The following article was published today in The Economist by E.H.B and I thought it would open discussion on a few very important topics that are very timely. Feel free to send your opinions and thoughts.
There are some large issues this article highlights: 1) young singers being forced into roles that are too large for their vocal size, 2) older singers (and I mean mid 40s) who are considered too “old” for certain roles and seemingly weened out of role contention, and 3) preparation of young singers and relying on technique to sustain a career in the opera profession.
I agree that young singers are more readily offered roles that are too big for them to handle. I also agree that middle-aged singers are being left out of the mix for fresher, more youthful faces. Had this been the case years ago, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad, Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, and Luciano Pavarotti….to name a few, would have been taken out of the mix before they had a chance to reach the peak of their vocal prowess. How stupid a situation this is? But where does this all stem from? It stems from the voice studio, from the teacher, from the technique.
Flagstad as Isolde
If young singers (and when I say young singers I mean anyone who is beginning to learn to use their voice regardless of age) are not provided with a technique that is able to withstand the rigours of major arias and roles, then what is the point of sending someone with a beautiful voice and face head first into the echelon of auditions? Years ago, this was a lesser problem because singers found teachers who used techniques that worked, Marchesi, Malocchi, Lamperti, Garcia, for example. Nowadays its all about making domes in the back of the mouth and finding resonances in the back of one’s head with no placement whatsoever and no vowels to be heard of except for some that are lost in a swash of fluttering or wobbling. Really? I went to school for years before I actually had a teacher who taught “a technique” and not one that they conjured up in their own fantasy by giving analogies of puppets hanging from strings. On what green earth does anyone think that a voice produced that way will carry past an orchestra to 3000 people? Ever heard of singing in the masque? Mmm….interesting concept isn’t it, using your face? Ever heard of the first rule of opera…one that was fashioned in the mid 1600s when Monteverdi and the Camerata were fashioning the form of opera: SI CANTA COME SI PARLA…..yeah, that’s right. ”You sing as you speak!”
Singers are being thrust into roles too heavy for them and it seems that larger voices are being produced less and less because techniques are no longer the same as they were years ago, thus impeding the singer from projecting fully or using their full sound capacity. So, if we have smaller voices, of course they can’t sing Aida or Tosca! Then, we decide that middle-aged singers aren’t “glamorous” enough for Mimi or Tosca so let’s just throw young singers in, even if they ruin their voices, even if it makes them push, even if it makes them sing uncomfortably. Who cares! Right!? WRONG!!! (Rigoletto’s motive of LA MALEDIZIONE plays loudly).
Claudio Monteverdi “The Music is the Mistress of the Words”
The Golden Age of singing was the Golden Age because even the comprimario roles were sung with exquisite voices that had the technique to withstand the rigours of opera. Was it just that genius singers were born during that age and we’ll never hear the likes of them again? What are the odds of that? I think not. There are many excellent voices today, in fact, there are spectacular voices out there but the real concern is making sure those voices fall into the right hands, acquire a sturdy technique, have good support from their vocal teacher, coaches, and then later agents, who understand the voice and are there to PROTECT the singer, not their pocketbooks.
Frankly, I think this article opens up an important discussion and although my comments may seem harsh, I’m being honest about how “I” feel about these issues. It’s just my opinion. I’d love to hear yours.
7:25pm October 14th, on Sirius/XM Radio (Met Opera Radio)
A talk on Nico Muhly’s Opera, “Two Boys”
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 6:00 PM
Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Nico Muhly’s acclaimed opera, first seen in London in 2011, has its Met premiere in a production by Bartlett Sher. Peter Gelb talks with the composer, director, conductor David Robertson, and tenor Paul Appleby about bringing this thrilling contemporary work to the stage.
Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien
7:25pm Broadcast on Sirius/XM Radio (Met Opera Radio)
Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Aida’s in history
The Last Verista:
The way that you are most connected to Verdi is via his heroines, so I’d like to delve into these amazing characters with you. First, Luisa Miller and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. How did these characters influence what was to come for you, vocally, and what was your journey toward singing them?
