I did not want to start the new year with a rant. I have gone to the opera a lot in the last few weeks and I have been stirred to write several times, but the holidays took over and I did not. Before I rant, let me say what a pleasure it was to hear Marina Rebeka’s Violetta and Quinn Kelsey’s Germont in the MET’s Traviata! It is pleasurable to go to the opera and not only hear voices but to have the “old” expectations fulfilled. Rebeka is a magnificent soprano with a clear, pliable voice that is always brilliant and warm and never fails even in the low range to travel through the orchestral structure. In the middle and high she literally soars! Her Germont, the young American baritone from Hawaii is everything one expects of a Verdian baritone, something that has been so extremely lacking at the Metropolitan Opera in recent seasons. The audience’s elation was palpable whenever these two excellently trained singers sang. Kelsey not only has the robust richness necessary for the Verdian and Verismo repertoire, he is an actor of great emotional range, as well as a singer of great musical refinement. He could sing softly whenever he wanted to and still pierce through the orchestra and when he did sing softly, he never sacrificed his rich timbre. It evoked Merrill, the best of Milnes, Panerai, Cappuccilli, MacNeill and a host of other great baritones of the past. Rebeka in turn evoked Moffo, Sills and Serra. Still, their voices and mannerisms were honest and uniquely fresh. In that way, they evoked an appropriate nostalgia about the past that is so rarely lived in the opera house these days.
There should be more singers like them! Opera administrations should not be lamenting audience apathy until their casting agents routinely bring us singers of that calibre. The superficial Hollywoodizing and Broadway-izing of the opera house has failed miserably. Broadway and Hollywood can succeed in their own terms because they do not require singers to be heard over orchestras in large halls without a microphone! Opera has very singular requirements that need to be met before one can call it opera and before the audience can be satisfied.
Indeed there are two markets for opera and the twain do not always meet. Opera agents and administrations have gone the way of “Opera at the Movies!” I do not have real economic figures, but I would bet that there is lots of money to be made in that medium, and when the operatic vocal requirements are out of the equation, the size-minus-14 soprano looking like a truly consumptive Violetta or the lirico-leggiero singing Calaf can be successful. But the moment they have to face a real orchestra in a large hall in true operatic fashion, they fail miserably, giving opera a bad name, ruining the art for first time goers and disappointing hardcore fans too often for them to want to abandon their record collections in favor of a guaranteed non-opera experience. It used to be said that opera was being destroyed from the inside, and I used to think that was cynical. Now I cannot disagree.
To clear this chaos, we must agree that there are two forms of opera at present: 1) Opera at the Movies, requiring Hollywood style looks, with voices pretty enough to evoke opera on the big screen; 2) Real Opera requiring resonant voices that reverberate in the listeners’ ears in a large hall accompanied by a large orchestra without the aid of a microphone. The video-broadcast performances should be produced like a studio experience. No audience expecting to hear singers dominate over an orchestra.
Why this dichotomy?
Because it is just as frustrating to the bona-fide opera singer to have to hold their voices back in the presence of colleagues who cannot be heard as it is for the weak-voiced singer to compete with the likes of Stephanie Blythe or Hans Peter König or Sondra Radvanosky or even the delightful Miss Rebeka! It is not about big voices but rather well-supported, resonant voices, regardless of size. Roberta Peters did not have a big voice, but it cut through orchestral textures like a hot knife through butter.
An operatic voice is something that defies logic when properly produced. The audience is left wondering how a human voice can dominate so consistently over a large orchestra, evoking powerful emotions while executing the most difficult vocal music ever written. It is in fact easily explained, but the audience prefers to experience it rather than be given a lecture on how it should be done.
Those who make important decisions about how opera should proceed have failed us miserably! Opera is a viable art form that electrifies audiences when properly done. Someone who undertakes to sell opera should believe in its innate viability. We do not need to make excuses for this art form. That becomes only necessary when those at the helm are not doing their jobs.
Defecation on stage or baby dolls being smashed to reveal simulated blood and naked extras in plastic wrap has become so cliché, it no longer shocks or even tantalizes. So why is Calixto Bieto (not an entirely unimaginative regisseur) be allowed to exhibit the same fecal matter over and over again regardless of the production?
No one is begging for traditional stagings of operas, but better that when the alternative is non-traditional without imagination. And for God’s sake, do not drive an audience out of the theater in frustration and call it a victory! Why not make a dramatic argument that keeps the audience in the theater and have them talk about it during the intermission because something truly worthwhile and different is presented.
Can you hold the audience’s interest, Herr Regisseur, without having to destroy the work of art you claim to be interpreting?
And in the name of all that is holy:
Is it really too much to ask to have singers who can sing all the notes and be heard?