December 29, 2010

Lilli's Bellini

Known for her unfailing energy, high standards and work ethic, here is an account of the great Wagnerian Lilli Lehmann from Chapters of Opera: being historical and critical observations and records (1908) by Henry Edward Krehbiel.  It illustrates her drive for perfection, artistic excellence, and stature as an artist of the first rank.

Lilli Lehmann brought to New York chiefly the fame which she had won in Bayreuth at the first Wagner festival, of 1876, at which she was one of the Rhine daughters (Woglinde), and one of the Valkyrior (Helmwige), and where she also sang the music of the Forest Bird in " Siegfried." At that period in her career she was still classed among the light sopranos, and so she continued to be classed until she broke violently away from the clogs which tradition puts upon artists in the theaters of Germany.
She felt the charm of freedom from the old theatrical conventions when she sang Isolde at Covent Garden on July 2, 1884, and her growth to a lofty tragic stature was rapid. She was filled with fervor for the large roles of Wagner when she came to New York, and her success in them was so gratifying to her ambition that it led her at the expiration of her leave of absence from the Court Opera at Berlin (where she had been fifteen years as erste Coloratursangerin) to extend her stay in America beyond the period of her furlough, and involved her in difficulties with the Berlin Intendant, and the federation of German theatrical managers, called the Cartellverband. Having carried to her an offer from the president of the Cincinnati Festival Association to sing at the festival of May, 1886, which was the ultimate reason for her action, I am in a position to give the details of the story of what became a cause celebre, and led to a wide discussion of the relations between the German managers and their singers. 
A short time before Miss Lehmann had declined an offer from the committee of the North American Sangerbund to take part in the Sangerfest, which was to be held in Milwaukee in June, 1886. She had also been asked by the artistic manager of the house of Steinway & Sons to go on a concert tour with Franz Rummel and Ovide Musin. When I came to her with the dispatch from Cincinnati she spoke of her unwillingness to break her contract with Berlin, and of the loss of the lifelong pension to which her period of service at the Court Opera would eventually entitle her. I declined to advise her in the premises, but made a calculation of her prospective net earnings from the three engagements which were offering, and suggested that she compare the income from their investment with the pension which she would forfeit. I also agreed, if she wished it, to reopen the negotiations with the Sangerfest officials at Milwaukee.
She took the matter under advisement, and in a few days, having concluded the engagement with a representative of the Cincinnati association, she told me she had determined to stay in America during June. In July, against the advice of some of her American friends, she paid a fine imposed upon her by the Intendant of the Court Opera. The amount of the fine was 13,000 marks ($3,250), and this amount she had received from the Milwaukee engagement. I had written to Mr. Catenhusen, the director of the Sangerfest, as promised, and he had reopened negotiations with more than willingness. Asked for her terms, she replied: "Three thousand three hundred dollars," and turning to a friend said: "I'll let the festival pay my Berlin fine." After she had paid the money into the royal exchequer, the manager of Kroll's Theater engaged her for a series of representations, but met an unexpected obstacle in the form of a refusal of the Intendant of the Court Theater to restore her to the privileges which she had forfeited by breaking her contract. It was long before she succeeecled in making peace with the Governmental administration of the Court Opera, and in the public discussion which accompanied her efforts she took part in an eminently characteristic way. 

