And that means: Everyone reading this! If you can speak, you can sing. If you can write, you have a voice. The “voice” I hope to explore with this blog, however, is the organ in our throats, and all its many astonishing abilities and permutations.
I’ve longed wished there were a forum like this: a clearing house for all manner of topics having to do with the human voice: how we hear it, how we use it, how we take care of it. Two things pushed me over the edge recently: sitting in Starbucks, held hostage by abrasively sung Christmas carols playing over the sound system; and attending the “opening” of La Scala almost two weeks ago. I saw it, a live opening night performance of Carmen, in HD, in a movie theatre in Schenectady — amazing, eh? The latter experience made it clear just how differently we all experience singing. The exciting tenor Jonas Kaufmann, as Don José, rose above an abysmally misconceived production, which was appropriately and stentoriously booed when the production team appeared at show’s end.
The misguided director Emma Dante laid it on thick with the Roman Catholocism. I wondered if she ever bothered to read the Merimee story which inspired the opera. Or if she actually understood the goings on in the opera itself, the musical choices Bizet made, what he chose to point out about gypsy life in Spain (known at his time almost entirely from Gustave Doré’s illustrations). In the end, aside from the ridiculous dramatic choices Dante made, it was the ineptitude of the actual stage actions that were most distracting: big doings that fizzled out — like huge placards or tables having to be set up during the beginning of a musical scene, but which required an elaborately long taking down as a scene was peaking; as the music arrived at a climax, the stage action just petered out. This happened in scene after scene. The set itself was hideously dark and ascetic, rather reminiscent of the Met’s tediously stark and also much bombarded Tosca. I was happy to read that Zeffirelli himself spoke out against the irresponsibility of Dante’s Carmen. I think it deserves every bit of vitriol it gets.
The singing was mostly okay, if largely overblown, with Erwin Schrott (Escamillo) and the newcomer Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili, leading the pack of the stentorian brigade. I wondered if they didn’t suffer under the microscope of video, and if I might have enjoyed their performances a lot more at the remove of twenty or more rows. Few opera singers are detailed enough to withstand the camera’s scrutiny. But Jonas Kaufmann did, and does, with his Don José. His tenor is strong and robust (he will soon be taking on the Wagner heroes). The timbre reminds me at times of that vocal god of the tenor world, John Vickers (whom I was lucky enough to hear as Peter Grimes, Tristan and Florestan — each portrayal unforgettable). Kaufmann has the same intensity and commitment that was a hallmark of Vickers. It’s even maniacal at times — a quality which fit the desperate José. Kaufman sings with a very low, some would say dangerously low, laryngeal placement, and that makes his soft singing sometimes grainy and strange. It can also make it haunting and otherworldly. But it makes the big singing a thrilling, full-body experience, and his arched lines and climactic notes are overwhelmingly exciting. The same could have been said of Vickers.
What blows me away with an artist like Kaufmann is not just the visceral frisson of the timbre, but the way his voice is connected to his emotions. And how clearly those emotions are conveyed in his vocal choices. And how precisely he mirrors the vocal choices that are indicated clearly in the score. Callas had this precision. Stratas cared this much. Fischer-Dieskau did it with poetry. A care for the score and the truths that lay within it that pushed them to manage their voices, to command their voices to do the composer’s bidding! It’s much more rare than people imagine. I heard many singers who blew me away with portrayals and vocal feats that were their own (where to start? Rysanek, Van Dam, Caballé, Kraus are just a few). But to really submit to the role and the composer’s vision takes a total musicality and commitment to an even higher level.
It’s amazing that our voice, combining as it does the coordination of muscles with incredibly complex mental commands, can respond to the infinite variety of ideas that composers arrive at. Of course, not all composers have an adequate understanding of voices to create within reasonable limits. But the best composers did and do, and I’d say they have all worked with the best singers (available!) of their time and were influenced in their compositions by the singers they worked with: I think of Handel, Mozart, Rossini. The superb understanding of the human psyche their vocal music can portray is the key to their immortality on the opera stage, and each of them wrote for the best performers of their time.
Which brings me to the subject of the abrasively sung Christmas carol. I’d venture to say that there isn’t a Christmas carol around that wasn’t written with a gigantic dollop of sentiment at its core. And whose voice embodies this sentiment best of all? Bing Crosby, of course. A voice of supreme richness and caressing gentleness. It’s a voice with smootheness and slancio, a voice which never bites or slaps. The epitome of the avuncular and the paternal. As if Santa Claus himself were lulling you on his lap.
Only a few days ago, I found myself in Starbucks assaulted by their soundtrack of carols played at an overly high volume. One pushed voice after another slammed at familiar tunes, though it often took me several phrases to identify a well-known carol, because the tone was often so harsh and unmodulated. Sometimes the sound was haunting, and there were times I could respond to the juxtaposition of a rock hard, speech-belt voice slamming a carol. Sting’s take on “The Angel Gabriel” has for me a certain hauntingness as an experience — pushing his larynx up high and singing without a trace of vibrato (because his larynx is never allowed to relax enough), it has a certain quality of pronouncement that references Gabriel’s appearance. And I can take a certain perverse joy in the seductive rhythms of Dietrich’s “Little Drummer Boy.” But then Der Bingle (as my brother-in-law lovingly refers to Crosby) came on with “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and my heart just melted. My shoulders relaxed. The tension I had acquired during the day seemed to drop, and I also noticed the dynamic level of the Starbucks conversations going on around me drop perceptibly. The arched phrases that Jonas Kaufmann also understands were there. The climactic notes were full, honeyed, burnished. Never pushed, always in stride, like a gentle snowfall on Christmas Eve.
There’s plenty of great singing out there (and plenty we could say falls short of achieving its goal of communication). So, readers, I hope you’ll be moved to tell about experiences where you have been touched by the voice. Topics down the road include: Different Voices for Different Times (Martha Feldman’s superlative work on the history of Castrato voices has wakened endless thoughts on this subject); Vocal Hygiene and Technique (some contemporary technicians that interest me are David Jones and Steve Smith — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to rehash the ideas of Lamperti, Caruso, Marchesi, Garcia and the rest of our forbears); and How We Hear voices — for instance, I hear them elementally, as a combination of fire, water, earth and air (and ether, too). Tell all and here I hope you’ll give your thoughts VOICE!