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Thread: Singers who Changed My Life

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    Senior Member Tsaraslondon's Avatar
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    Default Singers who Changed My Life

    A few years ago, John Steane, an expert on voices and an eminent critic, died at the age of 83. He had his favourites of course (who doesn’t?), but I learned a lot from old John over the years, and I will miss his wonderfully constructive musical criticism. When he died, Gramophone Magazine re-published an article the editor had once asked him to write, detailing the 12 singers who had changed his life, the one injunction being that one of them should still be active as a singer. For someone who knew his writing, his choices didn’t come as much of a surprise. I recently re-read this article and it got me thinking of who mine would be. Having decided to restrict my list to 10, I then decided on those singers that have said something personal to me, the voices that have spoken to me down the years, from when I first started to enjoy opera and lieder as an impressionable teenager, up until now. Let me reiterate that my choice is personal, and I make no claims for these 10 being the 10 greatest, so please no messages berating me for missing out your favourite. Your list will of course be different for different reasons.


    I first heard the voice of Maria Callas on an LP reissue of her first recordings, originally issued on 78s. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani was coupled with the Liebestod (in Italian) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from her early Cetra recordings of La Traviata and La Gioconda. This was a voice like none I’d ever heard. It was a large voice, with dazzling flexibility, a rarity in itself, but it was the way that voice penetrated your very soul, a voice bursting with emotion. I may not have appreciated then her amazing musicality, but I certainly recognised the work of a genius. Callas made you feel that the music sprang from her throat newly minted, that she meant every word, every note. More than that, it was the way the voice could change from the sweet innocent Elvra to the womanly Isolde, from the passion of the courtesan Violetta, to the almost primeval sounds of her Gioconda. It hardly seems believable now, given that Callas’s recordings have formed the backbone of EMI’s Italian opera catalogue for years, but most of them had been deleted, when I first started collecting. I slowly built up my collection by scouring second hand shops and pouncing on any imported issues that made their way into specialist record shops. Gradually Callas introduced me to the world of Italian opera. Nowadays I am more aware of the vocal faults, especially in the later recordings, but nobody has ever come within a mile of her fantastic musicality. For evidence of her musical skills, no better example could exist than her Leonora in Il Trovatore, full of aristocratic phrasing and almost Mozartian delicacy. She was also an amazing vocal actor, and though she has a voice that is instantly recognisable, she continually changes the weight of that voice to suit the character. It is not, though, merely a change in vocal weight. For instance, she may use the same lightness of touch for Amina in La Sonnambula as she does for Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but they are still two completely different voice characters, and she can make us see that happiness and sadness are quite different things for Amina from what they are for Rosina. Callas is still my touchstone for all the roles she sang (I can almost hear her in my mind’s ear in some of the ones she didn’t), and, though I recognise that some have made prettier sounds, there will always be a moment, maybe a single word, where Callas’s unique colouration will suddenly do something to nail the character as no other singer does. No doubt her glamour and tempestuous personal life did much to fuel my youthful ardour, but now she has been dead for over 40 years, the dust has settled, and it is her musical gifts for which she will be remembered.

    My next choice might seem like the antithesis to Callas. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who introduced me to Mozart, Richard Strauss and lieder. Her recordings of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and of the Vier letzte Lieder were my first exposure to these works, and have remained in my collection ever since. A voice often shot through with laughter, she also made many great recordings of lighter works, and her disc of Operetta Arias can lighten the spirits like no other. She and Callas admired each other enormously (their repertoires were very different of course), and Schwarzkopf publicly stated that she gave up the role of Violetta after seeing Callas 's matchless performance. They only made one recording together (Puccini’s Turandot), but they met often, as Schwarzkopf was the wife of Callas’s record producer, Walter Legge, on one occasion Schwarzkopf giving Callas an impromptu singing lesson in the middle of the restaurant at Biffi Scala. Schwarzkopf was a good person to ask. Technically she rarely put a foot wrong, and it is this attention to detail, that some find gets in the way of the music. There can be a lack of spontaneity, it is true, and, where Callas is able to conceal the huge amount of work that goes into each of her musical recreations, Schwarzkopf can be accused of artifice. Her Liu in the above mentioned Turandot may not sound for one moment like a slave girl, but I love her singing of the role, so beautiful and so richly nuanced.

