Having spent the majority of my life in music, I was discussing with a good friend and colleague the wherewithal of rehearsing a well known and famous theatrical piece and how in said friend’s opinion, the conductor was making something of a mockery of the work. The piece in question being Lucia di Lammermoor, beloved of soprani and tenori throughout history as one work which is a great vocal challenge – indeed, gives every voice type and chorus a jolly good sing!
We then spent a happy hour or so listening to the famous, or perhaps as they might have said one hundred years ago, the ‘celebrated’ sextet from this opera, starting with the great tenor Enrico Caruso and the soprano Luisa Tetrazzini. The familiar scratchy ‘eggs and bacon’ sound of an old recording, and through the murk came the very present voice of Caruso in duet with baritone Pasquale Amato. What is at once interesting is how modern Caruso sounds in comparison with the softer grained Amato, who is still demonstrating the ‘bel canto’ tradition of the Victorian era now gone. As the other singers take up the sextet with Madame Tetrazzini some distance away from the recording horn, we were at once struck at what a jumble it all was, with everybody out for their own musical style and no coherent whole at all. It was, as my friend observed, rather like the music call for the production he was in. Caruso and Tetrazzini finished, we listened to probably seven or eight versions, ranging from the archaic recordings from the 1900s to our modern day operatic superstars, Callas & Sutherland, Pavarotti & Carreras. Of course, the modern day recordings mean better sound, but certainly with a youngish Jose Carreras we can hear a similarity between his and Caruso’s hefty tenor.
When our interest had diminished and switched to other subject matter, it occurred to me how individual all of the voices from the past, and up until perhaps twenty years ago, actually sounded. You could in no way confuse Tetrazzini with Melba any more than you can Callas with Sutherland, and how much more interesting the voices are. I am not going to pretend that there are not wonderful voices still present. There are of course, but for the most part there seems to be, as the great music comedienne Anna Russell might say, a certain amount of the homogenous about the professional human voice. In the same way as one hundred bottles of milk!
It seems to me as someone who teaches singing to various folk from the world of opera and music theatre, that the coaches and other teachers out there have jumped on a ‘one size fits all’ jargon and style. This is at once both stulifyingly boring and horrifying. How many performances I have been to in my lifetime I cannot hazard a guess – thousands, but I have never been more disappointed in the live human voice as I am at the present moment. Whether the vocalist is of operatic proportion, of musical theatre leaning, or the heady world of pop, it is very difficult to determine who might be singing. There is an inherent laziness in the vocal production, with much of the time devoted to singing on the back end of the beat if you’re in pop, or sounding like a circular saw if you’re involved in musical theatre, or just the worst thing possible as far as I can tell, blandness and no connection in operatic or classical music. I will, as best I can, make some sort of observation about these three very distinct styles.
I am not someone who likes to pack box and sort into neat piles my students of singing. All voices are different as are all personalities, so why should the music profession at large try and do exactly that? With the event of big star names such as Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Lily Allen to name but three, we now have any number of female pop stars who are as indistinguishable from each other as is possible to humanly be. Why has this happened, and when? I cannot profess to be any sort of expert on history, but I do know my subject, and I call it the ‘X Factor Syndrome’. And, dear reader. It has to stop! Today’s modern music stars are all about imitation. You hear the story of the hapless girl or boy who is trying to be a pop star; tells their story to the ‘expert’ panel of how “Music is my life,” without ever having tried to write a song, made a rock group in the garage, joined a music club or drama or operatic society or (Heaven Forfend!), actually study and go to a college of music or performing arts? No, they just want their fifteen minutes of fame. There is nothing wrong with that. The X Factor is a popular light entertainment programme not the Leeds International Piano Competition, but it does, as far as I can comment, give the wrong signals to these young hopefuls. The modern musical world is not for the faint hearted, and even having cut a record and climbed to the heady position of chart topper, you can quickly be on the scrap heap as has been seen many times before. Why is that I wonder? Of course, the moguls who hire these inexperienced and infantile sounding artists are not in any way interested in art, only money, and why should they be? That the poor little girl from Blackpool with the big voice is now working in a supermarket check out is of no concern of theirs and again, why should it be? The Blackpool lass with the big voice, has no real talent. She just sounds a bit like Diana Ross, for want of a better name, and that is not enough
It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that may well be so. But you will never stand out from the crowd. You will be one of Anna Russell’s homogenous milk bottles. Listening as I do to young pop singers who have got themselves into a pickle by singing badly, and then telling me that their voices won’t respond to my exercises, because, “You know, I’m individual I am.” Well, why are you trying to sound like Amy, Adele and Lily then. Why not sound like you? I can’t believe you actually listen to your own voice and think that constipated, constricted, thin and out of tune din is anyway worthy of the greatest of all the instruments. Sing with your own voice, not someone else’s. The human voice can be so incredibly beautiful, why wouldn’t you want it to be? It isn’t really their fault . It’s the devious tricksters who con them into thinking they’re something they are not. “Go and listen to Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Lulu, Kiki Dee, Tina Turner. Do they sound like anybody else? No. They sound like the person we think they are. They don’t imitate anyone. They just sing and have learnt their craft over many years of apprenticeship, doing grotty clubs and tours, long before they had recording contracts in many cases. Long before the heady days of the No. 1 venues around the world. Why is that? Because it’s a long ladder to climb to the top, and if you want to stay at the top, you’ve got to have not only staying power, but a technique to get you out of trouble, and the sense to manage yourself well, which only experience can give you. That’s why.”
