Encounters of The Operatic Kind
Legends, Lore, Quotes and Anecdotes
Fascinating Interviews, Intimate Recollections & Privileged Observations
"If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you:
I came to live out loud!"
- Emile Zola
This personal collection of quotes and anecdotes is an attempt to share my enthusiasm and experiences as singing student, professional tenor and teacher/coach over a 50-year period in the world of vocal music. My fascination for the miracle of the human voice has not diminished. On the contrary, all of the years that have passed have served to heighten my awareness of the beauty of vocal music and deepen my pleasure whenever I hear a beautiful voice. My criteria have evolved: I am able to appreciate the freedom of vocal expression and delicate, purity of tone in addition to the bombastic fortissimi that thrilled me when I was young. However, I still cannot ignore a glorious, huge, monstrously powerful tone when it comes flying straight towards me!
At the old Metropolitan Opera during the early 1960s, I was a young, promising singing student and one of the most vociferous fans standing in the highest reaches of the top balcony, screaming myself hoarse in wild adoration of the greatest singers since the Golden Age of Opera. In fact, during this era (we call it "the Bing era"), one of the most interesting observations a first-time visitor to a performance at the old Met might have made was the phenomenon of a myriad of hoarse voices among a large part of the audience. Already, during the first intermission, there was a strange, breathy murmuring due to the fact that members of the audience had literally screamed themselves voiceless from enthusiasm for the singers! This was especially true in the opera Aida, with significant arias in the first act for the tenor and soprano. Mario Del Monaco's (1915-1982) delivery of "Celeste Aida" received an ovation that I have not heard since those halcyon days of super-powered phrasing and crashing high notes. His high B-flat at the end of "Celeste Aida" evoked a response that could be best described as sheer hysteria from the audience. The enormous volume and blazing brilliance of that note reached down into the viscera of the receptive listener and caused every fiber of one's body to quiver with wild, erotic pleasure. This seemed to be the response, regardless of gender or age, of every true opera fan. The oldest and youngest fans were seen behaving like teeny-boppers at a rock concert.
In 1962, I began sitting behind Sir Rudolf Bing (1902-1997) in his private box at the old Met. I was in a perfect seat to hear and see everything that transpired on the stage. It was my privilege to sit in the General Managers private box because I would escort Susan Breisach (1886-1987), my teacher of German language, (who just happened to be Mr. Bing's first cousin) to the opera. She was an older lady who refused to venture out into the New York night unescorted. This worked to my advantage, to say the least! The tickets were free and the seat was the best! Frau Breisach always sat in the first row next to the boss, and I sat behind them in the second row. One night, after Del Monaco had delivered one of his gigantic, explosive, high notes that roared out into the auditorium like artillery shells flying over our heads, which he held for about 20 seconds, Mrs. Breisach turned to Mr. Bing and said in German, "Er schreit doch ein bischen, oder? " And Mr. Bing answered, "Ja, aber das Publikum liebt ihn! " ("He yells a little bit, doesn't he? Yes! But the public loves him!")
The act would continue and the greatest Diva of the modern age would sing her aria, "Ritorna Vincitor". We thought pandemonium had already occurred when Del Monaco sang his aria. Well, folks, believe me, things were just getting started! When Zinka Milanov (1906-1989) walked out onto the stage, wild applause would break out before she had sung a note. After her aria, the fans would go wild and it would last for a long time. Apparently, the Met orchestra negotiated a new contract around this time that would guarantee the members double-time for performances that ran past midnight. And this was nothing compared to the reaction of the fans after Zinka sang the Nile Aria in the third act. People would run down the aisles and beat on the walls and stomp the floor and scream themselves hoarse if they werent hoarse already. Anytime Milanov sang a performance, every great Prima Donna in New York would be in the theater. You would see Renata Tebaldi in the artist's box on the left side of the stage and Maria Callas in the box on the right side of the stage. They all came to hear the real Prima Donna of the Met. No one in my time could induce madness in the crowd like Milanov.
