and tone, sculptured into beautiful phrases.
Singers with a thousand different voices – a different color for every note – are not "interpreting" music. They are singing badly. They have no inner reason for singing; no inner perspective giving their singing impetus. They have no point of view. Having no inner guidance they "pop" it and try to "sell it". They may even use the pop singer's techniques of straight-tone onsets, uneven vibrato, and hand gestures. Usually they feel it is unnessary for them to study the great singers in opera's history. They may even think it would be harmful for them!
This writer interviewed the great basso, Jerome Hines, five days before his 72nd birthday. I asked Mr. Hines to comment on Christoff's appraisal. He answered:
"Let me put it this way. We are facing a generation of young singers who are much more diminutive in their approach to singing. I will sing King Mark with a Tristan who I feel should be doing Almaviva."
If a singer were more suited to Almaviva than Tristan, it would be very understandable for him to view the interpretive demands of "his" Tristan in a non-vocal fashion. As Miller says, "limitations of the vocal instrument, more than artistic convictions, have determined stylistic mannerisms." I next asked Mr. Hines: "Can you describe the differences in the way singers sounded when you were coming into the business 50 years ago and how they sound now?" Mr. Hines responded,
"Yes, when I came to the Met, Robert Merrill, and Leonard Warren sounded more like basses than most of the basses you hear today. Take Lawrence Tibbett. He had a big, world-class sound. It was a richer, heavier sound by far than what you hear from a baritone today." (Shore – Hines interview, November 1993).
Professor Miller followed his article on "Liederwurst" with a related article, "How is legato achieved in singing" (September/October 1992, The NATS Journal). Since it is so pertinent, I am going to quote a key portion of it here:
"Extraneous technical maneuvers for achieving legato would be unnecessary if the skill of filling each note with equal dynamic levels of vibrant sound were mastered. (...) Legato need not be induced: it will be the result of the continuity of vibrant vocal sound. (...) The distortion of vocal sound under the assumption that artistry is enhanced should be resisted. The substitution of the inflections of 'emotive speech' for sustained singing is counterproductive to the musical and textual needs of elite vocal literature, including that of the lied and the mélodie. (...) Continuous vocal sound will of its own accord 'move' the phrase and give it 'direction'. The greater the reliance on free flowing vocal sound, the higher the capability for successful shaping of the musical phrase. (...) Continuity of vocal sound is the substance of legato. Communication of musical and textual values best occurs when sound, not interpretive gimmickry, is the medium of their conveyance."
Many of us may hear an "Amen" rising from our throats as those words are aired! For the art of singing has, it seems, been supplanted by the "business" of singing which has the mistaken marketing notion that only this poor, "diminutive" approach to singing is sellable. What a bizarre marketing strategy! Could it be a lie? Could it be that these marketing agents simply do not wish to go to the trouble to develop potentially great voices? Could the decline in the art of the singers before the public really be that simple? It may be. In the same New York Times article (April 20, 1980), Matthew Epstein tells us that many people had to work hard to "develop" Maria Callas. Today no one seems to have the desire to "develop" great singers. After all, it takes time, energy, and knowledge to "develop" and "promote" potentially great singers. Why should an agent go to that trouble if he can make money selling mediocre singers who need no development? Why indeed? But then, why would one become an agent if he did not love the art of singing? Perhaps to make money. One of the biggest agents in New York said to this writer, "Maybe opera will die. But so what? I will have made my money by that time."
One of the oldest and most knowledgeable of the New York agents said to me, in a moment of privacy, and you will understand why she wishes to remain anonymous:
"We used to be artist representatives who directed and guided the careers of our artists. Now we are grocers who dispense canned goods."
Before the "expansion" of opera that Osborne discusses, opera was performed in a relatively few large companies, and the quality of the art of opera was maintained by Italian and German maestri connected and devoted to opera's great heritage. Now that quality control is gone partly because of the mass production of opera singers for the expanded market.
Do you remember how wonderful REAL homemade pizza was? Somebody's mamma took all day to make the sauce, the dough. She chose the sausage and cut it just right. When she served it you knew it was a great meal! Now think of the pizza you get from Dominos! That is what has happened to opera! Think of that original little hamburger restaurant called "McDonald's". Those who ate there say that the burgers were fantastic! Now think of the inedible material you get today at the "chain" called "McDonald's". Opera has become a "chain".
One of the few attempts to "buck the trend" comes from Jerome Hines's Opera Music Theatre Institute in Newark. Hines searches for genuine talent and selects a few young singers to coach with himself, Franco Corelli, Marilyn Horne and Frank Corsaro, then showcases them. He has had some notable success in making an impact on the business of singing. Unfortunately, his is only one, relatively small operation and the business of singing is enormous. Still Hines's school is the best showcase for real talent and demonstrates the kind of interface of the art and the business of singing that is so desperately needed if opera as opera is to survive. Why has the environment become so harsh for opera?