The newspapers were open to her, and in the Berlin Tageblatt (I think it was) she defended her course on the ground that America had enabled her to exercise her talent in a field which the hidebound traditions of the German theaters would have kept closed to her. Once a florid singer, always a florid singer, was her complaint, and she added: "One grows weary after singing nothing but princesses for fifteen years." Though she began in "Carmen," and followed with "Faust," Miss Lehmann soon got into the Wagnerian waters, in which she was longing to adventure, and in them set some channel buoys which the New York public still asks Briinnhildes and Isoldes to observe. It was then, however, and still is, characteristic of her broad ideals in art, that, while winning the highest favor in tragic parts, she preserved not only her old skill, but her old love for good singing in the old sense. When, at the height of her Wagnerian career, she sang at a performance for her own benefit, she chose "Norma." 
From 1885 till the time when her operatic experiences had become the exception to her rule of concert work, the greater part of her career was spent in New York; and during the whole of the period she was in all things artistic an inspiration, and an exemplar to her fellow artists. For industry, zeal, and unselfish devotion in preparing an opera I have never met an artist who could be even remotely compared with her. When "Siegfried" was in rehearsal for its first American production, she took a hand in setting the stage. Though she had nothing to do in the second act, she went into the scenic lumber room and selected bits of woodland scenery, and with her own hands rearranged the set so as to make Siegfried's posture and surroundings more effective. 
When the final dress rehearsal of "Gotterdammerung" was reached a number of the principal singers were still uncertain of their music. Miss Lehmann was letter perfect, as usual, but without a demur repeated the ensembles over and over again, singing always, as was her wont, with full voice and intense dramatic expression. This had been going on literally for hours when the end of the second act was reached. When she came into the audience room for the intermission I ventured to expostulate with her.
"My dear Miss Lehmann, pray have a care. You are not effecting your début in New York, nor is this a public performance. Think of to-morrow. You will weary your voice.  Why to you work so? Mikiren sie doch!" 
"Mikiren thu Ich nie!" ("Markiren," it may be explained, is the technical term for singing in half-voice, or just enough to mark the cues.)  
"As for the rest, rehearsals are necessary, if not for one's self, then at least for the others. Don't be alarmed about my voice. It is easier to sing all three Brünnhildes than one Norma. You are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission. But I love 'Norma,' and Mozart's 'Entführung.'

You can hear Lilli singing "Casta Diva" here.  She was 59 at the time of the recording, the voice still highly focused, with none of the over-darkened tone that is much criticized today. The high C sharp and the trill afterwards make me hold my breath. Amazing when you think about it. I wonder: does anyone practice trills and mezza di voce any more?  Do teachers demand it of their students?

Lehmann recounts in her book How to Sing that she would spend her mornings practicing the Great Scale, singing through two octaves twice (see my previous post for details). Oh that singers today were half as industrious!  Most want to sing through songs, learn a few arias, and then start auditioning. And conservatories, where most singers are trained today, are hard pressed to keep singers working on technique for the simple reason that so many non-technical matters take precedence. There was a time when a student of voice wasn't allowed to touch a song without having first worked things out, or, as was said long ago, had the voice 'placed'.  This takes time, which is in short supply in our instance gratification world. One has to learn to eat one's impatience for breakfast, and work steadily, if not incessantly. Lill and Bellini demand no less.

December 28, 2010

Writer's Mind

Wlearly, I've lost track. I will be taking an advanced writing class/workshop in January, and can't remember if it is the 7th or 8th one, which is a little disconcerting. Why the classes? The tale is simple. Over a decade ago, I was sitting in the auditorium of The New York City Opera having a conversation with Cori Ellison, NYCO's resident dramaturg. We were talking about Margaret Harshaw who had recently died, and with whom I had studied, and about the vocal technique of the Garcia and Lamperti Schools. Cori casually suggested that I write an article about Miss Harshaw's vocal lineage and technique for The Opera Quarterly. It seemed an excellent idea at the time. Little did I know that once I started research I would find myself in the deep end of the pool: hence the writing classes and the long period of gestation. The plan is to finish a document, that is, a book, by summer.

The research I have done has been life-changing, both in terms of my life as a singer and as a voice teacher. You never know what awaits you after a 'call slip' has been handed in, or the interview has been started. The material shapes your ideas as it comes forth, not unlike the characters which 'tell' the novelist what they are going to be doing, saying, or becoming. In that respect, books have a mind of their own: you think they are going to be about 'this' and they turn out to be about 'that'.  One ends up trusting the material rather than one's presuppositions about it. It's been one heck of a trip, I can tell you that.

The sound you hear is the tapping of keys on my laptop.  Wish me luck!

December 24, 2010

Bel Canto Christmas

Joan Sutherland singing O Holy Night. Her voice swoops between notes like a swallow, but you don't care, especially when she gets to the end and sings a full-throated high C sharp that makes your jaw drop and your heart stand still. Such is the power of il bel canto.  

Wishing you a Wonderful Holiday!