It should be mentioned at this point that we all owe a great deal to Sir Rudolf Bing. He was the greatest fan of beautiful singing, although not always of the demands or attitudes and behavior of the great singers! For instance, he fired Maria Callas (1923-1977) and the American-Mexican contralto, Belen Amparan (1929- ). Let me just mention that Belen Amparan had the most beautiful contralto voice since Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Although her voice was often called a mezzo-soprano, those of us who heard her live can testify that, in spite of her extraordinary high notes, the basic quality of the voice was clearly a contralto and the best one I ever heard. It was easy to compare her to Giulietta Simionato (1910 -2010), Elena Obraztsova (1939- ) or Irina Arkhipova (1925-2010), all great dramatic mezzos, and hear the difference between their voices and a real operatic contralto. After all, the term mezzo-soprano means, literally translated, middle soprano. A mezzo-soprano is a kind of soprano. Amparan had none of the color of a soprano in her voice. It was low and deep and seemed to come from her toes. Her voice was gigantic in its width of sound. The Met orchestra sounded like a small string group when Amparan sang. Unfortunately, she was released from her contract at the Met in 1962, just as Jussi Bjoerling (1911-1960) was in 1950 , for allegedly being intoxicated during a performance. It was a tragic day for everyone concerned when Senora Amparan left New York. Her voice was indescribably erotic and soul-stirring, exotic and incredibly beautiful, with perfect control and effortless high notes. She was, also, one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on an operatic stage!
Maria Callas was difficult for management because of her artistic demands. She wanted to control casting and choose her own conductors and stage directors. Sir Rudolf had a few ideas of his own about how to run an opera company, and he and La Callas did not always agree. But after all, he hadn't done badly so far!
Del Monaco didn't sing only gigantic tones. He sang many that were much larger! And while doing so, would do a kind of backbend with his head thrown all the way back , projecting the tone, not only out into the audience, but also up to the heavens. We worshipfully stood there in the highest corner of the highest balcony, waiting for the last thrilling decibel to envelope us and transport us to another dimension of sheer sensual ecstasy. He was definitely a member of the "throw the head back" and sing to the fans sitting in the top balcony school. Every great singer I mention in this book looked up while singing. When I would get the opportunity to ask one of the great singers about the posture of the head while singing, they would, without exception, say that it was necessary in order to assure that the throat remained free. Many of the singers I mention can be viewed on Youtube. Notice the singers who are considered to be historical, like Tito Schipa, Kirsten Flagstad, and Giuseppe De Luca. View the duet from La Forza del Destino with Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill. Merrill looks down while Tucker is singing with his head up. But every time Merrill begings to sing, he throws his head back. Every singer who had a very long career, like Alfredo Kraus or Monserrat Caballe, or Joan Sutherland or Luciano Pavarotti, looked up at the balconies while singing. Every singer, who kept the head down while singing, had a shorter career. Birgit Nilsson, Cesare Siepi, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Richard Tucker all had very long careers. They all sang with their heads thrown back. Maria Callas, as great as she was, had a relatively short career. Is it a coincidence that she sang with her head extremely down at the end of her career? The bowed neck method became popular for some reason and every singer who used it was unable to sing into their later years. Even Franco Corelli, as great as he was, began to stretch his neck and put his head down in the dramatic roles. His career ended not long afterward. Everyone commented on the way Corelli would sing to the top balcony at the old Met when he first came to New York. Some of the critics noticed and accused him (in print) of pandering to the audience. We know now that keeping the head up and back forced the singers to support in their bodies and kept the throat uninvolved.
Singers are always trying to perform at their best, even when they don't succeed. We want to forgive them and hope they will work their way out of problems that have arisen with the voice or career. During the season of 1970-1971 in Vienna, Jaume Aragall (1939- ) went through a difficult period with pitch. However, it seemed to be a problem in the first act only. As the evening's performance progressed, he would tune his voice and his magnificent tones would begin to soar out over the audience. There wasn't a better tenor voice in the world than Aragall's at that time.
