‘Maria Callas would find it hard today to find a job’

Former Seattle Opera chief Speight Jenkins has written a thoughtful blogpost on what’s wrong with singers today and why audiences don’t get excited as they used to.

Speight blames musico-political correctness:

CallasNormaSP069

The most successful singers of the past who filled opera houses involved their audiences emotionally in the way they sang. If a soprano can handle all the runs in Lucia’s Mad Scene brilliantly, if a tenor has the right legato for “Una furtiva lagrima” or a baritone the vocal power and accuracy for “Cortigiani”, they are deemed ready for the roles of Lucia, Nemorino, and Rigoletto. Did an audience censor Maria Callas for leaving out the first high E-flat in the Mad Scene? Or Franco Corelli’s throwing in high notes because he could sing them? Or Leonard Warren’s varying the tempi and holding high notes longer than the score indicated?

Another problem with correctness is who it excludes. My firm belief is that two of the greatest artists of the past century, Maria Callas and Leonie Rysanek, would find it hard today to find a job. Why? Both of them, because they were so emotionally involved in what they were singing and acting, were extraordinarily variable. Both could on some nights hit every note, and on others give downright painful performances.

But people queued all night to hear them… Of whom can that be said today?

Read Speight’s full post here.

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • Its the same with instrumentalists: Most are indistinguishable and interchangeable. No risks, no thrill, no drama. Gone are the times of Adolf Busch, Pablo Casals, Bronislav Huberman or György Cziffra where each note was a unique personal statement.

    Being an ardent music lover I mostly prefer not to go to concerts…

    • I was listening to Ferenc von Vecsey and his violin playing is on a completely different plane from modern players.

  • SJ makes perfect sense. We need our singers to tell us stories, not replicate notes. Sadly, I speak regularly to singers who have no interest in the music they sing beyond the sound of the notes in their voices. Their performances are as bland as their conversation.

  • Indeed: why respect what the composer wanted and specifically wrote? Doesn’t he know that he’s only there to satisfy the singers’ gigantic egos who ALWAYS know better?

    Seriously… I don’t see anything “PC” in respecting what’s in the score.

    Ravel: I do not ask that one interpret my music but simply that one play it.

    • I’m not sure about that. I think one should always be able to find a version of a piece that is pretty much what the composer wanted, but when something has been done and done again and again for 150 years (or longer!) after a while, you want to change it up a bit. We can’t be doing the same damned things over and over until Armageddon the exact same way without boring the living snot out of people. The best music seems to have more things to find in it — there should be more than one way to perform something, and that means testing the boundaries from time to time. We wouldn’t still be listening to Bach if there were only one correct way to perform it. That would be a bit like erasing and refilling the same crossword puzzle for 300 years. Just because someone plays it on an electric bass guitar doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to still play it on a cello.

      I think this fear — that these things need to be updated, but that the music dare not be changed at all — is part of why people like messing with the costumes and settings so much in opera. That seems like a safe way to make something a bit different without touching the music.

      Still though, you want to know you’re listening to a particular singer doing a piece as well. As long as most of the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, I would personally love to hear something like one of Corelli’s endless “Check THIS out!” high notes. Why not? Opera’s not necromancy, where you fear mispronouncing a syllable or else who knows what will bubble out of the cauldron. And if someone prefers a performance to hew a bit more closely to the score, then they can watch a more rigorous performance and go away happy with that.

      I guess this is part of why I like Baroque opera so much — the music was purpose-written to include elbow room.

    • Some gigantic egos leave singers doing nothing more than what is written- a gigantic ego can also leave boring performances.

      We are out if the age of the diva/divo, which has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Advantage- working with people is supposedly easier. Disadvantage- when one makes clear their limits then this is seen as ‘diva behaviour’. The ‘non PC’ singers were sometimes easy to get along with, sometimes not.

      Being a great singer requires artistry, luck, the skin of a crocodile and a whole host of other things, I think. It requires more than singing the notes, and no, I don’t mean you need to ‘feel it, dude’- sometimes it is a profound disrespect to not put in a huge portamento here, or an extra top C there- eg. Puccini never wrote the Che gelida high C. Now, it is performance practice. On the phrase ‘Talor dal mio forziere’ the marking is ‘gentle’. Only one tenor to ever record this role has done that.