December 21, 2010

Rutter Eclipsed

It's after midnight here in New York City.  The moon is winding its way towards total eclipse on this, the darkest night of the year.  So what am I doing before I walk out into Central Park and see the earth's shadow cover Diana the Huntress shortly after 3 AM?  Listening to the Kings College Choir sing John Rutter's Nativity Carol. It's a gorgeous choral work with a quintessentially-arched English melody that lingers long in memory after first hearing. I'll be singing it on Christmas Eve across town, and what a pleasure that will be.

I heard another Rutter piece on New York City's classical radio station earlier in the evening.  When it ended, the announcer said that Rutter was agnostic, which was confirmed by a snippet of an interview with Rutter himself stating, that, while not a believer, his life was nevertheless shaped by Christianity.

Hearing this made me smile. Does Beauty need a Reason for being?

Perhaps the moon will answer after her reappearance.

December 16, 2010

Weihnachtsgefühl (Christmas Spirit)

I first learned this song in graduate school, having had it assigned to me by Dalton Baldwin.  In fact, I think it was the first Strauss song I ever sang.  I remember it every Holiday season: it conjures a feeling that is difficult to put into words alone.

Kommt auch mir ein Sehnen,
Längst entfloh'ner Seligkeit
Denk' ich nach mit Tränen.

Und ich schaue wie im Traum
Ihren fernen Schimmer
Weben um den Weihnachtsbaum,
Kehrt sie selbst auch nimmer.

With the time of joy
There comes to me an image:
Far-flung bliss,
And I think of it afterwards with tears.

And I see, as if in a dream,
Its far-off glimmer
Weave around the Christmas tree,
Never trimming itself.

Hear Edita Gruberova sing it here.

Text by Martin Greif (1839-1911) [pseudonym]
Friedrich Hermann Frey

Music by Richard Georg Strauss (1864-1949)
"Weihnachtsgefühl" (1899)

December 15, 2010

Hold Your Tongue

Those who read historical vocal pedagogy will recognize in the article below a distillation of the vocal techniques used in the latter part of the 19th century: sustained tones, deep breathing, the primacy of /a/, Italian tonal values, careful positioning of the tongue, use of a mirror, progressively difficult exercises, and, above all, the tonal ideal always being kept in mind.  The ideas are simple enough.  Their execution?  Another matter entirely.

According to The Midwestern, the author L. M. Bartlett was a professor of singing in Iowa in 1906.

Werner’s Magazine: a magazine of expression, 1897

By L. M. Bartlett.

THE breath is the generator and the supporter of every tone, whether in speech or in song. The muscle that plays the most important part in breathing is the diaphragm, situated between the cavity of the chest and the abdomen. By the use of this muscle the breath is regulated and controlled. The breath taken in the act of singing should be taken low and without fear or anxiety. The lower part of the lungs should be allowed to expand first, the chest- muscles should be held firmly but not rigidly. As an aid to developing the full capacity of the chest, I use the following exercise. Example: Cultivate deep breathing for months, and you will discover that you have greatly developed the capacity of the chest and the lungs, in fact, your whole being. There will be a noticeable larger expansion and the diaphragm will have become stronger and more tense. If you wish to know whether or not you breathe correctly, lie flat upon your back with the head as low as the rest of the body. Does a tired animal, when taking a long-drawn breath, expand at the chest or at the flanks? Care must be taken, too, that the lungs be well filled.

I advocate the practice of sustained tones, commenced with the first lesson, and then gradually leading to more rapid passages as fast as the vocal organs can be made to adjust themselves properly. It is just here that teacher and pupil must exercise the utmost care and patience.

Every tone should be considered and should be characterized by a rich, round, sonorous, and musical quality, placed well to the front of the mouth, kept there and ended there, the throat being well opened and kept in a restful and passive state. In the practice of sustained tones, I begin with the pure Italian vowel a (ah). When the vocal organs become well adjusted to the use of this vowel, I then use e (a), i (e), and u (oo) I sometimes change this order as circumstances seem to require. Pupils do not use the same vowels with the same degree of success, but care must be taken that the voice be well formed upon every element of our language.

I am certain that when a pupil can make right use of the vowel a (ah) and preserve it, no fear of the other vowels need be apprehended. I insist upon the daily practice of sustained tones, paying careful attention to crescendo and to diminuendo. I usually begin at C, first line below the staff, with ladies' voices, sometimes as high as F, first space; with gentlemen at C, second space bass staff, sometimes higher with tenor voices and as low as B flat with bass voices; but in all cases I try to select a convenient tone to sing. I ascend the scale by half steps and go no further than F, last line, with ladies' and tenor voices, and to D with baritone and bass voices. This, understand, is at an early stage of progress. This exercise I hear at every lesson for several terms, or at least one year.