First, let me address how they came to me. The first was Simon Boccanegra. Because of the maturity of my instrument and because I was advanced at a young age, it was very hard to hold me back. For the early part, my mom (Margherita Girosi) believed that I should stay in Bel Canto, and I remained in the Bel Canto repertoire and I loved it. She had felt that putting a large voice in something like Mozart would have crippled it and I’m pretty sure it would have crippled me. She said, “Always put the bigger voices in Bel Canto; it teaches them to make the voice steady supported by the air in perfect smooth vowels and grow naturally over a longer period.” It also keeps you healthy and buoyant. So when we came to Verdi, and when I came to the Met, it was difficult. My great friend Larry Stayer and Charlie Riecker did what they could for me and were my lights in a dark time. I was refusing small roles and developing a chip on my shoulder. Until Jimmy (Levine) got involved I didn’t feel safe, and they had great people, but no one I felt, got who and what I was.
Jimmy graciously saw my growing agitation and he said come sing for us, his participation hands on came extensively after they caught my message in a Young Artists follow up “Audition”. He knew I was arguing with everyone and not very happy and frankly after I had sung for Von Karajan who had covered his face when I told him I was in an apprentice program at the Met. He belabored, “You are not for that. You have imagination and are an artist. They will not know what to do with you and will stifle you!” I was even more unhappy. I explained that James Levine would be in control of me and only him. My Mother stepped in again, and said “See what James Levine says. He isn’t going to make a mistake. Trust him.” That said, when I returned I was asked to do a follow up audition and I did. It was only after I sang the “Tu Che Invoco” and the “”O nume tutelar” from La Vestale that they realized what I really was. In the audience was a famous coach and maestro from the olden days at La Scala, a great gentleman who Jimmy had asked to coach young voices at the Met named Dick Marzollo, and with whom I had prepared my Ernani for La Scala.. Levine had the right idea always, he was just terribly busy. Well after this audition, Marzollo stood up for me and waxed lyrical about my talent saying the right things to suggest they had a rare voice and that it was a very old-fashioned, well-produced instrument and “she’s only 22-23 years old,” not to let me get away. When Jimmy (Levine) became involved in working with me, he was like a young Serafin. His knowledge of the psychology of what it took to sing rivaled anyone I had ever known….HE KNEW opera, LOVED opera, He finally said “If you will stay calm and work with David Stivender, who was not only the Choral Director of the massively talented chorus of the Met, but a Mascagni scholar and a really fine conductor who Jimmy knew would know what to do to get my best work and prep me well…Jimmy would make me the leading Verdi voice at the Metropolitan.
A complete version of Luisa Miller, starring Aprile Millo (Roma, 1990)
What clinched it, especially knowing the historic nature of that house, was when he finished saying….”You will be able to put your own stamp on the history of this house!” I was no fool, I listened and thrived with the combination of Stivender and the fabulous Rita Patané who herself had been a fabulous soprano and student of Maria Carbone. I finally relaxed. Jimmy rightly asked me to prepare Simon Boccanegra because for a young Verdi Voice she has to have it all, and yet it is a great mix of lyric and spinto. She is the perfect preparation for young Verdi voices. She deals with the elements that you’ll later deal with in the larger repertoire and the step after that is either a Luisa Miller or a Trovatore. Trovatore is usually better before a Luisa Miller. Luisa Miller is a much larger role than they give her credit for and she’s now being sung by a lot of lyric sopranos, which is not really correct. It has to have a real bite.
So for me, Aida, was the combination of the two that I really felt the most comfortable with because I felt it was a dark lyric, with a nice penetrating sound that enjoyed flight, enjoyed being high and floating, enjoyed all of the things that I had learned from the Bel Canto. In the Trovatore I felt absolutely at home. If you were to ask what were the linchpins in my career in Verdi’s provisioned fly and his magnificent sense of voice and understanding the voice, they would be Simon Boccanegra, Il Trovatore, Otello, Luisa Miller, and Don Carlo. These were all magnificent growth spurts. What I really would love to have done and what I may do just in disc is Traviata or little extracts of it. I’m looking at her with different eyes than I did then. I do wish I had sung her earlier. I also wish I had sung a Vespri Sicliani,they had offered to me twice at the Met because there is some gorgeous gorgeous music to be sung. Again, it would be a pleasure to leave that in a time capsule, and I might still do that.
The Last Verista:
Can you talk to us a bit more about Leonora and her music? Which part of that role for you was the most satisfying as an artist, as a singer?
