A game of "would you rather" or, please prove me wrong

A game of "would you rather" or, please prove me wrong

Jenna Simeonov

Readers, I’m going to pose to you several questions, and I’m going to try and do so carefully.

Let’s start with a few “would you rathers”:

  1. Would you rather hear a singer like Piotr Beczala sing Captain Vere in Billy Budd or a singer like Anthony Dean Griffey sing Rodolfo in La bohème?
  2. …hear a singer like Dmitri Hvorostovsky sing the title role in Nixon in China or a singer like Russell Braun sing the title role in Rigoletto?
  3. …hear a singer like Barbara Hannigan sing the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor or a singer like Kristine Opolais sing Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes?
  4. …hear a singer like Alice Coote sing Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia or a singer like Elīna Garança sing Miranda in Adès’ The Tempest?

You may have caught on to the point I’m slowly trying to make - it’s an extension of the sentiments of an article from earlier this year. It’s true that within the “big four” voice types (soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone/bass), there are countless variants; it’s why singers are constantly interesting, because no two sopranos sound alike.

But as I’ve gone to hear more and more opera, patterns seem to arise. At the risk of generalising, one of those patterns is this: you are less likely to witness great acting if you go to hear one of the Big Famous Operas™, like La traviata, La bohème, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly or Turandot. Yes, yes, I’m cowering in the corner, away from your angry retorts and flying tomatoes.

Oftentimes, the singers who spend most - or all - of their time singing the tragic operas by Puccini, Verdi, maybe a bit of Donizetti and Gounod, tend to have acting skills that are less well-honed. That’s in comparison to singers who perform a lot of new opera, Baroque opera, and subtler stuff by the likes of Britten, Janáček, Shostakovich, and even Wagner and Strauss.

In the questions I asked above, you might argue that the answer lies simply in the “appropriate sound for the role”. Yet it’s hard to argue for a definitive style and colour that you want to hear out of a Rodolfo or a Rosina or a Richard Nixon. But like every artist, opera singers offer different things, and their audiences learn what to expect. From someone like Pavarotti, you can expect a world-class voice (but maybe not heartbreaking thespian skills). From someone like Dawn Upshaw, the voice is bell-like and she’s a queen of contemporary opera; but she won’t shatter the ceiling the way a Sondra Radvanovsky would.

Or maybe you’d argue that the different styles of opera demand different skills from its singers. But heaven help the heathen who says that Verdi and Puccini are without dramatic thought, or that Britten’s operas don’t demand extraordinary vocal prowess.

I’m not saying that Puccini singers are the owners of “better” voices, or the Britten singers are “better” actors. But I am saying there are poles, subsets within the opera genre that includes artists as well as musical styles. Maybe it’s true that doing mostly Puccini and Verdi roles produces a certain set of skills after a while, just like how doing mostly 17th-century seems to stretch different artistic muscles.

Perhaps it’s only fair that I offer answers to my own question. In order:

  1. Anthony Dean Griffey singing Rodolfo,
  2. Hvorostovsky singing Richard Nixon,
  3. Hannigan singing Lucia di Lammermoor, and
  4. Garança singing Miranda.

Why? Taste.

The real pattern that has emerged out of seeing lots of different operas is this: the transfer across styles - say, from singing lots of bel canto to singing lots of world premieres - is possible not for the singers with vocal versatility, but for the singers who prioritise the music-drama balance. To have a calendar full of Puccini does not remove a singer from the ranks of great singing actors; in the 21st century, there are more exceptions to this pattern than ever before. Singers like Sondra Radvanovsky, Christine Goerke, and Elizabeth DeShong boast plenty of Big Famous Operas™ on their résumés, at no cost to their dramatic offerings.

Two final questions:

  1. Is it fair to be frustrated at the the big-name stars (of the Metropolitan Opera, for example), who stun the world with their glorious voices, but who also promulgate the stereotype that opera = bad acting?
  2. Is it a shame to start avoiding productions of the Big Famous Operas™ because though they can be well-sung, they so often turn out a bit dramatically lame, even in high-budget houses?

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