Tuesday, May 5, 2009
I love to listen to voices. When I was in my first opera La Boheme in 1976 with the Baltimore Opera company, I became fascinated by the art form. I was a sponge in those rehearsals, taking in how the director was directing people, what the singers were doing and how they were singing, watching how an opera was put together. Right after that experience, I began a serious study of opera singers and singing by checking out every recording I could find in our local library. By the time I was 14, I knew all of Enrico Caruso's recordings, I could name what year, the aria/composer, and with whom he was singing. Yes, I was a nerd. In fact, all these years later, if you put on a Caruso recording I could probably still do it, just like some kids can spout off baseball stats.
In listening to opera singers on recording, I found I liked the older singers, I was fascinated by their choices and phrasing, it seemed so different than the current styles in the early 1980s. The actual singing technique seemed complete. What was going on? Why did one singer breathe in one place and another singer make a different choice? Why was a particular phrase so different in another singer's hands? Just like anything else, styles and fads go in and out of style, opera has the same issues: specific endings to arias change, high note choices, etc. Very early opera recordings can be hard to listen to, most singers didn't record well, Caruso was one of the few who did. Famous soprano Nellie Melba sounds like a warbly bird, orchestras sound like a general, huge, woofy wall of sound. Most recordings have a lot of static-y background noise. I learned to tune out the other things and just listen to the voice.
Every human voice is different. With opera singing, no two voices are the same. Singers make choices in an aria for different reasons - to show off a particular technical prowess, an exceptional high note, the ability to go to pianissimo (very soft) on a dime, the way the words shape a musical phrase. And while I don't really listen to much opera anymore, I still have love and affection for it. The thing that draws me to great singing is legato line. The dictionary describes legato as "smooth and connected; without breaks between the successive tones." A classically trained singer knows legato line as singing from vowel to vowel, not having consonants break up the intention of the phrase. This is very tough to do and can take a lot of work. It is particularly hard for American singers, our language is filled with dipthdongs and I wouldn't describe it as musical. Legato line tends to be easier for Italian, Spanish, Swedish singers, singers who began with an open-voweled language. I remember chuckling to myself in Italy as I listened to people in the market place, their language is musical, they sing from word to word as they speak.
And this brings me to today's listening example. Ezio Pinza (1892-1957), there he is pictured at the top of the blog, back in the good old days when opera singers smoked. He was a bass with a gorgeous voice, he was matinee-idol handsome, and he handled his singing career with great wisdom for the long haul. Reknowned for his roles as Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles, he spent 22 seasons with the Metropolitan Opera. When he retired from the opera stage, he went to Broadway and created the role of Emile DeBeque in South Pacific, receiving a tony for his portrayal and setting the standard interpretation for the song "Some Enchanted Evening." I like things that are unusual and quirky in singing, so I was delighted to find him singing "Bali Ha'i" tacked on to the end of the cast album . Emile doesn't sing this in the show, this is Bloody Mary's big number. Whether Pinza did this to sell more albums or for some radio show there it is, a brilliant legato line saved for posterity. With the first few notes he sings, you know he's not American, his vowels are amazing and even, not a dipthdong to be heard. It is gorgeous singing and is a clear example of how legato line works. Enjoy!