The Generalization of Opera and the old “Maniera D’Eleganza Superiore”

What of the singing and the majesty of an art form that is anything BUT ordinary?

“So They Want Singers To Be Ordinary….” (from Operavision)

Callas surrounded by crowds

    I thought it relevant to post a link to Aprile Millo’s recent blog post, which expresses an intimate and personal opinion about the differences between our conceptions of singers today and how singers were once perceived.  They were larger than life, in possession of a sacred gift that was revered, received with grace, and even worshipped.  The Golden Age of voices saw droves of fans lining up to catch a glimpse of Tebaldi, or Callas, and those mega-stars who often seemed (and were) super-human where vocal stage-feats are concerned, carried themselves in what the Italians call “una maniera d’eleganza superiore” (a manner of superior elegance).  This is not to say that singers today fail to carry themselves with elegance, but it seems that the  high class stigma associated with opera and the present need to bring it to the masses, or what I think is a complete “dumbing down” with modern and unnecessary brick-a-brack, has forced singers to detach themselves from the elegance that once was.

Gigli with Fans

      Ms. Millo’s opinion is well-stated and she fervently states that “opera can not be small if it is to be opera,” a statement I agree with wholeheartedly.  Oftentimes, I find myself sitting in my study listening to old recordings and looking at old pics of singers and wishing that I had been born a tad earlier so that I could have experienced that Golden Age more viscerally rather than through literature and recordings.  In reading Ms. Millo’s post, I asked myself if singers are now forced to consider themselves ordinary just to make themselves feel less pressure, to be more approachable in an attempt to make opera accessible to all?  Opera has ALWAYS BEEN accessible to all.  Do we modernize the symphony in order to make it more accessible to our present day audiences?  Of course, now opera flourishes in the movie theatre, which is a wonderful idea for those who cannot travel to New York or Milano to see opera live ( but if you love opera, then you’d best go hear an opera live to experience the voice of your favourite singer…one can never judge from a record or video), however, these stage-films require that the singers are not ordinary but look like A-class movie-stars, waif-like and more like ballerinas than singers.  How do we expect a dramatic soprano to support that type of voice if she ways 120 pounds?  The voice has become much less important, looks more important, and accessibility to common people has become everything….apparently.

Tebaldi with adoring fans

      Personally, I have become dumbfounded by the generalization of things, and because I spend much of my time reading through historical texts, recollections, reception history, and letters of composers, I’ve realized just how much opera has changed.  It is not simply a generalization of, “let’s all look beautiful and pretend we’re nothing special” but also of voices.  Lyric sopranos are being cast in roles that are much too heavy for their fach and yet it’s acceptable.  And what, I ask, would have happened had we done this in the age of Verdi, Puccini, and Mascagni, or even Wagner and Strauss.  The fact is, and I say with an acceptable amount of historical knowledge, IT WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED!  So, what makes it alright today?  These issues remain and for those of us who expect the art form as it was intended  to be might be disappointed for some time.  Food for thought.

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  1. The current state of the opera and the decline in stature of the singer can not be detached from the general degeneration of all cultural forms over the last several decades, especially when one speaks of American culture or North American culture (almost an oxymoron.). Form can not be separated from content. Today’s society revolves around the commercialization of all things including the arts and the artist. All art is subordinate to the bottom line.
    Forever appealing to the lowest common denominator of society, mindless special effect dominate the movies, with stereotypic characters with no relevant content about current social-economic political life. Popular music is produced in the recording studio and doctored to make mediocre musicians soundcpmpitent with a homogenized populist sound. And live pop performance is not about singing, but about shocking the audience alle Lady Gaga or being ultra sexy ( Byonce) with the theatrics contributing little to enhance the artistry and actually degrades the music performed as limited in scope that music might be. The decline in stature of the opera singer since the Golden Age can not be separated from the decline of the quality of the singing and artistic staging as both have been supplanted for appearance. Insert more soap-opera good looks and often receive lower quality opera. Marketing to attract a broader audience has been made necessary as the National Endowment for the Arts and Corporate support declines for all the arts in the current debt crisis environment. As I write this, the NYC Opera faces a huge downsizing – with only a few productions scheduled in 2011-2012.. Many Symphonies have closed or cut their seasons drastically.
    The masses are bombarded in mind numbing fashion with a message to worship appearance. Cheese cake (the sexy female in every ad) is dominant. Men will have success if they wear the right pants, cologne, drink the right beer, buy the right car.) Hasn’t worked me yet.
    One only needs to look at the Susan Boyle episode from Britains Got Talent, when
    a fine voice emerged from an older, average looking woman. The prejudgment of failure based on appearance was shattered by a fine performance and actually became a dominant part of the Susan Boyle story. Someone who didn’t look like a pageant beauty queen could sing with artistry and most importantly , could move the audience with pure vocal ability. Almost sad, but a comment on the current state of values in society.
    But the promoters continue to cater to a populace of their own creation. Public schools have ripped music form the curriculum in the lower grades as an extravagance. While now and again one hears a classical piece or aria imbedded in an ad, I remember when opera was part of most cartoons, The Lone Ranger played the William Tell overture and Nelson Eddie and Mario Lanza made bad movies. The music TV variety show is dead on TV, the musical movie is dead (High School Musical not withstanding). Broadway often plays it safe with revivals rather than take a risk on a new show.
    Accessability to Opera then has three sides- being affordable for the working class that today often chooses between buying food, paying heating bills and medical costs, and rent. It is certainly accessible in the logistical sense via film and the existence of more local Opera companies. If the masses feel distant from opera or classical music, the music media and our educational system has fostered an ignorance, a dumbing down. The life dramas portrayed in century old Grand Opera attest to its enduring contribution to the human spirit and the unique role of the human voice to express it. The masses will respond to true artistic innovation and quality for those directors and producers courageous enough to put artistry before the bottom line.

    Anthony Bellissimo

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