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Thread: State of modern operatic singing

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    Default State of modern operatic singing

    I have created this thread in order to have a proper discussion concerning one of the most important aspect of opera, which is singing. While some criticize, like me, the current state of operatic singing, others appreciate what they hear and are great admirers of the current stars of the operatic world. This thread is therefore a place to exchange on this subject freely and without constraint. Feel free to voice your opinion or defend your position. We are looking for an healthy exchange where arguments are thoroughly expressed and supported, when necessary, by videos or other medias. The objective is not to create animosity between forumers. So let's all be civilized and let the discussion begin!

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    Senior Member Bonetan's Avatar
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    Are you sure you want more of this??

    It's a frustrating debate if people aren't willing to do the necessary listening with a critical ear...it would be easy for us to compare videos here. Amato is not the greatest baritone of his generation, but I'd like to hear a better version from the last 50 years, let alone modern day.



    The vocal freedom, dynamics, consistent vibrato and resonance, clean and consistent vowels, beautiful legato, perfectly blended registers. It's all there.

    If someone prefers to listen to more modern recordings with better sound, I understand 100%. But to argue that those modern versions are better sung is going to be very difficult. I welcome the attempt.
    Last edited by Bonetan; Oct-04-2020 at 23:14.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bonetan View Post
    Are you sure you want more of this??

    It's a frustrating debate if people aren't willing to do the necessary listening with a critical ear...it would be easy for us to compare videos here. Amato is not the greatest baritone of his generation, but I'd like to hear a better version from the last 50 years, let alone modern day.



    The vocal freedom, dynamics, consistent vibrato and resonance, clean and consistent vowels, beautiful legato, perfectly blended registers. It's all there.

    If someone prefers to listen to more modern recordings with better sound, I understand 100%. But to argue that those modern versions are better sung is going to be very difficult. I welcome the attempt.
    I do want more of this I think it is important to talk about the quality of singing. I mean, apart from music, what is more important in opera than singing? Not much. And I do believe that we can have a great conversation on this matter and you started it quite beautifully with your post. I shall share some of my ideas in this thread as well but I also want people from the other side of the aisle to tell us what they think. I strongly believe that a discussion is needed on this subject.

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    I agree that opera singing is not what it used to be. Especially when it comes to Wagner.

    Just today I was listening to some contraltos of old and was so amazed at the clarity and strength of their voices. I particularly gained appreciation of Clara Butt, Kerstin Thorborg, and Eula Beal.

    I've been wanting to ask for some others' opinions on two singers that are more recent that don't seem bad to me — René Pape and Ewa Podleś.
    Last edited by adriesba; Oct-05-2020 at 01:39.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bonetan View Post
    Are you sure you want more of this??

    It's a frustrating debate if people aren't willing to do the necessary listening with a critical ear...it would be easy for us to compare videos here. Amato is not the greatest baritone of his generation, but I'd like to hear a better version from the last 50 years, let alone modern day.



    The vocal freedom, dynamics, consistent vibrato and resonance, clean and consistent vowels, beautiful legato, perfectly blended registers. It's all there.

    If someone prefers to listen to more modern recordings with better sound, I understand 100%. But to argue that those modern versions are better sung is going to be very difficult. I welcome the attempt.
    Thanks for sharing, Bonetan.

    There is a characteristic of Amato's singing which I am curious about: the lack of obvious exertion.

    It is striking to me how little huffing and puffing this efficient singing entails. Brilliant!



    The best almost-counts-as-modern-for-the-sake-of-conversation-version I found was Zancanaro tucked away on a live recording from Paris 37 years ago in 1983. It doesn't match Amato but it is better than any I have heard since, I think.

    I wondered what you think of that performance? Any ideas what technically is going on to account for the differences with Amato?


    A couple of observations:
    1) I think it is typical that record companies did not grasp what they had in Zancanaro and tape this role commercially: he only made 8 studio sets including a remake of Trovatore in his entire career.

    2) It is conspicuous how the audience erupt like that: even a taste of the old qualities you mentioned has the audience out of their seats

    Thanks
    Last edited by Revitalized Classics; Oct-05-2020 at 02:31.

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    Quote Originally Posted by adriesba View Post
    I agree that opera singing is not what it used to be. Especially when it comes to Wagner.

    Just today I was listening to some contraltos of old and was so amazed at the clarity and strength of their voices. I particularly gained appreciation of Clara Butt, Kerstin Thorborg, and Eula Beal.

    I've been wanting to ask for some others' opinions on two singers that are more recent that don't seem bad to me — René Pape and Ewa Podleś.
    You've maybe heard this electric record by Ernestine Schumann-Heink? I'm addicted!