    Sifting through my memories now, I come to a singer I heard live before I heard on record. I first heard Dame Janet Baker in a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst I was at college. Unfortunately I never got to see her in opera, but I did hear her live in concert on many occasions. In a very different repertoire, she had an almost Callas like intensity and an ability to sing pianissimi that somehow reached the furthest recesses of any hall. Dame Janet introduced me to the music of Monteverdi and Handel, Bach and, of course, Elgar’s Sea Pictures (memorably coupled to Jacqueline Du Pre’s seminal recording of the Cello Concerto). She was also a great Berlioz singer. I actually prefer her recording of Les Nuits d’Ete to Crespin’s famous one, and I doubt her recording of the closing scenes of Les Troyens has ever been bettered. My one regret is that I never saw her in opera. When she was active on the stage, I was still in the theatre myself, and so never had an evening free when she was singing. A singer of great integrity, her art is always at the service of the composer.


    Placido Domingo’s was a voice I first heard on record in an early recital of arias, but I will never forget the thrill of first hearing him live at the Royal Opera House, in La Fanciulla del West. Nor will I forget a performance of La Boheme, which was relayed to a crowd in Covent Garden Piazza (these relays now so popular that they are streamed to audiences in Trafalgar Square). As Domingo embarked on the high, vaulting phrases of his aria Che gelida manina, I looked round at the crowd of silent, rapt, attentive faces, as his golden tones filled this large, normally noisy space. Domingo certainly had presence and a glamorous voice to go with it. A real singing actor, he seemed to improve as a performer every time I saw him. Incredibly, he is still singing today, though he has moved over to the baritone repertoire recently, taking on such roles as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto. He may not have introduced me to any new repertoire (though many of his recital records took him refreshingly off the beaten track), but he did instil in me a love of the tenor voice, which led me to investigate the work of other tenors, two of whom also make it onto my list.

    Firstly there is Fritz Wunderlich, who had a voice of overwhelming heady beauty. He died at a time when his interpretative artistry should have been reaching its maturity, his final concert in Edinburgh being testament to that, but if you ever want to hear someone reveling in the sheer joy of singing, just listen to his DG performance of Lara’s Granada. Admittedly it is in German and the splashy arrangement is pretty vulgar, but he sings with a freedom and passion that would be the envy of any Latin tenor – and what about that final top C? Phew! If i were allowed just one tenor on that legendary desert island, then Wunderlich would probably be the one.

    Then there was Jon Vickers, who had a voice and manner of startling individuality, and an intensity of performance that could almost be too painful to listen to. Indeed more than one critic has stated that his Tristan goes too far, that the pain he evinces too difficult to take. I'm sure Wagner would have loved itStarting in Italian opera (he sang Giasone to Callas’s Medea), he progressed to Wagner, singing towering performances of Tristan and Siegmund. His Otello suffered like no other and his Peter Grimes, mercifully preserved on film, is one of the greatest creations of all time.

    Next on my list are two more ladies, one from well before my time and one who died only recently. I first heard the voice of Maggie Teyte in a performance of Duparc’s Chanson Triste and was totally captivated. Like Mary Garden before her and Valerie Masterson and Felicity Lott after her, she is one of those British sopranos the French took to their heart, and indeed Debussy himself taught her the role of Melisande. Her records were not easy to get hold of, but I finally managed to track down a copy of EMI’s “L’Exquise Maggie Teyte”, whilst a friend gave me a copy of a Decca recital, which included her wondrous rendering of ‘Tu n’es pas beau’ from Offenbach'sLa Périchole, which shows off to advantage her gloriously individual chest tones, and a twinkle in the eye.

    If Teyte lead me to explore more French song, then Victoria De Los Angeles added to it a new world of Spanish music. Truth to tell, I hadn’t much liked her when I first heard her as a rather insecure and out of sorts Hoffmann Antonia, and I think it was probably her record of the Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne that first led me to reassess. That Antonia was misleading and other operatic roles, not least her Manon, Marguerite (Faust), Butterfly and Mimi display a golden voice allied to a winning personality. I also had on LP a live performance of her singing a wonderfully touching and trusting Desdemona to Del Monaco’s Otello at the Met, which remains in my memory far more than many of the assumptions by singers we might think more suited to the role.

    So far the list is rather top heavy with female singers, so I am happy to include as my next choice a baritone, colleague of Callas’s and one who encompassed many of her qualities. Like Callas, Tito Gobbi had an immediately recognisable voice and always sang with a wealth of colour and understanding. I can still remember the shattering effect of my first listen through Rigoletto, actually the first ever time I’d heard the opera. His cries of “Gilda” at the end of Act 2 after she has been abducted went straight to the heart. He may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world, but, like Callas’s, it had a myriad of different colours. And like her, though always recognizably himself, he was always able to change his timbre to suit the role he was playing. Who can ever forget the power of his entrance as Scarpia, or the insinuating voice he uses to entrap Tosca in Act I of the opera?

