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Everything you wanted to know about the castrati but were afraid to ask

Martha Feldman. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.

There is a great deal that is fantastic and strange about opera. The virtuosic singing, the orchestration, the high drama of the plots, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and so much more. But all of those elements, even at their most extreme, pale in comparison to the phenomenon of the castrati. It is hard to wrap our post-modern heads around the very idea that parents had their sons castrated to preserve their beautiful voices in the hopes of an operatic, or at least cathedral choir, career. But they did. And this phenomenon lasted in opera for over 200 years and continued for decades longer in the major Italian cathedrals (especially at the Vatican). How did this go on for so long and more importantly why?

Most English language sources on this topic have been disappointing until recently. In part, writers were unable to hide their (admittedly understandable) disgust at the topic. So, for a couple of centuries the topic has been glossed over with a few ridiculous caricature drawings and one acoustical recording being all most students of music history learned about these singers who were widely reported as the best singers of their time and perhaps the greatest singers to ever grace the operatic stages. 

Fortunately, we now have some new sources, the best of which is Martha Feldman’s The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. If you are only going to go to one source to understand the phenomenon of the operatic castrato, it should be this book. Feldman remedies so much of the distorted narrative of the past by taking an interdisciplinary approach in her research. For example, when looking for answers to what procedures were performed and where, she doesn’t just quote Burney (who tried and failed to find an answer) but looks to research into Italian medical practices of the time. In her research she found several documents related to surgeons who had performed the castrations.

She also explores the social lives and financial circumstances of the castrati. She even digs into the relationship between the most famous of all the castrati Farinelli and the Italian librettist Metastasio. She also probes the problems of their legacies since they had no direct heirs. Property, mementos and important documents were mostly lost after relatives squabbled over estates and sold off anything of value. Their legacies often crumbled to dust soon after their deaths. (In spite of that, there are at least two recent biographies of castrati as well as a very old one of Farinelli. I can recommend Roger Freitas’s Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage and Music in the Life of Atto Melani, 2009.) 

Perhaps the biggest question about the castrati is “What did they sound like?” To a certain extent we will never truly know. We only have one acoustical recording of a castrato and not one of the great ones (more on that next week). But we do have descriptions from many sources detailing the glories of their singing (and in some cases mocking them mercilessly). 

And finally, we have their artistic legacy. They are among the first voice teachers to publish their methods and in doing so created much of the foundations of what we still teach today as bel canto technique. They raised the level of what was expected from singers both musically and technically. They are in many ways the first virtuosi. Instrumentalists like Paganini and Liszt would reinvent the playing of their instruments in order to compete with the glory of the singing of the castrati (and later the tenors, contraltos and sopranos they tutored). The legacy of their art lives on in the music of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti even though only Rossini wrote a role for a castrato. Their manner of singing continued after the last one (Velluti) left the stage in 1830. 

This is an essential source for anyone studying opera up through the bel canto era. One of the best things about this book is the generous inclusion of portraits, drawings and other visual resources that paint a far clearer picture of the castrati than the handful of exaggerated caricatures used in almost every book about opera. We have long needed a thorough, insightful look at this phenomenon and this is it. It’s a must-read. 

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The Paper Trail of an Impresario

Marcello De Angelis. Le Carte dell’impresario: Melodramma e Costume Teatrale nell’ottocento. Firenze: G.-C. Sansoni, 1982.

Last week I wrote about Bel Canto Bully in which author Philip Eisenbeiss provides a detailed portrait of the bel canto era’s most important impresario, Domenico Barbaja, whose career was extraordinary but not typical of most impresarios of the time. A more typical impresario provided a troop of singers with a bill of 2-3 operas for a particular season: Carnevale (December 26 – Mardi Gras), Lent, Spring, Summer or Fall. (Note: During this period at least, theaters were open during the seasons of Lent and Advent!)  The company arrived  rehearsed and prepared and performed operas from their repertoire and then typically moved on to another town for the next season. This provided opera to smaller cities like Lucca, Senigallia, Trieste, etc. This was typical of most opera presented on the Italian peninsula in the first half of the 19th century.