    Last edited by Revitalized Classics; Oct-05-2020 at 02:40.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Revitalized Classics View Post
    You've maybe heard this electric record by Ernestine Schumann-Heink? I'm addicted!

    Yes, I have heard that! She is really good!
    Last edited by adriesba; Oct-05-2020 at 03:15.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Revitalized Classics View Post
    Thanks for sharing, Bonetan.

    There is a characteristic of Amato's singing which I am curious about: the lack of obvious exertion.

    It is striking to me how little huffing and puffing this efficient singing entails. Brilliant!



    The best almost-counts-as-modern-for-the-sake-of-conversation-version I found was Zancanaro tucked away on a live recording from Paris 37 years ago in 1983. It doesn't match Amato but it is better than any I have heard since, I think.

    I wondered what you think of that performance? Any ideas what technically is going on to account for the differences with Amato?


    A couple of observations:
    1) I think it is typical that record companies did not grasp what they had in Zancanaro and tape this role commercially: he only made 8 studio sets including a remake of Trovatore in his entire career.

    2) It is conspicuous how the audience erupt like that: even a taste of the old qualities you mentioned has the audience out of their seats

    Thanks
    Bravo Zancanaro.

    Great observation re exertion. You can tell that Zancanaro is singing with more effort here, yes?

    Listen to Amato's long lines. One consistent, uninterrupted flow. How smoothly he goes from vowel to vowel, and the consistency of the vowels. Do that and you'll notice how often Zancanaro interrupts his line with breaths that Amato doesn't take. Another thing with Z is he'll slide into some high notes. Listen for it in the section from 1:45-3:15 for A and 3:15-4:35 for Z. This is where A really separates himself imo. Check out how elegantly Amato sings this. And the high G at the end. Some great stuff there.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bonetan View Post
    Bravo Zancanaro.

    Great observation re exertion. You can tell that Zancanaro is singing with more effort here, yes?

    Listen to Amato's long lines. One consistent, uninterrupted flow. How smoothly he goes from vowel to vowel, and the consistency of the vowels. Do that and you'll notice how often Zancanaro interrupts his line with breaths that Amato doesn't take. Another thing with Z is he'll slide into some high notes. Listen for it in the section from 1:45-3:15 for A and 3:15-4:35 for Z. This is where A really separates himself imo. Check out how elegantly Amato sings this. And the high G at the end. Some great stuff there.
    That's super: thanks for the insights!

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    Deleted post. Deleted post.
    Last edited by MAS; Oct-05-2020 at 06:39.

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    Interestingly though, Wagner singers have emerged more recently, eg. James Morris, Rene Pape, Ben Heppner, Peter Schreier, Wolfgang Koch...

    But can you say the same for Verdi?
    Last edited by Ulfilas; Oct-05-2020 at 11:06.

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    I've listened to two recordings of French music recently, Rousset's performance of the original Faust and Nelson's Les Troyens which would suggest that French opera is doing quite well at the moment. The two lead tenors in both operas, Michael Spyres in Les Troyens and Benjamin Bernheim in Faust could both stand comparison with some of the great lyric tenors of the past and both operas are very well cast from top to bottom, the Méphitophélès of Andrew Foster-Williams being a comparative weakness, though the role is more of a character part anyway in this version.

    Les Troyens also has one of today's greatest singers as Didon. Joyce DiDonato has proven herself to be a great exponent of Handel, Mozart, bel canto and the lyric French opera tradition. Furthermore she is a superb stage animal and actress. I personally find the voice a little lacking in individuality and colour, but there is no denying her technical accomplishment, and florid music holds no terror for her. Here at least, as John Steane might say, the Grand Tradition is being upheld.

    But what of Wagner and Verdi?

    One of the most recent Verdi recordings I have bought was Pappano's Aida, which impressed me most for Pappano's conducting and Kauffmann's Radames. I did enjoy it when I first heard it but it hasn't really stood the test of time. I still think Kauffmann is the best of the singers on the set and though we might quibble about the relative merits of others such as Caruso, Gigli, Bjørling, Corelli, Del Monaco or Domingo, he does at least belong in their company; but I'm not sure if any of the other singers on this set do bear comparison with the past. Compared to some other great Aidas from the past, such as Ponselle, Tebaldi, Callas, Leontyne Price or Caballé, Harteros is appealing but vocally pallid. She is closest, I suppose, to Freni who might also be considered to have a voice a notch too light for the role, but she doesn't have anything like Freni's vocal security.

    If I want to listen to Aida, I find I tend to reach for one of my other sets, all recorded between 1950 and 1979 for a far more rewarding listening experience.

    Just as a comparison, try this performance of O patria mia sung by Angela Meade then compare it to Rosa Ponselle in the same music.





