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Saturday, October 31, 2009


[Dear readers: This is the first of what I hope will be several guest articles from our faithful and very knowledgeable correspondents. I am privileged to count, among my acquaintances, many distinguished connoisseurs of great music. Regular readers of our comments section will recognize today's author by his nom de plume JING, which I respect here. Let me say only that I have known our author since our university days together, lo these many years (half a century!), and we share more than a few happy memories. A distinguished theologian and discriminating lover of great music, he shares with us today his singular insights into the art of his friend David Daniels, the internationally recognized alto whose work will be familiar to all my readers --Edmund St. Austell]

Full disclosure on a personal note: My wife and I have, for the last fourteen years, been close personal friends of the great countertenor David Daniels, and I confess that we are adoring and shameless fans. As a person, David is extraordinarily appealing. He is one of those “what you see is what you get” people. He is utterly incapable of striking poses or being a different person to different people. The fact that he is a world-renowned opera star is still something that somehow seems new and incredible to him. He is down-to-earth and plainspoken, and while he may sometimes appear nonchalant, he is, in fact, amazingly focused. He is a totally devoted artist of incredible integrity.

I have seen Daniels in numerous opera productions, from his first appearances in the musical world through his Met debut and first Carnegie Hall performance (the first solo recital ever for a countertenor at that venue). On the opera stage, he is an excellent actor and projects his voice and personality with great confidence. In the recital setting, whether it be a large hall or intimate space, he is personally charming, relaxed and in utter command of his art. His first CD established him as an authoritative interpreter of Handel. But over the years he has ranged widely beyond this, refusing to allow himself to be pigeon-holed as solely a Baroque or period singer.

David grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Both his parents were singers and his late father was a college voice teacher and professor of music. His family was and is extremely close and supportive. He dreamed, from an early age, of being an opera singer. In high school he excelled in sports, especially basketball. He later attended the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and pursued his not untypical dream of being the next Franco Corelli; but, try as he might, he did not have the vocal characteristics of the tenore robusto. Transferring to the University of Michigan, he kept at it. But he never told any of the faculty about his “other voice.” In the shower, at parties, or wherever, this other voice would sing soprano or alto arias. One day, when he felt he had finally hit the wall as a tenor, he made a cassette recording of the other voice, played it for his voice teacher and said, “Tell me what you think of this singer.” After listening for a few minutes, the teacher said, “That’s you. And it’s beautiful.” And from that moment forward, David Daniels was a countertenor, and an extremely good one; he was in fact the first countertenor ever to be awarded the Richard Tucker Prize. Here he sings at the award gala. (The recitative is long, and the aria proper begins at 3:35. Feel free to move the radio button forward when you can, if you wish.)

I think his story is significant because it illuminates Daniel’s role as a pioneer. Artists like Marilyn Horne (his great friend and early champion), had been leading the revival of Baroque opera, but there were simply no males to be cast in the castrato roles. Singers like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin were attracting audiences, but they always tended to remain musical curiosities to all but a small following. In this regard, the performance history of Guilio Cesare, generally regarded as Handel’s greatest opera, is telling. The role of Caesar was originally composed for the castrato Senesino, but when the popularity of Baroque opera and the castrati declined, Giulio Cesare was rarely performed. In the sixties, a staged revival took place at the New York City Opera (there had been two concert performances at Town Hall prior to that), but Caesar was played by the great bass-baritone Norman Treigle. Later productions then featured female stars singing and acting the role of Caesar. Daniels debuted in this opera at the Met, but in the role of Sesto. Jennifer Larmore was Caesar. His duet with contralto Stephanie Blythe (“Son nata a lagrimar”) was acclaimed by the New York Times as the most beautiful few moments of the entire Met opera season. Last year we attended the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Giulio Cesare with Daniels in the title role. He had performed it earlier at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, with Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. The opera was staged in the setting of British Empire India. The performance lasted nearly five hours! But, amazingly, so brilliant was the production that there was never a single dull moment: not one. There were none of the odd time-filling, useless stage movements to accommodate the da capo style, and none of the planting of the singer on stage just to sing. My wife and I were blown away, and at dinner afterwards, David was passionate about how it really is possible to have Baroque opera that is well-sung, interesting, entertaining and great drama. And the same was the case in a production of Tamerlano, at the Washington National Opera, with Daniels in the title role.

