LEAVE. WAGNER. ALONE!

This video is one of my personal favorites, because it’s direct from the mouth of a woman who LIVED successfully and endured for quite some time in the Wagnerian roles, becoming one of the leading interpreters in the twentieth century.

“…as if it were possible to START one’s career with Wagnerian roles, instead of ENDING with them.”

Flagstad would seem to imply that the DEMANDS of the Wagnerian repertoire should only be considered late in a singer’s career, after having sung other operatic roles. But which ones?

A glance at Flagstad’s own career would indicate that she spent many years singing operatic repertoire that was in a more lyrical vein. Her earliest roles were Agathe in Der Freischütz, with additional forays into Handel (she sang Rodelinda early in her career). Flagstad sang operetta roles and made Marguerite in Faust a mainstay in her repertoire for nearly TEN years.

What’s unique about Marguerite? It’s a role that requires power AND lyricism. The Jewel Song REQUIRES trills – hardly what we would think of as the vocal environs of a dramatic voice. The final trio requires power and stamina at the END of the evening, which can prove difficult. Giving Marguerite to lighter voices is usually not a good idea.

I sang Nedda, Mimi, Tosca, Aida, Desdemona, Marguerite, Micaela and many other roles all before I ever sang a note of Wagner.

Once Flagstad felt ready, she took on more dramatic roles, such as Tosca and Aida. Tosca, despite being a more dramatic role STILL requires a light approach. Puccini marked the phrase, “le voce delle cose” with staccati, implying a sweet, lyrical vocalism. In fact, the first act of Tosca for the soprano is rather lyrical in nature, giving the soprano a chance to prepare herself for the histrionics of Act Two.

A lyrical approach to Aida is also be a wise choice, as we’ve seen in not only Flagstad, but also Leontyne Price. When the role can be sung with such lush, opulent singing, we see the true musical properties of Verdi revealed. Let’s not forget that Adelina Patti was an early interpreter of this role, and she also sang La sonnambula by Bellini.

I don’t know why – but many young singers (in their twenties) proclaim with pride how they excited they are to be singing Wagner. This is no different than the athlete who “ego-lifts” in the gym, putting more weight on the bar than they can handle with good technique and form. The young singer feels some sense of ‘worthiness’ by being able to tackle the most demanding repertoire. What’s so funny to me is that these same singers also have never sung significantly onstage. Rare is the twenty-something singer who is able to perform PROFESSIONALLY in Wagnerian roles with no significant time onstage in other vocal works.

One also can’t help but come back to the fact that attempting Wagner on a half-formed instrument (lacking in dynamic range, proper resonance adjustment, and physical STRENGTH and STAMINA – two separate considerations) is only to invite an early vocal decline.

I think all opera (including Wagner) should be well-sung. (I know I’m an outsider in this regard occasionally. Wink.) To endure a young singer screeching and wobbling their way through Wagner before the instrument is ready is an unfortunate experience for all concerned. Teachers that allow their students to sing such repertoire before the voice has been brought out, developed, well-exercised, and inured to lighter dramatic works before attempting Wagner, are peddling the worst kind of vocal chicanery. Take note of the great Flagstad’s teachers: not a SINGLE one of them directed her into dramatic repertoire at an early age.

Young dramatic singers often think that they have a special dispensation from God to sing Wagner at an early age, but this is rarely so. Just because you are LOUD does not mean you are a priori a Wagner specialist. “My voice is just suited to Wagner,” could mean many things. When I hear the young singer say that, I assume the following:

  • My voice doesn’t move (scales, staccati, arpeggios, et. al.).
  • I can’t sustain varied dynamic contrast in my singing.
  • Piano is a “color.”
  • Messa di voce is hard for me.
  • My voice is unwieldy.
  • I have a ‘big’ voice.

Flagstad’s advice is still good. Sing lyrically. Lay the lyric track. Sing dramatic roles in a lighter vein. Attempt the most dramatic music when the instrument is STRONG and has weathered a variety of conditions and lengthy performance seasons.

To place young singers into the environment of Wagner before the young sapling is strong and tall is to throw them into an inhospitable environment and wreak havoc on their young instruments.

As inhospitable environments go, you might as well fly them to Mars.

 

 

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