    Do I really have to point out Meade's deficiencies? The voice is artifically darkened and the excessive vibrato is actually painful to listen to. Quite aside from the greater beauty of Ponselle's voice, there is the firmness, the clarity, the musicality. OK, so Ponselle was the best of the best in her time, but let's look at the period after the war. We had Callas and Tebaldi to be followed by Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Caballé. Any of what you mght call second string Aidas, like Maria Chiara, Felicia Weathers, Aprile Millo, Anita Cerquetti are a good deal preferable to Meade and yet Meade is considered one of today's best lyric-dramatic sopranos. I don't get it.
    Last edited by Tsaraslondon; Oct-05-2020 at 11:50.
    "It's not enough to have a beautiful voice." Maria Callas

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    I would say that there has most definitely been a slow decline overall in singing in the last one hundred or so years (perhaps longer, but we don't have recordings to know that and the star singers of the early 20th Century couldn't be much bettered).

    There are two myths that have been brought up regarding this topic before:
    If by 'today' we mean the 21st century, then we can go back thirty, forty or fifty years and find a better general standard of singing overall, so we don't have to listen to recordings in old fashioned sound to test the hypothesis that people singing today aren't as good as they were in the past. You could even compare recordings from the 50s and 60s with those made in the last twenty years.

    The second 'myth' is where people have compared a small number of recordings from today verses the past. I am sure we could all find recordings that illustrate whatever our opinion on this topic, but the question is whether the standard has declined overall.

    I think if anyone wants to claim that singing hasn't declined or is better today, they should post some examples of these wonderful singers with an explanation of why their singing is to be preferred or is equal to singers from the past in the same repertoire.

    It might also be worthwhile defining what we mean by 'good' singing.

    N.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Revitalized Classics View Post
    There is a characteristic of Amato's singing which I am curious about: the lack of obvious exertion.

    It is striking to me how little huffing and puffing this efficient singing entails. Brilliant!
    I think that you point out what is, to me, the hallmark of truly great singing - technique that makes the singing sound "easy", even though it isn't. If one listens to the great and admired singers of the acoustic era - people like Melba, Schumann-Heink, Battistini, de Luca, Jadlowker, Plancon, Paul Franz, Lev Sibiriakov, to name just a few - it's striking that their singing always sounds effortless.

    Unfortunately, over the past century, audiences have grown used to singers who make a lot of noise, and sound effortful doing so. I can't remember the last time I heard a Brunnhilde who didn't sound like she was in extremis at the beginning of Act 2 of Walkure, or at the end of Siegfried, or during virtually all of Gotterdammerung. I suspect that if Frida Leider showed up in 2020, most audience members would dismiss her as "too light".

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    Quote Originally Posted by wkasimer View Post
    I think that you point out what is, to me, the hallmark of truly great singing - technique that makes the singing sound "easy", even though it isn't. If one listens to the great and admired singers of the acoustic era - people like Melba, Schumann-Heink, Battistini, de Luca, Jadlowker, Plancon, Paul Franz, Lev Sibiriakov, to name just a few - it's striking that their singing always sounds effortless.

    Unfortunately, over the past century, audiences have grown used to singers who make a lot of noise, and sound effortful doing so. I can't remember the last time I heard a Brunnhilde who didn't sound like she was in extremis at the beginning of Act 2 of Walkure, or at the end of Siegfried, or during virtually all of Gotterdammerung. I suspect that if Frida Leider showed up in 2020, most audience members would dismiss her as "too light".
    The other factor to consider when we listen to recordings is the quality and detail of the recording. A modern recording captures infinitely more detail than one made even as recently as the 1970s and 80s. It's quite possible that the singers who we think are effortless and lacked 'huffing and puffing' were actually 'huffing and puffing', but the recording equipment didn't capture the detail in the same manner as modern equipment. The sound systems that we listen on also make a significant difference - modern equipment is able to reproduce sound far more accurately than the systems from a few decades ago.

    I find most early recordings almost unbearable, not due to the singers, but down to the abysmal reproduction of sound that was available. I have a recording of Armida with Callas that is absolutely unbearable, even the orchestral sound is uneven and the vocals are appalling. I have yet to hear a recording from the Callas era that I can really enjoy, because the deficiencies in the reproduction detract from the singing. This causes me to wonder how many of the posters on this forum were alive when Callas was at her peak and actually experienced a live performance??

    As Callas died before I started school I never heard her live and can't comment on how good (or not) she was in comparison to any of the current generation due to the vastly superior recordings that we can create today.

    Live performances are in short supply right now, but I've seen productions with many of the current generation (Bartoli, Fleming, Villazon, Florez, Pettibon, and others) in various venues and have not found any of them lacking in any way. All have delivered great singing and acting performances (especially Florez).

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