While correct breathing lies at the foundation of a good tone, I am convinced, not only by my own experience as a pupil, but also by long experience as a teacher, that it is far better to direct the mind of the pupil to the tone to be produced by concentrating the thought there; the means by which the tone is controlled and governed will be more likely to fulfil its proper function.

The tone should be formed at once and without hesitation. If the pupil has difficulty in bringing the tone forward with the vowel a (ah), I resort to other expedients, such as the syllables, tha, va, wa, za, etc. The vibrating column of air must be brought forward full, free, and unhindered.

Many faults arise from an improper position of the tongue. If the tongue be unusually large or thick, as is often the case, the pupil should learn to form a groove or furrow through from the tip to the base. I require my pupils to practice much with the hand-mirror held before them in such a manner that the position of the tongue can be readily seen. Pupils must learn how to ''hold their tongues."

December 14, 2010

Bone Breathing

The Musical Standard, November, 1875

It was with some amusement that I read in the Daily Telegraph of the 30th October a long article on music in Milan, purporting to come from a "special correspondent," and marked with something so much worse than blunders that I cannot help referring to some of its absurdities. I pass by the remarks he makes upon the theatre La Scala, and the performers whom he saw there : it was but a "scratch" company, got together for the Emperor of Germany's visit and the strictures may be true of the particular performances. But some further remarks of the writer seem to me so unwarrantable as to call for emphatic contradiction. The correspondent of the Telegraph mentions Signor Lamperti, the renowned singing master, as a coarse and uneducated peasant, and heaps insult after insult on the head of a man with whom he has evidently no personal acquaintance, and whom, I should say, he has never seen: and for this reason, it is indeed but too evident that his article originated from some one who has a personal spite against Signor Lamperti, the "special correspondent" being simply the sponge which sucks in, this time, poisoned waters. He describes a ridiculous system of breathing through the bones destroying a voice to make a fresh one, and heaps phrase upon phrase of ridicule upon what he terms the "Lamperti method." 

I am intimately acquainted with several of Signor Lamperti's pupils, and have frequently assisted at their lessons, but I never heard the maestro speak of breathing through the bones; nevertheless, if breathing through the bones, or the "diaphragmatic method," as the " special correspondent" terms it, can produce such singers as Stolz, Waldmann, Aldighieri, Campanini, Albani, Galassi, Collini, La Vera Lorini, Sofia Cruvelli, and scores of other Italian and German singers who feel honoured in acknowledging themselves pupils of Lamperti, I should advise everybody to breathe through their bones if they know how. 

The correspondent closes his abusive article on the "maestro" by a very bold statement, saying that a young lady, Miss Blanche Tucker, alias Bianca Rosanella, whom he describes as a coming celebrity of great personal attractions, has been materially injured in voice and health by Lamperti's method, and I think it only fair to the maestro to state the true facts of the case. Miss Tucker was sent by Mr. Gye at his own expense to take lessons frqm Lamperti: the maestro at the time of her arrival at Milan being away at the lakes, this lady commenced taking lessons from another teacher, Trivulsi. On Lamperti's return she went and took two lessons from him, at the same time finding great fault with his method, in fact, wishing to give instead of taking instruction, and so disgusted the maestro that he refused to teach her at all. To say that a person's voice and health were injured in two lessons is simply nonsense, and is a further proof to me that this article is simply an expression of personal pique, such as a “special correspondent" of a London paper should have been particularly careful to avoid. The maestro Trivulsi, who is really a good, not to say first-rate, teacher, is mentipned favourably: Miss Tucker is now learning of Trivulsi.

