In response to a cover story in Opera News about the next generation of great singers, NPR’s Tom Huizenga convened a group of us to talk about where opera is and where it’s going, now posted on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence.
We talk a lot, in this field, about financial travails, contemporary operas, the loss of audiences. At the end of this discussion, I say I’d like to see more focus on the music — not just in such discussions, but from those who are casting and conceiving of opera seasons for the coming years.
Here’s a case in point: the soprano Angela Meade, who gets a lot of deserved praise in this discussion. Does she have the voice? Indubitably. Does she have the stage presence? Not yet, and I don’t think it’s entirely her fault. I saw the video of her “Ernani” at the Met (which recently aired on PBS), and I thought she was handicapped by not quite knowing how to approach the role. Both she and the tenor Marcello Giordani sang their parts with what I call the “furrowed-brow” look of Tragedy on their faces, appropriate to the high drama they were enacting. What was missing was the underlying thrill of enjoyment.
The great old-school divas not only portrayed tragedy: they savored it. “Ernani,” after all, is full of absolutely delicious music. If you focus on the letter of the libretto, you might forget to have fun milking the big moments, luxurating in the beauty and occasional vulgarity of the music; and what Meade and other young singers don’t get today that the great singers of the past got are hours of one-on-one work with the conductors who were in a position to teach them the tradition. That kind of work is what helped make Callas and others so great, and it’s not the same thing as going through the rigors of an opera-house apprentice program, useful though those are.
Meade has the vocal chops, and she also seems like an appealing personality, but in trying to shoehorn herself into a serious tragic-heroine mode in “Ernani,” she squeezed the personality, and consequently some of the thrill, right out. I hope she figures out how to insert more of herself into her dramatic performances, because ultimately, the future of opera rests precisely on the vocal presences and vocal personalities that get audiences excited and make them want to come.
As it is, the whole discussion makes for an interesting comparison to Zachary Woolfe’s piece in the New York Times called How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera. Though I’d submit that if Hollywood has depicted opera in a certain way, that has more reflected a popular attitude than shaped it.
Above: Angela Meade in “Ernani.” The future of opera depends on how well such talented singers are able to bring not their characters, but themselves to the opera stage.