There were several of these impresarios during that era, one of whom left behind a great many letters and documents which were acquired by the Biblioteca Nationale Centrale di Firenze in 1887 and are housed there. According to De Angelis, the collection was quite disorganized when he first encountered it and consisted of about 15,000 letters including many from the great singers of that time including Tadolini, Strepponi, Pasta, Moriani, Tacchinardi, Ungher, Lablache, Duprez and many others. They cover a 30-year period from about 1820 to 1850 and concern many Italian theaters including La Scala, La Fenice, San Carlo, Filarmonica di Verona, Communale di Bologna, Municipale di Reggio Emilia, Sociale di Mantova, as well as minor theaters like the Cannobiana in Milan, Siena, Padova, Pisa, Livorno and many others. De Angelis observes that they document a “rigidly vertical and paternalistic structure” with complex rules. This was the opera world of the bel canto era. (p. 8)

I should mention at this point that the book is entirely in Italian. This will present a challenge to many readers, as it did to me, but this is an extraordinarily useful resource for information about singers and composers of this era as well as the structure of theatrical life in Italy during this period. Anyone researching Gabriel Duprez (as I am) or Giuseppina Strepponi will find information here not in many (if any) English language resources. It will be worth any researcher’s time to translate the relevant paragraphs in order to obtain such information. That was certainly true in my case.

Alessandro Lanari was born in San Marcello on January 25, 1787. As a businessman he hired many relatives to work in his company, especially his son Antonio, who studied law and became a principal collaborator with his father. He also hired his brother and sister and many other relatives. In addition to theatrical management, he operated a successful costume business and that proved to be the most lasting and stable of his enterprises, supplying many of the costumes used in Italian theaters at the time. 

In addition to showing us how theatrical life in 19th century Italy was structured, we also see the many difficulties of life at the time. Travel between cities was long and treacherous. Before there were railroads it was necessary to travel by carriage on terrible roads. The passage across the Alps was especially treacherous. Thieves were common, and in one instance Lanari and his fellow travelers were accosted in an incident which left several of the robbers dead. Lanari, however, escaped unharmed. There is also some detail of the problems with the cholera outbreaks in Italy in the 1830s which made travel and even the shipping of scores and costumes impossible for months at a time. 

The final section is a detailed of the various troupes that Lanari sent to various opera companies for each season along with repertoire and casting. (Sadly, the singers are listed but not which roles they sang, although in most cases it is not difficult to determine who would have sung what.) For example: the 1831-32 Carnevale Season at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan consisted of the world premiere of Bellini’s Norma (!), along with Pacini’s Il corsaro, Rossini’s Otello, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as well as the world premieres of Donizetti’s Ugo, conte di Parigi and Pugno’s La vendetta with a troupe that included Domenico Donzelli, Giulia Grisi, Negrini, and Giuditta Pasta. (Imagine looking forward to that as an opera season!) The benefit of this kind of programming was that if any of the productions proved unpopular, performances could be replaced with a more successful one. 

There is so much of interest in these documents and easily enough for several more books and articles (like Sandro Corti’s ”Gilbert-Louis Duprez: Le Lettere (1833-1850) nell’Archivio dell’Impresario Alessandro Lanari” (found in Ottocento e oltre: Scritti in onore di Raoul Meloncelli (Rome: Editoriale Pantheon, 1993: 277-318) that is made up of annotated transcriptions of 30 letters from Duprez to the Lanari. Many thanks to De Angelis (and Corti) for transcribing these letters. Having seen several examples of 19th century letters, reading the handwriting is challenging and virtually impossible for someone not fluent in the language. Obviously, it is a challenge to read research material in another language, but anyone studying opera is going to have to look beyond English language sources. The rewards are great for those who embrace the challenge.

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Bel Canto Bully

Eisenbeiss, Philip. Bel Canto Bully: The Life and Times of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. Haus Publishing, 2013.

When we talk about the history of opera, we mostly discuss it in terms of composers. That makes sense in a way. They wrote the music that we study and perform. To a lesser extent (and not nearly as often as we should) we discuss the singers for whom the roles were written since for most of the history of opera roles were written specifically to showcase their particular talents and abilities. But one other group is also important and mostly neglected: the impresario. 

There is no post-modern equivalent to the 19th century opera impresario. Their roles varied over time (more on that next week) but in many cases they functioned as a combination agent, theater manager and in many cases “fixer.” They hired singers, commissioned operas, put together productions and in some cases (like Barbaja’s) even supervised the construction of a theater! For the most part they were people from a theatrical background, often former singers themselves, which is why Barbaja, who came from an impoverished background, is such an anomaly.

