Opera: The enemy within

I am not a singer by trade and even otherwise would not call myself one.  But I do sing a fair bit in my free time and have taken time to read (or watch) the extensive amount of literature on proper vocal function available on the internet.  I have learnt that many of the principles taught by Western voice instructors are essentially based on bel canto and, to satisfy my curiosity, listened to the great opera singers and read up on them (though, emotionally, that kind of singing is not really for me).

A theme I have noticed in recent writing on opera is the multitude of rants by opera singers or followers of opera against the trend of some singers masquerading as opera singers when, apparently, they are not.   It goes like this:  somebody (say Jackie Evancho or Andrew De Leon) sings a classical aria (usually Nessun Dorma!) on a reality TV show and instantly get incredible airtime and the kind of youtube hits that only Psy can hope to best.   In short, they get popular ‘overnight’ while opera singers toil day in day out (singing without a mike, please note) with little recognition.  Said critics are at pains to point out that merely singing a classical aria with a so called operatic sound (and there’s no such thing as that, to be very precise) does not make one an opera singer.  I have some views about this, which I’d like to elaborate on.  Yeah, a rant of my own.

First off, I do agree with the limited point made by the critics (much to the consternation of Jackie’s millions of devotees, I presume).   The point is well taken that merely singing an aria with that supposedly serious and ‘big’, ‘mature’ tone does not make one an opera singer.  As I said before, opera singers have to sing without amplification and still project their voice in a hall.   With my limited knowledge of singing, I can still appreciate the difficulty of this.

Meantime, I’d like to point out two things.  (1) ‘We’ who sing rock/pop and such other light music also sing over instruments that are ‘amp-ed’ (usually in a very loud and intrusive way with near zero dynamic range if you’re in India) so unless you have a very helpful engineer, your voice would get drowned out unless you project your voice properly.  So I’d contest the lofty claim made by some opera followers that non-classical singers do not know how to sing.  There’s no doubt, though, that a non classical singer would likely find it very difficult to project voice as well as an opera singer without amplification.  (2) Projection of voice in classical singing is also about acoustics, not just volume.  When I once watched a mezzo soprano sing arias with piano and had a good seat, she was very clearly audible to me, every nuance of it.   But when I watched a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9 in a hall with seats arranged in an incline, I found it harder to grasp the details of their singing.  When the acoustics of the venue are favourable, they aid the task of the opera singer.

This is not to take away from the difficulty of what they do and they are indeed the super-athletes of the singing world.  I have no reservations in echoing that claim made of their talents.   I can sympathise with their angst at seeing the technical excellence of their craft being devalued as opera somehow comes to stand for a ‘sound’ rather than a technique, a very demanding one, of singing.  But I’d like to probe into the source of this confusion.   How did the public get familiar enough with opera to hail somebody who sings an aria as a special talent?

To answer this question, I reflected on how I myself got familiar with the word ‘opera’ long before I really began to get any handle over what it really was.   To be precise, who were the first few names that I recognised as opera singers and why.   Why, Luciano Pavarotti, of course, and the famous football stadium concerts.

And this is important.   The person who popularised the notion of opera as a sound or style rather than vocal function was somebody from,er, the fraternity.  Not all alone, of course, they were three of a crowd.  The Three Tenors – Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo.   Domingo is quoted thus, “I understand the complaints of the purists. But I do not want purists to go to the Three Tenors”.  So much, then, for respect for the core fanbase.

I will choose not to infer whether the whole thing was orchestrated in pursuit of commercial success and $$$ or a genuinely noble desire to spread the word about opera and take it to the masses.   But the point is, it is a dilution of what opera is essentially about.  Singing with amplification at Dodger stadium is not opera.  The catch, unfortunately, is that the singers indulging in this were tenors and three of the very best in the history of opera at that.   It immediately conferred tremendous legitimacy on ‘opera-genre’ singing and made the other, sweaty, hard working kind of opera relatively irrelevant, except of course to loyal opera followers.

And yet, while The Three Tenors business was criticised in some quarters at the time, I do not see nearly the same amount of scorn heaped on the singers who executed it as on little, innocent Jackie Evancho.   She is just a kid, most probably doing what somebody said she should.  The three gentlemen however knew all about opera and therefore knew what they were doing.

And where does opera go from here?  They could take a tough view and disown the legacy of Pavarotti but perhaps the individual has (had) already become larger than his chosen field in this case and to disown him might be to disown opera.   Whole hearted acceptance of this might pave, well, an Autobahn to stardom for the Evanchos and opera might as well cease to exist.  And so, they choose not to talk about Three Tenors when the conversation is about Pavarotti and to condemn the Evanchos in the hope of educating readers about ‘real’ opera.  Ah, but when the greatest superstar of ‘real’ opera is not satisfied with the real thing, then what do you do?

The irony is that the masses still recognise that opera implies something difficult even if they may not process the technical reasons why.  Also, the answer given by those who dislike these exhortations by critics not to call it opera is uncannily similar to Domingo’s words, “At least a few more million people would have heard about opera because of him/her.  Be happy and quit being resentful.”    Dare I say it, but this is typical of the uncomfortable dilemmas Westerners (in particular, those attempting to stand for ideals of some sort) seem to face more and more often lately.   Perhaps, the time for “Do as I say” is over and more of “Do as I do” is the need of the hour.  I am thankful I got to acquire invaluable knowledge about singing from the right people rather than mountebanks masquerading as experts.   I hope that that will be possible in the distant future as well but that would depend on enlightened leadership making the right choices rather than picking a fall guy to blame.

P.S:  I am not a big believer in bashing a strawman and I did not. So I am going to link the articles that I referred to here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susanne-mentzer/opera-voices_b_1834809.html

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/stevesilverman/100061641/katherine-jenkins-hasnt-got-the-voice-or-the-technique-to-sing-opera-so-why-does-she-pretend-that-she-can/

http://www.trcommons.org/2011/06/prodigy-or-why-i-don%E2%80%99t-like-jackie-evancho/

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