The End of the Big American Voice
Anne Midgette wrote the New York Times article that opera enthusiasts often refer to when commenting on the decline of “the big voice.” Her article mentioned problems in the structure of the university system which may have contributed to the decline in full bodied singers and questioned the trend towards lighter voices. Olivia Giovetti has written a counter article that recently appeared in Classical Singer Magazine, that asks whether we are focusing on the wrong question when we wonder where the big voices have gone. She comes up with a number of reasons why the industry may be looking for lighter, more agile voices. She cites examples of voices being destroyed from strain, anxiety, drug addiction and fatigue, and claims that the necessity of having a large voice for the sake of filling a big opera house is the real problem, and that perhaps we need to instead look at the small house model that had nurtured many of the voices of the past.
The End of ‘The End of the Great Big American Voice?
by Olivia Giovetti
Five years ago, journalist Anne Midgette heralded “The End of the Great Big American Voice” for the New York Times, describing American opera’s method of fostering young artists as a “baseball-like farm system” and equating our country’s current obsession with “light, agile voices in young, attractive bodies” with the greater issue at hand: the lack of large voices that can fill houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and the number of flash-in-the-pan careers.
Granted, such issues aren’t entirely unique to the U.S.: Mexican superstar tenor Rolando Villazón, with just slightly over a decade of professional experience, has publically battled vocal problems that have included poor reviews (and a vocal crack preserved in several incarnations on YouTube) in major Metropolitan Opera performances, months of canceled performances, surgery to remove a congenital cyst on his vocal cords in 2009 and, prior to that, taking time off in 2007 to remedy some significant yet unconfirmed vocal and/or health problems. The opera world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Villazón made a triumphant return last year, but a cloud of unsteadiness still hangs above his career.
Likewise, soprano Natalie Dessay—one of those in possession of both a light, agile voice and a young, attractive body—has been open and frank with the two operations she underwent to remove polyps and nodes from her own vocal cords, even at the risk of being labeled “Natalie Disabled” by some cattier critics.
From a historical perspective, Maria Callas’ voice was ravaged by the premature undertaking of too heavy roles which, coupled with theories about her weight loss, stressful personal life, poor health, or overuse of her instrument, led to a criminally short career of one of opera’s most legendary proponents. Another initial casualty was Anna Moffo, who never recovered fully from a vocal breakdown to rival any mad opera character after a schedule that kept her in perpetual motion up until 1974.
Killing a career is one thing, but these lifestyles can take even graver tolls: Swedish tenor Lars-Erik Jonsson died in 2006 at age 46 of a heart attack which can be linked in no small part to his jet-setting lifestyle that included constant stops in Helsinki, Copenhagen, London, Berlin, and Frankfurt. Constant flying can cause severe respiratory issues, as was proven in a 2003 report published by the Center for Disease Control—and for the particularly avid travelers who spend almost as much time in the air as the average flight attendant, there are even more risks than picking up in-cabin germs.
Stress is a major hardship on performers (see the term “performance anxiety”), and over the last few years, singers have been revealing the seedier underbelly of the profession, admitting that colleagues abuse prescription drugs to cope with the pressures of maintaining a successful career. Bayreuth Festival regular Endrik Wottrich said as much to British paper The Guardian in 2007. Soprano Andrea Gruber went public with her Percocet addiction (among others) that prevented her from having any recollection of singing and, for a time, blacklisted her from the Met.
There are, of course, reasons beyond drugs and alcohol for the vocal problems that have recently led to shorter careers. Midgette cites issues with the training programs, including too few lessons (a concern echoed by Marilyn Horne, who argues that once a week is not enough) and the American conservatory system’s favoring of “lighter, flexible voices that can perform a wide range of material accurately, rather than the powerful, thrilling, concert-hall-filling voices on which live opera ultimately relies for its survival.”
But is it that we’re currently experiencing a drought of big voices? Or, in a Sunset Boulevard kind of way, is it not the voices that are getting smaller, but the houses that are getting bigger?
The Metropolitan Opera House, constructed in 1966, is home to 3,800 seats, though its capacity jumps up to almost 4,000 when you factor in standing room. Next door, the David H. Koch Theater (opened in 1964) houses 2,586 seats. San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, inaugurated in 1932, has 3,146 seats and slots for 200 standees, and Chicago’s Civic Opera House (completed in 1929) is the second-largest opera house in North America with 3,563 seats.
These numbers paint a fascinating diptych. On the one hand, you can look at the dates these houses were opened, a span that falls just short of 40 years and represents some of America’s fattest decades, most notably the Roaring ’20s, the post-World War II boom, and its trickle down into 1960s excess. The United States is a big country and boasts big cities—many bigger than their European counterparts. As such, we built big opera houses to assert our position as a world power, particularly in the heady days following two world wars in which we emerged as victors. And even today, some performances guarantee that nearly 4,000 warm bodies will be in those houses.
And what of the even warmer bodies onstage? Unsurprising, it was around the time that Lincoln Center was inaugurated that San Francisco and Chicago emerged as opera destinations in their own rights, and people started to notice discrepancies between the increasing population of recorded performances and the in-house experience.