    Looking back at this list of singers, I realise that they all have certain things in common; the individuality of their voices (you only have to hear a few notes to know who it is) and their ability to make the listener see as well as hear. This is no less true of my final choice, a singer still very much before the public today. Some years ago, I was more or less dragged to a concert of Vivaldi sung by David Daniels and accompanied by Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Till then, apart from the Four Seasons and the Gloria, I had had little enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s music and had a total antipathy for countertenors in general. Daniels changed all that. Here was a voice of surpassing beauty, coupled to a marvellously natural personality. It was a total conversion and Daniels has now opened the door on a whole world of music I had previously ignored, which shows it is never too late to expand one’s horizons. I have hardly missed any of his appearances in this country, and, like all the singers on this list, he has a gift for communication vouchsafed to just a few.

    Of course, apart from these, there have been many memorable performances. I recall the excitement of Agnes Baltsa’s Carmen with the no less memorable Don Jose of Jose Carreras; the superb Dejanira of Joyce Di Donato; Angela Gheorgiu’s first Violetta, and RobertoAlagna’s Romeo; Kiri Te Kanawa’s exquisitely, if placidly, sung Fiordiligi (with Baltsa again, as an adorably funny Dorabella); Renee Fleming in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. These too will always stay in the memory, but I send my gratitude to the ten on my original list, for through them I have discovered a whole world of great music. They may not necessarily be the ten greatest singers of all time but they have enriched and enlightened and can truly be called singers who have changed my life.

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    There have been two who changed my life.

    The first is Diana Damrau, if for no other reason then that she was my introduction to opera. I'd always dismissed it as fat women in viking hats hollering at people.
    Of course, I was right but Ms. Damrau showed me there was maybe a bit more to the whole opera thing too. Quickly consumed all of her work and then found my true love,
    Natalie Dessay. The agility, the range, the artistry, the interpretive ability ... I was going through easily the worst period of my life and hearing and seeing her basically reminded me that there was still beauty in the world.

    There are loads of singers I like and a few I love, but those two hold singular places in my heart.
    -Ian

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    Senior Member sospiro's Avatar
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    José Carreras

    At a difficult time in my life I heard about this opera singer (what dat?) who had been diagnosed with leukaemia but who had survived. He sang at a concert with two other singers to raise funds for his Foundation and I became interested. Not in opera but in fund raising.

    Carreras' fight for survival was an inspiration to me & I bought one of his CDs hoping a small portion would go to his Foundation.

    And I quite liked what I heard, so I bought another CD & another .......
    Ann

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    Maria Callas definitely changed my life because when she came on to Radio 3 singing Sempre Libera from La Traviata, she made me fall in love with opera. I was blown away and bought a tape recoding of the entire opera (shows you how long ago that was) and when I left university and moved to London I plucked up courage to attend my first opera (Barber of Sevillle) at the English National Opera.

    Another genuine life changer came though the radio too. I was listening to NZ concert radio with my then 4-year-old daughter in the car when Andreas Scholl came on singing "Wraggle-taggle gypsies" from his album Wayfaring stranger, of English folk songs (he does the alto AND baritone parts). She loved it, wanted to hear it again, so I found it in the library and my love affair with the countertenor voice started. I was ecstatic when he actually came to New Zealand and gave a wonderful recital. The sheer beauty of his voice is unrivalled.
    Natalie

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    A singer who changed my life was my wonderful husband, John, a tenor in chorus of St. Warware Cathedral in South Darnsington, Sheffield but he gave songs recitals too when at studies, that's where we met and he certainly changed my life with his caring, loving person

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    Giacomo Aragall. My favourite tenor. Listening to him taught me one lesson for life. He may not have had the biggest voice but surely one of the most beautiful. He may have been racked by nerves but he sings with such passion. He may not be widely known by many people but for those who love Opera and Tenors in particular he is a sublime singer who is loved and admired.
    I have never seen him 'live' ....would love to one day

    I remember this when I doubt myself.
    Last edited by Yashin; Nov-24-2013 at 09:28.

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    I have listened live to Mr. Aragall several times, the last one just a couple of years ago, in a homage to another singer, when he sang just a little bit, he was around 70 years old. He is not Italian, but Spanish from Barcelona. He used the Italian name "Giacomo" because the original Spanish name "Jaime" ("Jaume", in Catalan), sounds a little bit like the Italian operatic cliché 'ahimé'. So he switched when he debuted at La Scala, still in his early twenties.

