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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Leonid Sobinov:  A Great Russian Tenor And A Golden Career

Leonid Vitalyevich Sobinov (Леонид Витальевич Собинов) was born in 1872 in Yaroslav. Unlike so many artists, Sobinov's childhood was relatively calm and unproblematic. He was in fact a golden boy, destined for an astonishingly fortunate and successful life.  His father Vitaly, a Naval officer, saw that Leonid got a good education, and placed him into a boy's school at the age of 9.  He joined a choir upon graduation, and proceeded to enroll in the University of Moscow, where he earned a law degree.  Upon graduation he began to practice law and fulfill his military service, taking time to begin singing lessons.  This led to an audition for the Bolshoi theater, which was a big success, and he received a 2 year contract in 1897.  He performed, in quick succession, many operas, both in Moscow and Petersburg.  These included works such as Faust, Manon, Lohengrin, Rigoletto, Tanhäuser, Prince Igor, and Eugene Onegin.  Sobinov met, and was impressed by Chaliapin, who was very nearly his age, and they sang together, in performance, when Sobinov was only 27 years old.

Sobinov was a very wise young man who understood the importance of guarding his vocal gifts carefully, and he was careful to expand his operatic repertoire with care.  To that end, he traveled to Italy as a young man, to learn, and hopefully to perform.  He did both, and even sang at La Scala in the early 1900's, expanding  his repertoire to include such standards as Marta, Werther, Mignon, and Romeo et Juliette.  He went on, with La Scala now in his background, to attract very favorable attention in London, Paris and Madrid.

To make a fairly long story short,  Sobinov went on to have a brilliant career, everywhere loved, everywhere respected.  He was handsome, a real ladies' man, and had a storied romantic life. (Of course....everything seemed to go well for him!) After the 1917 revolution, he became director of the Bolshoi theater.  In 1923, he was named People's Artist of The Soviet Union.  He died, peacefully,  in 1934.

If ever there were a charmed life, it seems that Sobinov had it.  I'm sure there were problems along the way—no life is perfect—but they seem remarkably few and far between.  What a lucky fellow he seems to have been!  It reminds me somewhat of the modern life of star prima ballerina Diana Vishneva.  Prodigiously talented, and stunningly beautiful from childhood, now People's Artist of Russia, she has known only success since winning the Prix de Lausanne in 1994 at 17 years of age. Some people are just born under lucky stars!

So, what did our golden boy sound like?  Need you ask?   Naturally, he was very good.  His voice was classically lyric, and that is the simplest definition I can think of.  As was the custom in his time, opera singers sang a very wide repertoire.  This does not happen often today (unless one is Jonas Kaufmann), when specialization seems to be the norm.  Sobinov sang Wagner as well as bel canto comic operas such as don Pasquale.  It was very much simpler then.  Singers sang.  Tenors sang high, Basses sang low.  Baritones sang in the middle.  That pretty much covered it.  Here is an absolutely lovely version of "Mein Lieber Schwann," from 1910:

A classic and very beautiful rendition of this aria; one that is actual sung as opposed to declaimed. Like his friend and fellow People's Artist Antonina Nezhdanova, Sobinov always sang Wagner as though it were Bellini, and it worked very well.  I am convinced it would also work very well today if conductors, managers and stage directors would let it. It was this kind of lyric singing that most characterized Sobinov's art, even though he sang roles which today are sung by more heroic voices.  Also, his technique was slightly different than common singing technique today.  His support was rather less, with the result that in the upper register one often hears a kind of "rip" or a "tearing" sound at the end of a note, when he releases it. This is often accompanied by a slight gasp, as though the breath has run out. This means it is only slightly supported.  However, that was characteristic of the time, and it did not effect the essential beauty of the singing.  Here is the very popular "Je crois entendre encore," from 1911:

Again, very beautiful singing, but without the customary high note at the end.  The extreme top was not Sobinov's particular forte, it was rather the quality of the voice and the artistry of the style that command attention.  Finally, here is Werther's  aria "Pourquoi me reveiller":