December 11, 2010

Mme. Marchesi Gives Printed Lessons in Singing

Werner's Voice Magazine, November 1900

This distinguished Paris singing-teacher is writing a series of articles for Harper's Bazar. Much of what she says is patronizing or frivolous, and should have been edited out. The first temptation is to write a humorous criticism, but the training of the singing-voice is too vital a question to waste time either of ourselves or of our readers. We therefore from a large quantity of chaff winnow a few kernels:

"An attractive appearance, the gifts of the musician, quickness of conception, power of representation, a good ear, a sound and rich voice of extended compass, added to an ardent desire to become an artist—such is the essential equipment. From the very inception of one's studies, vanity, false ambition, and greed must be set aside, and art only must inspire the pupil with zeal, compel industry, and illumine the distant goal. If the young singer comes of artistic stock, her future, provided the conditions already referred to are fulfilled, may be regarded as assured. From her earliest childhood she lives in musical atmosphere; from morning until night music and art are the themes of conversation; she listens to master-works; her taste is ever undergoing a process of refinement, her ear acquiring practice, her ambition gathering stimulus. As she moves about her home, merrily dancing and warbling, no stiff and grim governess, no severe anti-artistic parent censures or forbids as useless or improper her harmless diversions. In most ordinary households, as in aristocratic families, natural expression of feeling is repressed; form, icy form, must be respected. From infancy, the child must not laugh too loudly, must not give itself up to grief or to joy; it must, so to say, grow used to the fetters of conventionalism. A child that has undergone this experience will seldom make its mark in art. Yet, training of this sort finds favor not only in England, but in America, where, as all are aware, business interests, which are guarded with feverish anxiety, are held the main objects of life, and art plays a secondary part. It is true that, within the last few years, a considerable change has been noted, particularly since America has drawn to her shores the leading artists of the age. and has sent her students to gather artistic education in Europe. But the impress of early parental surroundings and of their artistically inexperienced native land abides: the free expression of students' feelings, indispensable to lyric declamation, is become impossible. An icy coating has formed about the youthful heart; to thaw it, not merely years of study, but contact and influence of lively and happy men and women, all aglow with the spirit of art, is needed.

"How shall the education of a child be conducted which, from infancy, has revealed the possession of an acute ear, a vivacious temperament, and valuable gifts —a sweet voice and one true of pitch; of a child who, from morn to eve, sings with faultless intonation the melodies it overhears ; and prefers sitting at the piano and fingering the scales to busying itself with dolls?

"With due consideration for the bodily health of this gifted little creature, its parents, after it has learned the alphabet and is between seven and eight years of age, may give it piano-instruction, without, however, constraining it to too constant practice. When the girl reaches her twelfth year, and change to womanhood claims all her physical strength, to preserve her voice for the future, all singing must be strictly prohibited. Woe to those who disregard this injunction! Now that the goung girl's lips are temporarily sealed, her general education must be commenced. Literature, declamation, history, harmony, history of music, French. German and Italian languages—all these branches of learning must be thoroughly studied. The soundness, strength, and endurance of the voice being determined, and leaving nothing to be wished for, the study of singing may, when the student is eighteen or nineteen years old, be begun.

"When intonation is uncertain, the voice small as to compass, or worn or displaced through other methods: when the outward appearance is displeasing and the disposition gloomy or reserved—I unhesitatingly advise the pupil against the choice of an operatic career.

"To become an operatic singer one should possess, besides an attractive personality, a strong voice, resonant in all its registers : the conceptive power of a born artist, an iron memory, and unquestionable talent for the stage. The concert-singer must study voice-placing, conception, interpretation, declamation, foreign tongues, etc.. thoroughly and diligently. It will scarcely be believed when I assert that the concert- singer must master the art of song more completely than the operatic songstress; that the work must be more finished, even, than that of her haughty sister. The operatic songstress is aided by the stage-setting, the scenery, the orchestra, the chorus, and her brother and sister singers, all of which hold the attention of the public, and cause it often to overlook small defects: while the concert-singer stands alone in his or her solitude, and reveals the slightest shortcomings. It is only through absolute completeness of performance that the concert- singer wins the favor of the public and rises to the highest position attainable.

"Some of the new prophets say there are not three registers in the female voice. To this I answer: There are. The connection of the registers often offers extreme difficulty; in some cases, particularly when the voice is naturally hard, unyielding, and powerful, months of study are necessary before the tones are made even and the passage from one register to another becomes imperceptible. Contralto and mezzo- soprano voices are in this regard more difficult of management than soprano voices.

