Let him sing it, then

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Of course, we all want tickets to hear him sing the Four Last Songs.


To Snape Maltings, where the care of the next generation has been placed in the hands of of Christophe Prégardien. He is about to teach Schubert and Schumann to a happy few for a week.

A concert before the series of masterclasses had Prégardien show us how it is done these days, with Julius Drake at the piano. It was Schubert, followed by Schumann .

The singing was just neutral or angry, quiet or loud. He offered a colourless voice, produced with great tension through the bottom front teeth. As a result, Schumann’s ‘Acht Lieder nach verschiedene Dichtern’ came over as the whingy and cross complaints of an old man, rather than the observations of a sick, young one. Prégardien shuffled and struggled, terrified of high notes and smiling when he reached them. There was a lot of fiddling with fingers. Despite evident effort to force out the sound, with quite an edge,  the voice didn’t travel, and the piano frequently overpowered him. But he only lost the words once! And, he dressed in a dapper concert outfit, brocaded, elegant and shiny.

Julius Drake, on the other hand, resembled a bank clerk. There were enough wild notes and exaggerated hand gestures to distract us from the singing, but, really, he provided the most exciting part of the evening. Drake’s trouser legs were too short. They provided subversive entertainment through longueurs: would we get to see his legs? We did! thanks to Drake’s staccato use of the sustain pedal, which helped his socks slide down. (I can reveal to all that Drake’s shins are white.) Despite this, the audience held him in such reverence that they wouldn’t clap until he gave them leave. Snape, eh? It’s the nearest thing to sitting through a church sermon, and if the singer is the vicar, the accompanist is the bishop.

I don’t mind the programming, but the sad part of all this is that the two of them were chosen as world-class examples for the next generation.






Melba toast





Who did not see the episode of Downton Abbey featuring Dame Kiri te Kanawa as Melba?

The press were not overly happy with the inaccuracy of the presentation — what with the disrespectful serving-folk, and not to mention the suggestion that the likes of Melba could be relegated to singing in a country house.

I don’t mind a bit of dramatic licence when it comes to entertainment. But the voices are further apart than New Zealand and Australia…

This is what Dame Kiri sang, as Melba:

And here is Melba singing the same. Actually, there was not that much difference in ages between the two singers when this song was recorded.  You can hear, however, nearly a century in technique – recording, that is, and singing, too.

I was so wrong!

It serves me right that I assumed a sexism-lite approach to nudity in opera in my last blog.

Here, in the interest of balance, a performance of Vivaldi’s reconstructed opera about Hercules.



Phat looks


Has anyone followed the furore in the British press after a bunch of critics mentioned that the Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne this week is not slim? No-one has commented on the appearance of the real males in the cast, so the charge of sexism is the most obvious one, since the Rosenkavalier is a breeches role.

Wrists have been duly slapped and we have been told to revere the voice despite the singer’s appearance. Papered over is the fact that the same production actually begins with nudity (female, of course). Well, that’s interesting. Since “opera” is making an effort to appeal to the next generation, is offering the men in the audience a little something extra for their ticket money, part of this?

In London, promotion for opera these days offers a poster of some attractive, young models in evocative poses. The legend shows that the star of the production is the director. The conductor might get a mention. The cast don’t get a mention, and are certainly not in the photo. The message that I take from this? ‘Shame about the singers, but hey, come and see what McVicar does to make Rigoletto watchable.’

So, spectacle is the name of the advertising game at Covent Garden or the ENO, and if a female singer is up for showing her breasts during the production, so much the better. These stripteases are from singers who say they won’t put expression in their voices because that would be over-egging it – because the composer has said it all in the music. Except nipples, it seems. Nipples do not exist in most scores, so it’s necessary to invent them. Male erogenous zones don’t seem to be on offer quite as much. I wonder why.

We are mere products of our age. Emma Calvé (1858 – 1942) tells an amusing story of her first Cherubino at the Paris Opera. She knew that the breeches roles delighted the men in the audience who hoped for a glimpse of shapely thigh through their opera glasses. Calvé was, in her own words, skinny, so she padded her stockings to oblige. The manager told her she looked ridiculous, so she removed the padding for the next act. The unadorned legs in baggy breeches were now on view, as she drew attention to her deception by trying to hide her legs with her cloak, much to the amusement of the audience. Her career did not suffer, however, and she went on to give us many treasures, including what was considered the greatest Carmen and exquisite interpretations of contemporary French mélodies. 

Legs in stockings aint what they used to be. If Calvé had been debuting today the Countess might have been the one required to titillate by removing her robes, with the (erotic) help of Susannah, before the saucer eyes of Cherubino. I’m sure the four-poster could even be versatile enough to offer a pole dance.

