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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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Ultimately, it is the sound of the singing human voice at its most powerful and expressive, its most carefully trained and precise that affects us in opera beyond everything else. Any aesthetic of opera, any serious attempt to explain its appeal or potential success that ignores the fact of the singer—even the often-derided star singer—will be fatally flawed. The human voice, it has been said, is "the instrument for which all others are metaphors." The vox humana stop on an organ, the most clever electronic synthesizer produces only the feeblest of imitations. The difference between opera and other forms of music, between opera and nonmusical drama, is that the chief performers sing.

I have read works by singers and voice teachers, by musicologists and aestheticians and opera historians; but none of them explained to my satisfaction the compelling power that great voices singing opera have over susceptible listeners like me.

Since many people remain unmoved by, even displeased by such voices, and since all human beings have at least similar bodies, I feel uncomfortable attributing this power to a physiological source. But reflecting on my experiences at good, loud, highly amplified rock concerts, where one feels that one's personal identity has been overcome by and dissolved in the sound, I wonder if the "seizing" power of great operatic singing may not have something to do with the resonant vibrations it creates in us: the very tangible, rapid pulses we feel in our own skulls, and sometimes deeper through our bodies, set off by the powerful vibrations of a fine singer's voice. From these inescapable vibrations inside our heads—which may lead us to feel as if we were making the great noise, as if it were coming from inside us—we may go on to experience the feeling of an intimate physical resonance


between the singer and ourselves, between her (and sometimes his) body and our own, which gives to the experience a quality that is at once liberating and erotic.[21]

Great operatic voices do appear to "flow," in an intense and liquid outpouring, sometimes in an outburst or a jet, which then arouses our vital juices: in the same way that the beat, pulse, and pumping of music generally appear to engage the natural inner rhythms of our breathing or pulse, lead us irresistibly to sway, beat time, "conduct," tap our feet. As Peter Conrad—a connoisseur of voluptuous operatic sensations—once wrote, air is resonating only from the diaphragm to the head, "but the whole body sounds."

For reasons I cannot understand or explain, I sometimes find myself staring with unnatural intensity at a performer in an opera who is singing exceptionally well, as if to sharpen and focus my attention, not to miss a single pulse of his or her music; as if we were related in some intimate emotional way. I catch myself either foolishly beaming or near to tears, not because of the joy or plight of the character, but because I have been moved beyond any reasonable, critical response by the simple, sensual fact of the quality and vibrations of a human voice. "The singing voice," writes Conrad, "inordinate in its power and somehow miraculous as the production of a single human body, infuses the world with the vibrancy of its emotion."

Insofar as such an intimate communion is created between our body and the singer's, we may enjoy the enhanced feeling of a "better self"; we have escaped, however temporarily, the pitiable self that we know cannot make such sounds, or create such thrilling vibrations. We can also both marvel at and (to a degree) share the singer's sensual and dangerous self-exposure. To every live actor's risk of forgetting lines or blowing a scene is added the singer's special burden of remembering hundreds of bars of music, and performing them all musically as well as dramatically—which often involves the most extraordinary, matadorlike physical challenges to a voice going at full throttle and fully exposed. ("It's exactly like a bullfight," Luciano Pavarotti has said. "You are not allowed one mistake.")

Many public performers taking great risks, or doing difficult and admirable things (which includes acrobats as well as actors) can compel our attention and admiration. In a few cases (athletes throwing, batting, kicking, diving) our admiration is enhanced by the "body English" through which our own anatomy feels itself sharing or duplicating the gestures of the performer. (My guess is this happens more rarely with dancers and actors, unless the observer is also a dancer or


an actor.) In the case of a great opera singer, I believe that, to a person susceptible to her powers (less frequently his: tenors strive; sopranos soar), all of these characteristics combine to achieve a unique and compelling effect. To sum up what I think are the sources of a great singer's hold on us:

1. The person on stage is doing something at once extraordinarily rare and difficult (reason itself for admiration), and extraordinarily beautiful.

