Letter to an Opera Singer

by danielgoode

July 21, 2012 11:30:45 AM EDT

Dear Kamala,

This letter about the 19th Century opera voice, is not about you, since you have at least two voices, if not three (counting your “Balkan voice”), but you and others may be able to help me with my problem.

I just finished listening to the live radio broadcast of the 3rd Act of Janacek’s fabulous “The Makropulos Case” at the Met. It has an almost deadpan libretto about an incredible (and hence impossible) situation, but still, it’s naturalist theater that requires naturalist acting from the singers. That’s a problem of a different kind I’ll leave alone for now. So, without checking, I think there are tenor, baritone, bass baritone singers in key roles. And the soprano heroine, Emilia Marty, sung by Karita Mattila, the great Finnish singer.

First the music: harmonic richness made of classical and folk elements shining through a prism of pungent orchestration. And the cut-cut lyricism: these phrases interrupted but longing for completion. Lyric montage? Yes, something like that. And modulated often with rhythmic ostinati. Or the rhythms take over. Take you over. You get it! Expression-modernism.

So this is captivating. Then an operatic voice chimes in. Mattila was the most acceptable. Her bell-like tones pleasured you so you could forget the operatic grit, which is the part of the territory I abhor. The music is now all but spoiled by those male voices, floppy-vibrato-ing all over the scale. Straining and pushing those tones to “expressive” extremes. Here is where I rebel. We are no longer in the 19th Century, and Janacek and others would be much better served if singers tried something different. First of all: curb that vibrato. Not that it has to disappear. It just has to be put back in its box and used as was originally intended as an ornament similar to the trill—in key moments, but not continuously. Well that’s the beginning. Go back to the straight voice and then start to re-inflect it from a fresh perspective. How would that sound? I don’t know, but I’m sure it would make a better mix with the sound of his orchestra, a sound which is honed to beautiful edges, and not at all like the traditional operatic voice.

Thumbnail review: May 5th, 2012.