Kashu-do (歌手道): Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja, Gerhard Siegel: Ideology and Reality

If you are wondering who Gerhard Siegel is in my trio of tenors, just get a ticket to a performance of the current Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera!  No insult to the Met’s Siegfried on the night I was present, who did an admirable job of a very difficult role, but one of my students who attended with me read my mind when he said after the first act, “Should this opera be called Mime?”  Herr Siegel is a true Wagnerian tenor of a special kind.  A real jugendliche Heldentenor with top notes to burn, a musicality and charm that totally disarms the audience and lets it love Mime even as he is supposed to be the hated, conniving little dwarf.  He has already sung Siegfried and Walter von Stolzing in Nürnberg and thus vocally perfect for the title role.  I will not venture to calculate why he was not cast in this role at the MET to begin with, but there are a multitude of possible reasons.  Perhaps he is physically more Dwarf-like (he is not a short man) according to the aesthetics of the directorial staff; perhaps the original Siegfried, Gary Lehman who had to drop out last minute was more suitable to the MET’s concept; perhaps Mr. Siegel was only recently discovered by the MET because of his successes as Mime at Covent Garden and other places.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…No matter!  At the end of the day, at least according to this blogger, the night belonged vocally to the powers of Herr Siegel and his German colleague, the magnificent Fafner, Hans Peter König, indeed by his name, a king among basses!  Between this magnificent pair, René Pape, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann, Germany has much to be proud about when it comes to the complete development of operatic voices.

Great technique speaks for itself and it inspires a singer who is in this for life.  Mr. Siegel made me want to go to my practice room and discover fun things.  As I was in the middle of preparing for my first professional recital since my change to tenor, I was indeed inspired.  I wanted the flexibility to act, express, change colors at will as did Herr Siegel.  One moment he was the best romantic Wagnerian tenor I had heard in quite some time–Cuts through the orchestra effortlessly, able to use his native language to magnificent effect and manages to endear himself to the audience in a villainous role–the next he transformed himself vocally to remind us he was indeed playing a dwarf, and that our stereo-typical expectations had a place in his well-rounded interpretation.  I took note of his excellent breath control.  Every note was indeed supported by a flexible column of air!  Bravo Herr Siegel! Ausgezeichnet!

A couple of days before, I found myself at Le Poisson Rouge, in The Village, in New York, where Decca scored big in choosing this quaint, jazzy venue to kick off the release of Joseph Calleja’s album, The Maltese Tenor.  It was clear from moment one why the operatic powers have invested in this excellent artist.  He began that evening with disarming, jokingly self-deprecating jabs about his Maltese heritage, etc.  Then accompanied by the ubiquitous showman-conductor, Steven Mercurio, Soprano Katie van Kooten and Italian baritone, Luca Pisaroni, in a program called Joseph Calleja and Friends, MC’d by NPR, Mr. Calleja took his audience on a breath-taking journey of Gigli-esque morbidezza.  Like Herr Siegel, the secret here is breath-control.  And even though I am somewhat disturbed by the tendency of Mr. Calleja’s voice to thin out around D4 (the full lyric tenor’s muscular passaggio), his constantly present breath support prevents the voice from going too far into the squeezing that is typical of this part of the voice if left unsupported.  His musicality is emotion-driven.  This is not a singer who spends many hours with Schumann songs but by his own admission schooled by the recordings of the pre-war singers.  It is no wonder he is called The Young Tenor with the Old-School Sound.  One imagines that Gigli must have sounded like that–flexible, innocent, lyrical and always beautiful.  Is the technique complete? By my estimation no!  The thinning at the passaggio concerns me, but the breath support makes up for it and one gets the feeling that the breath will correct the tendency to thin out over time.  What is more important is that he sang a good amount during the hour long program, interspersed with arias by his two guests.  He sang many thrilling high notes with no effort and sounded fresh at the end.  He noticeably turned Mr. Mercurio down who was trying to convince him to sing another encore.  He knows his limits! Leave them wanting more!  I believe Mr. Calleja will be with us a long time.  Unlike his Operalia colleagues, Villazon and Filianotti, Mr. Calleja seems to be taking his time.  Indeed so against the tendencies of our times!