I would have to say the entirety of the last act or at least the music beginning in the middle of the third act, from the “L’onda dei suoni istici.” The duet shortly before “Di Quella Pira.” There’s something about the way that music fit. When the tenor is trying to coo with her and she’s coo-ing back and they’re going to be married or they have been married (that’s up in the air), she’s thinking about her wedding day, and he is too but is called away to take care of his mother. There again is another force of destiny that we don’t even see, that the mother would kill. They say the story is ludicrous and it’s not. So, you have the “Di Quella Pira” which then sets up with all this incredible blaze, you have her more or less trying to soothe things underneath his cell, which in those days was not in some precinct somewhere but usually under a tower. They would keep the enemy of the state very high up so no one could be stolen back or taken and set free. You would have to climb an embankment, you would have to climb up into the heavens, so to speak, so of course it wasn’t so easy. Monty Python not withstanding….like catapulting yourself over a bridge!
For her, my favourite in the Leonora are, her arrival in the convent, “Perche Piangete.” There is something about her flight there that in that melody is the child she would never have, is the marriage she will never have, is the love that she will never experience. All in that seven or eight bars, leading to the entrance to the convent upon which they are stopped by the armies of both men who are trying to stop her from getting in there. So the “Degg’io volgermi,” all of that magnificent writing that I used to love to spin that out so it was absolutely a lament, but a resigned lament. The words needed to take on the sense of being next to God but not totally there. If she were totally there, she would be happy so they always had to have this sense of melancholy borrowing from the Bel Canto, which to me sounds very similar to a Lucia type of vein.
Leading into the “D’Amor Sull’Ali Rosee,” for me revolves around the middle voice. My middle voice is always where I knew whether I was healthy or I’m not. If I have the middle voice, then I have the bottom and the top. The middle voice for “D’Amor” is so important because you’re really staying there the majority of the time, except for the beautiful flights where she’s trying to get up to him and Verdi writes this message as if it’s on these tiny wings of song that are placed musically on the staff. You might interpret her, like a bird, not necessarily the dying swan, but in that same way trying to get out of her own body to get to him. When she hears his voice and all of this music stops dead and and you feel again that sense of the “L’onda dei suoni mistici” that he’s singing somewhere about how he wants her and he misses her. He’s lamenting the fact that they’re not together, catapults her toward her inevitable destiny because she arrives on that scene with poison in her ring. She knows she’s going to have to do something quite formidable in order to get him out. This is pretty much her swan-song and where Verdi uses some pretty gossamer moments.
The way he wrote it, it is not written pianissimissimo, but it depends on if the singer is able to effect that then it lends a truly gorgeous aspect, but mustn’t be a trick. You can do so much with this music that’s already doing everything for you without your having to do much. You go today and hear people say this music is so fabulous but they’ve done nothing with it. They’re right, it is fabulous, it will be considered great whether you’ve got a great artist singing it or not, but when you have a great artist singing it, then “oh my.” It takes on that other dimension where you can truly drive your audience to distraction. You can take them close to the sun… close to their truest emotions and bring them back safely. He gives you the possibility to truly drive them out of their minds with the beauty of it. and their recognition of themselves in it.
The Last Verista:
Can we talk about us about Aida, a role that landed you a major place historically as one of the greatest Aida’s of all time? What about this particular character and her music, with which you are so closely linked.
To hear Aprile Millo’s commentary on Aida, click on the player below.
With Dolora Zajick
The Last Verista:
I’d like to show you this picture of Verdi, taken of Verdi at Sant’Agata. What does this photograph make you feel? What is your inner most feeling about this man?
To hear Aprile Millo’s response to the photograph, click on the player below:
The Last Verista:
I’d like to read you one of Verdi’s only surviving references to the issue of “modernizing” his style. Younger generations of composers were urging him to modernize and so Verdi was in a difficult position, but his comments here mention that he realizes what the situation is. The letter was to Count Opprandino Arrivabene, in March 1868. He wrote:
“I know, too, that there is a music of the future, but I think at present and will continue to think next year that to make a shoe you need some leather and some skins!…What do you think of this stupid comparison, which means that to make an opera you musc first have music in your body?!…I declare that I am and will be an enthusiastic admirer of the avveniristi provided they make some music for me…in whatever form, with whatever system, etc., but it must be music!…Rest assured. I may very well lack the strength to arrive where I want to go, but I know what I want. (Marcello Conati and Mario Medici, eds, CarteggioVerdi-Boito (Parma: Istituto di Studi Verdiani, 1978), xxxiii).
