Features

The Baritone Explosion

At the moment, the number of young LYRIC BARITONES amounts to an embarrassment of riches. Just how did the current surplus come about? 
by Brian Kellow. 

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“There are signs that many in the industry are becoming gun-shy about repertoire.”

THERE IS A STRIKING TREND at many of the top U.S. voice competitions: they are dominated by a bumper crop of gifted lyric baritones. It’s not unusual to sit through a week of competition semifinals—sometimes as many as sixty contestants a day—and find not one Verdi tenor, dramatic mezzo or Wagner soprano worth considering. But the American lyric baritones who can give a memorable account of Valentin’s “Avant de quitter ces lieux” or the Tanzlied from Die Tote Stadt seem in endless supply, and at the moment, they’re winning money more consistently and starting their careers much faster than singers in any other fach. “I think the scariest thing today would be to be a lyric baritone,” says artist manager and competition judge Ken Benson. “Anyone casting a Barbiere today has a ridiculous amount of choices.” 

The lyric-baritone voice is the one most closely aligned with natural speech; it depends less on a “created” sound than any other voice type, and many lyric baritones have to resist the temptation to be pushed into more dramatic roles. One theory behind the current wealth of baritones is that many of them are simply “lazy tenors” who find it easier to sing in a lower range—an idea that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. “When I was young, a lot of high baritones were told they were real-ly tenors,” says the distinguished American baritone Dale Duesing. “But baritones sing in a very different way from tenors.” Part of the confusion in determining who’s a real baritone and who isn’t seems to fall around the area of the voice just below the passaggio—from B-flat to C-sharp. “The lyric voices are told to take it easy and lighten up, because they won’t make it all the way to the top,” says Arthur Levy, a New York voice teacher. “But when they sing superficially on the way to the top, people say, ‘Are you sure you aren’t a tenor?’”

It’s more likely that a lot of young singers are going the lyric baritone route, rather than testing more dramatic waters, because it’s a faster way of becoming a polished singer—and a marketable one. These days, that includes looking the part, and baritones generally come in longer and leaner bodies than tenors do. “Baritones have always been the people most inclined to keep up with the visual demands of the art form,” says Benson. “They hit the gym.” 

While dramatic baritones take longer to develop, a good-looking lyric baritone with a solid technique, good musicianship and some acting prowess can be working on major stages by his mid to late twenties. With economics an increasingly potent force in every aspect of the arts, a lot of young artists want to bring home a paycheck as soon as it’s feasible. “It’s very American in a way—get out of college, and get a job,” says Duesing. This mindset also fits in with today’s general push for singers to be younger—which means, among other things, that presenters can pay them less. 

Many singers may be spurred on by the fact that the lyric-baritone repertoire is relatively safe: singing Valentin probably isn’t going to do you much harm if you’re well trained, though “Avant de quitter” is nothing a light voice should attempt. (For years, it was the territory of strong-voiced singers such as Robert Merrill and Sherrill Milnes.) Even for some lyric baritones with a bit of thrust, a role such as Silvio in Pagliacci  presents a daunting stretch because of the opera’s orchestration.

There are signs that many in the industry are becoming gun-shy about repertoire. It’s not unusual for singers in competition to offer three arias safely within the confines of their fach and one that pushes the limits, presumably to show what the singer might grow into. I have witnessed many judges’ explosive overreactions to the “outside” aria—“He’ll ruin himself if he sings that!”—to the point that they drop the singer from consideration. 

Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, on the faculty of the Curtis Institute and the Manhattan School of Music, believes that fear is a factor in today’s training of young singers: “In the beginning of the Verdi era, singers were still trained in bel canto technique. In the Puccini era, there was no need to teach that kind of finesse, and they started screaming. Along came Madame Callas and brought us back to what bel canto really was. But now we’ve taken it too far, and everyone’s becoming afraid. The teachers are responsible, more than anybody.” 

A singer who wants to try on a heavier role to see how it fits may be discouraged from doing so. “There’s a fear of repertoire that is very prevalent in this country,” says Levy. “And there’s a kind of dumbing-down of the lyric baritone sometimes, because of expedience and sometimes because of fear.” 

