Friday, August 28, 2015

Bel Canto für Alle

*This article is a reprint from the original that I posted on the now defunct Associated Content website back around 2007. I'm afraid all the articles posted there are now lost except for a few saved in my aging hard-drive. So... there are some dated stuff in the post that have since been updated, like the definition of 'bel canto' in the Wikipedia article (that had really gotten a lot less narrow and 'conventional' in the last few years). A lot of the sentiments still apply, though.

Music is for everyone, and there is no accounting for taste. I listen mostly to classical music and opera these days... As you all may have noticed, we opera fans are a bunch of obnoxious nose-in-the-air snobs who screech like banshees when any attempt is made to popularize the genre or to make the opera more easily appreciated by people who can't read music or fluently speak at least three different languages - and the screeching only gets more hysterical if those unwashed folks dare to like any singer that we don't! From what I've seen of many of my fellow opera fans on sites like Youtube and other forums, that is an image that sticks worse than a hot wad of wet chewing gum on a road bike tire.

I don't know why many opera fans (at least the very loud ones) are so intolerant of the likes and dislikes of others. The genre is already over-saddled with centuries worth of baggage. (Most of the operas being performed at the theater near you are more than 100 yrs old). Even the most difficult of the arias found in them have, by now, been sung death many times over by various great and not so great singers ever since they were published. And the 'convention', the preconception that many accept as the standard way of performing a piece of music, has been taken for granted so much it's starting to resemble the smell of bodily discharge on the sidewalks of Downtown. After a while you come to expect it to always be there... and the 'whether it should be there or not' has became a forgotten question.

But why should new generations of artists be stuck with the ideas of past ones in the first place? Why shouldn't they explore new ground rather than just sticking to the same old singing style that pleases only the loudest (though probably not that heavily populated) segment of the audience while leaving the rest of us in the cold? And what if the 'convention' isn't even accurate and/or as long-lasting as they would claim it to be in the first place?

Take the characterization of what bel canto singing is from the wikipedia article;

"Bel canto singing characteristically focuses on perfect evenness throughout the voice, skillful legato, a light upper register, tremendous agility and flexibility, and a certain lyric, "sweet" timbre. Operas of the style feature extensive and florid ornamentation, requiring much in the way of fast scales and cadenzas. Bel canto emphasizes technique rather than volume: an exercise said to demonstrate its epitome involves a singer holding a lit candle to her mouth and singing without causing the flame to flicker."

Now... Bel canto music is the music of the early 19th century Italian opera... mainly those composed by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti (and, arguably, the early Verdi operas), and the era when some of the greatest singers to ever lived (Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran-Garcia, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Isabella Colbran, Wilhelmina Schroeder-Devrient, were the superstars those great composers fell all over themselves to write opera roles for. The description given above pretty much accurately states the modern popular convention of how the music of this period is to be sung; in a voice that is perfectly even through out its range (same timbre on all notes), with easy fluidity and heavy emphasis on flawless technique and tonal beauty (hence bel canto... beautiful singing). And so, one of my favorite opera singers, one Vesselina Kasarova, is often the target of criticism that point to her register breaks and her aggressively drama-oriented style of singing with explicit aim of conveying the pathos of her operatic character rather than just singing the character's music beautifully (or tastefully... if we are to allow the critics their say).

(here she is, singing the utterly dashing Romeo in a performance of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues)

How should I defend her? She does have the register breaks (the voice is not even, having many different colors in different regions of its vast range), and she is utterly aggressively dramatically inclined - willing to sound downright ugly rather than beautiful when the prevailing drama requires venom... even as she sings one of the most difficult bel canto virtuoso mezzo-soprano roles in the repertoire.

Well... listen to the clip above... and then read these:

1. "The characteristics of X's head-notes are almost diametrically opposed to the characteristics of her chest-notes; her falsetto is brilliant, rapid, pure, fluent and enchantingly light. As she approaches the lower part of this falsetto register, she can smorzare il canto (diminish her tone) to a point where the very fact of the existence of sound becomes uncertain. Without such a palette of breath-taking colour deep within her own being, and without such an extraordinary and compelling natural gift, X could never have achieved the over-mastering force of natural expression which we have learnt to associate with her - a miracle of emotional revelation, which is always true to nature and, although tempered by the intrinsic laws of ideal Beauty, always alive with that unmistakable, burning energy, that extraordinary dynamism which can electrify an entire theatre. But think how much pure artistry, and how much discipline and training has been necessary before this enthralling singer learned to harness the restive secrets of weaving such divine enchantments out of two different and utterly contrasting voices."