“Our country is dominated by huge houses, which therefore misrepresent the historic scale of singing,” says George Steel, general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera—which recently announced that it would be vacating the sizable David H. Koch Theater to pursue options in smaller New York venues, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, and El Museo del Barrio’s own boutique auditorium.
While City Opera insists that the major reason to vacate Lincoln Center was finances (earlier this year the company was operating at a $5 million deficit), Steel also notes that there are some significant benefits that come with performing works in smaller houses. On the planner for this season—provided that the beleaguered company is able to strike a deal in negotiations with several unions, including AGMA—is a new production of Così fan tutte, an opera that originally played in the Vienna Burgtheater which, following rebuilding and renovations in the 19th and 20th centuries, still seats only 1,175 (with spots for 84 standees). Even more striking is the consideration of Don Giovanni, whose original house—Prague’s Estates Theatre—seats a mere 600. (City Opera, under its first season with Steel, presented Giovanni in the Koch; the Met’s season includes a new production that opens October 13.)
“There’s a small subset of singers in the world who are really world-class singers,” Steel says. “And we hire from within that subset. But then there’s a smaller subset of world-class singers who have especially loud voices. Now, there are plenty of world-class singers who don’t have especially loud voices—the great example of course is Cecilia Bartoli, who can’t really sing in the Metropolitan Opera. Which is kind of a crazy state of affairs.
“To do Così fan tutte in the 600-seat house [at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater] gives you a much closer sense of what Mozart was hearing,” Steel adds, “and allows you to work with people who have the right scale voices for the parts.”
With even greater financial woes ahead for the country on the whole, the effects of which are still being felt in arts organizations from coast to coast, perhaps now companies being forced—or moving by choice—into smaller venues (or at least flirting with the idea as, companies like the Dallas Opera are doing with a new chamber series this season) is, in fact, a good thing, a means of reinstating the “great big American voice” and returning to the idea of serving the art with the house rather than serving the house with the art.
“I definitely prefer singing in smaller venues,” says soprano Sharin Apostolou, who has toured many of Europe’s comparatively smaller houses and has worked extensively with such companies as Portland Opera. “I feel the ability to communicate is far easier and can be done with a lot more nuance. . . . You never have to worry about being heard.”
Indeed, many singers prefer to work in smaller houses (though many also acknowledge that they don’t underappreciate the prestige—or paychecks—that come with performing in larger houses). Ryan MacPherson, who has sung for companies like Glimmerglass and New York City Opera and has described himself as a “big-house Mozart and a small-house Puccini” tenor, echoes Steel’s sentiment in suggesting that “people who bemoan the loss of the big-singer voice many times are misinformed as to what they think they used to hear.”
However, MacPherson, unlike Apostolou, doesn’t sense a difference when singing in a large versus a small space. “It really just depends on how your voice fits the piece and how it fits the house,” he emphasizes. “For most singers, if you have the right resonance, it will fill any space of any size. It’s kind of like swinging a golf club: you keep the stroke the same, you just change clubs.”
“Bigger, stronger, faster” is a phrase tossed around a lot in America. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit many works from the era of Monteverdi, Handel, and Mozart—nor does the cut seem well tailored to Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Poulenc’s La voix humaine, or Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Yet, as I consider this, the Guardian’s chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins posed the question: “Is intimate theatre ‘decadent’?” Naturally, the idea of smaller houses can be taken to the other extreme with performances for small groups—small enough for, say, Adrian Howells to wash the feet of each individual audience member. Are these any more financially viable or profitable in what is increasingly becoming a double-dip recession? Edinburgh Fringe Festival playwright David Greig is quoted by Higgins as saying, “Like a lot of people in theatre, I used to see the traditional proscenium arch stage as elitist. Now I regard it as rather democratic. A lot of people can see it. It’s much more available than having to go to a special place on your own, wearing headphones.”
It’s a delicate balance. And it calls into question the chief purpose of opera, or theater on the whole: Do we serve the widest audience with the lowest common denominator? Is that fair to say in an industry with singers like Anna Netrebko, Stephanie Blythe, Quinn Kelsey, and Sasha Cooke? Do we need to change the American conservatory system to ensure a nurturing of talent beyond creating a “baseball-like farm system”? Or do we need a greater number of opportunities for what Steel says are “a whole phalanx of modern singers who don’t have that stentorian vibe”?
“It’s absolutely a part of life in a large house that you have to hire people on size,” Steel says, adding somewhat mournfully, “Sometimes even before beauty.”
Olivia Giovetti is the host of The New Canon on WQXR’s new Internet stream, Q2. She also writes for WQXR’s opera blog and contributes regularly to Time Out New York, Gramophone, and Classical Singer. Visit her online at oliviagiovetti.wordpress.comoliviagiovetti.wordpress.com
Photo credit: Ryan MacPherson as Alfredo and Malcolm MacKenzie as Giorgio in Glimmerglass Opera’s 2009 production of Verdi’s La Traviata. Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera