March 24, 2013
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!