2. "It was not a creamy voice but had a distinct tang, rather like the bitter sweet taste of Seville oranges. What struck her audience most forcibly, however, was the intensity with which she sang. --- Alfred de Musset described her voice as 'a mixture of soprano and tenor, the lower part reminiscent of a cello, the higher that of a piano.' X's voice was resonant and clear, at once both bitter and sweet, but it was more than a voice, it was a soul singing." ...

3. "Her principal characteristic, however, was expression; and expression in all its features, shades, and varieties. From its loftiest epic flights, embracing the sublime of anger and the profoundly pathetic, down to the winning and playful. It is needless to recur to her expression in the most prominent parts of the Sonnambula and the Fidelio. But they who remember her in the Romeo, how piercing her tones of anguish! How intense the agony of her features! Or her look, attitude, and tones in the last scene of Gli orazzii e curiazzii, will store the reminiscence of them among the treasures of high art."

I replaced the names with X, but do you know which singer the quotes above apply to? What if I tell you that No. 1 is the description of the voice of Giuditta Pasta by Stendhal, her contemporary critic in his The Life of Rossini? And that No. 2 is the description of Pauline Viardot-Garcia in Barbara Kendall Davies' The Life and Works of Pauline Viardot-Garcia? And that No. 3 refers to the voice of Maria Malibran-Garcia, as recounted in the Countess of Merlin's collection of Malibran's memoirs and letters?

What do you think of the modern convention of what bel canto singing should be now? None of these most acclaimed of singers of the bel canto era had a voice with seamlessly integrated registers (and does anyone remember that three-voices-in-one-throat and utterly divine stage-animal named Maria Callas?). They were known for their many vocal colors, their florid agility, and, most of all, for their drama-oriented style of singing and acting. While much of the modern critics and audience value seamless voice and technically perfect and musically beautiful singing that is easy on the ears, those who actually lived in the bel canto era were more keen on something else entirely. Stendhal devotes an entire chapter of his biography of Rossini to describe Pasta's voice, asserting that; "No voice whose timbre is completely incapable of variation can ever produce that kind of opaque, or as it were, suffocated tones, which is at once so moving and so natural in the portrayal of certain instants of violent emotion or passionate anguish. Mme. Pasta may indeed sing the same note in two different scenes; but, if the spiritual context is different it will not be the same sound."

More quote from Kendall-Davies' book: "The critic and writer, Julien Budden, observes that: the real explanation lies in the nineteen century attitude to vocal registers, a subject that has not so far received the attention it deserves. Musicologists who are eager at all cost to revive the performing traditions of a past age would do well to remember that some of them might prove unacceptable today, as for instance, the alternative method of portamento that Niccola Vaccai advocates for fast movements in his singing method of 1833 and which now exists only in pop and folk music. The ideal of an even quality from top to bottom of a singer's compass was unknown to Verdi's contemporaries. A sharp break, like a change of gear, between registers, so objectionable today, was tolerated then and indeed this yodeling effect can still be heard in certain pre-electric recordings, such as those made by the contralto Clara Butt."

So much for the notion of any long-lasting time-tested 'convention' of how a piece of music is supposed to be sung! While Julien Budden would caution that the accepted technique of the bel canto period wouldn't go over well with today's audience, I am compelled to add that it is utterly unreasonable to expect the singers to cope with the music that was composed for the real bel canto voices (with all that register breaks and falsetto and yodeling) while complying to the today's notion of bel canto singing. The expectation is not practical! Why do you think the roles written for people like Rubini or Davide are nearly never sung in their original key anymore?

Now... Not to knock on those who actually enjoy music just for music's sake. As I said before, there is no accounting for taste. What I am objecting to is the practice of applying one's own personal preference/taste as if it is the universal standard that others are obligated to adhere to. If you are looking for a beautifully sung Ariodante or Ruggiero or Sesto or Romeo or Charlotte or Carmen or Rosina, there are many wonderful lyric mezzo-soprani out there with a beautiful voice and technique that will please you. I'm sure they would very much enjoy your accolade (though perhaps not any vitriol you might feel like spewing toward their friends and colleague). Turning up to complain about singers you don't enjoy on the video clips that you supposedly don't care about, however, says a lot more about you than about them. The operatic stage is big enough to accommodate more than just one type of singers.

As for me, there are enough singers around these days who sound and sing so alike that their identity isn't readily distinguishable even after the entire radio broadcast. I want someone who not only has a personality, but is also able to portray it, in all its shades, with a voice that I can identify within the first two notes I hear. I don't care if she isn't the prettiest or the vocally heftiest or the most adept at virtuoso vocal pyrotechnic around. I do care that when she opens her mouth and sings, I hear the utmost inner thoughts of a mythical character that has miraculously been restored to life even though he isn't called Lazarus, rather than just someone with a beautiful voice singing prettily about something somebody else should be feeling. If that isn't something that floats your boat, who is forcing you to watch or listen to them? Just leave them alone and go find the others that you like instead!