Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tenor Extremes

Connoisseurs like to name Caruso, Gigli, and Schipa as their three tenors. For me, I need to regress even further. Alessandro Bonci, Fernando De Lucia, and Giuseppe Anselmi are the three tenors who take me back to an era where the worst singers sang better than the best singers of today. If that sounds like an extreme statement, you've evidently never heard Anselmi's 1907 recording of Quando le sere al placido, or De Lucia's 1904 Ecco ridente in cielo. This singing isn't just "a little bit better" than the singing on today's stage. It's the difference between Coq au Vin and chicken nuggets.

Last week I happened to hear Anselmi sing Tosti's once-famous song Vorrei (a recording I'd forgotten I had). Perfect vowels, perfectly coordinated with long, effortless breaths -- this is singing of a world other than ours (a nicer one).

I was broken from this spell today by a friend who e-mailed me a YouTube clip of one Stephen Costello, singing Tombe agl'avi miei. I was curious about this tenor who, someone claimed, recalls the "Golden Age." To me, it recalled something from the Bronze Age. The notes above the passaggio were wide open and scooped up to in José-Cura-esque fashion. How do singers like this find their way onto major operatic stages? And the answer is: because there's no one else.

Teaching voice is like building a Neogothic cathedral. The technology is out there, somewhere. And there must be people out there, somewhere, who know that technology. But good luck finding them. Good luck finding someone who could do what the architects of Ste. Clotilde in Paris did in the 1850s. And good luck finding a voice teacher who teaches something that bears even a passing resemblance to voice technique. One more generation of this and the singing industry is going to be like the washboard manufacturing industry.

And yet people ask me, "Why don't you go to the Met?" Because the singing is so horrible that if the very best singer at the Met called you on the telephone, the feet of the birds perched on the telephone wires would itch.