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 – 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!


  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!


  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

November 15th, 2015

Men in Black

Men dressed in black shooting indiscriminately, young people fleeing in terror, some leaving trails of blood behind them – broken bodies dangling from windows three stories above the street. People fleeing and trampling over the dead trying to escape the line of fire… Is this the latest Dan Brown novel? No, this happened yesterday in Paris and was the second attack in less than a year.

I sometimes get the impression that the majority of people have become desensitized to footage of fellow human beings being slaughtered in the middle of a major European city. Modern technology allows us to video people trying to flee whilst the terrorists take pot shots at them. One such video showed a young man limping leaving a trail of blood behind him, another was very bravely pulling along the body of another of the fallen. Young women were hanging from windows by the tips of their fingers and others were crying for help in the most unimaginable distress. When exactly will enough be enough?  Not since World War II has there been a time when Europe needs to stand united and legislate new laws that give utmost protection to the bona fide immigrants and take to task those who are here just to incite violence, thinking that they can impose their archaic and often barbaric way of life upon us Europeans. Some might argue (at least in the case of France) that the hatred is born and bred at home and the attackers might be holding French passports. Well in the latter case new laws have to be passed with haste to allow the government to strip citizenship and take all the necessary precautions and actions to extrapolate these evil human beings from society permanently. Something has to change and something has to give but will it?

Nor is it a problem exclusive to Europe. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq etc. and no these acts are not less serious because they happen to happen “there.” Scores of videos showing decapitation of anyone who doesn’t agree with their barbaric ideology, children shot point blank and/or buried alive, the rape of countless women, the selling of young girls in slave markets and all this in 2015. Need I continue? Isn’t it high time that the Western World takes a no nonsense approach and sends a clear message to the perpetrators and those who support them. Yes we do know who they are. We have known for years but they are “allies” so we cannot really do anything about it or so we think. Just google Clinton Wiki Leaks and those who are uninformed are in for quite a nasty surprise. Then again I might be out of my depth discussing the above – I am sure there are those who will say as much and they would probably be right. However there is one thing I know very well – our entertainment. We do take the latter very seriously in the West and it is ingrained in our culture…

Many will ask  why I am bothering to write “off topic” and how this is relevant to classical music. Oh, but it is very relevant and this recent attack could indeed mark the end of live performances, theatre, cinemas etc. Hyperbole? Think about it – how many attacks will it take in Europe for people to start avoiding theatres, stadiums and restaurants? Few other venues lend themselves better to be used as a platform for mass carnage than a space where hundreds of people sit in close proximity to each other whilst they enjoy themselves with their guard let down. Make no mistake, these terrorists new exactly what they were doing and they drove the stake right at the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cosmopolitan cities. I am afraid to say that if such an attack would happen in Malta it would wipe tourism out for months if not years, crippling the industry altogether. Globally change for the worse has already happened. How many opera productions were modified, changed or dropped altogether because it “might” offend some minority or other? I am also guilty of the latter – in the 2012 proms I wanted to dress as a Knight of Malta but had second thoughts after someone pointed out to me that it would be seen as a provocation by some since it evoked memories of the crusades! For crying out loud,  it is the year 2015 and some living with us in the streets of London and Paris seem to think that the price for Blasphemy should be death – think Charlie Hebdo and the Scandinavian incidents. A simple youtube search will serve you with an alarming number of results of some of these “protests” and some of the “messages” conveyed during such rallies.

What is sure is that something  has to change and something has to give. We can’t ignore helping the genuine refugees who are fleeing this exact same massacres in their troubled lands but we can’t continue to succumb to pressure to give up our way of life or our own security at the same time. It is a very tough act to balance. A no nonsense approach with  people who refuse to integrate or are trouble makers strikes me as a very civil, fair and logical solution to the plight Europe is facing.  Yes, we need to take serious action against those who hate our way of life and we would have the full support of the real Muslim moderates who are escaping that way of life anyway. Think of the Australian model – they seem to handle this nonsense in a concise and strong way.

Priorities must be put in the right order. Mediterranean is in turmoil  with scores of men, women and children drowning and washing up on beaches, hundreds of thousands fleeing persecution and certain death from countries like Iraq and Syria, the ever growing threat of global terrorism and an ever growing dangerous far right movement in the Western world, yet what some want us to worry about in Malta is whether a Muslim woman can wear a “Niqab” or “Burka” in public. This mollycoddling and fake liberalism has to stop. These absolutely ridiculous requests and expectations have to be ignored and focus must be directed to the issues that matter.

I am inclined to think that a family of refugees fleeing the threat of beheadings, rape, slavery and wanton murder would not be concerned about Christian symbolism such as Father Christmas, Baby Jesus and the occasional cross. It is neither racist nor bigoted to be proud of our way of life. We don’t have to change for anyone and the real, moderate Muslims will appreciate and embrace the new culture that took them in and they will be thankful that they are in a safe place where they can go about their business in peace.