Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Bel Canto

March 06, 2009


I got this note from the ever-insightful anonymous this week in response to some recent comments I made about recitals from Cecilia Bartoli and Rod Gilfry. I thought it deserved a more upfront response.

“You seem to have an "affinity" for singers with no semblance of a true vocal technique: Bartoli, Gilfry...You should listen to more dead singers to hear what is missing from most of today's 'talent.' Very few can pull off a true bel canto technique today. Certainly not ghastly Bartoli with her thin, quivering sound and facial contortions, and definitely not Gilfry with his tight baritone pushed beyond the bounds of vocal beauty for the sake of (near) audibility.”

Well, I’ve actually listened to plenty of dead singers over the years having caught on early to this whole new phonograph technology. And if it has taught me anything about singing, it is this - I much prefer my singers living and performing to dead and/or retired. In my book, having a pulse and currently performing in public are actually two of the most important characteristics in evaluating my response to someone and their technique. The dead and the retired have their charms, no doubt, and having the wonderful recordings (and memories) we do of these voices is a joy. But at the same time, nearly a century of increasingly easily available recordings has created wildly unrealistic standards and perceptions among some folks of what things “should” sound like. Sure hearing somebody like Sutherland or Nilsson sing in her prime is an incomparable experience. But I for one am not going to spend my whole life being displeased with everyone and everything I hear that doesn't live up to this until an experience that may only happen once or twice in a generation or so comes around.

I do not want to live slavishly in some idealized musical past. I’m interested in what is happening now. Sure vocalists as a group today may or may not have the technical abilities we imagine that those in past did. So what? Life goes on. Singing today is not what it was two decades ago any more than what it was two centuries ago. In fact the whole idea that vocal performance standards used to be a certain way is all a fallacy made up in our own minds to serve a variety of shifting and conflicting modern interests and agendas. Looking at this record of great singers from the past, one must ask some important questions. Who got recorded in the first place and why? Who was popular and who wasn’t to begin with? How has the whole notion of technique changed over time? I’ll grant that when it comes to all things vocal, today's may not be the best of all possible worlds. What a large group of operaphiles don’t seem to realize is that incessant griping about the lack or decline in vocal standards only makes clear to others their own inability to enjoy anything living and vital. Why spend so much time and effort on something one so seldom enjoys?

I recall once hearing Roger Ebert say that one of the primary criteria for being a film critic was really loving everything about movies. Given that a critic would see so many movies and that so many of them wouldn’t be perfect, it would be important to be able to love even the most minute, obtuse, and technical aspects of the art form to be able to tolerate doing the job. In a similar way, loving opera and singing is about loving it even when it's bad, not only when it's good. So I will continue to go on loving artists and performers who may likely be strained or over-reaching or who have poor technique and little talent. And I will do this in places where they are singing live to other live people. And I will be thinking of how much I enjoy it instead of dreaming I was happier somewhere else, in some other past.


Well said!

The dead singer worshippers simply don't get out to live performances and spend too much time analysing every nuance in recordings rather than basking in the overall performances.
Having won the DVD of Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland by winning your quiz of contemporary opera bits, I think it's safe to say that I'm not a fan of bel canto opera at all. I have zero interest in the voice fetishization that Anon. traffics in; in fact, it was the operatic style of singing (especially the soprano voice) that kept me away from opera for years; I finally adjusted to it, of course. It's not a coincidence that most of my Deserted Island operas are ones where the voice is just another instrument in the orchestral texture or as Salome was described: a tone poem with voice obligato.
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