      A boring performance is a boring performance.

      • I remember hearing a comment by Juan Diego Flores about the string of high Cs in “Pour mon ame,” to the effect that they shouldn’t be there or at least shouldn’t be sung full-voiced. He put forth the view that Donizetti intended the tenor to pop up into falsetto, as if he were a mountain boy who was yodeling in joy at having won the hand of his girl. I pity the tenor who tries that on stage nowdays though, even if the composer intended it.

      • The marking for Rodolfo’s “Talor dal mio forziere” is “con molta espressione”, and the orchestra is marked to give him some room for that espressione: “sostenendo (largamente)”. The climactic phrase “la [dolce] speranza” was set two different ways, both of which are printed in the standard Ricordi and Ricordi-based scores. The first way is “la dolce speranza”, where Rodolfo follows the orchestral line up to the A-flat but instead of continuing to the high C, his line swerves back downward to resolve the phrase’s cadence. The other way, indicated as “oppure” (“otherwise”, i.e. an optional choice), is the familiar phrase in which Rodolfo does not sing the word “dolce” and follows the orchestra up to and through the C.

        The end-of-act-I high C on the final “amor”, however, was not written for Rodolfo (Mimì da sola).

  • Speight knows what he is talking about and leaves out one more limiting issue with artists today, pedantic stage directors, who restrict artists expression and movement. Directors have enormous influence and artists are reluctant to defy them.

  • Sounds like old people talking. Last night’s Siegfried at Bayreuth was brilliantly sung, The dramatically engaged singers bring an important dimension to the art of opera. Old people who talk about Callas or Correlli studiously ignore their frequent bad nights, the majority of other singers that were singing badly, the stupid arm waiving and the banal, ugly sets, A far more serious argument would be that opera now is in a golden age and has never been more popular, artistically vital or accessable,

    • Gotta agree — especially since I love Baroque. There’s not quite the same depth to the “good old days” when you like countertenors, and people used to screw up all the close harmonies in Haendel’s stuff all the time by dropping the male parts down an octave. 🙂 In 50 years, we’ll all be talking about how no one can hold a candle to the good old days, with (insert your list of today’s favorites).

  • This comes to you from the man who gave us white bread opera for ages. Dull, correct singers hallmarked Seattle Opera under Speight

  • Some of today’s most emotionally engaging singers are spurned by the establishment, because of lack of training, proper technique etc.
    Yet they continue to attract adoring audiences.
    This suggests that the current gatekeepers have forgotten something important.

  • More Speight silliness. If Poplovskaya can be given endless lead roles for a few seasons, someone with callas’ gifts would absolutely rise. Whether to the same heights? Hard to know. But I agree, Jenkins hired some atrociously dull, bad singers, Helton, Plette, Guyer for many seasons. Heppner, Eaglen and others of that level weren’t common, and not always at their best here.

  • I don’t agree with every point he makes, but he’s on the right track. It is obvious that opera is missing something-great voices. Throughout its history, from the castrati on, the heart of opera has been great voices and vocal personalities.

    His point about Rysanek and Callas is probably correct-at least to make his point-but they were both such remarkable performers it might not matter-even today
    I think if he had gone mainly with some other names whose voices alone were transcendent-such as the mentioned Corelli, but a Sutherland, a Nilsson, a Flagstad, a Melchior etc. whose voices were superhuman and would be huge stars in any age, including today. In fact if there were singers like that they would be the center of attention, not the productions, and they could dictate the kinds of productions.

    I think the dearth of these great voices has been responsible for the rise of regie and the tyranny of the director. The transcendent performer and vocal experience is no longer there, so this folly has filled the void.

    It’s hard to believe that opera has much of a future unless a new generation of voices that have this magic reappear. But the type of society and culture that produced them may be past, and that may be that.

