Coda: Second Hearings
In college, when "opera" for me meant time sitting in front of the stereo, Montserrat Caballé was a singer who held a special place in my heart. I'd listen again and again to examples of her exquisite high pianissimosand prodigious breath control, in particular her singing of "O patria mia" on Riccardo Muti's recording of Aida. Here, she takes the phrase "No mai più, non ti vedrò" in one unbroken breath, its capstone an ethereal high C.
Recently I pulled my old Angel LP set off the shelf to remind myself of this marvelous moment. But even though I could still appreciate the extraordinary technique that allowed Caballé to float that line, the reading no longer enthralled me. For one thing, in the years since I first bought that album, other singers, live and on record, had revealed to me aspects of the aria and the role of Aida that Caballé, for all the undeniable beauty of her singing, leaves untouched. But more to the point, the frisson of the high C had worn off for me; it was now a remembered thrill, rather than one experienced in the moment. My passion for Caballé was now just one of those things.
Call it sophistication; call it jadedness. Or maybe it's just a matter of inevitable human change. I'm a very different person now from who I was in college. My musical tastes have expanded, and so (I hope) has my worldly knowledge. I'm more interested in the meaning that singers can create through their voices than in sound as an end in and of itself. Now I listen more for expressivity and musicality. And I don't always find those qualities in the singers I treasured as a youth.
I would guess that my experience of disaffection is nearly universal: any longtime opera listener will have fallen out of love, even if ever-so-slightly, with a once-cherished singer. It first happened to me early on. I'd listen to Joan Sutherland as a teenager and await her bravura flights of coloratura with tingling excitement. But then (like many an opera-lover before and after) I discovered Maria Callas — and suddenly, Sutherland's singing seemed in comparison merely ornamental. Later, I lost interest in the first tenor to earn a special place in my heart, Luciano Pavarotti. Years of encountering his cynical, enervated performances in the opera house colored my experience of his recordings, even those from his heyday. Are his later faults perceptible in those early discs? I can't say for sure, but I no longer listen to them with the swooning admiration of my youth.
Happily, the phenomenon has happened to me on numerous occasions in exact reverse. When I was younger, I never quite understood the appeal of Renata Tebaldi. In particular, I was put off by her hard, pressured high notes: not even in the recordings from her prime does she summon the ease on top that I had come to love in singers such as Leontyne Price and, yes, Caballé. Tebaldi is a singer I never encountered live; perhaps if I had, I would have "gotten her message" immediately. But after years of listening to her records, I can now ignore her short top and understand the impact her lush voice must have created in the house, as well as the immense authority — the italianità — of her singing. Although Tebaldi once left me cold, now her singing warmsme.
In the first years of my obsession with opera singers, I focused on sopranos and tenors, with the occasional mezzo thrown in, which meant (I'm embarrassed to report) that I'd listen to my opera sets with scant attention to the lower-voiced men on them. Later, through his lieder recordings, I fell under the spell of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: here was a performer who, like Callas, could illuminate every phrase he sang. I came to see Fischer-Dieskau's "face" in his singing — sincere, restrained, noble. Now when I stumble across him on an old, cherished opera recording such as the Solti Götterdämmerung or the Furtwängler Tristan,it's like encountering a dear friend in an unexpected locale — one, of course, who had been there all along.
One wonderful thing about a lifelong love of singing is that it's always possible to rekindle a dormant flame. In New York, I recently attended a Richard Bonynge master class at the Juilliard School at which the conductor coached a young soprano in "Caro nome," urging her to sing in ever softer, subtler shades. The experience made me go home and pull out Bonynge's 1971 Rigoletto, with his wife Joan Sutherland as Gilda — the recording that had taught me the opera, but one I'd ignored for quite some time. Sure enough, Sutherland's reading of the aria, aside from its unquestionable technical control, displayed a delicacy — a mastery — that I may have only dimly apprehended those many years ago.
Obviously, nothing had changed in that "Caro nome," only in me. For all that recordings are immutable, our relationship with them is a dynamic thing. It shifts as we grow and mature. Yes, I find it sad when my ardor for a singer cools. But my love for singing gets deeper all the time.
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