An Expansive Query
I recently attended a recital by soprano Ana Maria Martinez shortly after having seen Simon O’Neill and Ailyn Perez in a performance of Otello at the Houston Grand Opera. I went to the recital alone and found myself seated next to a charming couple who turned out to be enthusiastic opera lovers. During the intermission, we were discussing Ms. Martinez’s fine talent as well as that recent Otello. Asked my opinion of the Otello, I spoke of its merits and faults, including Perez’s lovely Desdemona. I gave O’Neill’s voice due praise, but said his characterization had failed to arouse the deep emotions I once routinely experienced in that masterpiece’s final two acts. Previously, Johan Botha’s performances of the title role had also left me cold.
In the course of this discussion, I mentioned the overwhelming effect achieved by Jon Vickers in the five performances I had seen of his Moor in the 1970’s, as well as commenting quite favorably on various performances I had seen with James McCracken and Placido Domingo. My new friends seemed unaware of Vickers, which sparked reflections about the singers I had seen in the late ’60’s and the first half of the ’70’s, as well those I have seen in recent years. In the course of these musings, I thought of comments I had heard from readers who wondered why my essays were focused so heavily on singers of the past rather than those who are currently singing.
By now it is no secret to readers of The Ear that when it comes to singers, I have a predilection for the tenor voice. In my youth the top tenors included Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli, Nicolai Gedda and Jon Vickers, but that didn’t stop me from investigating and appreciating such past greats as Caruso, McCormack, Schipa, Melchior, Bjorling, et al. Aside from the Bel Canto specialists (a welcome trend), today’s list is headed by Jonas Kaufmann and Vittorio Grigolo. Nowadays, anyone who is an opera lover is familiar with these two and information about them abounds, as well as easy access to their recorded work through C.D.’s, You Tube, Live in H.D., etc. Anyone who cares to make the effort can see them perform, as I did a few months ago when I attended a recital by Grigolo at the Met and saw Kaufmann’s superb Werther a few days later. But how many of their fans are aware of the greatness of those on the first list above, much less the second, as well as so many other wonderful past tenors?
For decades, old-timers have bemoaned the passing of the Golden Age and predicted the end of great singing. Fortunately, they all eventually turned out to be wrong. In fact, the decade of the 1930’s was a particularly ominous period. Perhaps the only great singers to appear on the scene during the ’30’s were Kirsten Flagstad and Jussi Bjorling, who belong on anyone’s list of immortals. Just as the opera world had all but given up hope, the period beginning after the end of World War Two gave rise to a new Golden Age. This remarkable period of plenty lasted into the 1970’s, when the supply of first rate new talent began to dwindle. To return for a moment to my tenor example, how many truly great new tenors came along between the advent of the young Jose Carreras in the early ’70’s and the end of the last century? I can think of none.
Fortunately, the new century has brought us many new singers in all the voice categories, if we exclude the now seemingly extinct contralto and the true Wagnerian heldentenor. Many of these singers have helped to again raise the general quality of singing. Though the jury is still out concerning this being another Golden Age, things look promising from this vantage point.
Due to personal circumstances, the peak of my own opera-going experiences began in the late 1960’s and continued until the end of the ’80’s. Due first to “connections”, then to my professional activity, I had many personal experiences involving several opera greats as well as witnessing countless wonderful performances during those years. Schwarzkopf, Tebaldi, Nilsson, Sutherland, Price, Caballe, Horne, Ludwig, Baker, Fiescher-Dieskau, Gobbi, MacNeil, Merrill, Milnes, Siepi, Ghiaurov and all the tenors on that above list from my youth were among the many I was able to see, in most cases often, and that’s the short version of a very long list. The period starting with the first opera I attended in 1966 and extending well into the ’70’s was particularly rich, as it coincided with the last years of that long-awaited post-war resurgence. With so many now legendary names in my memory, is it any wonder that I tend to focus on that period? It almost seems an obligation, made worthwhile if even a few people discover these wonders of the relatively recent past through an interest sparked by reading these articles. There is no shortage of writings on the major singers of today, and I plan to add to that list to a certain extent. Although most of my favorite singers are no longer active, my ears and mind are always open and alert in the search for the new talent to fill the very large shoes of the great singers who live in my memory and whose voices and art can still be enjoyed by anyone who cares to investigate.
No great artist can ever be replaced, as all are unique, but some may be more “replaceable” than others. There is certainly no Wagnerian soprano now singing who can come close to matching Birgit Nilsson. Who today can rival Jon Vickers in such roles as Otello, Tristan, Aeneas, or Grimes? Who since Corelli has been really great in Turandot or Andrea Chenier, to name just two? Where is the American Verdi baritone to continue the remarkable succession which began with Lawrence Tibbett and seems to have ended with Sherrill Milnes? And so on it goes, though this is not to say that we don’t now have many wonderful singers and can always hope for new names to answer the above questions.
As for me, I plan to continue to focus primarily on the giants I was so fortunate to see and on some of the experiences associated with them and hope I am around long enough to realize that I am yet again among the lucky contemporaries of a new Golden Age.