North American audiences were always insecure with their lack of European tradition in opera. This insecurity, widely discussed in our society, has made us a continent of "culture consumers". We want to buy the culture that has not been a part of our short history. The expansion of opera into virtually every medium size city in North America meant the opening of many new and bigger markets for the culture marketers and the culture consumers. Agents quickly moved to fill those new markets with young, compliant singers – "attractive, moves well, excellent diction". The fact that most of them were mediocre singers seemed unimportant for the new audiences unacquainted with the distinctive character of great singing. These new audiences were used to spending their time and money on television and motion-pictures. The new, "expanded opera" wanted to present opera to this broad group of potential consumers as "entertainment," with quick gratification values based on current television and motion-picture programming. Opera as vocal "art" was considered unsellable to the great unwashed masses and truly great singers were not necessary. Their artistic "convictions" might even get in the way of the stage director in his new role of television imitator.
A few weeks ago I had lunch with a stage director, producer and artistic administrator whose career has spanned 40 years. Requesting anonymity, he said:
"It used to be that we were looking for a young singer with a great voice and imagination. We expected him to have his character all worked out when he arrived for rehearsal. Then we would work with him and give him some suggestions, for this or that, but we expected he could perform the role when he came for rehearsal. Today, if a young singer comes to rehearsal with any ideas of his own, that's the DEATH KNELL for his career."
Why? Because singers with great voices who take responsibility for their characters create opera as vocal ART, and opera as vocal ART is not wanted by today's moguls controlling the "business". ART not only entertains the audience but CONFRONTS it with some profound aspect of human existence within the subtleties of the art-form. ART asks some response from the audience. Those essential aspects of art seem to terrify the marketers.
One must wonder if, in the back rooms where opera's future was being decided, there was a voice to speak up for opera as vocal "art", or to offer broader-based marketing strategies which would include entertainment values in the new, expanded opera, while also preserving the quality of the art-form. It should be evident now, after almost thirty years of this "entertainment" approach, that the modern television audience is "fickle", and soft. We MUST BUILD an audience rather than attempt to siphon off the television masses, or opera as opera will simply die and be relegated to museums.
The great tenor Jon Vickers was asked why he retired so early from opera. He replied,
"Opera has gone so far in the direction of just entertaining the audience that I felt I had no place in it any more." (Vickers interview, Vancouver, related by School of Music faculty)
Great artists may indeed leave or be forced out. Young singers who have the potential to become new "Jon Vickers-s" or "Leonard Warrens" may simply be told by the agents, "We don't have the time to develop you. We admire your talent (and one wonders if they really do), but we don't have the time for you."
In our society, opera AS opera seems to have survived mostly within the singing of a few isolated great singers. Opera's place in our society is largely that of a "popular" caricature. The joke of opera as caricature is now considered great material for television commercials. More and more commercials now use opera as the butt of some joke intended to market a product. Television has successfully used opera. Opera has not successfully used television! To be certain, something the agents and artistic directors wish to CALL opera remains, and is marketed strongly, like any other product. But it bears slight resemblance to the art-form of opera as we know it from Caruso, Ponselle, Ruffo, Corelli, Tebaldi, Siepi, Hines, et al. Indeed when one of these artists still sings – as for example, Jerome Hines at age 73 – audiences literally go wild with appreciation for a kind of opera SOUND and QUALITY ("art") they don't hear at the Met, or at any other of the "expanded" cities network. Instead, they hear mediocre singers, whose bodies, for the most part, are attractive, and who move around the stage compliant to every whim of an overzealous stage director intent on filling the eyes of the audience (while ignoring their ears, hearts and souls). These singers spit out their words with fine diction. But something is missing. Opera is missing! I'd rather watch television, and I'm an opera singer!
The public, even in Small Town Midwest USA, still wants to experience the thrill and satisfaction at hearing great singers. It is the "business" of singing which is denying them that opportunity, largely because an ignorant, "needy" consumer group, is more easily controlled by marketing. Opera needs a Ralph Nader!
There is a term many genuine singers have for this kind of "diminutive," "stylistic", "mannered" singing. It is called 'dishonest' singing! As Osborne says, "We cannot care about or believe in a note they sing or a word they say." Think about a truly great artist like Caballé, Sutherland, Horne, Corelli, Bastianini, Siepi, or Hines. There is a quality of depth or "honesty" about everything they sing. There are no tricks. No deceptions. They utilize the beautiful legato line, with the big tone, as their principle means of interpretation. They do not take the pop singers approach which removes consistent resonantal quality out of tones for the sake of individual word coloring. Word coloring is done subtly within the broader usage of legato and tonal beauty.
Surely this is something for singers to shoot for in their singing. Surely this is worthwhile. Surely this is "honest" singing. Singers will grow as individuals from this kind of singing. Singing will become their "yoga" in life and give them MORE to express. People WILL then care about the words they say and the notes they sing, and they will not need a microphone to keep people's attention.
