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Subject: Re: Singers I don't get
From: albert innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:[log in to unmask]
Date:Wed, 23 Dec 1998 01:22:53 -0500
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My problem with this thread is that it conflates and confuses two
discrete categories of experience. One is the fans' experience. There is
nothing wrong with being a fan; one may be a fan of someone who is
genuinely excellent by any standard. But finally, measurable excellence
is irrelevant to the fan. A given voice acts on a given nervous system,
usually with some fictional overlay and fantasy projection. Pleasure and
more than pleasure, a kind of sexual, obsessive investment is made. The
fan is quick to become infuriated if his/her idol is dismissed.

All of us are fans and all of us have subjective and emotional reactions
to performers, especially singers. I love Bianca Scacciati who usually
drives anyone I play her for right out of the room. I'm not at all deaf
to her faults but I forgive her. As I forgave Rysanek. I find the fans
of Bartoli and Bocelli perfectly defensible. Actually they may be more
spontaneous and joyful than the melodramatic and angry "fanship" one is
apt to see here. The huge numbers of people who buy their records, want
to. Some of the Opera-l fans are praising and promoting singers in who
no more than a relative handful of people are interested. And
occasionally they are promoting singers whose CDs they are the only
purveyors of (for which they are paid).

Sometimes this has to do with the insalubrious worship of damaged women
-- the Judy Garland syndrome. However, since for a time, Garland was a
masterful pop singer with acting ability and genuine charisma, in opera
the focus is less on verifiable talent then the hysterical male's
identification with the suffering, overlooked, scorned and incapacitated
female -- who still -- according to the fan's rule book, is "great".
Sometimes this does no harm. Someone who fixates on Magda Olivero is
perhaps a little tin-eared when it comes to pitch (I am not but I love
her) but is still honoring a remarkable and singular phenomenon who
despite physical limitations gave many powerful performances and whose
Met debut displayed more vocal authority in a big house than one would
have expected her to have. Virginia Zeani and Leyla Gencer likewise were
fill fledged professionals who sustained long careers in demanding roles
in upper echelon opera houses. But the damaged woman syndrome in opera
has two extremes; one is the fetishizing of the seriously damaged
performer who may be sincere but just isn't any good. And the other is
the reduction -- of professional will, hard work, intense self
sacrifice, a genius for self-invention from timbre to persona -- to
incidentals. What really attracts the male fan is the abused, sexually
bereft, seriously flawed wreck at the end of a roller coaster career.
Maria Callas is the obvious target of this. What is "wrong" with that is
what is wrong with all cults. Anthing measurable and objective, anything
relevant in a real context is diminished or abandoned for the fetishes
used by the cult to worship. Secondly, it is amateurish. And it usually
is the amateurs who belong to these cults. What is most relevant to a
musician is not relevant to them. What finally doesn't matter -- the
private life (as though that can be known with any certainty) is far
more important than the professional ability. We will all die, and most
of us will screw up a lot before then. But only a Callas or a Gould or a
Horowitz can perform miracles for a time in an intractable art form.
That's what's important. What she did or did not do to Ari in the back
seat of a car after a Medea is not.

This I believe has lead to the marginalization of singing. The Bjorling
thread is bothersome not because a given individual has no right to
prefer another tenor, or even to "not get" Bjorling. The problem is the
notion -- universal among widely published critics -- that it's all just
screaming anyway. That good even adequate singing is solely in the ear
of whomever, that there can be no objective assessment of a singer and
therefore the singer isn't really important.

Opera-suspicious critics dismiss singers and focus on conductors for
this reason. They saw no reason to learn how to hear an opera singer
because they thought there was nothing to hear that mattered. What for a
time was important was the conductor and the version. But with a static
rep, even that has become boring. We've heard all ninety hours of Boris
with the Mussorgsky orchestration (touched up as minimally as possible),
everybody opens all the cuts in most Italian and all German operas and
there are no charismatic conductors. Once you've gone from Toscanini's
Otello to Furtwaengler with stops at C.Kleiber, Von Karajan, Solti in
between, with all those men being imitated by their lessers, not much is
left to surprise you at the fiftieth Otello of your life -- but the
production. Set it on a trampoline and give Desdemona a Callas Tattoo --
isn't that interesting -- for twenty seconds. The authentic experience
of any opera, the ability of the human voice to carry the unspeakable
into the invisible parts of humans has been lost. Has been thought
ridiculous.

This is disastrous for young singers. One may not listen with pleasure
to Bjorling. But he was a perfect lyric tenor. His voice is in perfect
balance, is beautifully produced on the breath and retains a glorious
color and evident ease throughout the range on all notes, high and low.
His legato is seamless; he declamation, though it doesn't have spinto
depth of tone, has a glancing brilliance and thrust available to only
the most responsive voice. And the voice itself is music. The method of
singing itself becomes a function of the musical experience, like the
melody and the harmony. Bjorling is intrinsically expressive because his
singing as singing is -- he doesn't need to sob or fake or choke to get
an emotion across. But when those things are not registered as things to
be aspired to by every tenor (even by fans who secretly prefer
Fillipeschi or Borso) then the notion that singing is more than yelping
over a large orchestra and hoping for the best, that it is central to
the art form, basic to what opera is, gets lost.

In some of the posts here and elsewhere, surprisingly from some old
timers, I see what I judge to be contempt for art, and for the form.
Camp has overtaken everything; seriousness is suspect and the impulsive
hysterical self-projections of the peculiar take precedence over
everything. The mediocre and worse (including those who should and could
have been better) are exalted but they convince only their weird
groupies. And truly great singers are reduced to Joan Collins clones
(Maria Callas) or shrugged off (Bjorling.) An art form that comes down
to the histrionic and self advertising demonstrations of a small crew of
cultists is not an art form, and I don't think it will survive, or will
matter if it does.

Albert Innaurato

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