Thursday, 26 May 2011

Too big too soon: the price of ambition

A few weeks ago I attended an audition day for Mantissa Opera, a professional repertory opera company based in Medway.  I am already a company member, so the pressure was off me and I had a chance to listen to lots of young hopefuls singing their hearts out in the hope of getting a job.

There were some seriously good singers there, with lovely voices, singing repertoire that was suitable for their voices and their age.  I heard some truly wonderful perfomances by singers who clearly have a great future ahead of them.  But there were others who were singing material that was unsuitable for their age, their stage of development, and in at least one case their voice type.  I felt for them as they tried to sing things that were too big, too high or just wrong for them, and they paid the price in intonation, tone quality and expression.

The tendency of young singers to want to sing bigger repertoire than their voices can cope with is a well-known problem extending back at least a hundred years.  Here is Caruso writing about it in the early 20th century:

"...Many singers with voices suitable only for light opera are constantly trying to branch out into big dramatic arias.  Such performances are assuredly distressing to hear and are certainly disastrous for the voices concerned. It is no wonder that these people are often ill, for one cannot make such efforts without injuring the health. I realise that they often do it to please their directors and to be obliging in an emergency, but when they are down and out others will easily replace them and they are heard from no more......"

The same is true - even more so, maybe - in contemporary musical theatre. Directors exhort singers to sing louder and more dramatically even at the cost of their vocal health. They don't care if the singer falls apart, because after all there are plenty more waiting in the wings. The profession is littered with the ghosts of people who have pushed their voices and themselves beyond their limits and paid the price in vocal damage, stress and trauma.  So many, many broken dreams.

Caruso's advice from nearly a hundred years ago is still relevant today:

"To keep the voice fresh for the longest possible time one should not only never overstep his vocal 'means', but should limit his output as he does the expenses of his purse"

So when I hear a young soubrette soprano singing the second Queen of the Night aria when her voice is only suitable for Despina, or a 25-year-old lyric soprano singing Tosca's "Vissi d'Arte" when she won't be vocally ready for it for at least another 10 years, I find myself thinking - have we learned NOTHING in a century?