Well, let me ask you. “What do you think he wanted?” He said, I know what I want. What do you think Verdi wanted out of music?
The Last Verista:
I’m humbled that you would ask me my thoughts. I think Verdi was well aware of imposing factions, so to speak, and by that I mean the “German threat” that was discussed in many of the historical documents. Wagner’s innovation was a serious issue in Italy in Verdi’s time and Wagner had completely wiped out the Italian conventions that composers had held so beloved as part of their tradition. No more cavatina/cabalettas, no more number arias, no more solita forma, no more orchestra being subservient to the voice. Of course, these innovations urged the younger generation to do something and to do it quick before operatic supremacy was completely taken from Italy and so of course they were going to harass, if you will, their leader, Verdi. I think Verdi was caught between a rock and a hard place. Essentially, he was powerful enough to do whatever he wanted and his operas were never going to go out of fashion–that is a given, but I also believe that Verdi wanted something new, as well. I believe that he maintained middle period style as long as he could but something shifted in him later around the period before Aida in the mid 1860s and from then on, beginning with Aida and Ghislanzoni, and especially in the collaborations with Boito–the revision of Simon Boccanegra, the libretti for Otello and Falstaff, we see perhaps what Verdi was hinting at. What might have come had he lived longer is a truly fascinating thought.
What do you think he wanted?
If you realize that this man in his 80s was going to mirror much of the fire of the nineteen year old composer, the twenty year old composer, the thirty-something year old composer, the fifty year old man who had to deal with censors every five minutes, he felt that he was just dealing with another type of censorship and so he was going to fight modernity. Mind you, he did absorb it and he did find those skins and he put them on shoes that satisfied HIM. Now if someone had known how to present this to him, I would have asked, “What are the components that you feel must be present in order for it to be music?” If it’s what we see that he left printed on the page, then it’s pretty specific. I don’t think he would have been a very big fan of Stravinsky, let’s say, but I think he would have appreciated it after he listened to it for months at at time. He might have embraced the dissonance or the ambiguity. For him, music was very solid, straight forward, which was how it was built…from him playing the organ in the church as a young man. He saw it in chords that were harmonic or dissonant that required resolution. He didn’t see it as what evolved and what would go forward in the palate of Mascagni and Puccini…but I don’t see them as that different. I just think this idea of modernity was presented to a stubborn 80 year old guy and it recalled for him what these censors were trying to do to him as a younger man.
The Last Verista:
The fact that he left Falstaff as his final statement is very telling because this is an opera that went against a major censorial issue of the past, the separation of genres–that is, the separation of comedy and tragedy. He had issues with this censorial faction when he was attempting to compose King Lear and also with Rigoletto and Macbeth (where the entire Porter’s scene had to be ommitted). Even if Verdi loved Shakespeare and wanted to model his operas after the plays, King Lear has a major character that is a Fool, and it would have been inordinately difficult for Verdi to skirt around that issue. Leaving a buffo character, leaving a comedic opera like Falstaff as a final statement after a deluge of serious subjects is, I think, directly related to his written comment.
He left a thank you to Boito, I think by inserting a fugue in Falstaff when he had initially fought against those types of forms. It’s almost as though he’s saying, “I get what you’re saying, but do you get that I could have done that, and I did do it and I’m 80 something, so now it’s your game.” It’s very interesting. And so wonderful for Boito who loved him so, and pushed him to greater heights.
The Last Verista:
I’d like to read you the following text, which are the final lines of Falstaff, the final operatic text that Verdi left.
Tutto nel mondo é burla. L’uom é nato burlone, La fede in cor gli ciurla, Gli ciurla la ragione. Tutti gabbati! Irride L’un l’altro ogni mortal. Ma ride ben chi ride La risata final.
Basically this is his “risata finale.” He’s having the last laugh. Plain and simple, the very last words are “La Commedia è finita,” but it’s his comedy, it’s his finish and he gets, more or less, to have the last laugh. It shows him in such an advanced state using so many palates that he had used before, using all these idioms that had been supposedly investigated by other composers. There he is. He’s able to do it with his own Italian imprint. This is a victory and yet another reason why they should just put his face on the flag of Italy and be done with it because he’s just so much of what Italy represents in its best form and what should represent Italy.