Domenico Barbaja was born Domenico Barbaglia in a small village outside Milan. He neither obtained nor desired much in the way of formal education. He never even learned standard Italian so the few extant letters in his own hand are written in a phonetic spelling of his native Milanese dialect. Even in an era in which rags-to-riches stories abound, Barbaja’s rise from street urchin to coffee house waiter to croupier to casino manager to the impresario in charge of all the theaters in Naples and then theaters in Milan and Vienna is astonishing. 

He arrived in Naples during the Napoleonic rule of that region. The French had taken the top singers (including the castrato Crescentini) and the top composer (Paisiello) back to Paris. This left a serious vacuum in Naples but huge opportunities for Barbaja to start fresh in the three Neapolitan theaters (including the Teatro San Carlo and the smaller Fondo) bringing in new singers, repertoire and most significantly, a young, but already much celebrated, young composer from northern Italy, Giacchino Rossini. Rossini’s contract was controversial as Naples had a history up to this point of engaging composers and singers trained at their own conservatory. Barbaja, ignored that tradition not only when engaging composers but also singers. Soon he had installed Isabella Colbran as the raining prima donna and hired several now-legendary tenors like Manuel Garcia I, Domenico Donzelli and G.B. Rubini. 

Barbaja’s plan to raise the artistic standards of the theater went beyond music. He also engaged top set designers, and later, when the San Carlo had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1816, he updated the entire theater (house, stage and backstage) to the latest standards. All of this made him quite wealthy, although much of that wealth was from the casino in the lobby that featured then-new roulette wheels. 

By 1820 Colbran’s voice was in noticeable decline and the political situation was becoming exhausting to navigate. Italian history is exceedingly complicated with various foreign countries, usually Spain, France or Austria-Hungary in charge at various times. Exhausted from constantly changing allegiances, Barbaja makes bids to run both La Scala in Milan and the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna. First, he wins the Vienna contract taking his top singers and of course his trump card Rossini with him. He took a year off from running the theaters in Naples, but that year was such a financial disaster that the Neapolitans begged him to return. 

The Viennese audiences were no less vocal than the Neapolitans about what they liked and disliked but in the case of Vienna there was a longstanding debate about Italian vs German music. Barbaja commissioned a new opera from Carl Maria von Weber and his Euryanthe reignited that debate and sold many tickets as a result. 

Next, he had the impresa at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He was now responsible for three of Europe’s most important opera houses and had the top composer (Rossini) and singers (Colbran, Rubini, Nozzari, David, et al.) under contract.  But soon after Rossini’s contract was up, and he left for Paris and much more money. Now Barbaja was faced with the task of finding the next great opera composer. He commissioned operas from a number of composers but the four that showed the most promise were Pacini, Bellini, Donizetti and Vaccai. (Pacini, is perhaps the least familiar to modern operagoers, but his opera L’Ultima giorno di Pompeii was a success and was revived many times at the San Carlo.)

Eventually his career went into decline and despite being lauded at his funeral, his name is now but a footnote in opera history. Eisenbeiss makes a good case for why he deserves to be remembered. He not only commissioned great works from great composers but cast them with the top singers of their era in first-rate productions. He did everything possible to ensure their success. In spite of an ill temper (there are many stories in the book about that!) and a quickly to take people to court over any slight, he had a significant influence on the era we now call bel canto.

Bel Canto Bully also provides a well-rounded view of the culture, politics and finances of the opera world at the time. So much is familiar and so much is strange to the current reader. It provides a necessary context for understanding singing and music in the bel canto era. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the opera world in Italy (and to a lesser extent in Vienna and Paris) in the early 19th century. 

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Before Binary: A History of Ideas about Sex and Gender

Thomas Laqueur. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Harvard University Press, 1990.

This week’s book recommendation isn’t the usual book about singing or opera, but instead a look at the history of ideas about gender and sex. It’s easy (as far too many people do) to think that our current ideas about gender are the same ones people have always had. Laqueur provides ample examples to prove that this is just not the case. 

This is especially relevant to opera, not only because we currently have more people openly identifying as trans and non-binary, but because there is a long history in opera of castrati playing both men and women (and on occasion abstract concepts like “Music”), but also women playing boys and men (not just the commonly cited example of adolescents like Cherubino and Octavian, but also heroic male leads like Tancredi. In addition, there are traditions of men playing women, often for comic effect (the stepsisters in various incarnations of Cinderella, for example) but not always (as in the 17th century Venetian tradition of tenors playing nurses. 