Even the great Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) began to have problems in the first acts of her performances of Wagners heroines towards the end of her career. The vibrato would be slower than what we had heard in the past and, sometimes, the pitch would not be perfect. But, again, this would happen in the first act only. We waited hopefully for her to warm up her voice, which she did without fail. By the time the second act would begin, the voice sounded young and fresh and beautiful. She never seemed to have a weak moment in Turandot, in spite of the huge aria, "In Questa Reggia", at the beginning of the role. There are no words to describe he voice when it was at its best. It was gorgeous with unrelenting intensity and unlimited range and perfect high pianissimi. One celebrated moment among the fans was in Tannhaueser when her sudden entrance on a high note would obliterate all other sounds in the theater! The full orchestra would be playing fortissimo, the full chorus would be singing as loud as possible, and the other soloists would be singing at their most committed levels of communication with the audience, when Nilsson would enter with a high note and blank out all competition on the stage and in the pit! But she could, also, sing a wonderful high C softly at the end of the Nile Aria in the third act of Aida.
The only experience I've had, affecting me so deeply and leaving an everlasting imprint on mind and heart, since hearing the voices of Mario Del Monaco, Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli or Leonie Rysanek, was observing a rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center in 1997. I had the good fortune to sit only 2.5 miles from the space shuttle blast-off. The unrelenting crescendo of all-permeating resonance that paralyzed and thrilled at the same time made me want to scream 'Bravo! Bravissimo!' just as I had done so often for Signore Del Monaco's high notes. Such a Grande Tenore is not likely to happen again, certainly not in my lifetime, Franco Corelli notwithstanding! Corelli was a superstar with a magnificent voice, but his voice was of spinto weight, like Richard Tucker's, while Del Monaco's was a genuine tenore drammatico. The pure stentorian ring of Del Monaco's high notes was unique in its overwhelming projection over the orchestra and into the theater. His resonance was shattering in the theater, and left the members of the audience gasping for air. And, to quote Mae West, "...too much of a good thing is wonderful!"
It is important to recognize one obvious fact: Things have changed drastically since the Bing era. There is no demand for great voices on the part of artistic management in the opera houses of today. This seems to be especially true of the Metropolitan Opera Company. The vocal criteria of the past were beauty of tone, sufficient power of projection of the voice, and, in some cases, extraordinary amplitude as in the cases of Mario Del Monaco, Beline Amparan and Jon Vickers, and fabulous technical vocal exhibitions as demonstrated by Joan Sutherland. These criteria are no longer required or desired. The argument that the singers are not available falls apart when opera fans hear a singer like Joanna Porackova, who sings the roles of Isolde and Norma and Turandot. No soprano has been able to sing the "big three" since Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929). But wait! There is one other soprano who has sung these impossibly difficult roles of grand opera. Her name is Rebecca Copley. Copley sang at the Metropolitan Opera and included such dramatic roles in her repertoire as Amelia in Ballo in Maschera by Verdi. But she, like Kim Josephson, was kept on the sidelines while lesser voices were given major roles, broadcasts, and opening nights. Who would decide to remove the best singers and replace them with lesser talents, and why?
Conductors and Music Agents want to represent singers they can easily market, and nearly everyone who has the ability to advance the careers of singers, has abandoned their artistic responsibilities as far as the voice is concerned. The stage directors are there to make sure the singers look good and can act. The conductors demand singers who are naturally musical and who are able to perform the music accurately and reliably. But there is no one looking out for the most important consideration of all--the voice! No matter how beautiful the sets may be or how musically accurate the singers are, if the voices are not strong enough to make tone, text, and appropriate expression easily audible with energetic delivery of the dramatic moments, there is no traditional operatic performance taking place on the stage. What is the difference between the performance standards of opera and musical theater? The real difference is in the quality, size and vocal criteria required of the singer and demanded of the vocal technique. The voices of the past had to project the text and its meaning over a full orchestra without the assistance of a microphone. Now, in most large opera houses, including the Met, sound enhancement systems are standard. Small voices sound larger than they really are. The nasal placement of the voice, now prevalent at the Met, was not acceptable in the past because of its ugly quality and lack of carrying power. Caruso states it in his book: "Never sing into the nasal cavity. It is against all the rules of song". Only with sound enhancement can a nasal voice carry over a huge orchestral sound. The thin, pale quality of the nasal voice makes us want to go home and listen to the records of great singers who did not sing nasally.