Here is the aria “Furibondo” from a live performance of Partenope. (Perhaps not the most elegant staging or quality recording, but you are sure to sense Daniels’ stage energy.)

Talent and timing are both critical, and the opera world was ready for the emergence of male singers capable of performing these classic roles. But it was Daniels, above anyone else, who was the one who effected the breakthrough, especially in the United States. The excellent Andreas Scholl was gaining popularity in Europe at more or less the same time, but his focus was less on opera performance and much more on oratorio and some of the dustier corners of the Baroque repertoire. I still find it a bit odd that despite an established career in European opera houses and concert halls, the European critics still tend to refer to The “American Countertenor Daniels,” and are among the loudest to complain when he has the audacity to range beyond what they consider his “proper place” in the Baroque, eschewing the “proper sound” of the countertenor – “eerie, vibrato-less, and uncanny.” Listen to something from the album “A Quiet Thing.” One of my favorites, yet one least appreciated by some critics.

In fact, there are some wonderful roles for the male alto beyond the Baroque; the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention only two.

Daniel’s success has made it much easier for new countertenors to emerge. And many of them are quite good, in America and Europe. We are now entering a time in which, as with other voice types, there will be great debates about “who is the greatest.” (You know my opinion about that!) So be it. Daniels’ career is now secure and established, and I am convinced he will continue to expand his musical horizons. His superb vocal gifts and brilliant artistry stand on their own. I believe that David Daniels will always occupy a unique place of his own in the world of opera – that of an authentic and courageous pathfinder.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Great Jussi Björling

For opera lovers of my generation, there was (and remains) a great admiration for the brilliant Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. He was, like Zinka Milanov, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker, Maria Callas, Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Franco Corelli, and a host of other great singers, an integral part of the golden age of opera that I have referred to previously; a period from approximately the mid 30's to the mid 1970's.

Bjöling was born into a musical family, and received his first instruction from his father. As a child he toured with a family quartet, so that singing in public was an important part of his life from earliest youth. In fact, one of the remarkable things about Björling's career is how early everything happened for him. (This is very fortunate, because he only lived to be 49, a likely victim, tragically, of alcoholism.) He was already on stage in Sweden, doing small parts, by the tender age of 19. This is most unusual in opera. Even more astonishing is that he made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 26 and his Metropolitan Opera debut in the following year (1938), at the age of 27! The role was Rodolfo, in La Bohème, so his youth certainly fit the character, but there are few if any major tenors making a debut at the Met at that age. There may be some, but none come readily to mind.

I clearly remember, as a boy, the first recording of Björling's that I ever heard. It was "Che gelida manina," on an old 78. Here is a wonderful 1938 recording of that aria, made from a live performance. Bear in mind that he all of 27 years old here:

Does it get any better than this!? It is hardly necessary to call attention to the high notes. He was blessed from earliest youth with a brilliant top. An amusing historical anecdote is that when he auditioned for the Met, earlier that year, one of the reviewers wrote simply: "Good top." Yes, you might say that! :)
Many tenors can sing very high, but often at the expense of a thin or strident sound. It is most unusual to hear a warm, beautifully covered voice like Bjöling's carry its essential quality all the way up to the C with no quality change from the middle on. That is an essential element of the Björling voice that thrilled one and all. Much of the secret for that astonishing vocalism is to be found in the Swedish language itself. Like other Germanic languages, but perhaps even more so, the umlauted vowels of Swedish are quite pronounced. The placement of an umlauted "o," for example, is excellent for tenor singing. It can be approximated in English by taking the "ir" sound of the word "bird" and eliminating the "r." The sound that remains is close to an umlaut. If you are a singer, try vocalizing on that sound, taking care to cover strongly through and past the passagio, and to open the mouth as you go up. It is important to moderate the "r" of "bird" almost out of existence, or you will choke! It really facilitates the high notes, and trims away the rough edges. This, to use the words of a great voice teacher I was once privileged to know, "is the sound that pays the rent." Bingo. For Björling, it was a natural thing to do, thanks to his native language.