This is, therefore, a relevant and timely topic for opera singers, directors and producers to consider. This is also the book I find myself recommending the most. (Especially to those who insist that gender is strictly binary.) Below are some quotes from the book and summaries of its contents. These are from notes I took for a still-unfinished research project.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed below are neither mine nor Laqueur’s but are interesting in terms of many sexist attitudes and concepts that persist into the post-modern world. 

It might seem perfectly obvious to us that men are different than women but the construction of how those differences are defined and described is not consistent across history. (p. vii)

Galen in the 2nd century AD described women as essentially men in whom a lack of vital heat resulted in “retention.  Their bodies were like men’s only with some organs on the inside rather than the outside.  This view persisted in western though for hundreds of years. (p. 4)

Doctors well into the Renaissance continued to believe in “the humors”.  The humors existed on axes of hot/cold and wet/dry.  Imbalances were believed to cause disease. (p. 112)

Stories of women spontaneously sprouting a penis and becoming men exist in the medical literature of the 16th century.  Note: none of these stories involve women becoming men. (p. 123)

In Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, he expresses anxiety that a man who spent too much time around women could become like them.  And vice versa.  Music according to Castiglione’s misogynist Lord Gasper is a hobby for women which is effeminizing for men. (p. 124)

Henrika Schuria in 17th century Holland was “a woman of masculine demeanor who had grown weary of her sex”. She dressed as a man, enlisted in the army, and successfully passed in the masculine role she was caught in the act of taking the man’s part in sexual intercourse. (p. 137)

Michel de Montaigne tells in his Travel Journal of a group of girls in Chaumont-en-Bassigni who dressed as males.  One of them came to Vitry where he worked and lived and even became engaged to a woman.  They fell out but he then married another woman.  Montaigne consistently uses to third person pronoun to refer to this person as the gender presented at that moment in the story.  (p. 139)

Paolo Zacchia in his Questionum medio-legalium, a major Renaissance medical-jurisprudential text, claims that women can turn into men but not vice versa because there is no room inside a man for a penis to invert into the female organs. He also argues that nature trends toward the more perfect (the perfect being male).  (p. 141)

These antiquated ideas about the single-sex model of the body as well as stories of women becoming men, women giving birth to rabbits and monsters and all sorts of nonsense persisted in popular lore long after those practicing medicine and science had moved on from them. Books like Aristotle’s Masterpiece and Nicholas Venette’s The Art of Conjugal Love perpetuated these myths and legends. (p. 151)

The concept of sex as fixed and polarizing only becomes popularized in the public sphere in the 18th century and especially in the post-revolutionary 19th century.  (Note: this is the era in which the last castrati retire from the stage and opera moves from opera seria to grand opera and character types become associated with specific voice types.) (p. 152)

There is much more, of course. It makes for fascinating reading, especially at a time when gender is such a hot topic. People insisting that their limited understanding of this topic has always been the standard model are simply wrong. (And the claim that their binary model is scientific is just laughable.) There’s much here worth discussing, since this is significant in every era of opera from travesti roles to castrati to 21st century trans singers cast in leading roles. None of this is as new as some would have us think. I would put this on the required reading list for everyone (whether they are involved in opera or not)!

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I Sing (or Play) the Body Electric

J.Q. Davies. Romantic Anatomies of Performance. University of California Press, 2014.

One of the main developments at the dawn of the Romantic movement in music is the rise of the virtuoso. Virtuosi had existed before the early 19th century, but the were (almost?) all castrati. The transfer of that level of virtuosity to other voices (female sopranos and tenors, in particular) and to other instruments (Paganini with the violin; Liszt with the piano) was new and a defining feature of early 19th century opera and much Romantic instrumental music.

Davies looks at the performers of the early-mid 19th century, when virtuosity for both singers and pianists was all the rage in context of the increased interest in medicine, anatomy and physiology of the same era. It is therefore no surprise that Garcia and many after him take such an interest in the vocal mechanism around this time (an interest the continues into today’s voice science). It gives the reader a fresh look on familiar figures like Chopin, Malibran, Duprez, Nourrit, Liszt, and others. 

The book is made up of an introduction and six essays focusing on performers active in Paris and London around 1830. 

