As I did the laundry today, I passed the time doing some quick acoustic analysis of our top operatic stars. I have often stated that the state of operatic singing is diminished as compared to former times. I wanted some empirical proof of why I have been so disappointed in the theater so often. The results are not what we might think, or perhaps precisely what we might think.
I have always stated that there are reasons why singers become famous and vocal skill is not the primary reason, but it must play a part. Whether it is Dolora Zajick’s carefully-crafted impersonations of Verdi’s “Witches and Bitches” as the great mezzo roles are often referred to, or Bryn Terfel’s singular charm or Jonas’ Kaufmann and Anja Harteros’ “südländische” good looks (as they play so well in the North), each singer who comes to stardom have something that sells beautifully on billboards and Youtube trailers. The glimpse you get from these people in costume is defining. But can they sing?
The acoustics tell us a resounding “YES”! As it relates to acoustic balance, most of the top singers with rare exception exhibit that illusive chiaroscuro balance between appropriate low and high overtones. Whether by natural coordination (unconsciously learned balance) or conscious training, the top singers indeed have the stuff of operatic gold. Then what is the problem?
The problem is “Fach”!
Every singer today wants to sing every role in their vocal category right away. And that is the core problem in operatic singing today. Judging by the acoustics, we should have no problem hearing the best singers in the world, but we often do have problems hearing them. They often get buried by the orchestral sound and it is not always the conductor’s fault.
Let us take a “ridiculous” example!
Juan Diego Florez has a leggiero tenor voice imbued with a very consistent Singer’s Formant. I never have problems hearing him at the Metropolitan Opera. What if we asked Juan Diego Florez to sing Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walküre”? Naturally we will not hear him. Is it because his acoustics would be different? Certainly not!
Simply put, Diego Florez’s voice is a leggiero voice and simply cannot handle the breath pressure necessary to produce Wagnerian-level sub-glottal pressure. The orchestral environment is simply too loud for such a voice. Furthermore, Florez’s voice produces greater sound pressure above G4. We might hear the final A4 at the end of Act 1 of Walküre, but that would be the only note we would hear and it would not have the Wagnerian thrust we expect from a true Helden tenor.
The subtler version of this scenario is indeed “too subtle” for those who are hiring! And if they had a choice between a veritable heldentenor who does not fit the physical tastes of the day, they would more happily go for the handsome young spinto with the dark good looks and billboard star-power.
Unfortunately, the effect with the talented spinto is not too different than the effect with what it might be with a Florez singing Siegmund. It does not make a satisfying impact because the voice is not yet capable of handling that kind of breath pressure.
The other question is, is there a veritable heldentenor ready to take on Siegmund at a house like the MET? Efe Kislali comes to mind. But by all accounts, the MET might wait until he is vetted (maybe after he has sung for 20 more years and his voice is not as fresh as before) before they give him a serious look. In the meantime, they might find it easier to ride on the star-power of Jonas Kaufmann for a role that may not suit him ideally and after too many performances may actually do him harm.
That is just an example. Dolora Zajick is successful because she remains true to her Fach. There are not many we can say that about. The argument bears out.
It is not in Opera’s long-term interest to hire singers for roles that their voices are simply not suited. It only serves the short-term convenience of opera houses at the expense of the art and of the singers themselves. It would be great to hear a full-bodied lyric soprano sing Contessa Almaviva again as opposed to the average lyric-coloratura that seem to take over the role these days.
I submit the audience will not boo when a singer sings beautifully in a part suited to their talent. Yet it may politely and quietly scorn hearing a voice that is not present in the house attempt to carry a more dramatic part than it is suited for.