"I caution the pupil against a too violent attack (called coup de glotte) which many teachers counsel, and which wearies the vocal cords. A beginner must not practice, at the very outset, more than half an hour daily. Concerning the opening of the glottis, when attacking the tone—this new discovery, this fantasy of an overwrought brain, must be steadfastly opposed. For the completion of the tone, the closing of the glottis, on the two edges of which, as it is known, the vocal cords lie, is indispensable. The efficiency of the vocal cords must be increased by their being drawn together, provided always that in the attack of a tone a hard impulse (known as the coup de glotte, as mentioned above) be sedulously avoided.

"The position of the mouth must be natural and absolutely unartificial. No change must take place in passing from one register to another; no forced, grinning smile worn during study; this is but a mask applied to the face, and leads to the formation of the shallow, open tone that the French term a voix blanche, and makes sustained singing almost impossible. In vocalizing, as also in exercises, in florid style the pupil must never change position of mouth, as this produces a change in vowels. It happens, unfortunately, but too frequently that songstresses, through incorrect tone-formation and a wrong attack of higher tones, distort their mouths in order to produce by force the complete tone. This bad habit, this dangerous effort, would be prevented from the very beginning by good schooling. Song is dependent upon internal not upon external mechanism.

"Habits such as drinking glass upon glass of iced water, eating fresh bread, and nibbling at sweets all day long, must be overcome. The student of singing must make great sacrifices for the preservation of the voice; the singer is usually the slave of his or her instrument. Bicycling, rowing, dancing, long walks, reading late at night, singing too soon after meals, exposure to excessive heat or cold, too frequent theatre parties or social gatherings—all must be abandoned."

December 9, 2010

Lamperti and his Method

Werner's Voice Magazine, September 1900: 22-23.

The names of Garcia and Lamperti stand as a connecting link between the brilliant fame of the singers of a past age, when the old Italian method reigned supreme, and the modern school of vocal art with its eclectic, quasi-scientific creed. Garcia is rather the representative of the latter school, Lamperti of the former, though it is not to be inferred that Garcia does not teach according to the principles of the "old Italian method" —what words to conjure with!

Signor Francesco Lamperti was born in Italy in 1813, and even as a child was an unusual character. Like so many other musicians, his infant years were spent amid musical surroundings, his mother being an opera singer of some repute. His real musical education was begun at an age when most children are still engrossed in picture-books and toys, and carried on under the pressure of severe poverty, a poverty that lasted far into his life. His first position was as organist at the munificent salary of $1 a month, followed by a position as director of an orchestra in the theatre yielding a little less than $4 a month. With a large and steadily increasing family—for the maestro was blessed with nineteen children—it was a hand to mouth struggle for many years. At last recognition came in the shape of an offer from the Royal Conservatory of Music at Milan to make him head of the vocal department at a salary of 1800 francs a year and in addition to educate his two sons. The offer was accepted, and for quarter of a century Lamperti's name was identified with the Milan Conservatory. From this time his reputation as a voice-teacher grew rapidly, until to be accepted as his pupil was the ambition of the singers of two continents, and it was felt that his name was almost talismanic.

The Lamperti method stands first and foremost for purity of tone. A beautiful quality of voice cannot be obtained without a correct method of tone-production. Therefore, Lamperti's oft-reiterated injunction, "Quality, quality, quality," is really the corner-stone of all true voice teaching. Breath, placement of tone, enunciation, are simply segments of the great circle of voice whose soul and life are quality.

So many have studied with Lamperti and gone forth to teach his method, and so much has been written descriptive of his personality and teachings, that it would seem as if everybody must know something of the man who was great even in his strangeness. Yet some points made by him cannot be too often repeated. Such a point is that of keeping the voice upon the breath, a phrase mystifying, perhaps, to those who demand a geometrically plain expression and demonstration of terms, but one full of meaning to the initiated. Why should the unlearned in vocal art expect to understand its "trade talk" any better than the unlearned in other professions understand their special terms? To keep the voice upon the breath means that the voice rests upon an elastic cushion that responds to the slightest tone-pressure, but with an instant resilience buoys up the tone, thus preventing rasping of the surrounding parts, squeezing of the throat, and a consequent thinness of voice. Lamperti's half-dozen words express all this and more.

