RECENTLY WE TALKED WITH FOUR OF CANADA'S MOST RENOWNED SINGERS ABOUT THE WAYS OPERA HAS CHANGED SINCE THEIR CAREERS BEGAN IN THE 1940S (TENOR LEOPOLD SIMONEAU AND SOPRANO PIERRETTE ALARIE) AND '50S (SOPRANO MAUREEN FORRESTER AND BASS JOSEPH ROULEAU). A COMMON THREAD EMERGED THROUGH THESE CONVERSATIONS. ALL AGREE THAT TELEVISION HAS HAD A TREMENDOUS INFLUENCE ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF OPERA, AND ALL BELIEVE THAT, FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, THE DIRECTOR HAS BECOME THE STAR OF THE SHOW. FOLLOWING IS AN EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF THE DISCUSSION.
OPERA CANADA: WHAT IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT CHANGE IN OPERA OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREERS?
LEOPOLD SIMONEAU: "My wife and I have been performing in operas since the 1940s, so in this period, opera has gone through some very important changes. That is the natural evolution of the art form. In the late 19th century, the singer was the king of the opera, the star. That changed with Mahler and Toscanini; the conductor became more important, and opera became a musical event. In the post-World War II era, the orientation has changed again towards the visual. Now you talk about Sellars' operas rather than Mozart's."
PIERRETTE ALARIE: "The culprit is the television. With television as the competition, you must present something visual over musical."
MAUREEN FORRESTER: "The public has changed--they want to hear mega-performances. They're used to the grandiose style of the Met."
JOSEPH ROULEAU: "The most important change came through television. TV had a great influence--the BBC, and PBS in the States, made mass transmission of opera to the public possible."
OC: HOW HAS THE ROLE OF THE DIRECTOR CHANGED?
JR: "There has been a great evolution in directorship since I started, influenced largely by film and television. The great directors have to evolve, they have to be different, and their success depends on their intelligence and creativity."
MF: "Now the director discusses things with the performers--has a meeting at the beginning, then artists adjust with the stage director's idea. It's up to the artist to adjust and be flexible. I'll try anything once--if it doesn't work, I'll say so."
LS: "New stage directors seem to think that composers didn't know their business. The last Carmen we saw was set in Guatemala. It is an affront to the composers."
PA: "You can rejuvenate a work without prostituting it. These days you can do technical wonders. You don't paint over a Rembrandt or a Renoir, yet some directors are trying to do just that with operas. It's still alive today, why change it now?"
OC: HAVE THE EXPECTATIONS PLACED ON SINGERS CHANGED?
PA: "Most definitely, yes. Singers today must have a big voice--theatres are so big, the orchestras are playing louder and louder--you've got to yell! Because of that, so many young singers don't last. It's shame, because there are some lovely voices which may not have a chance because they aren't big enough. As a very light coloratura, if I were to have to start again today, I could not make a career. When I made my debut at the Met, my voice was small and I could not be heard. I was much happier in Europe with the smaller spaces."
LS: "The environment for productions is totally different. For example, Carmen was created for the Opera Comique, which is a very intimate setting, as opposed to the Met with its 3,800 seats. Singers now must blow up everything to fill the space. It's destructive to everything. As Laurence Wasserman, vice-president of Thea Dispeker, Inc., lamented in a recent issue of Opera News [June 1995]: 'Let's face it, if you don't scream and sound like you are in abject pain, you don't get the audiences.'"
MF: "Generally, there used to be a distinct separation between chamber, lieder, opera and musical-theatre singers. Maybe because of television, you have to be much more versatile. Variety is much more interesting, and you have to be flexible to make a living. …