November 7, 2017

Drink, You Goose!

Though vocal music seems no longer to be the exact science it once was in Italy, though its methods have become unsettled, though its conservatories have declined in prosperity and discipline, though the enthusiastic reverence of the people for its interpreters has died down, perhaps for the scarcity of really great artists, though the masters who cherish the old traditions are fast passing away, the faith of the Italians in their own musical supremacy, their intolerance of other schools, their belief that vocal music can only live and breath through their language, that Italian composers and singers can alone worthily interpret the divine art, has not abated or declined on iota. Their latests, if not last, great composer, Ponchielli, has lately died here in Milan, and their greatest maestro has overpass man's allotted time. Judging fly his works, Francesco Lamperti, must be pronounced the master of masters. His career as a teacher is brilliant with stars. The list is too long to be given here. It runs from Campanani to Collini, from La Grange to Van Zandt, that poor, storm beaten little singing bird, now said to be dying at Cannes. Mohave had such unparalleled success, Lamperti must have possessed from the first, a sure, soft, consistent, thorough and philosophic method; and even now when they say that method has settled and stiffened into a hobby, I believe that a student who has the brains and will the will to master it, and not be mastered by it, the time and patience, and of course the voice to carry it out, cannot fail of becoming a good artist. But the process is long, and at first discouraging; for Lamperti has a peculiar, persistence idea that the voice must be kept back—subdued, and snubbed; gradually, very gradually, he lets it up and out, having an inexpressible horror of the senseless roaring and screaming of undisciplined singers. For a while, his pupils must walk by faith, almost forgetting the sound of their own voices. I was lately present at one of his lessons, and found it very interesting to watch the great master, white-haired, pallid, trial, seeming only alive, but all alive through music. No slightest error in time, tone, pronunciation or expression escapes his ear. He is a very plain-spoken old gentleman; and, his idea being that the voice can best be kept back and in the subjection by the action of the larynx used in swallowing, he frequently calls out to a young lady inclined to vocal forth-putting: "Bevete, oca!" which does not exactly mean "Drink, pretty creature, drink!" but "Drink, you goose!"

It struck me that this almost preternatural auricular alertness, this severe and often irascible exactitude and exaction must be very trying to nervous and sensitive pupils; but I am told that, with few exceptions, the earnest students take his discipline and drilling and even scolding serenely, bearing much from him because he is an old man, and more because he is "old Lamperti." Still, to go through and finish a good old-fashioned course with his exacting master, a singer must keep a stout heart and a "stiff upper lip," must turn a deaf ear to the dolorous "keeners" who are already holding a wake of Italian opera, must believe that he is at least gaining something which no musical mutations can take from him that splendid mastery and management of the breath, which is the foundation of singing, and which no master of our time has taught like Lamperti. In the relentless course of Nature, this doyen of masters must soon cease from his labors. It would seem that after fifty years of solfeggi, not unwelcome would be the thought of "the eternal silence." Who is to take his place? In Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna, Venice, are teachers of note, while here in Milan, their name is legion. Some are able and all are willing, but not a few, I am sorry to say, have proved themselves—to the American pupils at least—to be the merest charlatans—pretentious, mercenary, false, and grossly dishonest. Of one professor who has but lately taken up teaching, after a long and splendid career as a singer, I have heard from some of my young countrymen very good and honorable reports. This is Signor Giroldoni, still at sixty years of age in full possession of a magnificent baritone voice, which speaks well for his method. By the way, for this singer, Verdi wrote his "Ballo in Maschera." Very quietly, without advertisement of any kind. Signor Giroldoni has, in conjunction with this wife, also a celebrity, open, in his own house, a school of singing and given himself, with all his genius and accomplishments, heartily to his new work.

—Extract from Grace Greenwood's "The Study of Italian Opera: Method and Masters," The Independent, October 14, 1886, page 38.

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