Speaking out for Tradition

Richard Tucker Day August 28, 2014


Tomorrow, New York City celebrates and pays tribute to the great American tenor, Richard Tucker. Amidst all of the chaos surrounding opera in New York City in recent weeks, it is seemingly appropriate to publicize a true celebration of artistry and the genre as it ought to be considered.

Many of you have asked why I’ve not commented or posted about the ongoings at the Met and the closing of a few European houses and the truth is that 1. I refuse to join this fabricated bandwagon that opera is dying and that there are no big voices left, that tradition is dead, that opera needs to be modernized, etc…
2. Ive decided to fight back this notion by studying my own singing intently and completely focusing on tradition, perfecting my technique, and following  the influence of those great singers who came before me in hope of reversing the notion that bel canto is dead.
3. Ive centered on my studio of 35 wonderful young talents, all big voices focused on line, phrasing, text, delivery, content and complete avoidance of the plethora of uncontrolled vibrato that seems to inhabit the stage today. For those interested in hearing our traditional army of singers, stay tuned for our upcoming presentation in Toronto, Ontario in the late fall. Im so thrilled for these amazing singers and more than thrilled to present them as guardians of tradition and this art.

Finally, I feel that the times are changing. We need to get back to the opera house, back in the seats to hear LIVE singing and singers need to give audiences a reason better than looking beautiful to fill those seats. Audiences havent gone anywhere but the greats have…so lets really give em something to talk about. VOCE VOCE VOCE!!

I will have more to say in upcoming weeks and some performance announcements too but I cannot close without paying remembrance to the great Licia Albanese who passed away earlier this month. She was a beacon of tradition and truth, a guiding artist and soprano of the highest esteem. May her voice and memory remain fervent in our hearts always. Riposa in pace grande Licia!


Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 5:41 pm  Comments (3)  
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Soprano Raina Kabaivanska Speaks of the Vecchia Scuola in Opera News

Reunion: Raina Kabaivanska

Steven Mercurio catches up with the great Bulgarian soprano who became one of verismo’s most thrilling performers.

Reunion Kabaivanska hdl 913

Photographed by Joseph Nemeth in Modena, Italy
© Joseph Nemeth 2013
When I first became interested in opera and singing, I used to be an avid reader of Opera News.  It was fascinating to read the articles and see the pictures of the singers on stage, and read about their thoughts on singing and acting, but in recent years I honestly haven’t read it as much as I used to.  This month, I decided to pick up the September issue, mainly because of Anna Netrebko’s face on the cover (her interview is also worth a read since she discusses other aspects of today’s school that are both conflicting and difficult) and was pleasantly surprised to find a feature on the Bulgarian Soprano Raina Kabaivanska.  Normally, I wouldn’t write a blog post on this sort of article but I feel it’s important to reiterate what Mme. Kabaivanska said and why.  
Immediately attractive to me was the mention of her studies at the Liceo Musicale di Viotti in Vercelli in 1959 and how her teachers immediately placed her in a specific repertoire.  There was none of this toying around in every genre and style, which is beneficial in many respects, but in regard to training an opera voice, perhaps the old school way of following a maestro or maestra’s indelible knowledge to guide a voice in a specific repertoire was more economical in the long run. Also, when young singers are spread out among repertoires they often become confused and aren’t sure where their voice should remain.  She wrote that her teacher immediately placed her in the Italian repertoire and she “began to focus on the major Italian roles–Nedda, Mimi, Desdemona, etc.” At one time, and many aficionados remember, there were separate wings at the Met in which specific singers were known for specializing in either the Italian, German, or French Repertoire.  Today, it seems that a soprano is supposed to sing everything and be jack of all trades, master of none.  That is not to say that one should not sing German opera if you are an Italian singer, but maybe the old school had it right….leave the singing of specific operas to those who can sing them best.  Would you rather hear Nilsson in Wagner or in Verdi? Caruso in Freischutz?  No thanks, at least not me.
Kabaivanska talks about pronunciation because most of what you are doing in bel canto is sustaining words (vowels) as opposed to sustaining sound.  She brings up the issue that in today’s school (if we must segregate the two) that singers aren’t as apt to focus on the word.  I tend to agree with her.  It isn’t just about sound, it’s about sound connected to your own natural innate one, your own voice…the one that speaks.  I won’t even get into the number of contrasting and contradicting technical schools I’ve come across in my life, but essentially “si canta come si parla” is a rule of thumb for this woman and I’m with her.
She discusses her first Tosca and her love of the role Francesca da Rimini, which she doesn’t classify as a Verismo opera.  She sees it more like “Strauss alla Italiana,” but what is most interesting is her discussion about the conductor’s role in preparing the singer to achieve a role successfully.  “Often in today’s musical environment, conductors find themselves in a situation where the singer is “prepared” or has learned the role in a particular way, with little interest in learning, sharing or discovering more,” she says.

“Those times were completely different!

We approached our work with much more humility.”