Another important point in the maestro's teaching was his emphasis of the legato style. To attack a note with the greatest possible limpidity, but with perfect accuracy of intonation, was his idea of a just emission of voice. To him, correct breathing for song was diaphragmatic breathing, which, to use his own words, "is a development of natural breathing," and cannot be acquired except by months of application and practice. Everything about his method was deliberate. "Often," says one who was privileged to know much of his method through listening to his instruction, "in a pupil's whole career he studied only one aria. He would spend a year upon a single one, for Lamperti would say : "If you can sing one, you can sing all, provided that once your voice is placed in purity of tone."

Still another important point made by Lamperti was special attention to the middle register of the voice, especially in women. It is the part that gets hardest usage, the part on which the singer must be able to depend. Habitual singing on high notes weakens the compass and eventually produces a disagreeable inequality of registers.

Small tones perfectly controlled were another feature of Lamperti's teaching. Seldom were pupils allowed to sing with full voice. "As the small tone is, so will the large one be," was his theory.

In the midst of his many studies Lamperti found time to compose vocalizes, solfeggi, and other valuable vocal exercises, which are used by teachers everywhere. A work on the art of singing has been translated into English. In his early days, before the vocal art claimed his attention to the exclusion of all else, he had planned several operas and written some of the music for them. Unfortunately, none were ever completed.

At least three generations of singers owe their allegiance to the famous old Milanese teacher. It was one of his peculiarities rarely to praise a pupil's work. In this he is not alone, for with Marchesi blame lies much nearer the lips than commendation. "Stupida!" "asina!" and "diavolo!" were heard in his studio many times during the day. The rank of the pupil or the artist made little difference in the epithet applied.

Among those who have been numbered in his vocal family, the names of Albani, Thursby, Campanini, Shakespeare, Sims Reeves, Gayarre, Van Zandt, Sembrich, Scovel, Alvary, Carlotta Patti, Tiberini, Artot, Sophie Loewe, will spring to the mind of everyone. Lamperti's name can never die while vocal art is one of the factors of human enjoyment, an element in the grand sum total of esthetics that make life worth living. He died April, 1892.

December 8, 2010

Hugues Cuénod: an extraordinary life

When he died this past Monday at the age of 108, Hugues Cuénod had sung on Broadway in Noël Coward's operetta  "Bitter Sweet", was 85 when he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera as the Emperor in Puccini's Turandot, hob-nobbed with Poulence and Stravnisky, and married his man at the age of 104.  Unusual to say the least.

With the ability to read at sight with great ease, and the intelligence to keep his light, lithe and clear voice within bounds, Cuénod excelled in Mélodie, Bach, Early Music and Monteverdi, during a time when vocal refinement was more widely appreciated and a result of careful and thorough training.

Cuénod was an artiste of the first rank, the kind which we don't see often enough.  Is that because every young tenor on the block wants to sound like Caruso (if they know who Caruso is), or that Cuénod's old-schooled vocalism has a hard time surviving in a world where declamatory gestures - both auditory and visual- are the only thing that can hold an audience's attention?

I see Cuénod's life as a big yes to all the right stuff.   

December 1, 2010

Manuel Garcia the Nonagenarian

The Musical Courier, 1898

Manuel Garcia is a small man, thin and wiry, and now bent somewhat from the shoulders. He is smaller and more slender of frame than Madam Viardot. His face is long and thin, with the sallow tinge that bespeaks his Spanish blood.  His eyes are lit by intelligence and keen, lively, interested penetration.

Like Madame Viardot, there is nothing old, tumble-down or heavy about M. Garcia.  Except for the slight stoop where his ninety-four years have made their home, he is young, alert, bright, interested, quick and merry as at thirty. To hear him run up and down stairs is a marvel; to see him step about through his rooms with grace and light agility is to take a lesson:  to receive his gallant and light attentions is to make you feel at court.

There is a slight family resemblance between him and the Viardot we know so well through these pages.  His manner of conversation is still more like hers. There is the spirit, life, light, delicate cynicism, uplifted nobility and surprising interest in people and things which make a talk with the great artist memorable.

“Neither can one say who is going to be a representative teacher. The faithful pupil may, after leaving, unite new thought of his own coining, and tradition be completely changed. Many who have been pupils do not at all represent the professor who trained and developed them.”