The first chapter is Davies’ often cited (and previously published) article “Veluti in Speculum”, a thorough look at the last great castrato. The essay focuses particularly on Velluti’s appearances at the King’s Theater in London which was hugely controversial at the time bringing in just about every political, social, religious and artistic debate at the time. Velluti was used as a stand-in for venting about the aristocracy, the Catholic church, the self-examination of masculinity or the rising middle-class merchants, and so many other issues which were as widely discussed as his singing (which was largely panned).

The Sonntag-Malibran Stereotype presents the beginnings of the now-established idea of the operatic diva by exploring the partnership and rivalry between Henriette Sonntag and Maria Malibran. 

In Search of Voice: Nourrit’s Voix Mixte, Donzelli’s Bari-Tenor. Davies explores the huge change in how tenors would sing in the upper range coming down, surprisingly, on Nourrit’s side, something few writers have done other than Nourrit’s biographer Quicherat. Most significantly pointing out that it was Nourrit who was the great artist-citizen and Duprez who seemed to only be concerned about making sound. The Nourrit/Duprez rivalry is framed as the beginning of a sense of gendering of voices with chest voice emerging as masculine and head voice as feminine. (This continues to be an issue today with many operatic sopranos actively avoiding chest voice and of course men singing exclusively in chest voice avoiding falsetto except for comic or special effects.)

Three other essays explore the hands of the great pianists Chopin, Thalberg and Liszt and will be of interest to the pianists among us. I will admit to skimming those sections, but there is plenty there that will be of interest to pianists and anyone interested in the development of piano playing during the 19th century.

Davies’ perspective, even on familiar material, is unique and fresh. This is a book I’d put on the must-read list not only for singers and pianists but anyone studying 19th century music. (In fact, I first came across this book when parts of it were an assigned reading for a music history class focusing on Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and French Grand Opera.)  There is much worth discussing here in a future Bel Canto Book Club!

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Vocal Pedagogy, A History

Brent Jeffrey Monahan. The Art of Singing: A Compendium of Thoughts on Singing Published Between 1777 and 1927. Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Several times a year I will find myself reading something and think “where has this book been all my life?” Most often it’s been in some writer’s imagination waiting to be researched and written. But in the case of this book, it was sitting on the shelves of the libraries of several of the school I attended in addition to the one where I now teach! Just sitting there waiting for me to find it. It would even have been helpful a few months ago when I was putting together a list of treatises and vocalise books for Rachelle Jonck. I only found it thanks to another book (Austin’s Provenance, discussed last week) and as the saying goes, I didn’t know what I had been missing.

What I was expecting was a listing and brief description of treatises in the period covered. Yes, that’s part of it, but Monahan breaks down various topics covered in treatises and lists which authors take various views and cover which topics. I could have used this resource so many times when writing papers and preparing presentations for vocal pedagogy classes. This is a must for anyone writing about singing, teaching pedagogy or who is interested in the history of various approaches and methods related to singing. 

Topics covered cover a wide range: Vocal Pedagogy, Breathing, Phonation, Resonance, Range, Vocal Dynamics, Ear Training, Diction, and Interpretation. I’ll use registration as an example of a topic and how we can use this book as a resource. Beginning on page 133, Monahan walks us through a history of how various treatises broach the topic of vocal registers. This topic is covered extensively and continues through page 162. This discussion includes various descriptions of registers, how many registers, and the divergent ideas about registration. 

Also of interest is the extensive Bibliography. The Annotated Bibliography is 64 pages long! (The one I compiled for Rachelle Jonck a few months ago was only nine pages.) Following that is a chronological bibliography which would allow the researcher to focus on the treatises published in a particular era. There is so much information here, all of it very well organized.

Now that this book is 43 years old, it’s safe to say that it is in need of an update, but the coverage of historical writing on singing is thorough. I am finding this incredibly useful and have already updated some articles I am writing to include sources I would not have found without the help of this book. This is such a useful volume, and I am confident that many students and teachers will make good use of it. 

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We’re not making this up, you know!

Stephen F. Austin. Provenance: Historic Voice Pedagogy Viewed through a Contemporary Lens. Inside View Press, 2017

In my participation in the various activities of Bel Canto Boot Camp one thing strikes me over and over: we’re not making this up! The ideas we espouse were the norm for most of the history of opera. They are well documented in the many treatises, method books and other writings about the art of singing. None of this is new or revolutionary. It is odd then that the first vocal pedagogy teacher I encountered in academia who taught vocal pedagogy with reference to historical sources was Dr. Stephen Austin at University of North Texas. There was even a class in which we read James Stark’s Bel Canto and Manuel Garcia II’s Treatise on the Art of Singing (both volumes!) and Hints on Singing. Bel canto is a long tradition. None of this is just something BCBC is making out of whole cloth. 