According to Mme. Kabaivanska, once you learn the music correctly, there is the learning of “tradition.” She recalls her first days with Maestro Fausto Cleva and how terrified she was to please him.  “Everyone respected the authority given to the position of the maestro.  It was important to get it right. But once again, these conductors had the insight to understand talent and how to help bring it out of everyone, which in my opinion is at present unfortunately and sadly missing,” she says.  Openly, she goes further to say that issues also plague the theatres in that they are being run by people who aren’t really qualified for the position.

I must say that I have always respected Mme. Kabaivanska, but I think my respect deepened for her in reading this because it really illuminates clearly the fact that two schools exist, but also that we as singers need to pay attention to those who were linked to that period of opera she discusses.  She belonged to opera of a different time.  Audiences did not want less or more, but they expected singers to follow in the tradition of Muzio, Tettrazzini, Ponselle, Cigna, then later Callas, Tebaldi, Sutherland, Favero, etc.  As generations pass, who is going to know about this tradition if today’s singers are not following in it.  There are, of course, those singers who are but there is no question that a distinct shift in technique and style is audible and no one can deny that. Personally and I think for many young singers, we want to cling to that “vecchia scuola” which is for some of us the “only” school.  Of course, this is my opinion and it is not the only one.  Many may disagree with me, but I hold to it and hope that when I open my mouth and my singers open their mouths that something of our attempt to belong to that tried and true tradition is present.



I respect deeply those singers like Mme. Kabaivanska and others who speak their mind and lived during that magnificent period of golden voices and excellence.  We can all learn from their continued devotion to the art form and by trying to place our feet gently and carefully within the giant footprints they left for us to follow.

Which Soprano Best Expressed Violetta’s Letter Scene?

Published in: on August 27, 2013 at 2:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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The validity of life and the human voice: a response to the suicide of soprano, Roxana Briban

Last night, late, I received news that the Romanian sopano, Roxana Briban (39) had committed suicide in her home; her husband finding her in her bathtub with slit wrists.  Immediately, I felt my stomach sink, especially since I had heard her live years ago in Vienna while reviewing what was a bit of a shambled production of Verdi’s Traviata. At the time, and still, I felt that Briban had a world-class instrument but that there were problems of unevenness and the propensity to sing repertoire that was much too large for this lovely ladies true voice.  I raise this point, in lieu of these horrific events, to draw attention to the apparent reason why her suicide occurred:  She had been let go at the Bucharest Opera House because she had refused to sever engagements at the Vienna Staatsoper.  At least, this is the story.  Her husband has stated that Ms. Briban because depressed and that her lack of engagements led to her ending her own life.

Personally, I am deeply saddened by this story and even more saddened by the fact that Ms. Briban posted a bloodied hand as her profile picture on Facebook prior to committing the act.  Did the people around her not see signs of this impending act? Reports mention that she repeatedly told her husband she wanted to “die.” Briban was 39 years old and if this serves as anything for singers who remain devoted to their art, it is as a reminder, how much power the human voice has over the validity of life.  Many singers who have had extraordinary careers draw into the curtains and into solitude at the ends of their careers.  We don’t see them much, except for in public events where their presence reminds us of excellence past.  But, what is this power that the human voice has on its beholder?


Ms. Briban was young, vibrant, lovely, and yet tortured because she felt she would be “forgotten.”  What is tragic about this is that she will now be remembered more as the young soprano who committed suicide for the sake of her career, than she will be for the countless performances in which she gave of herself.  She was extremely musical, but people won’t remember this now…they will only remember the bloodied hand and the suicide.


A legacy is what remains of someone’s contribution to a genre.  In opera, those who leave such a legacy are becoming rarer and I feel that this has much to do with a distinct change in singing style and attention to authenticity.  Ms. Briban was a bi-product of this generation of singers who had the potential to be great, but had not achieved what they wished due to a lack of ability, usually technically.  But, that is not to say that one can’t take the time to re-train, regroup, re-organize themselves and return to what gives their life meaning.  This death was unnecessary and although I have my own personal opinion about it, I call upon singers to take note and to reflect on these words.  You have been blessed with the gift of song, of voice…but when that voice runs out it is NOT the end of life.  Thereupon, find the ways to regroup and re-organize and the voice…resilient in all manners of speaking, will return to its authentic self.  Then, and only then, will it help the legacy continue, with validity, devotion, and vocation.


This week we reflect on the passing of this young, vibrant woman:


The Associated Press story on Briban’s death

A Beautiful and Truthful Depiction of a Great Artist in Our Midst: Aprile Millo’s 25th Anniversary Celebration Video

From a tender age I have adored this singer, and since I had the privilege of being part of this event, I wish to post this beautiful video here.  Here’s to another 25 years of this voice that is ever growing, expanding, and has no limitations.  The more I hear her sing, the more in awe I am of God’s infinite gifts and the value they have on our world today.  I hope she will forgive me for saying that in one instance she sings Bel Canto still more easily and swiftly than ever, and in the next moment effects an Elsa and Elisabeth so beautiful that Wagnerites would melt…and then a piercing and explosive high “C” of Turandot.  Stay tuned people….you have no idea what will come next!