The Last Verista:
I’d like to read you a statement of Giuseppe Giacosa, the librettist, who was at Verdi’s bedside when he died. I’d like your reaction on this:
“The maestro is dead. He carried away with him a great quantity of light and vital warmth. We had all based in the sun of his Olympian old age. He died magnificently like a fighter redoubtable and mute. The silence of death fell on him a week before he died. With his head bent, his eyebrows set, he seemed to measure with half shut eyes an unknown and formidable adversary, calculating in his mind the force that he could summon up in opposition. Thus he put up an heroic resistance. The breathing of his great chest sustained him for four days and three nights; on the fourth night the sound of his breathing still filled the room; but what a struggle, poor maestro! How magnificently he fought up to the last moment! In the course of my life, I have lost persons whom I idolized, when grief was stronger than resignation. But I have never experienced such a feeling of hate against death, such loathing for its mysterious, blind, stupid, triumphant, infamous power. For such a feeling to be aroused in me I had to await the end of this old man of ninety.”
Verdi died on the 27th of January at ten minutes to three in the morning, 1901.
It’s important I guess to see how a person is in death because he so transfigured life. What I love is that Mr. Giacosa was able to detail an event in such a way that you feel like you’re there. And, if I were there I’d probably be ears ringing and hating death just as much as I do now and he did then.. He touches me greatly and I would have felt a darkness descend and then a sense of radiant peace as I am sure he arrived in Paradise. For all the beauty he gave the world…I do not care if he believed or not, he wrote like a man with a message from God. The interesting thing is that Verdi may have furrowed his brow and and dug his heels in but he went to the “paradise” he glimpsed and helped us see always in his music….. It must have felt like home. He said Good Bye; “o terra addio.” Finally met Manzoni, saw his first wife and his beloved children, embraced his loved ones there and his little puppy Lou-Lou of whom he wrote on his tombstone, was his very best friend. He went from this earth to the one he painted for us. What you see in the image of the death mask is a vision of someone’s face saying, “It is exactly what I thought it was.” There is a quiet resignation and when life ceases and we realize that we’ve actually had a glimpse of paradise through Verdi’s music we’re going to be a lot more thankful to him than we were in life, and we’re going to say–for all those who miss the chance to hear him–sigh…what a loss for you, and what an awesome gift it was for me to know this genius.
The Last Verista:
Click on the player below to hear the remainder of the interview:
The Last Verista:
On behalf of singers the world over, and young singers who are looking to study Verdi, thank you for bringing such an honest, real, full of passion, and incredibly knowledgable perspective to us, but moreover, for your presentation of Verdi’s heroines. You have a way of delivering him to us so that we feel a little bit closer to him every time we hear you sing his music, and so thank you for your incredible interpretations of his women and for your immense talent. I’m sure if Maestro Verdi were able he’d thank you, as well. Grazie mille, Aprile. Sei grande.
Thank you so much, Mary. You are so filled with music, with love for it, and at so young an age you have given so much of your life to the study of music. Cannot wait to see you enjoy it now, as you begin to sing, and share your many gifts with the world. It has been my honor and privilege to witness your journey and your faith and love in music. God bless you with all you desire, and know that this colleague prays for your success and happiness as I pray for my own. Brava. Viva Verdi!!!!!
To purchase any of Aprile Millo’s recordings, click on the links below.
Aprile, it is truly an honour and a thrill to talk to you about Giuseppe Verdi on this the 200th Anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth. You have been an inspiration and role model to young singers since your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984. It must have been a thrill for you to sing Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra as your debut, but even earlier when you were 20, you won the prestigious premio of the Voce Verdiana in Busseto, Italy, Verdi’s home town. It seems that from the first, your affinity has been with Maestro Verdi. There are so many things I’d like to ask and so many things our readers, your fans, and young singers want to know. The first thing I’d like to ask you is for your thoughts on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth. How do you feel about this composer and what does this 200th anniversary mean to you?
If you were to crack open my soul his music would come pouring out. He has been a constant steady obbligato playing in the soundtrack of my life. I adore and revere him.
The Last Verista:
There have been some pretty dire situations occurring, as of late, like the closing of New York City Opera and rumours about closing Il Teatro alla Scala, which seems impossible to me. What are you thoughts on the current period and how is this 200th Anniversary relevant to the present time?