One great advantage lyric baritones have is that the climate for new work in the U.S. is very good right now—and the leading male roles in many new operas are being written for lyric baritones who can look the part and get the words across—almost a “Broadway-plus” baritone that isn’t as dark as the average baritone voice even a generation ago. Ruth Golden, who is on the voice faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, recalls taking one of her students to audition for a Ricky Ian Gordon work. “He had a nice full sound, but they said they wanted it ‘more talky.’ Their use of text is more recitative-like. The taste level is that they want it less ‘operatic’-sounding.”

In locating the fountainhead of today’s lyrics, perhaps we should look to the 1970s, when, Duesing says, “A lot of Americans got to Europe in the first place because we were well-trained musicians and could act.” One of these was the fine baritone and astute actor Richard Stilwell, who was able to carve out a career of greater breadth and depth than lyric baritones of an earlier generation, with solid successes in new American works such as Thomas Pasatieri’s Seagull and Dominick Argento’s Aspern Papers. (Stilwell might be said to have boosted the lyric-baritone cause almost as much as Frederica von Stade enhanced the possibilities for lyric mezzos.) “When I was young, my management had probably twelve lyric baritones,” says Stilwell. “We all had our specialties. But I think it’s harder now.” Still, most of today’s young baritones don’t seem too fazed by the market glut. “It just makes me have to up my game, so it’s more artistically elevating,” says Steven LaBrie. “I have to improve every single time, you know?” spacer 

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Today’s leading lyric baritones are a varied and talented lot, and despite the competitiveness in their fach, the best of them surely will find a way to stand out. Most seem concerned with matters of vocal health and preservation. 

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Thirty-year-old Alexey Lavrov has won prizes at the Gerda Lissner and Loren L. Zachary Competitions. “I can tell you any lyric baritone can win if he has Barbiere. That’s it. It’s harder to find pieces for lyric baritone. You have to sing Yeletsky [in Queen of Spades] with gravitas, and I don’t have this sound. Tanzlied is nice, but you won’t sing it in a competition the way you would have to sing it in a big theater. Valentin is a role of my dreams, but I still have to create an approach to it. I’m too young for it. I want to sing bel canto as long as I can.”

 

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Steven LaBrie, twenty-eight, a recent $10,000 winner from the George London Foundation Competition, has both a naturally dark sound and good access to high notes. He’s been using the Tanzlied and Yeletsky’s and the Count’s arias in competitions, and in performance he has done a good deal of operetta and Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Many of those pieces have a lot of line and show a lot of range,” he says, “so that they’re harder than an aria.”

 

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“You learn by making mistakes,” says Tobias Greenhalgh, who turns twenty-seven this month.“In 2014, I sang Onegin in Vienna, and I was so worried about getting the diction and the flow of the language correct that I neglected other aspects of the performance. Now I like to have all my ducks in a row by the time tech rehearsal begins.” Greenhalgh’s idols include Thomas Hampson, Robert Merrill and Simon Keenlyside, the last for the breadth of imagination he has brought to his career. The progress he envisions for himself includes Mozart and Donizetti, Schaunard, Marcello, Onegin. “I don’t know what comes after that. Maybe Sharpless. In my thirties.”

 

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The possibility of moving into heavier territory has been floated out to twenty-four-year-old Sean Michael Plumb, whose baritone idols include Robert Merrill and Gordon MacRae. He admits that he was once “a very mediocre boy soprano” but says he began hitting his technical stride at the Curtis Institute. “I always had a tendency to beef up the sound, make it darker,” he says. “When I did that, the sound became muscled. When I stick to what my throat and my body wants to make, that’s when the best sound comes out.” 

 

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Will Liverman, twenty-eight, hit a career high last year playing Dizzy Gillespie in Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Opera Philadelphia. His greatest career disappointment was not getting cast in Kentucky Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, with Denyce Graves. “They wanted the children, obviously, to be African–American,” says Liverman. “That did limit the competition to people who were black, and I was hoping to get to do it. But it didn’t work out.” Regarding the flooded job market, he says, “I have to go into an audition with my blinders on and not worry about what this person or that person is doing.”

 

 © Beatriz Schiller (Lavrov); © Jen Golay (Labrie); © Nan Melville (Greenhalgh); © Karli Cadel (Plumb); © Dominic Mercier (Liverman) 



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