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March 24, 2013

Challenges of the modern opera singer

Recently there has been quite some controversy regarding the “frailty” of modern opera singers versus the “hardier” older generations, specifically those hailing from the “Golden Years” of Opera. It’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. Is it harder to be an opera singer today than it was, let us say, 50 years ago?

One of my greatest strokes of luck was having met, still in my mid teens, my teacher Paul Asciak who was then in his mid 70s. Schooled by the best, Paul had an admirable career having sung with veritable operatic legends such as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Tito Schipa etc. The latter meant that, through him, I had a glimpse of what it meant to be an opera singer during those times. One thing is certain; it was a much calmer life and there is no doubt that an opera singer then had much more “space” and “time” to develop and build a career in a slow and steady way. Is this possible in our day and age? I really don’t think so for the following reasons:

Back then one could sing in smaller houses and make mistakes without the whole (operatic) world instantly knowing them. News, for obvious reasons, travelled much slower which meant that news of a “bad performance” took much longer to travel beyond the city where the actual performance was taking place. Singers had pretty much a lot of control over what they sung. Many scores were “butchered” by cuts and the “diapason” (pitch) was considerably lower. Orchestras tended also to be smaller and their sound less bright making it easier for voices to cut through the wall of sound not to mention that the physical size of opera houses rarely exceeded the 1800 seat mark.

 

Nowadays even young opera singers singing in small houses are instantly exposed to the whole world thanks to social media, youtube etc. Yes one has to be prepared before stepping on stage but make no mistake, there is no substitute teacher for the greatest teacher of all – the stage. It is another undeniable fact that there is less room for mistakes and opportunities to learn from, what I call, the good mistakes.

Operatic scores nowadays are usually performed in their entirety with little to no cuts. Compounding the problem the orchestras of today can be as much as twice the size as intended by the composer not to mention the huge opera houses, especially in North America, that “unamplified” operatic voices have to fill.

Pitch is the other issue. Nowadays we perform the whole 19th century repertoire around a semitone higher than intended as displayed here by operatic legend Piero Cappucilli – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKKQp5_5u-M It is interesting to note that Cappucilli is doing the comparison between A 432 and A 440. Situation is worse today with many opera houses tuning up to A 444 and sometimes even beyond!

Of course there are advantages nowadays mainly in the medical side of things treating vocal ailments promptly and surely. Antibiotics take care of bacterial infections in record time and doctors are able to diagnose allergies, viruses, infections etc. promptly before the latter are allowed to do extensive damage. The prescription of “cortisone” can help with certain afflictions but I strongly advise young singers to stay away from “overuse” and to only take it when prescribed by an ENT. My rule of thumb is to never sing when the larynx and surrounding tissue , specifically the vocal folds, are compromised in any way.

 

To conclude I think that yes it is harder to be an opera singer in today’s world with the inevitable result that yes we might, occasionally, tend to cancel more than our predecessors. The latter is regrettable and I cannot think of one cancellation that was easy or over which I didn’t brood for days. However better to disappoint one theatre, one night than going ahead to sing only to damage one’s instrument risking a whole artistic career!

Comments

  1. Anne Boardman

    Your points are intelligent and well articulated. I think of opera singers today like professional athletes. There was a time when ballplayers played injured or pushed an injury till it was career ending. A lot has changed medically and professionals would be foolish to do so today. I would also guess there are many people who depend on an opera singer (or an athlete) succeeding besides themselves – or in your case, those darling children. So , here’s to your health!

    Anne

  2. Laura

    I absolutely agtree with every single point. Regarding “news travel fast” I would like to add that with the power of media not only bad news but also GOOD news travel far and fast and this way it has also made it much easier for singers to be known and appreciated internationally. Another point IMO is the speed (and overuse) of travelling. About a hundred years ago singers would travel by ship and spend in many cases an entire season at ONE opera house. That of course saved nerves and physical stamina. Of course, this is out of question today, but travelling by plane has made it much easier to sing many performances in a short time in many different places. Yet, oversinging and appearing in another city every other day over years inevitably takes its toll. I also think that many singers today are not sufficiently trained and take on roles way too early that are way too heavy for them. Therefor: know thyself. ;-)