It is especially poignant that this celebration of his birth occurs during a period of music history that is likely one of the most dire and unexpectedly nonchalant about the loss of many great institutions of music and impending threats of closure to many opera theaters, even the great temple of music that is La Scala. How amazing it is to have this opportunity, this invitation to recall excellence, to remember greatness; to embrace again a genius who I consider a man formed by his times but triumphant as he was not held hostage by them. His music does the same for us in our own times. He had for me a very modern soul, which at times placed him at odds with the rigid cages society imposed upon themselves. The freedom of his flight in such a caught time amazes me. That we would be afforded this luxury to reacquaint and explore once more all that is this genius- Verdi, gives us hope perhaps that his music itself will lead Italy and the musical world out of its trouble once again as he had all those years ago; I am hopeful that perhaps with this exposure to him the situation for classical music, especially opera music would improve. The courage of this man, I adore. He was such and is such a modern voice for his times and his message continues to resonate even now because of how he wrote in what I call a “Veristic Bel Canto Style,” dealing with many grand subject matters, exploring the very intimate personal stories that sometimes play out against huge events in ways we would feel it…this occurs even today! Because of who he was as a man, a very rare combination of realist and idealist, it allowed him to act like a looking glass into the time he lived and carry that time into the future. I think this recognition of 200th anniversary of his birth comes just in the nick of time. We need his message always, but especially now. Our fight for the Arts in a way has to be reborn.
The Last Verista:
How do you feel about current artistic climate that we live in?
There are many apps today for the I-Phone that if you don’t keep steady vigilance, they die. In Japan I first saw them, and now everywhere, the app create virtual dogs or cats and other little creatures that you have to feed or talk to or play with or update, and I’m beginning to believe that music and various things that round out a soul follow the same premise as those apps. If we don’t constantly keep some kind of vigil on ourselves and creatively add to ourselves, add to the experience of ourselves, we too will die in a spiritual sense but also sometimes in a physical sense. We calcify, we freeze in motion.
What’s going on today is simply that music has been neglected in a steady technological race for everything that’s unimportant but quick dopamine highs that are a quick drug. They peak high, and then leave you with nothing, whereas music is a rush that keeps on going…a gift that will make you happy in all the times of your life. Music is known to stamp a period of your life, it can release massive, massive, massive feelings of well-being or as the Italian’s call it, “ben essere,” which means “well being,” it allows one to feel fully realized as if you experienced more fully an event if music is joined to it, in your mind. Our journey on earth is not just supposed to be a straight path. It never is; we try in vain to make it that way, but it’s not. Music shows us that along that path there can be so many lights that go off like shooting stars on a dark night, or a full moon. Various pieces of music can be like light on that path. Sadly today Classical music really does not have enough chance to expose the richness of its variety to the younger minds which, it is scientifically proven, are more open to anything. When they are most open they are not being exposed to or privy to any of the masterpieces so how do we expect them to understand it later that the “B” we’re talking about is not Justin Bieber. We’re talking about Bach, we’re talking about Beethoven and that won’t be part of their relative experience, so yes, this is a very critical time to be vigilant about promoting music, insisting that some of our power houses whom we elect, who we elect and then they promptly forget about us, that the “us” we talk about is a full rounded soul, at least given the opportunity to use the devastatingly beautiful colors that music can paint on a mind leaving a lasting imprint on the soul. They deserve that option.
As Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera with Luciano Pavarotti
The Last Verista:
In my own thinking about you and where you stand historically in the scheme of opera and music, I would say that you are a child of the past born on the cusp of the present. How does that make you feel? You were part of a group of singers and sang with and knew some of the greatest voices that have ever existed. How does that make you feel as a singer in our present day’s climate? How do you merge these two worlds?