Much less successful – if more apposite to the current storm in a teardrop – was Fanny Salvatini-Donatelli’s attempt to deny visual miscasting (1815-1891). Her superb bel canto voice was selected to create the role of Violetta in La Traviata. The first night (6th March 1853) proved a fiasco. Donatelli’s Violetta was much too well-fed to be dying of consumption, and the audience erupted with laughter at the doctor’s announcement of her imminent demise in Act 3. Nonetheless, opera, composer and singer survived, despite the hilarity that has passed into legend.

Spectacle has always been part of opera, and a production on a modern world stage typically costs millions, even for the usual diet of revivals of museum pieces. Once audiences would have been attracted by the cast; now PR is divorcing the vocalists from the overall thrill of the show, as if they are aware that what audiences don’t like about opera is the opera voice. With the increasing dominance of director and conductor over singers, it will take an extraordinary feat to reverse this current hierarchy. With singing in crisis, there is not much chance that the feat can come from singers.

La mort. Toujours la mort.





The lost work of Klein – no longer

Hermann Klein was a student and amanuensis of Manuel Garcia II. He was formally taught by the great maestro, and – as Garcia had a studio in the Kleins’ house, Hermann heard the training of many of Garcia’s illustrious pupils.

Hermann Klein went to America to try his fortune. His big idea was to make phono recordings of the Garcia exercises, with a manual, to enable singing lessons from afar.

It wasn’t easy. His friend, the phenomenal American soprano, Nordica, sang for the discs, but she didn’t record well. (We know that soprani didn’t, at the time – but Nordica’s magnificent voice was large enough to cause its own problems.)

Nonetheless, Klein wrote the manual, singers recorded the exercises – and the warehouse containing the discs burnt down.

After a second, destructive fire, Klein was back in England and fed up. He was ahead of his time, and had paid the price.

For many years I have dreamed of what his self-taught course would do and say – and now it’s been pieced together by Daniel Shigo. He discovered the MS hiding behind a spelling shift; and recordings under dust in Yale archives. What a hunt! What an outcome!


Find out more about the book at


The wisdom of Russell Brand

Have you noticed how unindividual singers’ voices are today? Whether singing Schubert or Verdi, it’s hard to tell them apart.

When Margaret Thatcher died, Russell Brand wrote a thoughtful piece about the woman. He described her voice as a “bellicose yawn”, an insight that made me remember it well.

Thatcher’s speeches displayed the techniques of someone who had been taught to work on her timbre: she would put her head down to achieve a deeper sound; she used the ‘yawn’ to open the vocal tract and depress the larynx to darken the sound; and also she went for breathy: she kept the vocal folds from firm closure, to achieve a smokiness that is considered feminine and attractive.

The results were multiple: she stopped annoying the Tory party, because her voice was deeper and authoritative; she was husky enough to achieve an actressy intimacy in her tone when she wanted to appear approachable; and her voice became a gift for comedians. Love or hate her policies, the voice was obviously faking it. Fun happened when she got angry and let out the true stridency (like when she shrieked, at the dispatch box, that Michael Foot was “frit” of war in the Falklands).

Everyone, male or female, could ‘do’ Thatcher. The voice was manufactured, so we could all channel it by copying her technique.

Here, Thatcher is played, brilliantly, by Steve Nallon (a man).

These same techniques are, of course, used by singers today to bring the chest timbre up into all the registers of the voice and equalise their range by darkening it. Where, in the 19th century, the different timbres of each register were expected, and composers exploited the registers, as we have heard — the tastes of the late 20th century have diminished the acceptability of the head voice, so that we now have a dark sound that each singer must adopt if they are not to be a soubrette or relegated to Early Music. The result is a manufactured voice, which makes the sound ubiquitous rather than individual. Ask anyone to ‘do’ Britannia at the last night of the Proms, and you will hear them ‘do’ the current opera voice. With vibrato, of course — but that’s a post to come.

The singer below (born 1848) is Lilli Lehmann, who was described in her time, by contemporaries, as a soprano sfogato, “having in the head register a thin yet ethereal quality which she [brought] down into the medium as well” (Herman Klein). The result of the equalisation of the scale downwards was a voice that didn’t tire; she could sing the heaviest of arias, from Mozart to Wagner, as well as the lightest roles.

Her huge voice filled any auditorium; she nonetheless had the agility, at full voice, of a singer trained in the Bel Canto technique: she delivered the florid sections of Mozart, not to mention Handel, with grace, and astounding power.

She was also regarded by contemporaries as true to the handed-down tradition (as opposed to the ‘literal‘ German trend of the time) of Mozart.

She championed the Italian school of Bel Canto against the German school which had begun to dominate. All students of singing should read her writings, which include autobiography as well as lessons: My way through life, and How to sing.

This recording was made in 1907, when she was 60.


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