Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Opera: Still Tricky

Out of the blue earlier in the week, this piece from the Telegraph's theatre critic, Charles Spencer (right):
I’m an operaphobe... When I turn on Radio 3 and discover that an opera is being broadcast, I feel slightly nauseous and instantly have to switch channels.
It's actually a highly forensic article, getting to the root of some serious issues in opera in a very short stretch of prose. He finishes with a plea:
I’d be very glad to hear from readers who once shared my allergy to opera and who can recommend a way of overcoming the aversion.
Well I can't claim to be a covert but I'd like to address his points.

1. overweight women caterwauling interminably

Recently, directors have been insisting that performers fit their dramatic role on stage physically. However, to a certain extent, the stereotype large opera singer that demands an audience suspend their incredulity lives on.

Caterwauling is a rude but not totally inaccurate way of describing the sound that many opera singers make when trying to fulfil the demands of singing a role.

2. I used to think it was the snobbishness that surrounded opera that put me off, but in recent years it has become far more democratic.

Quite so.

3. ponderous and often grotesquely sentimental storytelling

Yes, operatic drama often seems drawn out and emotionally sweetened.

One must realise that opera isn't a drama accompanied by music. The drama is in the music. Complaining about the ponderous, sentimental storytelling is rather like complaining about Bob Dylan's rough singing voice.

4. the need for surtitles

Again, Spencer is right. It's difficult to hear the words that most singers are singing, irrespective of the language. Surtitles are a well-meaning device (usually for translating foreign languages) but unavoidably come between an audience and their immediate understanding of the drama.

5. When I turn on Radio 3 and discover that an opera is being broadcast, I feel slightly nauseous

I sympathise. Opera is designed to be heard live in a dedicated space. The use of microphones will diminish that experience.

Microphone placement in a live performance is restricted by having to keep the stage clear, so the optimum mic placement will never be achieved anyway.

The fact that the sound is being picked up for broadcast also means further processing of the sound (usually compression, making the quieter music louder and vice versa) which further diminishes the artist's work.

6. and in such a small space the high notes were excruciating

Again, I agree. And once again, opera is designed to be heard live in a dedicated space. If the space is too cramped then not only does the sound not have a chance to breathe but the singer, feeling the acoustic inhibition of the room, may modify their technique to deal with it and diminish the quality of their sound - and consequently overall performance.

The same is true for large spaces where performers may feel a responsibility to reach the extremities with music - and its appropriately cast voices - that are intended for a space half the size. Distortion of a similar but opposite kind can occur.

7. over-trained voices

This is a most important issue. The question 'what is opera' is a difficult one to answer. I suspect that the clearest demarcation from other lyric theatre is the sound a singer makes. Katherine Jenkins can help us here: though she has never sung an opera she is considered an opera singer. This is because of the manner in which she produces a singing sound, not the content of the music that she sings nor the context in which she sings it.

Training a voice is the attempt to extend the capability of the natural voice. This is largely to do with projecting a voice into increasingly large theatres, and sustaining a voice across the increasingly extreme peaks, troughs and expanses of modern opera.

Technology has rendered this redundant in many respects. The traditional art of training a singing voice (which Spencer correctly identifies as bel canto, literally beautiful singing) is always held in false comparison with popular music, essentially a chamber art, that can be amplified to thousands (or broadcast to billions).

Additionally, as Spencer suggests, and as my crude similie to the work of Katherine Jenkins shows, it's the sound that people find difficult to deal with. In many cases this is fair, the application of the technique being part of the resultant sound and creating a mannered blend.

However, the very best singing renders technique transparent. The colours and quirks of a voice similarly dissolve - all the 'spontaneity and occasional roughness' of Spencer's pop background are similarly rendered obsolete. All that is left is plain speech attached to a remarkable open-ended chamber of resonance that takes in the whole space in which the audience sits, wihout source or destination.

I've only heard it rarely in London: Christian Gerhaher at the Royal Opera last year or Roderick Williams at ENO the year before. It's a central wonder of the alchemy of opera, the unrepeatable effect of direct communion with an artist using the focus of dramatic performance to give this aurora borealis of sound-in-technique artistic purpose.

Like all rare treats, it requires a certain faith on behalf of the listener who may be rewarded with myriad inklings or even short stretches of the prize along the way. To Charles Spencer of the Telegraph and others with imagination I recommend perseverance.

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