    His very beautiful voice of lyrical (also able to tackle spinto roles) tenor, was of a rather big size for the fach. He was afflicted by stage fright all his career, and was a notoriously irregular performer, but at his best he was really great. A soft, dense voice, with a little shade of dark in it. He sang a similar repertory than Pavarotti, that had a lighter, clearer tenor, and was able to produce a somewhat more brilliant sound from the passagio up to the high notes. Mr. Aragall was able to caress the audience with his voice.

    I'm afraid I can't select a singer that really *changed* my life. But speaking of tenors, I'd say my greatest personal discovery after being an opera fan for some two decades, was when I listened to Sergei Lemeshev, and after that I was so thrilled I always ask myself how could I've ignored such a voice for so many years:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gv3NR1ZpVGE

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    Callas is my siren that bewitched me with her passionate powerful renditions that make others pale by comparison for me.

    The critics always point to uneven tone througn vocal range, like three different voices were merged into one person. Yet that is her strength in my mind an instantly recognizeable unique voice, a large vocal tool box to draw many unique vocal effects to paint her characters with very extended range from low to high.

    The irresistable trademark for me is the Callas vocal climax, unlike any other singer her voice would expand in amplitude and power to give thunderous overwhelming climax, just electrifying in its effect.......I must often stop and replay them to fully grasp thier powerful effect, thats my girl
    Last edited by DarkAngel; Nov-24-2013 at 14:59.

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    I'd heard opera from the time I was a baby -- my mother loved it -- but Fritz Wunderlich's beautiful voice made me want to really learn more about it. It's probably no accident that the first complete opera recording I bought was the DG/Böhm Die Zauberflöte with his Tamino. Gundula Janowitz likely gets the blame for my Fidelio obsession, based on the telecast of the Vienna State Opera production with her Leonore. I thought I hated Wagner's operas until I listened to Siegfried Jerusalem singing arias from Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Thanks to him, I subsequently became acquainted with all of the operas in the standard Wagner canon -- and had he recorded Rienzi, Arindal in Die Feen, and the tenor role in Das Liebesverbot, I would undoubtedly be familiar with them, as well. Sherrill Milnes, my "baritone god," was the first international-caliber singer I heard live, and was absolutely overwhelmed by his singing. There are many others whose combination of voice and vivid characterization captured my attention -- Sena Jurinac, Ileana Cotrubas, Agned Baltsa, Kurt Moll, Camilla Nylund, and Anja Harteros, just to name some. I'd always dreamed about an "ideal" tenor (ideal by my definition, anyway), but for a long time, believed it would never be more than a dream. Then, at the end of 2000, I came upon a review in Opernwelt of Paër's Leonora with a tenor named Jonas Kaufmann as Florestano. The reviewer's comments about his "darkly glowing" voice were so favorable that I had to find out more about him . . .
    Last edited by MAuer; Nov-24-2013 at 20:23.

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    Senior Member Bellinilover's Avatar
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    GregMitchell: Great post. J.B. Steane is my writing role model.

    I'd have to say that the singers who changed my life are the ones that were in their youthful primes when I first began loving opera. For example: Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming, Ramon Vargas, Jennifer Larmore...I could go on and on. Because I have personal memories (Met broadcasts and telecasts, their recordings being released, seeing a couple of them live, etc.) of them, I feel a connection to them that I don't quite feel to other singers I love whose careers I completely or mostly missed.

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    This is Mr. Aragall singing yesterday at the Auditori, in Barcelona. He is 74 years old:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Twm58ONID_U

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Heu2f-ZNA3c
    Last edited by schigolch; Nov-25-2013 at 18:09.

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    I've always been interested in theatre and music, because my mother has been taking me to listen to opera since I was five. But my real love for opera started when I heard Le nozze di Figaro in Mariinsky Theatre, with the charismatic Eduard Tsanga singing Figaro. After I heard him, I became the opera fan I am today.

    Another singer who had a big influence on me was Karl-Michael Ebner, a character tenor from Vienna Volksoper. Yes, I know that he's not as famous as someone like Heinz Zednik, but there is a huge difference between watching a recording and seeing something live. Ebner's wonderful singing and acting inspired me to study German: the language sounded so sweetly poetic!

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    The singers who changed my life were Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen on Karl Bohms live Tristan and Isolde from Bayreuth. Hearing that recording opened up a whole new musical world for me.

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    Jonathan roxmouth and ramin karimloo. Hands down.

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    Definitely Anna Moffo and Maria Callas, they made me want to discover more about opera. That it was more than people in weird outfits on stage shouting in foreign languages.

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