October 2, 2014

Amalie Materna on Singing Wagner

Materna as Elisabeth


Frau Materna Describes the Effects of Singing Music Drama.
The Prima Donna Says Too Many Girls Rush, Half Prepared, on the Stage. 


There are few women on the lyric stage to-day who have oftener stretched out the hand of good fellowship to struggling young artists than Frau Materna. She is always ready with a word of valuable advice or whole-would encouragement, when her professional work brings her in contact with young and talented singers, but woe betide the young person of slender talent and big ambition, who stumbles across Materna's path, for she never flatters mediocrity. 

Materna was asked yesterday to say a few words of wisdom about Wagnerian singing, and its effect on the voice, for who is so qualified to speak on the subject as the woman who created the roles of his heroins for Wagner himself? "Ach! that is the thing I love most to talk of," said Materna in her genial frank way, for there is nothing haughty or commanding in private life about this terrible Brunhilde, though she positively overpowers one with her majesty on the stage. When you talk to Materna, though, you forget that she is a celebrity. If she had spent her life in knitting stockings and concocting stews, you could not feel more at home with her, or more assured that she is the sort of woman who would sympathize with you if you were in trouble. 

"I am so sorry that I speak not English better," said the prima donna apologetically. "German is the tongue I have always sung in even when I was singing 'Fidelio,' 'Africanna' and the other operas of the old repertory. 

"You ask," 'Does singing Wagner music wear out the voice?" I must answer 'no.' Twenty-five years ago, when I began to sing the master's music, all the people said to me, 'Oh! my dear Materna, in five years you will have no voice; you will have screamed it all away.' Well, that is twenty-five years ago, and my voice is as strong as every and the high tones are clearer. I was a mezzo-soprano when Wagner first began to teach me his roles. His music wants very high and very low notes. At first I would say, 'Oh, no, not so high as that,' but he would say, 'That must be sung, try,' and always I found he knew best. 

"There is one mistake that many people who try to sing Wagner's music make. They think it is loud and strong, and that so they must always practice at full voice. That wears out their voices. I have always practiced mezza voce, for, if you can sing a thing with the half voice, to yourself, you can always sing it with the full voice when you are before the public. 

"Much depends upon the conductor. A man who knows and understands Wagner subdues the orchestra so that the sound does not overwhelm the singers. How great poor Hermann Levy was for that. It was a joy to sing 'Parsifal' to his conducting,"

Materna as Ortrud
Materna was alluding regretfully to the great Wagnerian conductor who is reportedly lately to have become insane and who has been forced to retire from the conductorship of the Hof Theater in Munich. 

"But anyway, a singer who produces her voice properly can never force her tones," contented Materan thoughtfully. "If she produces it so," and the disciple of Wagner gave a deep guttural roar, "her voice must wear out very soon, for she is straining the muscles of her throat: but if the sound reverberates so," and this time Materna emitted a tone that rang forward on her palate, after which she added complacently, "that sort of production does not wear out the voice," 

Wagner's great motto, according to Materna, was to make his artists sing as they spoke. "No faces, no contortions, he abominated all those unnatural things. Oh! it is terrible to see the way some singers twist their mouths out of shape, when they might sing as easily and naturally as they talk if they would only try. But I will tell you what is the first real essential for Wagner singing, and that is to have the bel canto before you begin to study the music dramas. All the time I see poor girls going on the stage with one three or four tones in their voices and they sing Elsa and Eva and Senta. Poor little things; they are almost children and they have not studied half enough. In two years their voices are gone, but it is not singing that ruined them: oh, no it is because they began to strain their voices in difficult parts before they had acquired enough school to know how to use them. It is terrible nowadays how many unprepared young ladies go on the stage."

Frau Materna says that she attributes her own success in the music dramas largely to the fact that she understood bel canto and could sing Mozart's florid arias before she began to study Wagner's music. She scorns the idea that there is no bel canto in Wagner, however. "Elizabeth's role, is that not all singing?" she asked. "And Elsa, and above all Isolde. When Tristan lies dead and Isolde sings her dying lament over him till her voice grows fainter and dies away, who can say that swan song is not bel canto?" 

When the singer was asked for some personal reminiscences of the master whose music she had parsed so much tears swelled up in her kind eyes and she answered quickly: "No, I cannot talk of him. When I sing his music my whole heart goes out into it, but when I think that so good a man, so great a composer is dead, then—excuse me," and Materna tried to smile away some big tears and hastily turned the conversation to her pleasure at being in the golden California sunshine. 

The San Francisco Call, Friday, March 13, 1896.  

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