The Vannuccini School: Part III

One has only to listen to Eleanor Steber for a few minutes to realize that she had one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. A glorious full-lyric soprano that excelled in Mozart and Strauss, Steber was a student of William L. Whitney at New England Conservatory in the 1930's. His school was that of Luigi Vannuccini, considered one of a handful of authentic Old School maestri in the latter part of the 19th century. Steber's studies with Whitney resulted in an international career and over 286 performances with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. While in New York, she studied with Paul Althouse, a student of Oscar Saenger. But it was her studies with Whitney which provided the basis for her career.

Among the many YouTube video's of her singing, there are two which I find quite interesting. The first is of Steber performing Sempre Libera from Verdi's La Traviata, while the second is of her performing Depuis de jour from Louise by Charpentier. In the Verdi, one hears the bells and whistles of bel canto technique with its floated tone and ease of production. Remember: this is live television, and she wasn't a spring chicken anymore. Steber has the goods, out-singing many a would-be Violetta today. Do you see how open her face is?

The second piece had been recorded by Steber on a whim in London and she fairly astonishes in this performance that was given at the Continental Baths in the Ansonia at the age of 59 in 1973. It is full-throated singing with shimmering high notes and mezza voce phrasing, the crescendos and sudden diminuendos taking one by surprise: you think she can't give anymore and she does. 

A City Opera colleague who studied with Steber tells stories of lessons in a room with heavy carpets, curtains and cocktails. She was also his second mother. A complicated woman, Steber's voice was shot through with a fire that transcended vocal technique. The paradox, of course, is that only real vocal technique made this burning, gleaming, silvery tone possible.

You can find a record of Whitney's teaching in a little known book titled Successful Singing. It's author, Julia Stacey Gould (1894-1976), studied with Whitney in Boston and recorded for Victor in 1921. Successful Singing was published in 1942 during a period of great uncertainty with Gould stating in the Preface that Whitney himself was involved in its preparation. Look for a copy at Wordcat.