Then we have the musical theatre brigade, who are often in their way, quite as ignorant as the aforementioned pop lot. They’ve never heard of My Fair Lady or Carousel, but of course know Rent and Wicked and the new successes from across the pond, Book of Mormon and Waitress. Again, there is good reason for this. Their method of vocal production is so jammed up and hideous that you wouldn’t want to hear them in a more classically oriented score such as Carousel as they wouldn’t be able to give the musical phrases the breadth of sound required. Indeed, without a microphone, you wouldn’t hear most of them at all. Which would be a blessing, frankly. I blame it on the wonder technique, ‘Estille’. Any sort of method for teaching singing should be abandoned at any cost. You cannot teach every student in the same way as everybody is not only physically, but mentally different of course, and to each and everyone there are hurdles of various size and difficulty. Estille will only make you sound like a rat in a trap with some very badly phonated vowels and a trip to Harley Street in the future. Aided and abetted to which, it just sounds horrible. I always equate it to old East End pub singing, and thankfully most of that has disappeared too!” Have a listen to Gordon Macrae.” Blank look and “Who?” “Howard Keel?” “No, a bit before my time.” A bit before my time. If I had a dollar for every student that uttered that line, I would be living in Bermuda. It is perhaps one of the most disheartening and ignorant things a student could ever say to me. Are you really just interested in your own little world and not in the whole wide world of music and drama? A great and bleeding shame.
The opera singer is invariably quite different from our other selections. Mostly well schooled in not only voice and the music they have to perform, a goodly amount are good pianists which is very beneficial for obvious reasons, and you’d think that this group would stand above the rest wouldn’t you? Well, I would say they used to, but not anymore. The bottle of milk syndrome affects even the opera singer and especially the soprano. There used to be a game we played when I was a student which was to put a tape in the machine of various singers and you had to identify the artist giving forth. I was pretty good at this game, but it has to be said it was much easier to do forty years ago, because you simply couldn’t mix them up. When I think of the roster of singers that were at the Coliseum and Covent Garden. Valerie Masterson, Janet Baker, Kenneth Woollam, Alberto Remedious, Rosalind Plowright, Dennis Dowling, Eric Shilling, Gwyneth Jones, Joan Sutherland, Stuart Burrows, Placido Domingo, Robert Lloyd et al, you could never ever mix up the voices and not know who was singing instantly. The voices were big, some were extremely beautiful, some astonishing, but all were interesting. I cannot profess to have liked everyone – who could as we thankfully cannot all like the same things, but by God it was sometimes mind blowing. To be in a seat high in the Gods when Joan Sutherland’s enormous outpouring of voice made you feel your seat was actually singing to you was something very special indeed! I remember being right royally told off a few years ago by an early music artist who had been at a performance I was attending, taking exception to a comment I made in the interval about it being a bit on the dull side. “It’s not all about loud noise Ian,” quoth she. Sadly, she was sorry she had spoken to me as I told her in no uncertain terms that in this particular piece yes it is! I want to feel as if that singer on stage is punching me in the head with her high C, that’s what makes it exciting! It is true that voices are getting smaller than our colleagues of forty years ago. Why this should be I am not sure, but I suspect it’s to do with the age of the microphone – indeed, some houses have amplification which the likes of Nellie Melba would not have approved. However, noise is all around us. The hideousness of the mobile phone and the imbecile who answers on the crowded train and thinks that his conversation is of the least bit interesting to the assembled throng, over amplification in big block buster musicals, and very hi fi television sets have made us forgotten the art of listening. It’s certainly a shock to go to Covent Garden and find the young artists unable to get past row C of the Orchestra Stalls. Go back eighty years and Gracie Fields could do it with ease!
But now, one operatic soprano sounds much like another. Baritones of the calibre of Bruno Caproni, properly Italianate in sound and commanding of timbre, are sadly not easy to find – they all sound rather like drawing room voices. All well produced, but tight arsed. No danger at all. In short, dull! Poor old tenors who seem to be mostly what is called the B flat tenor, so music gets transposed to accommodate the uncertain top notes. Where is the bass that can out trill or cadenza a coloratura soprano? Most of them sounding like they’re under water, and again, all sounding alike. This, dear reader, may have put you off ages ago! Me droning on about my dislikes of this particular period in the world of music, and if it has, I apologise! Whilst writing this I found myself remembering my own student days, when it was considered I was actually a tenor – a proposition I considered horrifyingly inept, not to say down right stupid, but the very fact that coaches one worked with would suggest things that perhaps Hermann Prey or Fisher-Dieskau, those great German baritones might have done. My voice wasn’t so removed from Herr Prey, but I stopped short one day and said to the coach who was adamant about a vocal colour or some such, and said, “The reason I do it like that is because that is how I do it, and nobody else does. My voice is mine and I certainly don’t want to sound like anybody else, so if you don’t mind, I’ll do it my way. Not because it’s the best perhaps, but because it’s how my voice wants to do it, and if it’s good enough for me, it’ll be good enough for the audience we’re singing to.” I have always kept that thought in my head, especially when teaching. One of these days, the singers will wake up to the fact they’re all erring a bit on the wishee washee, and then maybe we can get back to some lovely games on the cassette player. Guessing who the voices are. . . .