One of the glories of Björling's voice was that it blended beautifully with other singers, again owing to the softness of the sound. Here is a rare treat: Björling and Robert Merrill, singing what is generally conceded to be the most beautiful tenor/baritone duet ever written, in a recording that is likewise generally acclaimed to be the very best, still unsurpassed:

And on that note (those notes?) I am simply going to quit writing, because any attempts at elucidation are silly, unnecessary, and bound to fall short of the mark. That recording says almost everything there is to say about the golden age of opera singing, and especially about the golden voice of Jussi Björling.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zinka Milanov: The Velvet Voice

Croatian by birth (1906), Zinka Milanov made her initial debut in Solvenia in 1927, at the tender age of 21. She sang in local opera houses, slowly and carefully learning her craft (one of the benefits of the European system) over the course of the next several years, finally reaching the upper echelon of European houses and being catapulted, via Berlin, to her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1937 as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Once having burst onto the international opera scene, there was no looking back. Hailed from the very beginning for her extraordinary voice, she soon claimed many roles in the dramatic soprano category for herself. Like Caruso, she had that rarest combination of qualities in her voice: beauty and power. She was from the beginning possessed of a voice that was velvety-dark in color, with a brilliant upper register and—especially—capable of the most ravishing pianissimi, extolled by virtually all critics. In some ways, she makes a very interesting contrast with Maria Callas. Where Callas was extraordinary in her acting, her musicality and her style, Milanov was not so strong. Her musicality was certainly acceptable, but her style was grandiose (she was a diva, make no mistake!) in a more conventional and melodramatic way. She is once reported to have said, in response to questions being raised about her acting, that it didn't matter much if one were a great actor if they couldn't sing. Fair enough, in a general way. Certainly, if one could sing like Milanov, that may have tended to be the case—Callas always being excepted.
Whatever one's feeling on that subject, the fact remains that Milanov's was one of the greatest soprano voices ever. First, Leonora, the role which served her so well as a debut piece in her early years. I call your attention especially to the piano high notes:\

Isn't that just absolutely beautiful! The color of her voice is hard to describe in anything resembling dry or objective language. Adjectives like "ravishing," "velvety," "luscious," "dark" and so forth give a fairly good idea, but it is almost impossible not to slip into hyperbole. Such sounds elicit an entirely affective response from the listener, and that always leads to a struggle with mere words. Her control is incredible, and most praiseworthy. This is where those 10 years or so of singing in small European houses and working endlessly on her technique really pays off. The different registers of her voice blend seamlessly together in a glorious golden thread of sound. It sometimes happens today that young singers, especially the high voices, are rushed into premature appearances in major houses, doing big roles, as soon as they show extraordinary promise. That can become a problem for them. As the great comedian George Burns once observed, lamenting the disappearance of the vaudeville theaters, young entertainers "need some place where they can fail."

Here is the great soprano in another signature role, Tosca, where she also displayed her voice to great advantage. It also affords another chance to see where and how she differed from Callas. Milanov was very much of the "stand there and sing it" school, which is fine. For the truly great voices, it is enough:

This is great singing...there is no other way to describe it. Nothing else matters when Milanov sings. She was 50 years old when this film was made, and her voice is still in fine form. Her technique is rock-solid, and never lets her down. For those who might like to hear her talk about her career, there is a video on the sidebar entitled "Zinka Milanov on Tosca."

She remained at the Met until she was sixty, and was greatly missed when she retired. She was one of the most popular sopranos in Met history, and her audience simply adored her. People often talk about the "Golden Age of Opera," usually referring to an approximate period centered somewhere toward the end of the 19th century. There probably was a golden age of great operatic singing, but in my judgment, it would be more nearly mid-20th century, perhaps from the end of WWII to about 1975. If one runs down the Met roster for those years, the great voices just leap off the page. And certainly one of them was Zinka Milanov, one of the most outstanding dramatic soprano voices ever.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Maria Callas: Dark Passions

If there was ever a diva engulfed in near-mythological passions and controversies, it is surely Maria Callas. Hailed from early on in her career as "La Divina," she became one of the greatest names ever in the world of opera. The career, however, was surrounded by controversy from the very beginning. To this day, over thirty years after her death, she has both dedicated admirers and near-rabid detractors. I frankly admit to being an admirer, and while I understand that anyone as intense and passionate (and uncompromising) as she was is bound to attract intense opposition from some quarters, I still find the way she was treated by back-biting gossipers and the popular press to have been unfair and scandalous.

