Friday, December 2, 2016

What about Callas? Comparing Generations of Opera Singers

I may regret engaging with one of the opera world's most inflammatory questions, but it is one that has been nagging at my consciousness with increasing frequency -- and increasing insistence -- as I spend longer as an opera audience member. It is this: how do, or ought to, opera audiences discuss opera singers across time? The exigencies of musical performance, and of everything else contributing to an operatic career, mean that one operagoer usually hears several generations of opera singers within a lifetime. And to my great chagrin, this long and rich experience seems more often used to make categorical and usually negative statements than to share enthusiasm. As the very existence of this blog testifies, I'm passionately interested in contemporary and historical performance, and in analysis of what contributes to trends in that performance. And, combining indomitable optimism with scholarly zeal, I'm convinced that there must be a productive mode of performing oral histories of opera, that honors both musicians and the audiences who flock, with legendary and sometimes notorious devotion, to hear them.

Callas as Tosca
The anniversary of Callas' birth seems an appropriate time to flesh out my long-hoarded thoughts on this subject. For Maria Callas, of glorious memory, of eternally astonishing voice, is often cited as the paragon to crown all paragons. There's an astonishing variety of roles for which, in discussions of their performance history, her name is inevitably mentioned, in accents of hushed or ecstatic reverence. She is, for many, the diva, La Divina, ne plus ultra. I'm not exempt from the impulse to adore. Her Tosca was the first CD set I bought for myself, and others have joined it since (there's a fuller panegyric here.) In part, perhaps, because of her preternaturally polished off-stage glamour, Callas has come to be a potent and multivalent symbol. She is, sometimes, the essential Diva, the goddess, having become the perfect woman by her transcendence -- or transmutation? -- of female fickleness and frailty. She is, sometimes, the symbol of glories past, never to be attained by the present and degenerate generation. She is, sometimes, the incarnation of opera's astonishing ability to simultaneously surmount and express the anguish of the human condition.

The first of these posited images is one I set aside for now; the gendering of how opera singers are adored is a complex subject, worthy of consideration in its own right. The latter two, while presented here as different options, often appear intertwined. They are, however, ideas which I believe should be in tension. The tendency to idolize previous generations of artists at the expense of current ones is a pervasive one, and, notably, one which has endured through generations of opera audiences as well as singers; Nilsson, be it remembered, was head-shakingly compared to Flagstad. Does this have to do with how we hear them? As immortally preserved on records or as fallible, variable, human? I suspect it may. But there is also a tendency -- perhaps less universal than I suppose it -- to view part of opera's unique magic as dependent on the very fragility of the human voice, the vertiginous, thrilling, sometimes terrifying immediacy of seeing Tristan or Tosca or Sesto or Amneris embodied and voiced by mere mortals.

The tendency to glorify past incarnations at the expense of present ones certainly has many contributing factors... not least among them, I fear, the increasing precarity of existence for most artists seeking to make their way. But I still look for ways of dismantling it. This is  in part a selfish desire. I want to hear and absorb the accounts of older opera-goers without having to deprecate current singers. Decades from now, when I am myself an aged opera-goer, I anticipate the desire to say something along the lines of "Ah yes, Bryn Terfel's Scarpia..." I also want, now, to celebrate young singers and the work they are doing, not least in expanding the operatic canon. Looking at this in the cold light of reason, it may seem a problem easily resolved, through simple rhetorical devices, the expression of preferences and opinions in non-absolute terms. De gustibus non disputandum est. But this is, after all, opera. Among the elements of the human experience exalted and celebrated and sung of in this glorious art form, looking at things in the cold light of reason does not feature prominently. This is how I look at it: in some awe, in occasional frustration, in gratitude, and with simultaneous impulses towards enthusiasm and analysis. Tell me about your own opera-related attitudes, Gentle Readers.


  1. Taking the the Nilsson/Flagstad case, one must notice that their careers were separated by a few years only. They both appeared at the Metropolitan often and therefore it is more likely that comparison between the two may have been driven mostly by real in-house experiences as opposed, say, to Callas/Netrebko comparisons--which are essentially motivated by record vs. real experience sources. The 1950s-80s reviews were mostly praising Nilsson rather than just comparing her to Flagstad. I have seen Stemme live only once in Salome and I was not impressed beyond measure, so my principal appreciation of her is from CDs; I have heard Nilsson only through good quality recordings and it still seems to me that Stemme is underpowered and less steady than Nilsson. The best way of comparing non-contemporary singers is under a common denominator, which is achieved by comparing records only.

    I once saw a documentary where Villazón was brave enough to record himself on a wax cylinder machine and comparing the product against Caruso's record, which was old and worn out. Caruso's rendition was mesmerizingly superior to Villazón's.

    In a more general note, we live in an increasingly technical world, were jobs for all tastes exist and the dominance of non-operatic music exists to an extent that has driven opera to a stereotypical perception by non-opera goers. Talented potential opera singers had more incentives to work in opera 10 or 100 years ago than they have today because (i) now there are more jobs available, (ii) people have wider ranges of interests and (iii) all too often they never go beyond the stereotype and understand what opera really is.

    I wish you will never have to say "Ah yes, Bryn Terfel's Scarpia..." because that will mean that the future of opera will be severely compromised. Just this afternoon I accidentally caught a little bit of the Met's broadcast of Manon Lescaut and I lisneted to it no more than 1 minute, so ridiculous I found the Met applauding Netrebko's (uninteresting) high note at the end of the dance scene in act too. When we see these performances live, we will cling on to the smallest details in order to trick ourselves into believing that we actually enjoyed what we saw. We know that we are listening to the best live performance available but that most of what is available nowadays is inferior to 1980s standards by far. When I was in Bayreuth for the Ring last year, it was quite clear: people above 70 did not applaud. Those are the same who have been there since the 1960s.