2. The source of the beauty is not a page or a painting, but a person like us.

3. This person like us is making a sound more beautiful than any musical instrument can do, which enhances our sense of human greatness.

4. The sound is intimately affecting, both because it comes from an organ we ourselves possess, and because it creates resonant vibrations in us.

Anyway, that's one theory. Whatever the actual reason, or reasons, for the power that great operatic voices have over people susceptible to them, it is this power that in the end provides the ultimate justification for "grand" or "international class" or "superstar" opera; opera sung by great vocal actors with one-in-a-million voices. However well performed and produced, opera done with second-class voices can never wholly justify the medium or explain its survival. "From the performative standpoint, vocal brilliance or orchestral sumptuousness must take precedence over a composer's or a performer's fidelity to the text," comments Herbert Lindenberger. As F. M. Dana says, "The experience of opera without stars has always seemed incomplete."

Take that element [i.e., the star singer at center stage] out—the set designers will become architects, the clothes designers will become couturiers, the composer will compose beautiful music, the librettist will go off and write novels and poetry—but without the performer standing on stage, there is no reason to be in that theatre.

This is also why I believe the standard eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertory operas (however dramatically inadequate many of them may be), operas written specifically and melodiously for the human voice at its most beautiful and expressive, will remain the standards as long as opera as we know it survives.

Although I am sure that some form of matadorlike or acrobatic—that is, exposed, difficult, dangerous—physical exhibitionism contributes to our delight in great singing, I reserve the right to say no to mere vocal display: to the notoriously "treacherous" high notes (most of them introduced as applause traps by late-


nineteenth-century singers; I have come to dread the endings of many famous Italian arias); to the tricky filigree of minutely chopped runs and trills; to singers who go on and on, like underwater swimmers, without taking a breath. All of these lead the listener to wonder primarily how on earth the performer does it—the same response we have to a circus sideshow contortionist, or to those Chinese acrobats who balance asymmetrical piles of furniture and plates on their heads. The explosion of applause that inevitably follows, and that has come to seem almost a part of the music, is in large part an expression of relief that the singer made it all of the way up or all of the way through.

Peter Conrad's remarks on Maria Callas in this regard seem to me just, and to define the difference between a clever mechanical nightingale and a true singing actress.

At every point [in Lucia di Lammermoor ] the acrobatics are glossed as mental reactions. during her 'Quanto rapita' monologue, Lucia ornaments the words 'eterna fe.' The gesture isn't showy; it's reflective and internal. . . . Her mad scene is an episode of recondite sonic research. . . . Singing of a 'dolce suono' in a voice which is girlishly pure, Callas lyrically retreats to a mad second childhood. When a high note on the word for alter oscillates out of control, it does so because it has taken off from the human register, and is echoing the vast vacancy within Lucia's mind. Lucia chases echoes until, in the glassy, unphysical sound Callas makes during her concert with the flute, she herself becomes one: an acoustic specter; Orpheus insane but in tune.

I admit to being susceptible both to sheer vocalise—beautiful voices, agile, able, controlled, singing beautiful music—and great, expressive vocal acting of the sort Conrad here describes. If, on the whole, I tend to give higher marks to the latter, it is because it engages more of me in a performance.

But I see no reason to decide permanently between two such extraordinary sources of pleasure. Nor do I see any point, as many opera fans (and fanatics) insist on doing, in trying to make minute distinctions of quality between singers who are often almost equally good, or to bewail the tact that they are not Ponselles or Carusos or Flagstads. Part of the reason for attending operas as often and in as many different places as possible is to hear and see a variety of good singers performing the same roles. The experience (like that of seeing a variety of productions of the same opera) inevitably enlarges one's conception of the original work.