    • admin

      “Regarding “news travel fast” I would like to add that with the power of media not only bad news but also GOOD news travel far and fast and this way it has also made it much easier for singers to be known and appreciated internationally” – this is also bad news Laura as sometimes singers are not ready for the big time despite huge talent and a prodigious gift. Hence my argument that, to some extent, a singer doesn’t really have a choice to go “slow” at least where notoriety is involved hence more pressure and less room where to make mistakes. Even the Great Caruso used to write to his wife Dorothy about how surprised he was that they didn’t boo him in certain theatres despite the many cracks on a couple of nights during a tour of South America. In this day and age the bootleg recordings of these cracks would be all over with high pressure on him not to mention the speculation.
      To your second point yes some singers do take some roles way too early and simply just do too much. However how many tenors nowadays can request not to sing the Cabaletta in Rigoletto? Alfredo Kraus, a perfect tenor technically, reputedly used to have it in his contract that he will not sing it. Bjorling used to cut, apart from the customary cuts, “Ma se me forza perderti” from the last act of Ballo and this at the Metropolitan Opera. Such behaviour is impossible to do today and we are singing in bigger houses, with bigger orchestras with ever higher tonality.

  3. Rosa Ulacia

    Estoy de acuerdo con tu reflexión, Hace 50 años había cantantes que llevaron una carrera larga y inteligente como la de Alfredo Kraus, Begnamino Gigli, Placido Domingo y otros demasiado cortas como la de Alfredo Diestefano, Anna Moffo.
    Tu llevas una carrera inteligente, de corredor de fondo, vida ordenada, buena técnica, y tendrás una larga vida profesional. A tu salud. Rosa Ulacia

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Joseph's Blog

September 10th, 2014

A summer festival in Malta?

I was more than a bit amused to read some negative reporting re the fact that the government sponsored my summer concert. Hundreds of thousand of euros, if not millions, were thrown around  and some went as far to state that I was “on the take” and part of the hundreds of thousands were directed to my pocket. The claims are so ridiculous and unfounded that, to date,  I didn’t even bother to point it out. For those unfamiliar with our island, Malta is ferociously bi-partisan it is inevitable that, for some at least,  everything has to be turned into a political football. Others simply measure by their own yardstick. For the record I got no remuneration by the government, whether directly or indirectly, in the deal they made with NNG promotions nor form part of same company.  To my knowledge, the funds are wisely spent on the filming, editing and international distribution of the concert creating an incredible advert for Malta. Should the government sponsor such initiatives? Of course it should- as what better advertisement can Malta have to increase the much coveted “cultural tourism”?

In Malta we have the curse but also the blessing of being very small. So small in fact that you can walk from one end of the island to the other in less than a day. And what a walk that would be. Despite our small size, our location – smack in the middle of the Mare Nostrum  – made sure that every major civilization left its mark throughout our 7000 year history. Natural resources are pretty much non existent and even for fresh water we have to turn to the sea. Still our island nation enjoys the most important resource of all – its people. Once you remove our petty and constant bickering which (surprise surprise) usually revolve around politics, the Maltese are a force to be reckoned with and a nation that shy away from challenges we are not. Most of us are at least bi-lingual , hard working, resourceful and good hearted. Talent is also another virtue that this island has and never before  did we have so many young budding artists on the verge of an international career. When I was studying to be an opera singer there was literally no one else on the scene on a professional level bar Miriam Gauci. Nowadays we have close to a dozen. Clare Ghigo, Nico Darmanin, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Joseph Lia, Nicola Said and Marvic Monreal are already chasing their dream in conservatories and colleges abroad. Nico Darmanin in particular is already performing professionally and has already debuted at the Royal Opera House. This from a nation of 400,000.

Indeed it is a time of renaissance for at least classical music in Malta. So many festivals whether in Gozo, the place of my very first performances,  or Valletta. In fact it is time that the government notices the elephant in the room and launch THE proper summer festival our island deserves. The raw material is in place already it just needs to be coordinated and a month long festival is really within our grasp and no there is no multi million euro outlay as we have the necessary infrastructure in place already.  Our airport and airline are top notch and hotels comparable to the best on mainland Europe. All that is needed is that nudge, the concentration of the laser beam, the proverbial pulling of the same rope and Malta could host a festival that would rival any in Europe. This government has won with such a majority that it should really use that majority to implement changes that no one had the courage to do before. Redundant boards and committees should be restructured or removed altogether. Competent people should be given executive power to effect necessary changes and not waste their time and energies navigating the endless meanders of bureaucracy caused by useless boards.

 

Last but not least lets give Malta its cultural home back and move ahead with a National Theatre/auditorium. I hear there are great plans for the MCC, now is the time to move forward and turn these plans into reality. We have so much to offer and it would be a great sin to miss out on this opportunity. I dream of the day when Valletta will turn into a major and globally renowned  artistic hub. Believe me when I tell you that we have what it takes.