I loved getting to know some of the truly legendary singers. They are very different and special beings, each one. Zinka Milanov was unique and feisty and full of great charm, in a completely different way then Renata Tebaldi…. who enveloped my heart very early on, and who influenced me greatly with Ponselle and Muzio rounding out the quad for me and later Albanese, and Olivero… Hearing Licia Albanese sing the Boheme duet with Ferrucio Tagliavini was a revelation. The words meant everything, the atmosphere was drenched in total beauty and concentrated personality. EVERYTHING worked together to help each other paint a vivid picture of who and what they were singing. They listened to each other in a way that spoke volumes. There was a dignity, people arrived in full suit and tie and dressed impeccably even for early rehearsals. People lined the walls and snuck outside to hear the Sitz Probes of the greats. The orchestra was even excited and played like Gods. Nilsson, Rysanek, Vickers, Price, Pavarotti, Domingo, Bergonzi, Sutherland, Cossotto, Milnes, MacNeil. You trusted the maestri to know your voice capabilities and to be able to teach you the styles, and according to your voice, WITH your own voice, you did the right way, the right styles, and you knew they would protect you. I would work my first Wagner, with a Walter Taussig who had worked with Rethberg and Flagstad. I am an Italian color voice yet they got something wonderful from me. Merging today with then? I do so very difficultly because the opera world has been passed to a new generation of people with very different criteria, that like every young group think they know it all and they have more to deal with now then we ever did before. It is a show now in the worst sense of the word. It always was, but it was a masterpiece, a piece of MUSIC that had to be presented. But nothing was more important than the sacredness of the music. Great theatrical minds spent years becoming familiar with the text and the drama and the very different demands that opera places on its actors.Nothing was done to deflate the singer, they were divine and doing an almost sacred work. No distractions. They spoke in hushed tones about the text and it’s beauty and the message. It wasn’t a profession it was a vocation. I identified with those who felt that way, still do. It’s undergoing a transition of a sort and you have to hope that by the end of it, like in a sieve, that the important golden nuggets will stay at the bottom of the bowl and that your day of excavating will remain authentic to go forward in time intact and authentic.
There is an ancient study that Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Gallieo all of these marvelous minds–not only Madonna considers, called the Kabbalah, in which one of the thoughts is that you chose to come into the world at a certain time, and I think I came into this time period to help retain something of the old-school in the new. When I came in the 80’s, we were going through much the same thing we are going through now, where there were many incorrect voices singing the repertoire, a woeful disobedience to the composers wishes but mind you, I strode in where on one side Leonie Rysanek, Leontyne Price, Sills, MacNeil, they were still singing, Joan Sutherland was singing, Marilyn Horne–all of these fabulous examples of how music should be sung, so it had a gravitas, a weight on the side of doing it correctly. And now we have very few exponents because tradition is often considered a “bad word.” Fame is more important…. it matters not how you sing, just if you can be seen singing it. You’re not supposed to do anything that’s traditional because tradition has been reassigned to the word “routine.” “Tradition” is basically a word for accepted history of a performance carried forward by people who had been alive at the time of the first performance, the very first performances. Say, Cilea or Mascagni or Verdi or Puccini, or Stravinsky, these men were all alive during the lives of the singers that helped form the traditions of a piece. Those that worked with the composer sang on the stage presenting, what they believed, what they were told by the composer was the closest thing to the composer’s wishes, otherwise they would heard about it later. More or less from those early performances came, what they call, the “tradition”, what was accepted by the composer and in following what was accepted by the composer, a way of singing was passed on. Further and most exciting was if you could add your own imagination, and that be accepted by the composer, then it was basically a chance to create with them there, you were given permission, a certain room to invent or be imaginative, and you would say to yourself “this is what the composer approved of.” As in any document, those scribbled notes on a piece of paper can be manipulated and used to form another person’s idea of what they want to do, so the “tradition” was a “checks and balances” and not a dirty word at that time. Now, they use it as a word to suggest monotony, it takes a lot of humility to do someone else’s work and not impose your own desires on it. Why is this? Perhaps because it seems no one seems to want to take the time: we have maestri coming out of school and thinking they know everything about Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini with just conservatory training. They end up sounding the same. There are exceptions but for the most part a maestro is like a fine wine, he gets better and more fully flavored with time. LOTS of working with different voices and finding ways to keep it authentic for each person. It seems like today they don’t. It’s a lifetime study and I think that’s why we are in a lot of the trouble. It’s words and music and a particular desire to communicate that Verdi exemplified so completely. He LOVED his singers and understood their fragile existence, so much so he established a retirement home for all those that would serve music. Yet another reason I love him.
The Last Verista:
You mentioned that certain music gives you a sense of “ben essere.” What is it specifically about Verdi’s music that give you this feeling of “ben essere?” You’ve always had an affinity with his music. You’ve sung the music of many different composers but Verdi has been your number one, yes?
