Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The cult of the tenor

What is it about tenors? Perhaps it's because there aren't that many good ones around; scarcity adding value. Or is it that the sound of a good tenor can be one of the most thrilling? I admit to finding a good countertenor more thrilling, and a bass-baritone more exciting, but the world, it seems, does not agree with me. Almost all operatic heroes (or antiheroes) are tenors – Don Giovanni, Figaro and Baroque operas aside, perhaps – just as all operatic heroines are sopranos. It may be that there are too many opera companies with too many productions needing too many tenors for the world to supply. So the good ones tend to get too stretched, and begin performing roles for which they are not suited.

In Britain, for example, the most natural "voice" for a man is baritone, but I suspect that this is true for most nationalities. And perhaps this is why tenors are so feted: they have unnatural voices*. It's not a modern phenomenon, with its idolising of Pavarotti (a very fine singer but an indifferent musician), Carreras (once a good singer) and Domingo (a very good singer with intelligence and musicianship). Not to mention the pretenders, like Andrea Bocelli, and (gulp!) Russell Watson. Caruso was adored, though to modern ears his recordings, which were made when technology was primitive and he was not at the peak of his career, are somewhat ropey, and his acting mannered. Bryn Terfel, who has now reached the status of "national treasure" is about the only bass-baritone who has anywhere near the same following.

Opera, at least in this country, has never had a huge following, especially compared to the fanatical devotion it inspired in Italy. In the early nineteenth century Milan, for example, private meetings at home were banned, and so the Milanese met instead at La Scala, visiting a single production probably more than once a week. It wasn't just the elite who attended, either, and the audiences were knowledgeable, having no hesitation in complaining if the opera was not up to their standards. The booing off of Roberto Alagna, in the current production of Aida, is a modern manifestation of this. However, it does appear that the booing was not spontaneous and had been orchestrated. Still, by most accounts, Alagna did not sing the role well, and has been replaced in the current run. I haven't heard Alagna sing, but like many opera stars nowadays, he is probably over-singing, and damaging his voice as result. 'Lunchtime O'Boulez', for example (Private Eye's music commentator) remarks in the current issue:

"It was reported throughout the world as (literally) a hissy fit. But the truth is that many at La Scala were expecting him not to turn up in the first place. For years now Alagna has been pushing his voice into roles that don't suit it, with consequent damage."

Coincidentally, Alagna's wife, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, also pulled out of her engagement to sing in Don Carlos at Covent Garden. She is another example of a singer who is singing too much, though her pulling out of Don Carlos suggests that she has recognised this. So what makes singers travel the world for a single evening's recital, flying to Vienna one day and to New York the next? It can't be good for their voices or their stamina. In the days before air travel, opera stars did travel widely, but they took days to get to the next opera house, and they would sing there for several weeks. Alagna should have taken a leaf from Domingo's book – the veteran Spanish tenor still sings, but has retreated to minor roles or short engagements, and spends much of his time in directing opera, where his knowledge and experience must be inspiring. But is it the modern world's increasing lust after celebrity that makes people follow the famous singer, irrespective of his or her true talent?

*In fact, one could argue that all opera singers have unnatural voices – no normal person could fill an opera house with their voice, unaided, unamplified, and over an orchestra.


At Wed Dec 20, 01:46:00 am, Blogger First Nations said...

spot on.
and beautifully put.
i had such a crush on pav! in his heyday, nobody could touch that voice or that manner. his self assurance and masculinity and total mastery of his music...damn. i have many of his recordings and even in the inferior ones his voice is like a diamond. my husband actually got jealous, though he'd never admit it in a million years.
remember the Three Tenors furor? nobody could touch the pav. domingo didn't even belong on the same stage.
*blithers on*
ps- it is SO BLUE over at my place...now might not be a good time for a reciprocal visit. anyway, this was so, so great tam!


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