    I fear not just for the future of opera, but all serious music-it’s so at odds with the way most people in these consumer societies live their lives. I honestly don’t believe it’s different in Europe-really-but in the US all this has become a geriatric experience. A friend of mine, who rarely goes to opera, recently went to a fine Baroque company in the North East US-and the stunning part of the experience-and dominated the discussion more than the fine performance -was the fact that they thought they had stumbled into a nursing home-it was primarily an elderly audience.

    • It is quite possible to recreate singers like in the past if they are trained in the same “old fashioned” technique.

  • This kind of doom-laden response makes me feel angry. Not just because my colleagues, Kaufmann, Terfel, Stemme, Westbroek, Bartoli, Keenlyside, Gerhaher, Hunt, Fleming etc etc are offend the best musical experiences possible, giving up family life, children, working incredibly hard to bring us all the very heart and soul of the composer to the best of their ability and knowledge. I am sorry that your knowledge of what we do and bring to the stage is limited to poor performances, poorly attended but it is ignorance surely that suggests that is the whole picture. Many classical music Festivals across Europe have record attendances. Leipzig’s Bach Festival and three of my concerts with the Gewanhaus on three consecutive nights were sold out. (Rossini Stabat Mater and Verdi sacred music). Edinburgh, Lucerne, Glyndebourne, Tanglewood, BBC Proms to name a few are sell outs. Many have outreach programmes supported by artists from the festivals and it is our duty to go into the schools and educate kids to be the next generation’s audience. Complaining about your personal experience having read a blinkered opinion on a blog is insulting to the passion and commitment we put into this glorious art of opera, concert and song.

    • I would like nothing better if the world were different than it is. Sure there are fine singers, and some fine performances, but if you are trying to compare it an earlier period, then you never experienced it. What world do you live in? What young people do you know? The dying of classical music in the unsubsidized US is not my opinion-I could provide you a list of orchestras, opera companies etc. that have folded in recent years, and so many are in trouble. I go to other kinds of classical music-not just opera which has been particularly hit hard by silly productions-and there are simply not many younger people, if any there (excluding the few who are musicians) There used to be classical concerts and opera on TV-even though it was mostly PBS-gone. There used to be AM classcial stations-gone. Many major cities here have no stations. Every newspaper used to have a classical reviewer or two-gone.The average person’s only opportunity to hear this music is when it is used in some idiotic commercial. Don’t you read Lebrecht’s postings here of the shocking, truly shocking lack of sales of serious music-and not just the US.

      The world has changed, the role of art has changed-the future is dim for these activities. The reasons are complex-too complex for here-but they are happening. People don”t even read anymore-I mean sort of average people, not the intellectual elites.

    • All the singers you mentioned sing with incorrect modern singing technique. Listen to someone like Elisabeth Schumann to hear how a voice should sound with the “old fashioned” technique.

  • This kind of doom-laden response makes me feel angry. Not just because my colleagues, Kaufmann, Terfel, Stemme, Westbroek, Bartoli, Keenlyside, Gerhaher, Hunt, Fleming etc etc offer the best musical experiences possible, giving up family life, children, working incredibly hard to bring us all the very heart and soul of the composer to the best of their ability and knowledge. I am sorry that your knowledge of what we do and bring to the stage is limited to poor performances, poorly attended but it is ignorance surely that suggests that is the whole picture. Many classical music Festivals across Europe have record attendances. Leipzig’s Bach Festival and three of my concerts with the Gewanhaus on three consecutive nights were sold out. (Rossini Stabat Mater and Verdi sacred music). Edinburgh, Lucerne, Glyndebourne, Tanglewood, BBC Proms to name a few are sell outs. Many have outreach programmes supported by artists from the festivals and it is our duty to go into the schools and educate kids to be the next generation’s audience. Complaining about your personal experience having read a blinkered opinion on a blog is insulting to the passion and commitment we put into this glorious art of opera, concert and song.

  • The answer is obvious. Modern opera singers sing with incorrect technique. The technique of the old opera singers was the same as the old vaudeville singers like Al Jolson, Helen Kane and Florrie Forde. They sang in very large theaters without amplification. Opera singers should be able to do this first and then learn opera and add on the graces afterwards.

  • >