Yes. There is just something about the way he….he’s one of the first composers to address the familial situation in so deep and so incredibly enlightened way. A very, very revealing, almost nude, so exposed and real in the feelings that a father would feel for a daughter, that the son would feel for the father, and in the time that he did this, people didn’t speak so openly about these things. It was against the constraints of the period. That he then allowed, without needing even the words, he expressed in the very harmonies the feelings exact that go with these incredibly close, profound relationships that you have in life- that he could so so effortlessly is superb. The way in which he wrote, the line…I call it “exulted bel canto,” or “verismatic bel canto” because in bel canto you would have, for example, 16 pages on the text “I love you,” and it would be in variations with all sorts of technical prowess, mainly for show. It was much more a period of bel canto that showed the technical abilities of a singer and things you could do with the music/ For me Bellini, was of course, successful in making it something different. Bellini fashioned his music to mirror a time in poetry for me, a melancholy.
Verdi took Bellini’s truth and honesty and took it a step further and made it more a real story telling; when each word is used it brings forward the concept, it brings forward the story so that when you get to the verismo school you are exactly as people spoke naturally, word for word moving the plot forward. There isn’t so much repetition. For me Verdi has one foot in another world and one foot here and I think it’s because at an early age he lost his family, and I think he never forgot that. They were always at his side so he always wrote in a very spiritual way as if he had a contact with another world.
The Last Verista:
You mentioned the passing on of tradition and educating our youth on different composers and the arts in general and I think we live in a very politically charged climate and one that is centered on technology more than artistic freedoms, but the period in which Verdi lived was also politically charged. Do you think that it was difficult for him to express these familial situations and turn the focus from politics to “la famiglia” after a period as tumultuous as the Risorgimento? This type of switch was pretty monumental. What do you think about this?
One of the great things he did living in a time….you know we’re living in a time where we are facing the same from less rounded people. His problem, as he writes, was the provincial mind. He could not stand provincial minds. He hated minds that were closed and rigid. He would really not be happy nowadays! What he dealt with then was ignorance. What we’re dealing with now is ignorance as well, so we’re bonded in many many different ways by the fact that music can only go so far if there are ignorant people. So, in his time, he got passed them, got passed the censors, got passed all of the restrictions of his age by writing music that was so overwhelming that the crowds would literally be singing it in the street the next day. There is little way you can restrict a mob. Once you catch the public mind or the public heart, you’re in, and he found a way to do that very beautifully. For me he became a living prism of his time and it showed it to be a refracted, edgy, often claustrophobic time. He was nationalistic without being ridiculous. He loved his country. He took his country through the early operas on a journey back to themselves, and once they were there, he reminded them through his music and his stories about family, and family was everything to him. We did get in the “galleria years” where he used in his music what demeaningly they liked to call an “oom-paa-paa.” I didn’t miss the military feel of it. I thought it was a son of Italy bringing his nation back to its feet. Once it was on its feet, he focused on the important things to keep it and its sons and daughters on their feet and the way to keep it a nation of dignified, gracious, evolved human beings was to remember the center of the universe, which was for him, family. So, everything that he wrote was about the intricate, inter-workings and complex tapestries of “family” relations and until the day he died he wrote about nothing but that. With Otello being one of the greatest operas I’ve ever heard in my life, and Falstaff–absolute genius work, a combination in his eighties, of everything that was so modern and beautiful and advanced, that he was able to absorb all that. Aida, Forza del Destino–all of the operas that have this marvelous sense of the events happening outside…yes, important (dignity, respect, patria), but the family became the center of the real core that was the opera. It’s quite beautiful, and really quite amazing what he could do.
The Last Verista:
Can you discuss with us your thoughts on the differences between “bel canto” idioms, say between Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi, where “recitativo” or “parlato” is concerned and how this impacts the way a singer might present it?
Click on the player to hear Aprile’s response.
The Last Verista:
Can you explain your feelings about how Verdi presents his “cantilena” as opposed to Puccini’s, for example. What is it about Verdi’s melodies for you, and what are the difficulties of singing Verdian cantilena as opposed to any other composer? How are his melodies born for you? How does it begin as a small germ and then become Aprile Millo’s Leonora? If you had to give advice to a young singer who is approaching Verdi’s music, what are the things that are difficult or require the most attention?
Click on the player to hear Aprile’s response.
Check in tomorrow for Part II of this fascinating interview when Aprile Millo talks about Verdi’s heroines and gives some very personal reactions to her beloved Verdi.
A portrait of Aprile Millo as Leonora in Il Trovatore in Carl Plansky’s series, “Sacred Monsters”
Purchase Aprile Millo’s Verdi Arias Album by clicking below.