One of my most faithful readers, Mr. J.D. Hobbes, wrote a comment when I published this blog, several hours ago, and noted that Sobinov's rather obvious holding on to high notes, until there is a gasp and slight "rip" in the voice, may have had something to do with the demands of acoustic recording, and the need to keep the sound volume high to the very end.  It occured to me to check an electric recording of him as an older man, to test this idea.  I was able to find an old sound film, whose voice recording was obviously electric.  Here it is revealing.  Just listen to Sobinov as he sings at the very biginning of the video:

I find that most interesting!  All the delicate nuance and musical line is intact!  I think we have discovererd something here.  It may well be the case that his breathing and lack of diminuendo on the old acoustic recordings were simply an act of necessity.  Thank you Mr. Hobbes, for that fascinating suggestion!

Summing up, it seems fair to classify Sobinov's voice as straight-line lyric, an instrument of great beauty, well enough produced for the time, albeit a bit short on top compared to the Italian model. It is a remarkably consistent voice, strong and commanding.  For me, at least, the outstanding aspect of Sobinov's singing is the intellectual and stylistic artistry that is always present.  There is something hypnotic about his singing that is most attractive, and was, in his day, greatly praised.   A golden life, a beautiful voice, and one of the greatest careers in opera!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eugene Conley: An Excellent And Greatly Under-Rated Tenor

I remember picking up a copy of Opera News some 50 years or so ago, and being struck by the title of its leading article.  It read, as best I can now recall, "I Hear America Singing Abroad; Why Not At Home?"  Why indeed?  This is a question that plagues not only me, I assure you, but nearly all American opera lovers.  With the relative objectivity provided by (eternally evoked) hindsight, it becomes a curious matter indeed why some singers attain international stardom and others, equally gifted vocally, do not.  Many things come into play, I know; thing such as looks, acting ability, musicality, stylistic intuition, and so on.  Then we get down to those very hard to define things such as timing, luck, talent, drive, competitiveness, and so on.  And then there is just plain prejudice.  I cannot help but feel that the latter, sadly, plays a part.

Opera was founded in America as an exotic plant; an Italian art form that was oh-so-much more sophisticated that what the new and up-coming country could supply on its own.  It became the darling of New York High Society, and almost all the big stars—and certainly the big attractions—were foreign, mainly Italian.  Mercifully, the situation is now much more balanced, and Americans are now reasonably represented world wide.  But a lot of good singers got trapped in the no-man's-land of the early years, when it would have been a decided advantage to have a name that ended in a vowel.

One such case was Eugene Conley.  Born in Massachussets, in 1908, Conley made his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto in 1940, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  He joined the New York City Opera in 1945, debuting in the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème, and from there it was off to a European career embracing the Opéra Comique, La Scala, and Covent Garden.  It was in Milan, at La Scala, that he sang opposite María Callas in I Puritani (one of his signature operas) in 1949.  He returned the following year to the States, and made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1950, as Faust. He was to appear at the Met in many performances for the next six years.

Conley was a handsome man, and an attractive figure on the stage.  Most importantly, he was a real, vibrant vocal presence, with a lirico-spinto voice that soared above high C with seeming ease.  Possibly the best introduction to Conley is his singing of "A te, o Cara," from I Puritani, the role he sang opposite Callas at La Scala:  Notice, please, that he sings this demanding aria in the original key, which many tenors cannot manage, as the high note is a Db above high C:

This is first rate tenor singing!  The voice is amazingly consistent, all the way to the top.  The essential quality of the voice can be called lyric, although there is certain spinto edge there that, while it does not become harsh, does introduce a certain dramatic touch to the phonation. 

A slightly more lyric and less dramatic Conley reveals itself in the eternally popular Che Gelida Manina":

This is the quintessential Conley voice—high, lyrical but virile, with squillo in abundance. To my ear, this is not a voice I would characterize as "French," "Germanic," "Anglo-Saxon" "for Mozart," or any other commonly applied term.  If anything, I would call it Italianate.  It is in every way an excellent tenor voice, absolutely suited to the popular Verdi and Puccini favorites.