Maria Callas was born in New York, in 1923, into an unhappy family, with a mother who, by Maria's own account, seems to have been a character penned by Christina Crawford. "Stage Mother" doesn't come close. So intense were the dark passions surrounding Maria from birth that she seems, like Gaia, to have been born the daughter of chaos. Her parents moved back to Greece when Maria was still a child, and she received her earliest education there. Later, as a young woman, she would make her initial career in Italy.

She had been forced into public singing as a child by her mother, so that Maria and the stage were intimates almost from birth. It was not at first a happy relationship. She resented never having had a childhood, and hated singing. She was a fat and unattractive child and felt that she was unloved and pushed into situations against her will. This unpleasant family situation was exacerbated by the war, and her family knew poverty and fear. In many ways, Callas' life reminds me of that of another fiery diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, who likewise suffered a dreadful youth, and was often criticized for being "difficult." War takes no prisoners. There is no shortage of information on the web about Callas' life, and it may be easily consulted there. The Wikipedia article on her is especially good—both scholarly and detailed.

As she grew, Maria came to see in the theater an excellent outlet for her frustrations, and she began to work very hard, both on her voice and on the artistic aspects of singing and acting. She was to become a powerful actress and absolute master of style, especially the grand style of tragedy. A good example of the intensely passionate—and totally convincing—power of her characterizations can be seen in the aria "La Mamma Morta," from Giordano's Andrea Chénier. This is the kind of music in which Callas excelled. We hear in this recording the brilliant marriage of word and music that was so typical of Callas and so noteworthy:

The only words that come to my mind are "Mediterrean Fire." In many ways, Callas was the ultimate singing actress, and in that fact lies the heart of the controversy. Her voice was not always beautiful...nor did she think it had to be. After all, some of the things she is saying are not beautiful...they are terrible. Her voice always tended to reflect—accurately—the emotions she was portraying. The papers and the fans started a gossipy rumor at one point that she was involved in a deadly feud with Renata Tebaldi, who had one of the smoothest, most beautiful voices ever; but that was another myth. They actually respected each other. The feud was certainly about the beautiful versus the sometimes not so beautiful voice. There are fans who believe that a woman should always sing beautifully, with round, covered, lush tones. A great tragedian and actress might not agree. That was the argument.

There is something else. From the early days of her career, Callas drew down upon herself the bitter jealousy and ridicule of other singers, sopranos especially. While this is not uncommon, in her case it was extreme...even to the point (in the early days) of hissing off stage and trying to distract her. I think I know why. It is because Callas places great demands on her listeners, primarily to the extent she defines and totally takes control of the character she is portraying. What this amounts to, in the eyes of those who might also like to sing the part, is that Callas has stolen the character from them. She has run off, as it were, with Violetta, Tosca, or Elvira. And that is, to other aspirants, unforgivable. Most sopranos just play the character; Callas claims the character's very soul.

Here is the maestra singing "Vissi d'Arte," this time in a filmed scene which will show her magnetic and powerful acting:

It is incredibly moving. Again, utter conviction and the characteristic marriage of word and phrase to music. It is hard to imagine it more convincingly portrayed. The voice itself, as I suggested, was not always beautiful. There can be a sharp edge to it at times. Part of this is the fact that she is at core a mezzo-soprano who by force of will built a top to her voice. Some feel that a huge weight loss in mid-career hurt the voice. Also, she sang an unbelievable variety of roles, ranging from Wagner to Bellini. That can put a strain on even the greatest natural apparatus. Whatever the cause, the result is that there is not always an easy blend between the rich and deep bottom of the voice, which can be contralto-like, and the high top, which can seem thin and sometimes a bit shrill by comparison.
But that, to me at least, is a matter of small concern. The voice always served her dramatic and stylistic intentions, and her fiery and passionate personality, coupled with a magnificent musicality, gave an utterly convincing reality to the greatest heights of tragedy and pathos that even opera is capable of demanding. One in a million. She will always be "La Divina."