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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

April 8th, 2014

Defending the indefensible

On the 3rd of April my daughter turned 10. Having a child is such a priceless gift and big responsibility and that is why any responsible parent should  invest all the love, time and money in the child’s formation, with the hope, that such child will grow up into a responsible and considerate individual…

A Maltese family recently had their child stripped away from them in such an unnecessary and irresponsible fashion after she associated with someone who should have been a source of guidance for their daughter and not, as it seems, the road to her absolutely tragic demise. I therefore couldn’t believe my eyes when I found myself reading actual messages of support, on the internet and in various forums,  for this teacher. A “teacher” who abused his position of trust by sleeping with his minor student, sometimes in her father’s own home,  and planned their supposedly joint “suicide” over a number of days. I have the greatest sympathy and pity for his parents, especially since they are known to be a decent lot but I find it very hard to conjure a lot of kind thoughts for him I am afraid.

What is even more unbelievable are those who are stating that this is a “rich” vrs “poor” situation or a battle of ”classes” of some sort. Are the latter going insane? Are they actually saying that the death of this 15 year old girl, a daughter, a cousin, a niece etc, is less serious or tragic because she hailed from a prominent and well off family and the perpetrator is poor so he should have our sympathy? I also read that this happened because she was “disturbed.” Even if she was, since when does this warrant or deserve a death sentence?

There is no denying that sometimes, some of us, lose the plot and the correct sense of perspective. Another example is www.timesofmalta.com,  the web portal for Malta’s most prominent and respected newspaper. It had recently  ran two stories; 1. the killing of migratory birds 2. the killing of dozens of Syrian toddlers and pre adolescent children slaughtered in the conflict. Both stories had the same, very visible, exposure on the site. As yet, the story about the bird killings had literally hundreds of comments and the one about the slaughtered children, which included pictures of the dead children, had perhaps 8 comments. Now of course I am really sorry that beautiful migratory birds where shot out of the sky but this is no way comparable to the death of innocent children who’s only crime was being born in the wrong time and country. The hundreds of comments should have been on the story about the dead Syrian children and its really sad and telling that this was not the case.

Our collective morality needs an urgent retune and to all of you out there who think your problems are insurmountable please to think again. Help is at hand and much closer than you think…