Postcard from Milan: Lamperti, Listening, and Speed

Clara Kathleen Rogers, also known as Clara Doria, was an American singer, composer, writer, and music educator. She is buried here in Boston mere steps from my home in the Mount Auburn Cemetery. I’ve covered her before on my blog before:

Ten Conclusions from Clara Doria

Memorial Day Reflections…

Artificial Methods of Breathing

How To Execute the Messa di Voce?

I recently opened up a copy of her biography Memories of a Musical Career which can be read for free at this link.

Two parts that struck me were her assessment of Lamperti and his allure as a teacher. We venerate Lamperti today, but taking into consideration Doria’s observation, it shows Lamperti in a very different light. She rather pointedly states that the overwhelming interest laid at the feet of Lamperti was in large part due to the fact that he ran an operatic agency. Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose…

For Doria, she knew she had technical limitations and wanted a teacher that could help her solve her vocal problems, and not necessarily land her a career. So in 1861, she went to Milan from Berlin with her sister. They were in hot pursuit of a teacher and believed their options would rest upon Lamperti or San Giovanni.

From her account on page 226:

One of the first things to be decided on when we were settled in our apartment was which of the two teachers we should elect to study with, —Lamperti or San Giovanni? De Lorenzi, who undertook to obtain a consensus of opinion as to their relative merits, reported that what he had gathered was that the greater vogue of Lamperti, whose name was so frequently associated with successful singers, was largely due to his control of the most active operatic agency in Italy, which caused numbers of ready-made singers who wanted to be launched to study with him for a few months in order to obtain his interest in getting them engagements to sing in good opera houses; that Lamperti, as a musician and interpreter, did not compare with San Giovanni, who had been for many years coach to the celebrated contralto, Alboni, and constantly in attendance in all her travels, which gave him the opportunity to hear all the greatest singers of the day and become familiar with their interpretations.

These qualifications appealed to my father, for Alboni had been a name to conjure with in England and the names of the great artists who composed the casts of the operas she sang in —such as Pasta, Donzelli, Tamburini, La Blache, Rubini, and a host of others —were guarantee that San Giovanni had the traditions of all that was best in Italian operatic art.

As a sidebar –  I wanted to share this little vignette in which she describes the palmy days of the Milanese musical world of the nineteenth century. It’s so enchanting to imagine such musical life in an Italian city, perfumed with music from every window.

As one trod the streets of Milan song was in the very air. From almost every open window there issued vocalized arpeggios and scales, with frequent strains from some opera of Verdi or Donizetti. Milan was like one huge conservatory of singing. Teamsters, errand boys, and workmen hummed or whistled tunes from the operas as they went on their way. The potential “Prima Donna,” tenor, or baritone was in evidence at every turn.

Coming back to Lamperti, it’s fascinating to read of Doria’s comments. Perhaps a re-evaluation of Lamperti is in order. Especially if those singers he engaged only worked with him for several months before landing roles in opera. No voice is built in six months to such a degree to prepare it for the professional operatic stage. Was Lamperti a true voice builder in the Old Italian fashion or merely a teacher-cum-impresario? Vocal wisdom indeed…

It’s vexing since it appears from the historical record that the Lampertis were the first to foist ways and means of breath management (appoggio, a concept on which many old treatises are mute) upon the pedagogical literature. In this fast-paced pedagogical Zeitgeist, could Lamperti’s breath techniques be some of the first proofs of direct-control to accelerate voice training in his career-minded clients? The Old Masters said nothing about breath, let alone had a method or system for its management or control.

San Giovanni came to Doria’s apartment three times a week for lessons! Interestingly, he didn’t spend much time with the sisters on voice building but preferred to focus on coaching the repertoire. However, to his credit:

He laid particular stress on the value of constantly hearing good singing and becoming familiar with the sound of fine voices. He wished us therefore to be regular subscribers to La Scala, where all the best singers were to be heard because adequate salaries were paid by means of an ample subvention from the Government which rendered the success of an ambitious impresario an assured thing. Accordingly we attended, from the first, every performance, which means that we heard the best singers in all the current operas every night of the opera season, except Fridays, during the year and a half that we studied in Milan. What an opportunity! We occupied nightly the same seats in the orchestra —Mamma, Rosamond and I —and our devoted friend De Lorenzi, who, as he also was in the habit of subscribing, constituted himself our escort and companion.

And here we have a living proof that a part of Doria’s education was done IN TANDEM with listening, and listening to plenty of singers at that! How very right San Giovanni was to send Doria to the opera. Listening should always be one of the most important practice modalities for any singer or musician.

On her confrontation with the singing at La Scala, she rather emotionally decries:

The singers at La Scala had no such fluctuations of voice as I had. They sang night after night with the same fluency —the same security —the same spontaneity — the same control of expression. How did they do it? I would have been willing to give up ten years of my life to any one who could tell me the secret. But there was no one! I heard from time to time much talk about the right emission of tone, but when it was a question of what it was or how to get it, no one seemed to know!

How I worked! How I strove! How I listened to those great ones at La Scala with devouring ears in the effort to extract their secret from them! How I watched them to see what was happening at the throat and chest, never suspecting that what I saw was not the cause of what I heard; that the cause was hidden and invisible, because it was of the musical sense —of the mind and spirit. The more I tried to imitate what I saw, the farther I seemed to slip from my bearings.

And so things went on from month to month without any conspicuous change, although there was some added substance to my voice, due, no doubt, to the impres- sions received from the voices I heard at La Scala.

Clara was obviously in an enviable position historically to hear those great singers, but she knew that the most important element of her musical education was a grounding in the fundamentals of her art. She mentions “the aged [Gaetano] Nava – a famous teacher in his day,” but notes that his “laborious method was ill-suited to the prevailing impatient spirit of the modern student.” Apparently, Nava’s work was clearly more aligned with Old Italian principles – slow and steady cultivation of the voice over many years. Clearly, the Industrial Revolution had taken its toll on the mid-nineteenth-century singer, and speed was in full swing –  the sine qua non of voice training.

As a footnote to this last point: in Clara’s later book My Voice and I, she goes on to say that Nava was probably one of the great teachers of the past, including in that same list Porpora, Tosi, Mancini, and Cattaneo. Apparently, after a life of seeing speed-oriented singing, she realized the true value of the slow and steady Old Masters.



5 thoughts on “Postcard from Milan: Lamperti, Listening, and Speed

  1. Clara Doria’s handler asserting that Lamperti was only successful as a teacher because he ran an opera agency reminds me of the criticism leveled at Beverly Sills, which observed that she only became a star because her husband was a rich businessman who bought her career.

    1. A totally fair point. I find it an interesting perspective to read and find criticism as well (Oscar Wilde comes to mind for instance). It helps to balance the scales and probe deeper into the perception as seen from various perspectives. I don’t wish to make anyone a sacred cow and lose all perspective of the whole! 🙂

  2. I am also curious to know what De Lorenzi’s particular agenda was in assessing Lamperti that way. It appears that Rogers père was the one that needed to be pleased most in finding Clara’s voice teacher.

    1. Parents want their money to be well-spent, right? What I find curious is De Lorenzi relying on the opinion of others rather than making a first-hand observation.

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