What makes a great voice is something I won't even try to address. In twenty-three years of reviewing opera performances, I have tended to steer clear of what one might consider "voice coaches' terms"—head and chest voice, squillo and portamento, Fach and tessitura, the physiological details of breath control—in trying to describe and evaluate particular voices. I have made use instead either of


terms we can all clearly understand, such as "accuracy of pitch," "control of dynamics" (i.e., volume), "wobble" or "vibrato," along with metaphors by which I hope to communicate something of my own felt experience.[22] I find I use a lot of metallic metaphors (golden, silver, bronze) as well as words like "pearl" or "jewel" to convey both the "ringing" and the "precious" quality of individual sung notes. "Steely" is usually pejorative, though I have applied it to Callas, whom I admire. Words such as "dark," "mahogany," "grainy," or "nightingale" are meant to evoke other sounds and timbres. I find I use liquid references to describe a "flowing" continuity of beauty in control. Ideally, I seek out images that convey simultaneously the musical and dramatic qualities of a voice, which is, of course, the way we receive them.

Opera may have begun with politely declaiming gentleman-amateurs standing around a harpsichord or a consort of viols. But it quickly evolved into a singers-first medium, which is now the way most people perceive it. The attention paid to great singers by critics and fans, the scrupulous attention paid in reviews to vocal qualities (more attention than is given, as a rule, to dramatic, orchestral, or overall theatrical qualities) are not just star fodder for voice freaks. The staging of a great human voice, well trained and well used, can affect us, as I have tried to suggest, in an overpowering and yet intimate way, quite apart from any dramatic context. But when a combination of such voices is used as the basic vehicle for a potentially moving human drama, when each voice is given (and supported by) distinctive music that provides an opportunity for apt emotional expression, the result can create, open up, and invite us into a represented human world as no other form of narrative or expressive art can do.

Opera in general works (when it works) because (I) it tends, of theatrical necessity, to concentrate its best moments on episodes of extreme, unqualified, even essential human emotion; (2) it has a more direct, intense, and immediate means of communicating emotion (and of moving us to emotion) than nonmusical drama; (3) it has a more obvious and affecting relationship to the lives we lead (as lovers, loners, fools, romantics) than does "absolute" music, detached as the latter is from any carnal human story; and (4) it is the most complex, challenging, and demanding form of public performance. Opera has the ability to attack us with the combined power of three or four art forms (and popular spectacles) at once. A full-length play, a three-hour orchestral concert, frequently a ballet, a pageant or parade, a choral concert, and (depending on the designer) a certain amount of painting and sculpture may all be contained within one ordinary opera. It


is so difficult to pull all of this together, in fact, to pull it all off, that when the production of an opera works, or nearly works, what is "working" is something grander and more complex than any other form of public performance.

The deep and ultimately inexplicable pleasure of music—especially that of the vox humana —can lead to a sublime and satisfying transcendence after even the most devastating of stories. In The Magic Mountain , Thomas Mann describes the profound satisfaction, even ecstasy, that Hans Castorp receives from listening (on a recording) to the closing scene of Aida —and what operagoer can deny feeling it?—even though he was contemplating two lovers about to suffocate to death. Morally evil characters become tolerable through their music. Even though we know better, even though his own characters may belie it, an opera by Mozart can convince us (for a while) that the world is indeed a balanced, equable, humane place, where the worst of human feelings and the most extreme of human differences can find resolution and reconciliation. The subverbal, nonrational pleasure we are taking in the music itself, and the sound of singing voices, very frequently makes the world created by an opera during performance simply seem better than that same world depicted without music, let alone the messy, unstructured world to which we return when the curtain goes down. Peter Hall, who has very successfully directed both operas and plays, speculates that "music, because it has no literal meaning, is immediately emotional. Music immediately charges the proceedings with a sensuality and an atmosphere which is much stronger and more electric than the spoken word. . . . I think that's why people applaud for half an hour at opera, and almost never applaud for half an hour at plays. It's not that the experience of a play is any less exciting. . . . It's just that their adrenalin and emotions are high at opera."


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Chapter One— Introduction: The Difference Is They Sing
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