How did the concept of focusing the voice in the nose become the standard placement of the voice? This is one of those artistic mysteries that afflict the performance of opera in most theaters in the U.S. today. That is why the greatest stars of opera, like Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), mostly come from Europe. The training received by European singers is closer to the old style of singing which is based on breathing correctly and the refutation of the slightest hint of nasality. Sound enhancement systems are extremely rare in Europe. The European singers, in general, are still singing with a vocal technique which allows the sound to project beauty and emotion, and to carry over full orchestras out into the auditorium. There are exceptions, of course, like Cecilia Bartoli, who is generally inaudible over an orchestra, or Emmy Ameling, who can have problems singing over a piano accompaniment. Franco Corelli, whose voice was truly fantastic, in his Master Classes in New York, repeatedly criticized American singers for singing through the nose. He kept repeating: "The American singers sing like they are singing through a straw! The throat goes squish, squish, squish!" Focusing the voice in the nose closes the Pillars of the Fauces which narrows the throat and makes the voice smaller. Corelli couldn't understand why any singer would want to make the voice smaller and less acoustically efficient. He said repeatedly in his Master Classes: "Do not to sing into the nose. Never focus the voice with the nose. Use the breathing to open the throat and let the focus of the voice happen like a baby's cry. Never sing narrow. The resonance of the voice goes up and forward, over the nose. The vowel remains pronounced in the back of the neck." The American singers couldn't do what he wanted because most of them had been focusing the voice for years. Deep breathing was a foreign concept (literally!) and they had no idea how to do it.
Franco Corelli was an admirer of Kim Josephson's singing, comparing him to Gino Bechi. Josephson had a tremendous success at the Met as Rigoletto, with fantastic reviews in the New York newspapers, but the Management immediately took him off the role. He was making the other baritones look bad. The reviewers wrote: "Kim Josephson is the most underrated singer in America ...where is this man on opening night? Why is he not opening the season every year?" Josephson has never received anything less than a rave review wherever he has sung, but someone at the Met doesn't like him. Whoever the guilty party is, he has prevented Josephson from being the Met's leading baritone. The critics have been ignored and the fans served badly. Sir Rudolf Bing would have used such a fine baritone only as a leading singer in the Italian operas. The present Management of the Met offered only small roles and covers, in spite of Josephson's phenomenal successes in leading roles. What a terrible artistic loss for us, the fans.
The throats of the leading singers were open during the Bing era at the Metropolitan Opera. Theatricality and thrilling the public were considerations of the first order. Sir Rudolf's secret was to hire the best singers in the world and let them sing the greatest roles by the greatest composers. During his tenure as the General Manager of the Met, La Gioconda by Ponchielli and Andrea Chenier were standard repertoire. The singers who make up the roster today at the Met cannot sing such demanding operas. Mr. Bing's training was developed during his years in Europe as a theatrical agent, running opera companies and creating festivals. His main concern was to sell out every performance by engaging the finest voices in the world. His success set an example for all future managers to follow. A sense of artistic responsibility to the public and to the traditions of opera as an art form were fulfilled. The public was never disappointed when Sir Rudolf was in charge!
An opera fan...
Upon hearing the recording of Lawrence Tibbet (1896-1960) singing the song "Going Home":
"..listening to this recording was like someone reached into my chest with a velvet glove and tore my heart out. "
Copyright 2010 /Michael Trimble