With that in mind, I am recommending this book. It is a collection of columns written for Journal of Singing between 2004 and 2016. If you are a NATS member, you already have access to these columns as well as those of Burton Coffin (Vocal Pedagogy Classics) from 1981-84 and Craig Timberlake (Practica Musicae) from 1993-97. If not, this collection is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to explore the many writings on music that is our heritage as singers and teachers. 

I am fascinated to see how good teaching and good science support each other. Truth doesn’t change over time. Neither do effective teaching methods. Even as styles have changed, the voice functions as it always has. Methods and ideas that were developed out of successful experience in any age have something to say to us today.  (p. ix)

Articles cover a wide range of topics:

  • Articulation (legato, staccato, spirito, marcato and martellato
  • Registration
  • Voce chiusa
  • The onset (coupe de la glotte)
  • Lutte vocale
  • Trill
  • Messa di voce
  • Appoggiatura
  • Vibrato
  • Resonance

Many historical pedagogues are surveyed including:

  • Manuel Garcia II
  • William Shakespeare (no, not THAT William Shakespeare!)
  • Julius Stockhausen
  • Carlo Bassani
  • Giovanni Battista Lamperti

There is a lot more, of course, and this volume only covers a fraction of the many writings on singing written by the master teachers of their age. A few favorites of mine are the four-part series on the criticism of Hermann Klein and the print version of Dr. Austin’s “stump speech “Building Strong Voices 12 Different Ways.” 

If you are new to historical sources for vocal pedagogy, this, along with James Stark’s Bel Canto, is an excellent place to start. The Provenance column in Journal of Singing continues, now written by Dr. Kimberly Broadwater. 

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Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham Books, 2003.

As a new semester begins, I am preparing for the eternal question from young singers, “Where do I breathe?” Where indeed. There is a limit to how long we can sing before we need to stop and take a breath, after all, but decisions as to where to breathe have more factors for consideration than that. Assuming the composer did not write in a rest or breath mark for us, how do we decide where we can and also where we cannot breathe?

One consideration is the poetry: in particular, the punctuation. A passage from a book I hold dear has stayed with me throughout the many years since I first read it. What I learned from Lynne Truss is that ancient texts did not have punctuation until around 200 BCE when Aristophanes of Byzantium (librarian at Alexandria) who is credited with creating “a three-part system of dramatic notation (involving single points at different heights on the line) advising actors when to breathe in preparation for a long bit, or a not so long bit, or a relatively short bit….” Those markings correspond to the modern period, semicolon and comma.

Punctuation was created to help people reading aloud. The many complex rules involving grammar would come later and continue to cause no end of headaches and disputes. Mention the so-called Oxford comma on social media to see what I mean. Truss takes on all manner of punctuation marks with a dry wit and a take-no-prisoners approach. She’s mad as hell (about apostrophes used to form plurals, among other ills) and isn’t going to take it anymore!

For a subject so nerdy, it is an enjoyable read, and for singers it has a particular relevancy because we are constantly having to decide how to group together words and pitches into groups in ways that make sense. As an added bonus, you will come away knowing how to confidently use a semicolon!

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Wagner without Fear

William Berger. Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love – and Even Enjoy – Opera’s Most Demanding Genius. Vintage Books, 1998.

Inspired by last Sunday’s Audiophile Society discussion of Wagnerian singing, I thought that I would recommend a book on Wagner. This is no easy task as there are thousands to choose from. If you don’t believe me, check the music section of any college library. There will be at least 2-3 shelves of books on Wagner, his musical works, his prose works, his life, his wife’s diaries and so on. The problem, as singer/comedian Anna Russell says about analyses of the Ring Cycle, “Analyses of the Ring are frequently given by a great expert for the edification of other great experts, but these are usually so esoteric as to leave the average person as befogged as before. And I think this is inclined to discourage him to go altogether. And this is a shame as the Ring is a great work provided you can make any sense out of it!”