After my own concert on Saturday, 29 October 2011 in Washington D.C. (I will address that event in the next post) I returned to New York in time to experience, Jonas Kaufmann in recital a the MET.  One could not help but to remember Pavarotti who presented a recital in the same space a generation ago.  This is without question the world’s reigning tenor saying: ” This is how it is done!” No, perhaps not so self-absorbed, but certainly Herr Kaufmann threw down the gauntlet!  He sang challenging repertoire by Liszt, Mahler, Duparc and Strauss, over two hours plus 6 or 7 encores and sounded just as fresh at the end as he did in the beginning.  Mr. Kaufmann sang every dynamic that was possible in his voice and in every part of his range.  He thrilled the audience with brilliant, well-supported top notes as a tenor must.  But he thrilled equally with the evenness of his secure two octaves (C3 to C5), his wonderful breath control, his musical nuances in perfect pace with his former teacher and musical partner, the celebrated pianist, Helmut Deutsch.

In the lobby during the intermission, I must have heard six different conversations on the same theme: “He is the real thing! I so hope he does not destroy his voice with the heavy dramatic repertoire!”  Of course the same thought crossed my mind.  This is the technically most proficient, musically most sophisticated lyric tenor of the current generation.  So why is he bent on singing the dramatic repertoire?  Well on a recent Opera News interview, Mr. Kaufmann explained it thus:

“I see this whole career like a building,” he says, “and you cannot build something by putting the roof or putting the antenna on it first.” He points to the ground. “You have to start down there.” Wagnerites will have to wait the full five years for Tristan, the two Siegfrieds and Tannhäuser. “The difficulty is all those real heldentenors, they have problems in the long high phrasings that are in there,” he says of Tannhäuser, “and the lyric tenors have problems then in the strength. And I believe that I have that all.”

As I said, Mr. Kaufmann throws down the gauntlet, and why not?  He is correct in that the dramatic voices are not being trained for flexibility, stamina and beauty of tone.  Mr. Siegel has precisely what one would like to have in a Siegfried: natural weight, excellent breath management, flexibility and beauty of tone.  But Mr. Siegel is not considered to have the kind of physical beauty that makes a modern day star, perhaps!  Make-up and costumes, anyone? (Another blog post).  Still, no one should complain.  Either put up or shut up as they say!

At my recent recital, I was reminded that I have work ahead of me if I am to achieve such a level.  Yet, not so much work, I think.  Just the right type of work! No bravado here, just a proper assessment of what it takes to get there (more on this on the next blog).  I am a dramatic tenor and we don’t have it easy in this world.  We don’t usually get to start out as tenors because bona fide dramatic tenors do not sound like what is expected for the typical college opera night.  We do better starting as lyric baritones, but these days few go beyond their baritone beginnings to stake a claim in the Heldentenor Fach. So it is not so strange that real Heldentenors who successfully make it to the big stage seem often to come out of nowhere.  I have seen three Ring productions this year and a bunch of Strauss and Wagner operas, and you know what?  There is room even for an unknown Heldentenor if he has got the stuff!

Now for the title of this blog.  A young soprano student of mine who had her resumé micro-scoped by the heads of a small opera company in New York was complaining that she just wanted to sing and not play the stupid game.  I told her you only get to bypass the game when you offer something worthy of the very top.  Angela Meade, anyone?

The point is this:  I hear more talks about the reality of our times, that the singers today are just as good if not better than those of the past and anyone who disagrees is a crotchety reactionary, according to Opera News. If you are talking about the three tenors I saw this week and the magnificent Herr Hans Peter König, yes we are not without great singers in our times. Ideology:  Singers who can command their voices to do what they desire to the benefit and not the deficit of the musical score before them! We have some excellent ones in the lyric Fachs.  Reality: Most of them do not sound very compelling when singing roles that are beyond the native lyricism of their voices. I am old enough to have heard Vickers live!  Yet, until we have dramatic singers who can command an audience the way the lyric singers can, we have to accept the reality passed to us by the gate-keepers of our business! Three words: Jonas Kaufmann rules!

© 11/01/2011

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