Finally, because he was an American tenor, and native English speaker, we owe it to ourselves to hear him sing in English.  Here is the very popular "Because," composed by Guy d'Hardelot in1902, and recorded by very many tenors in the early to mid-20th century:

What a top voice!  Why this wonderful tenor is not a household name among opera lovers is not entirely clear to me.  I know there was at that time an unspoken and seldom-articulated prejudice against American tenors because they just somehow weren't "the real thing,"  weren't exotic enough and so forth, yet there were some who escaped that classification, such as Richard Tucker.  Jan Peerce did well also, albeit not so much on stage.  But that's about it.  The case of Richard Crooks is just as striking as that of Conley.  Perhaps James Melton also, although to a lesser degree.  Maybe it's just a simple matter of luck, but it seemed to happen with a little too much consistency to be purely coincidence.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Natalia A.Bukanova

Great news for Lemeshev fans!  It is a real pleasure for me to announce the recent launching of a truly exhaustive and authoritative website dedicated to the great Russian tenor Sergei Lemeshev.  Many of you will be acquainted, at least through Youtube, with Ms. Natalia A. Bukanova, who goes by the name "younglemeshevist" and who has graced these pages twice in recent memory with two superlative articles, one on the great Russian tenor, and most recently an intellectual tour-de-force on modern operatic stage direction.  I refer you to:

1. An Opposing Guest Commentary On Modern Operatic Stage Direction—Are Directors The New Prima Donnas?   And

2. The Great Sergei Lemeshev:  The View From Russia

Natalie has launched a new Lemeshev website, as of a few weeks ago, called:


It may be found at:

I strongly urge every reader with an interest in Russian opera, Sergei Lemeshev, or the history of the Bolshoi Theater to check it out right away.  The amount of historical and artistic information to be found there is simply stunning.  There is no better source available in English (and precious few in Russian) on Lemeshev's biography and vocal talent.  The  reader is led, step by step, through the amazing story of the great tenor's life, which took place against the backdrop of one of Russia's most difficult periods,  encompassing World War I, The Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Patriotic War, known to us as World War II.  His years in the Army, at the Moscow Conservatory, and in Stanislavski's Workshop, make absolutely fascinating reading.  For those interested in the history of theater and acting, the account of his years in Stanislavski's Workshop is required reading.  You will hardly find a more intimate account of the realities of Stanislavski's ideas and methods.  And of course the anecdotes related to great singers and their stories (and foibles!) is just plain fun reading!

Ms. Bukanova drew a great deal of attention to herself and to Lemeshev in the early days of Youtube, when she posted many Lemeshev videos that had never been seen in the West.  I know, personally, that they were for me among my earliest serious introductions to this wonderful tenor, and all at a time when few were posting his music, and even fewer knew much about his life and work.  In so doing, Natalie established herself as an authority in the area, and I feel completely justified—by now having read what I believe is the totality of her written work on the subject—that there is no greater authority on the life and work of Sergei Lemeshev currently accessible.

Do yourself a favor, and check out this great website now.  You will find it an absolute treasure-chest of historical information, anecdotes, and artistic ruminations.  An absolute must-read for the Lemeshev enthusiast!  Mark this website down:

In the right hand column of Natalie's blog, opposite Stanislavski's photograph, you will see the Russian words Архив блога.  That simply means "blog archive" and is the place where you can go to different sections of the website, which is entirely in English. The blog currently begins with an essay on Constantin Stanislavski, into which Lemeshev is woven.  You can go to the purely biographical sections relating to Lemeshev through the Архив блога, where the sub-headings are in English. It will not be hard to familiarize yourself with the blog layout, which covers a wide territory. It is a typical Blogspot layout. If you wish to leave a comment on the site, look for the comment block at the end of the last page, and when you are ready to enter your comment, look for the word   "Публикация," which means "publish."  It will be the big word to the left. There will be two test words that you will need to copy, and then hit "Публикация" again.

Congratulations Natalie, and happy reading to all!

Edmund StAustell