If I may offer a word here to the confused modern singer, regardless of the level of talent you as a singer may possess, you must go for the best in yourself. How can you go for less? Even if you do not have the talent to be a supremely great singer, you can learn from the art of the great singers and thereby find the best in yourself. The "art" of singing has much to offer the human spirit.
Some singers may think that the information in this article is all very depressing. You may think you would be better off not knowing. That might be possible, but I tend to believe that is reality denial which will leave you confused and guessing. The truth is always all there is. Usually it is better to know it.
In your individual quest to find the best in yourself, you may even be able to help the singing profession right its attitudes and "come back to bel canto". (That almost sounds like a "pop" song, doesn't it?) Opera managers, agents, and directors may then be very surprised to see that great singing actually DOES sell. There IS a market for great voices if great voices are presented to the public! But maybe they really knew that all along.
If the profession actually were REFUSING to market great voices, as some good analysis suggests, it would be "consumer fraud", on a very large scale. A defrauded public would then have certain legal options available to it.
Legal ramifications have already been contemplated regarding "malpractice in teacher education" against voice teachers and institutions. Dr. D. Clear has addressed this possibility in an article for the Journal of Teacher Education. He says:
"Certainly judges, as members of a profession, would understand the logic of a claim that any professional training sequence ought to have standards which insure that its students are exposed to all that is needed for successful entry level performance." ("Malpractice in teacher education: the improbable becomes increasingly possible", Journal of Teacher Education 34/2, p. 19)
Certainly those same judges would understand the logic of a claim that any opera company should be held accountable to the truth in advertising laws. If, for example, an opera company sells its tickets implying that its singers meet the highest vocal standards (the old slogan "strike a blow for civilization" comes to mind as an example), a case of fraud becomes increasingly possible in court, if the singers in that opera company are actually mediocre. Perhaps the business of singing will require just such court challenges before it enacts quality regulations for the singers it promotes or blocks.
Where have all the great singers gone? Some find their way to a supportive, great artist like Jerome Hines, or Galina Vishnevskaya, and are introduced into the profession where they struggle with the same anti-art tendencies, but from a position "within" the business. But many have gone into other professions or put their art "on hold" because the business of singing does not support their growth.
New York Times music critic Peter G. Davis asked the question well over a decade ago:
"Where are the new Carusos and Ponselles? Is it simply that extraordinary vocal power is a rarity of nature, and that a Caruso comes to us only once in a century? No, say numerous impresarios, managers, voice teachers, coaches and administrators of organizations that assist budding musical talent. Potentially great voices are reasonably common, they say, but conditions in the music world today are not conducive to their recognition and development. Indeed, in the view of one vocal authority, if a young Caruso suddenly appeared on the first rung of the professional ladder, unformed and unrefined, bursting with raw talent, he would not receive the sort of care or encouragement that would allow him to realize his full vocal or artistic capacities." ("Where are the great opera singers of tomorrow?", The New York Times, April 20, 1980)
The answer may lie in small groups of dedicated artists like the original "Camerata". Voice teachers/artists who wish to support genuine talent, and perhaps more importantly, wish to teach ALL of their students, regardless of talent-level, according to the principles of great singing, may form a small Camerata within their city. They may pool their resources, bring in great artists for concerts/master classes, perform in schools, offer an alternative to the status quo. We need to remember that we are in a period of decline in the art of singing today much as was experienced in Lamperti's 19th century. The First Golden Age of bel canto had been in the 17th and 18th centuries. But the 19th century saw many major social, political, economic changes. The result was that the art of singing went into decline. In 1893 Lamperti wrote:
"There has never been so much enthusiasm for the singing art, nor have there been so many students and teachers as of late years. And it is precisely this period which reveals the deterioration of this divine art and the almost complete disappearance of genuine singers and worse, of good singing teachers. What is the cause of this? How can it be prevented? By a return to the physiology of singing. (...) One part of the lay world says that there are no longer real voices, and the other that there is no longer any talent. Neither is right. Voices still exist, and talent too, but the things which have changed are THE STUDY OF THE BREATH, OF VOCALIZATION and of CLASSIC REPERTORY, as cultivated by the singers of former times." (Lamperti, Vocal wisdom, p. 1)
The point of this is NOT that some teachers/artists have always been crying vocal "wolf", saying that the end of singing is near, but that Lamperti's time was very much INDEED like our own. Garcia, Lamperti and Marchesi taught during an era of crisis when the decline of the art of singing was evident, as compared to the two earlier centuries of bel canto. And yet, only a few years after Lamperti's article, Enrico Caruso would make his debut and the Second Golden Age of Singing would be born. Who can say what impetus their teaching provided for this rebirth of singing? Even so today, who can say what impetus our little "Camerate" throughout the world will provide?
The great tenor, Richard Tucker, summarized the issues before us when he said: "Opera will live as long as there are music-lovers in the world. But the opera needs stars, and by that I mean singers with character, for only singers who take their art seriously can participate in the task of keeping opera as an art-form alive for their audiences." Artists can take back their profession, and we should. Now.