Many of these volumes are excellent, but few are a place to start for the newcomer. Fortunately, there is one excellent introduction that happened to be published about the time I started working on Wagnerian roles. William Berger’s Wagner without Fear. Berger knows the subject matter well but presents what you need to know without the pretentiousness of so many writers on this subject. Best of all, it’s a practical guide with recommendations for planning your attendance at a performance (including advice on where the long stretches are, the exceptionally long acts for which one will want to prepare appropriately with a visit to the facilities beforehand!

This is a readable and enjoyable book that covers all aspects of the composer, his works and the controversies that surround him. There are also recommendations for recordings and videos. For anyone who wants to know more about Wagner and his operas, I can think of no better place to start. Fortunately, Penguin still has this book in print. Also recommended are his books on Verdi and Puccini. 

For an even lighter approach to Wagner, here are two of my favorites: Anna Russell’s introduction to the Ring Cycle and the Loony Tunes classic What’s Opera, Doc? 

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Everything Old Is New Again

Giulio Caccini. Le nuove musiche. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock. A-R Editions, 1970. 

Sometimes it is useful to reread something that you read and thought you understood. Going back to a book or article you read before with fresh eyes and more experiences will sometimes lead to revelations. That happened to me recently when Bel Canto Book Club was reading and discussing James Stark’s Bel Canto. Yes, I had read and discussed the book in graduate school, but somehow I had overlooked some useful ideas, in this case his discussion of Caccini’s Le nuove musiche. 

Many of Caccini’s instructions in Le Nuove Musiche are there to encourage the new freedom of expression available to solo singers who no longer had to abide by the rigidity of the contrapuntal madrigal in which any alteration might wreak havoc on the strict rules of modal counterpoint. It’s not that there was no freedom of expression in the solo madrigal, but not nearly to the extent that the new style allows. 

“But Caccini was primarily a singer, and for all his humanistic theorizing about Platonic priorities of text over music, speech over song, word over tone, his madrigals triumph more by their melodious grace vocalistic charm than by powerful or profound textual communication. Forgoing the madirgalists’ arsenal of text-expressive imagery, Caccini armed himself only with the sensuous weapons of the highly trained voice—its agility, its fluidity, its sheer beauty of sound.” (H. Wiley Hitchcock, “Introduction”, 10)

Much of what we consider bel canto begins with those ideas. Caccini unleashes the imagination of the singer to express through ornamentation and beautiful singing in a way that had been limited up to that point. As a teacher, my studio is almost exclusively made up of singers coming from a choral background (and hoping to continue that by becoming choir directors), convincing them that not only is it okay to take liberties with the printed notation, but that it is actually necessary, is a daily struggle. So I was pleased when re-reading Stark and finding a word that I had somehow overlooked years earlier reading that book for a pedagogy class. That word is sprezzatura. 

“Caccini’s affective singing style was further characterized by sprezzatura, a rhythmic flexibility that allowed for the natural accentuation of the words, and a departure from Renaissance rules of part-writing so as to create dissonances that enhanced the expression of the words. The term sprezzatura had earlier been used by Baldassare Castiglione in Il libro de cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier, 1528), where it was defined as ‘that virtue opposite to affectation…whence springs grace. (Caccini/Hitchcock, 44) Sprezzatura is sometimes translated as nonchalance or negligence.” (Stark, 160)

But sprezzatura is not only about rhythm (although for our purposes it is a big part of it. It is the kind of performance in which someone highly skilled makes the difficult appear easy. Simone Biles, the gymnast, for example, performing near-impossible feats with the grace and apparent naturalness with which the rest of us might perform ordinary tasks.  Such casualness and ease in musicianship and diction is obviously not easily achieved but it must be the goal. Last week I posted a clip of Beverly Sills singing Auber’s “Ah! vous dirais-je, maman” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT5pw8E5IYE). Just as impressive as her beautiful performance of exceedingly difficult music is the way in which she makes it all appear easy. It would be interesting to know how many hours in the practice room were required to make something so difficult seem so natural. It’s as if she were playing a game, not laboring over a difficult task. 

There is of course much more in Caccini’s Introduction to Le nuove musiche and it bears another reading, especially if you are performing music from the early baroque. But even if you aren’t, so much of what Caccini advocated as a singer, teacher and composer is still relevant to singers today regardless of the style of music they are performing.  Hitchcock’s edition is in most college libraries, so it is easy enough to find. And of course, the Introduction is reprinted in many music history books. If you haven’t read it in a while, take a few minutes revisit it.