[Dixielandjazz] Letting It All Hang Out

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Feb 7 10:14:43 PST 2004

Caveat -NOT OKOM - However it offers an interesting parallel about
putting NEW LIFE INTO OLD MUSIC. This is an interesting read, especially
if one thinks about;  "Why Can't Dixieland Players Be More Like
Rockers"?  Well, why not? Read especially the last paragraph and
subsitiute "OKOM" for "Opera".

Steve Barbone

February 6, 2004 - New York Times


Why Can't Opera Stars Be More Like Rockers? A Cautionary Tale


      It's better to burn out than fade away," once proclaimed Neil
Young, who is still pretty unfaded at 58. "Hope I die before I get old,"
wrote Pete
Townshend, also 58.

Of course, lots of rock stars did die young, and their short, intense
lives are the stuff of legend. Without suggesting a lemminglike mass
suicide of today's
opera stars, maybe a little rock 'n' roll abandon is just what they

I thought of all this, improbably enough, during the Kirov Opera's "Ring
des Nibelungen" last week in Baden-Baden, Germany. Whatever you thought
the staging and design, the performances revealed a wealth of new Wagner
singers, all Russians.

Many were young and audibly excited to be singing this music for the
first time (or nearly so, since they had sung in two previous cycles).
The way Mlada
Khudolei, for instance, threw herself into Sieglinde's ecstasy and
terror in "Die Walküre" made her about the most exciting exponent of the
role since
Leonie Rysanek.

Or the way the "Götterdämmerung" Brünnhilde, Olga Sergeeva, tore into
the Immolation Scene really put a cap on the whole "Ring," abetted, to
be sure, by
Valery Gergiev and his wonderful orchestra. Too often, for me, the end
of the "Ring" is anticlimactic, a stolid soprano standing there pouring
out notes, the
orchestra cranking through its leitmotifs, and the director and designer
ladling on whatever special effects they can muster. Here, Ms. Sergeeva
sang as if
the fate of the world really were at stake.

Mr. Gergiev has a reputation for driving his singers into vocal crisis
through miscasting and overwork. Galina Gorchakova, so lovely a decade
ago and
rarely heard from now, is often mentioned as a case in point. To be
fair, other singers have managed to sustain healthy careers under Mr.
ministrations: Olga Borodina, for one.

Still, Mr. Gergiev has left himself open to charges of vocal
exploitation in his "Ring" casting. Olga Savova, the "Walküre"
Brünnhilde, seems to have
previously sung only mezzo and alto roles, although she nailed her high
notes; she also reappeared as an eloquent Waltraute (a mezzo part) in

Leonid Zakhozheev, who looked handsome and sang handsomely as the young
Siegfried, with plenty of range and endurance for the punishing final
with Brünnhilde, has until now specialized in light tenor roles like
Almaviva in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," although he's done Lohengrin,
too. A goodly
number of the singers of heavy parts in this "Ring" were still in their

Such casting would horrify most American vocal coaches. Steven Blier, a
singing teacher at the Juilliard School and co-director of the New York
Festival of Song, wrote an interesting article for Opera News last year
in which he lamented a climate of caution in the recent training of
American singers. Starting
with the vocal crises that struck a number of singers, primarily
exponents of Italian verismo, at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1960's
and early 70's, he
documented a subsequent retreat into prudence.

Voice teachers became extremely conservative, he wrote: "The most
successful ones were imparting a philosophy of vocal safety and
longevity. . . . Chest
resonance was eschewed as `dangerous' . . . There was a sense that
full-voiced high notes were somewhat vulgar, and that floated
pianissimos were a sign of class and control. Students were kept on the
light side of their potential sound and generally funneled into lyric

The "tenet of the times," Mr. Blier concluded, was " `the big stuff will
kill you.' "

Of course, there were reasons for this change in style other than fears
of vocal burnout. Tastes shifted toward Handel and Mozart, and singers
like Renée
Fleming, who excelled in both, also brought a cool, controlled sound to
Richard Strauss.

But when Ms. Fleming lets 'er rip, as she has recently in Verdi, she's
downright thrilling. Whether she secretly fears that in so ripping, she
is endangering
her voice, I know not. I hope not.

Common sense would tell us that singers (and their teachers and
conductors and advisers) need to preach some limits. But they can't be
too timid. A climate of excessive caution has robbed opera of the animal
excitement it needs to thrill a large audience. Luciano Pavarotti knew
his limits, even when he pushed into roles not really suited to his
light spinto tenor: Radamès in "Aida," and finally Otello. But the sheer
passion of his attack in those parts brought its own considerable
reward. And for all his recent troubles, vocal and otherwise, Mr.
Pavarotti has certainly enjoyed an extended career.

The archetype for vocal excess was, of course, Maria Callas. She lost
all that weight, she took on all those parts (even, in her misguided
youth, Isolde and
Kundry). Sure, her soprano gave way at a relatively early age. But she
had a good 15 years of fame. And, by the by, she was the most exciting,
singing actress of her century.

The history of opera is replete with youthful debuts: Conchita Supervia
at 14, , Maria Malibran at 17 and on it goes: Callas sang Tosca in
Athens at 18.
Some of these (Anja Silja doing the Queen of the Night at 19 and Isolde
and Brünnhilde in her early 20's) ran into difficulties. Some recovered
from their
crises (Ms. Silja is singing still, at 68); others did not. But German
singers routinely took on Wagner in their 20's a century ago, and had
notable careers.
American voice teachers still fret that their tender young charges will
be chewed up in the German repertory system.

But there's a counterargument. Mr. Blier goes so far as to suggest that
technical deficiencies contributed to some singers' popular appeal.
"These very
`flaws' may have been precisely the elements that made their sound so
magnetic," he wrote. In other words, smooth out the edges, and you
smooth out the

"They sang from their gut," Mr. Blier quotes the mezzo Rosalind Elias as
saying about the singers of the Met's vocal golden age of the 1950's.
"They didn't hold back." Cautious singers appeal only to a cautious

Far be it for me to suggest the deliberate, self-imposed ruination of
any singer's voice. Singers nervously (neurotically) struggle to
preserve "their
instrument"; it's their self-image and their income. But opera would
prosper with more reckless abandon. The prima donnas of yore were larger
than life not in their girth, the bane of so many placid Wagner sopranos
today, but in their appetites for life and willingness to sing with
passion. Taking vocal risks was a big part of that passion.

People fret about opera's increasing irrelevance, and there are a lot of
reasons for that and a lot of exaggerations in the death laments as
well. That said, the
Gergiev "Ring" was thrilling partly because we heard singers throwing
caution to the winds and singing as if their lives depended on it. They
sang as if
Wagner still mattered, desperately. And for those few hours, he did.

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