    1. Good heavens, you've covered a lot of topics here! Attempting to respond in order: 1) I think you make a very good point about the fairness of comparing recordings. I've often been struck by the inferior stage/pit coordination, or even musical precision in some historical recordings, for all their genuine musical merits. 2) I think that power, of all things, is probably an area where it's unfair to compare anyone to Nilsson (I'm influenced here by Christa Ludwig's writings on the subject.) I hope you get to experience more of Stemme, though. I was tremendously impressed by her Isolde. 3) I am fascinated by this technological anecdote. Do you know where the Villazon cylinder recording can be heard? I tried in vain to find it on YouTube.

      You make a very interesting -- and sad -- point about the declining incentive to perform in opera, with the declining celebrity and declining market for it (alas, alas!)

      Your last paragraph is, of course, your most provocative. :) Met audiences routinely applaud uninteresting notes, of course; there we are in perfect accord. But that lack of discrimination itself is surely not the singers' fault. (I leave Netrebko out of the discussion for the moment!) Still: I have to vehemently disagree with a blanket statement that condemns present performance wholesale as inferior to that of previous times! Your anecdote of restrained applause at Bayreuth, for instance, might be variously interpreted as a result of changing norms or indeed of nostalgia. As for self-trickery... is this something you diagnose in yourself? suspect in me? sense in audiences who are increasingly coming to opera as "an experience" rather than out of interest in the art form?

    2. The last paragraph was provocative indeed. I would point out two things about applause at the Met. First, I feel that the applause is much less enthusiast than what I have seen in other opera houses nowadays and in the DVDs from the Met's "golden era". Second, I'm not blaming nor the singer nor the audience for the unappropriate applause: I am just trying to illustrate the point that the audience *is* trying to trick itself! I know I try to; you know you try to. Everyone does, mostly those who love opera the most. The "as an experience" people don't care: they just head back home as if returning from a football game and don't bother to return.

      I would like to clarify the "blanket statement". What I meant was that even though the artistic level has improved (more rehearsing, better conducting, greater attention to staging) the voices are becoming worse and worse. I am still not sure about whether the Met's heavy advertising of Antonenko is for real or just a joke. Not sure whether having Netrebko's husband sing Calaf is just a favor to the diva or an artistic pick. As Cotrubas recently stated in an interview, "le niveau musical devient de plus en plus térrible". Terrible. Now I believe that this exageration is nostalgia even though we gert that some of that "terrible" is sadly objective. That brings me back of the example of the Bayreuth veterans. If we can't take it from the pros who have heard both sides in person (we can always argue that they're just nostalgic), we can only rely on CDs. And in that case, there must be no taboos comparing singers: even in the Nilsson case! :)

      The documentary is BBC's "What Makes a Great Tenor". (Can't find it on YouTube).

    3. Thanks for the documentary reference! I'm afraid I don't accept the assertion that I am always trying to trick myself. Moreover, I think that if we are to productively discuss the good, the uninteresting, and the terrible -- since these are so largely subjective, at least for listeners like us, who aren't trained to a professional level of scholarship or performance! -- I think we must introduce more specifics. For instance, do you prefer a timbre that is now unfashionable? An individuality of style that is now more often trained into repression? A depth of understanding and familiarity with a role that is militated against by singers' increasingly demanding schedules? An attention to phrasing, or diction, or something else, that you see neglected?

    4. I see that you have prudently not joined my provocation about Mr Evyazov and Antonenko. As for tricking yourself, I keep my suspicion! Your implication that we (regular opera goers) may not be qualified to evaluate what we see only makes my suspicion stronger. The target market of opera is not those who work in it.

      But for the sake of argument, I will introduce the criteria I used to judge singers. I exclude volume and acting, which we cannot assess from records.

      1) Colorfulness of the voice and singularity of timbre - there is no such thing as an unfashionable timbre. I bet that you cannot give a single example of a contemporary opera star whose timbre would not be appreciated today.

      2) And indeed the ability to constantly communicate with the audience in an effortless flow of drama. This entails a great depth of understanding and familiarity with the repertoire and can only benefit from extensive training, musical instinct, phrasing, diction and something else which may or may not be captured by words.

      Nowadays, the first condition is often violated and the second is hardly ever fully observed. Both 1) and 2) are necessary conditions but neither of them is sufficient. Rating performance according to mathematical criteria is in itself subjective, so any possible set of pseudo-objective criteria we could use would be completely subjective. We are that independent jury who can honestly use subjectivity simply state their opinion based on their intuition. Can you honestly and candidly look back at what was going, say, at the Met (singing-wise) 30 years ago and say you would rather attend this season?

    5. That 86-87 season had a lot of great singers but a not insignificant number of them were at the rag-end of their careers. Moreover, the tenor situation, in an all-warhorse schedule, was best described as dire. So for me, frankly, it would be a bit of a toss-up.

  2. I love Maria Callas, she is like: " As Floria Tosca said it: "Vissi d' arte, vissi d' amore" ("I lived on art, I lived on love")."

    I tried to write a blog about her, see whether you like it:

  3. Good blog.... This brings back memories of Maria Callas.... she once said: " After every performance I would think what could have been done better, to make it better in the next performance and how things can be done differently. I am never satisfied with my performance and will try to improve it next time."
    I tried to write a blog about her, hope ypu like it:


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