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.