That said, I will now be returning to modern recordings in which the orchestra does not sound like mush

I spent yesterday afternoon alternately fainting from the heat and listening to a recital from the 2015 Schwetzinger Festival by Christiane Karg and the ensemble Arcangelo, which I downloaded a while back and forgot about. It’s a pleasant mixture of Handel’s Nine German Arias and some Bach and Buxtehude concertos. I hadn’t heard the Handel in a while, and what stood out to me was the clarity and delicacy of the ensemble – or maybe it’s just hearing a different recording of these that did it. I don’t know. Karg’s performance offered some nice interpretive touches too, e.g. the energy, almost urgency of “Das Zitternde Glänzen.”

And then I did something I do not normally do: I listened to a Maria Callas recording. I have several, and they don’t see a lot of action. I think there is something in me that is deeply suspicious of a soprano who appears not to have liked Mozart (I remember one modern reviewer discussing a recording of hers in positive terms, but noting that she sang only what she liked, and much of what she liked was “junk like Tosca and Lucia.”) There is also something me that is deeply suspicious of the whole adulation of dead sopranos thing. Every time I read an older critic complaining that singers of the 1950s and 60s were profoundly superior to those performing now I just think – dude (it is usually but not always a dude), you were young then. Opera was new and exciting for you. And you got used to a certain style of performance. We folks under 40 will probably be saying the same thing about current performers decades from now.

But as far as Maria Callas is concerned, the thing is, in the 1950s at least, girlfriend could sing. The recording I listened to was one of Cherubini’s Medea, recorded live in Dallas in 1958. It’s got all the issues of something recorded live in Dallas in 1958 – that is to say, it sounds like I have cotton balls in my ears and someone has turned on the shower. Even so, Callas’s complete dramatic commitment shines through, and I admit, I find her voice interesting. Not a voice I think I could listen to for hours on end without developing a headache, but interesting. And having Jon Vickers and Teresa Berganza in the cast too doesn’t hurt either.

9 thoughts on “That said, I will now be returning to modern recordings in which the orchestra does not sound like mush

  1. It’s funny how the fans of old school opera are so self unaware. They also tend to consider anything but superlatives along the lines of “queen of belcanto” and “prince of tenors” as an insult to the singers they worship, even when you acknowledge said singers’ merits.

    Your last paragraph answered my question as to why fans of old school opera always seem to fret over their heroes/heroines never having recorded this or that opera in the studio.

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    1. I think there must also be some unwritten rules for these folks about “how to be an opera fan” that the rest of us are breaking.

      I can see why they fret: it would be nice to have non-cotton-balls-in-the-ears versions of some of this stuff. That said, I’d also wish that the technology to record live performances had been as good then as it is now, given that a lot of Callas’s greatest moments seem to have been live rather than in the studio.

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  2. That’s a really insightful observation, I think, about the circumstances of hearing particular singers, and I appreciate that it avoids the trap of being dismissive about singers of the past, as well as that of the nostalgia cult. (Suspicions of adulation aside, I find the aural evidence of Callas’ absolute commitment irresistibly compelling.) I know that I’ve formed attachments to the singers who’ve introduced me to certain roles or repertoires, and I’ll probably be the old person (but not a dude) saying “Ah, but you should’ve heard Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia…” in 40 years.

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    1. I’ve had the same thought – when I reach the “get off my lawn!” stage of mature opera fandom, I’ll probably be going on about how no one could possibly ever again sing bel canto like DiDonato, or that if you never heard Alice Coote’s Ruggiero, you’ve never truly heard it, etc. etc.

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  3. I’m super grateful that I can still listen to artists like Callas (and Varnay and Nilsson, for that matter) via recordings even though they all were either long retired or dead by the time I took an interest in opera, though recordings from the 50s sure take some getting used to. 🙂 It took me quite a while to automatically screen out the prompter from many of Callas’ live opera recordings. When I first started out it was the most annoying thing ever. 😀

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    1. It’s funny how little noise things like prompters can be so disruptive – it’s like when someone nearby in a concert hall is making some tiny little noise, and despite its smallness it’s so hard to ignore.

      I’ve been listening through some more older opera recordings (Tebaldi, Nilsson and Flagstad) lately, and I agree, it’s worth training one’s ears to filter out the noise – there’s a lot there worth hearing.

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  4. I wish people would write more about this–the divinization of the dead singers–but I guess we’re all getting old(er) and start doing it. I’ve caught myself deciding that “I don’t really need to to hear another mezzo perform Ariodante since Otter/Minko recording from the 1990s is top of the top”, for example. It’s lazy; certainly makes life easier.

    Who knows, perhaps we all stop the ‘in-take’ somewhere.

    But I’ll never understand the Callas and the Hunt-Lieberson cults. (And other [insert dead person’s name] cults) The interesting thing, and the more demanding thing, is to discern among the living singers, living writers, and GASP living composers too.

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    1. It’d be an interesting book about opera culture, to write not a strict bio of, say, Callas, but the story of how the cult around her began and is sustained. Would require interviewing a lot of people and probably reading some contentious internet comments sections, but might be fun. (Then again, possibly someone has done this already – I wouldn’t be surprised)

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    2. I tend to think the cult thing arises at least partly out of the way opera singing goes through phases. We go through decades that are better for some composers/types of singing than others, and once we’re out of that patch, and fashions have changed, people quite rightly say singers now aren’t like they used to be. Take a look at how standard repertoire has changed in the last 25 years, you’ll see what I mean.

      And also let’s remember that all the world loves a street gang.

      Speaking as a post-Callas over-40, and having been a teenage opera geek easily 30 years younger than any other opera geek I knew, I heard a lot of grousing growing up about singers “these days” vs singers “back then”. But I also heard a lot of “You have got to hear Young Soprano/Tenor/Mezzo X!” And since most of the opera geeks I hang out with now in real time (as opposed to on the interwebs) are in their 70’s and 80’s, I can attest to the fact that none of them engage in the fetishization of the mythic/archetypal Dead Opera Singer X. (At least not in my presence. Maybe they’re just being polite.) I can also say that, to a person, they are enthusiastic and curious about who’s out there singing now.

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