Magazine article Opera Canada

Singing Now & Then: We May Listen Fondly to the Great Voices of the Past, but Were They Really Any Better?

Magazine article Opera Canada

Singing Now & Then: We May Listen Fondly to the Great Voices of the Past, but Were They Really Any Better?

Article excerpt

Despite the excitement over the Millennium Opera Gala, featuring many of Canada's most prominent singers, the debate over the current state of singing everywhere still rages among opera enthusiasts. Some think we've never had it so good. Others argue that we're suffering from a decline in standards, pointing to singers from earlier times as their models. Such pessimists mourn the loss of a mythical "golden age" of heroic Wagner and Verdi specialists, for example, or believe that singers today lack individuality and grandeur. Yet, as one wise impresario once proclaimed, "There is no golden age of singing like the present one"--responding, perhaps, to every generation's tendency to idealize the vocal past.

In light of such continuing debate, Opera Canada asked a team of experts directly involved in the demanding world of operatic training and performing for their views on how singing might have changed over the years and how it might change in the future. All proudly confessed their enthusiastic biases where Canadian talent is concerned, and all (with one possible exception) declared positively that Canadians are living in an operatic golden age, even if they fail to recognize or acknowledge it. Or, as artists' representative/mezzo-soprano Carrol Anne Curry puts it, "Every era makes different demands on its singers. Every era mints its own gold."

Vocal coach/musical director Dixie Ross Neill echoes this thought as she prepares for a student production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann at McGill University in Montreal. "Canadians need to stop feeling inferior about their singing artists," she says. "We are sending gold out from Canada to all parts of the operatic world."

The proliferation of Canadian singers on international stages is one unmistakable change that has occurred over the last 50 years or so. Another is the vocal scene itself, which has undergone some subtle alterations over the years. As esteemed vocal coach and Opera in Concert founder Stuart Hamilton recalls, "When I was growing up, the operatic stages were dominated by big voices," he says. "Singers like Callas, Tebaldi and Corelli were almost larger-than-life stereotypes. But after the '50s and '60s, things settled down. A whole new generation of lyrical voices came into being, and they were very good. People settled for less-big voices and a subtler, more lyrical approach." Referring to the Handel revival that's currently underway, Hamilton adds, "We need--and have come to admire--these lighter, early-music-specialist voices. In the early days of OinC, I couldn't find enough Handel singers to revive his operas. The stellar casting of OinC's Alcina last fall demonstrated how far we've progressed in this kind of singing."

Artists' representative/tenor Henry Ingram concurs in the praise for a new generation of early-music specialists: "We can now hear early-opera composers as they should sound--and probably did to their contemporaries. Baroque music is now as good as it ever has been, and the recent flowering in the German repertoire is cause for joy." Hamilton, too, sees encouraging changes in Wagnerian singing by the likes of Ben Heppner: "He's impeccable musically, and his approach to the music is more lyrical than his predecessors with huge voices."

All our experts commented on the increasingly important role that opera schools and young-singers' programs are playing in the formation of good artists. As Carrol Anne Curry points out, "There's a highly developed infrastructure that benefits young singers: programs like the COC Ensemble and its Opera de Montreal counterpart. The results are now showing up in the most recent generation of young artists."

As an educator himself, as well as a musician, Stephen Ralls, head of the University of Toronto's Opera Division, emphasizes the enduring need for technique, a need that was echoed by all: "Young singers arriving at opera school don't always have the technical grounding they require to succeed. …

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