June 17, 2012

Five unforgettable vocal performances

I have no favorite singers - at least, not at this stage of my life. As a teen-aged boy in the first throes of opera infatuation back in the '60's, it was different.  My favorite singer was tenor Carlo Bergonzi, with his frequent studio recording partner Renata Tebaldi not far behind.  At the same time, there were certain singers, beloved by the world, which Young Glenn scorned; and Great Was His Scorn.  These Despised Ones included Maria Callas (here I was doubtless heavily influenced by my mother, who always complained of Callas that "she sounds like she's singing with a mouthful of mashed potatoes".) and Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose tone seemed too wide open, too blatant to my Bergonzi-lovin' ears.

But I'm older now and my views have changed.  I understand what was great about Maria and Giuseppe, for one thing.  Further, I've come to understand that there are no flawless singers, no super-human vocal techniques.  All singers have human limitations.  All human beings have limitations.  Duh.  We're mortal, it turns out.

No, I choose not to kneel at the altar of the Cathedral of Vocalists; my admiration for composers far exceeds what any of their interpreters have accomplished.  That's not to say, however, that I haven't experienced amazing moments of operatic singing which have thrilled me  - I have, I have!

So I cannot provide you a list of favorite singers. Instead, I've compiled a partial list of my favorite vocal performances, both recorded and from my memory banks of live performances. These are in no particular order, and are merely the first five that came to mind - I could have listed ten times as many, and may make this a recurring blog feature from time to time.  But for now, here are five, three recorded and two live onstage, which rocked my world, brought tears to my eyes and gave me gooseflesh.

1.  Tito Gobbi's recording of the title role in the von Karajan recording of Verdi's Falstaff.  My first example is an excellent example of why I make no list of favorite singers.  I would feel silly choosing Tito Gobbi as "favorite baritone" or "best baritone".  As consummate an artist as he was, it's fair to say he achieved "A+" results with a "B" baritone instrument.  Heard in some repertoire, especially later in his career, his voice lacked the richly-upholstered luxurious timbre of a Milnes or a Merrill; at the top of his range, this dryness of tone thinned out into a fairly labored production.  You might say the steel belt often showed through the tread of his voice.  (That's a tire analogy, right?  You got that, right?  Check.)

However, he is in both his glory and his element as Sir John Falstaff; it's a role he was born to sing, and it's a recording that has spoiled me for any others, no matter how distinguished.  His vocal frailties actually become an asset in this role.  In the scene when Ford comes calling on Falstaff disguised as "Signor Fontana", their duet of male bonding  becomes a highlight.  Since baritone Rolando Panerei tosses off resonant high notes with effortless ease, it's charming, humorous and pathetic all at once when Gobbi's Sir John echoes back the same phrases with considerable effort.  It's perfect:  Ford is young and healthy; Falstaff is getting on in years and obese to boot.  That very effect of labored vocalism conveys everything about the character that a more opulently-voiced baritone can't communicate in the same way.

Gobbi is unsurpassed in making every word of Arrigo Boito's libretto leap off the page with genuine humanity.  Every nuance of grandiose narcissism, mornonic self-delusion, gullibility and, yes, likeability through it all is right there for the listener to savor.  Tito Gobbi as Falstaff is more human than half the real people I know.  Probably more human than me, Glenn Winters.

Certainly more human than Mitt Romney.  (Sorry, had to go there... it's a joke, people!!)

Lawrence Tibbett: Jet-setter

2.  Lawrence Tibbett as Iago.  Again, Tibbett (one of the first in the historically great line of American operatic baritones) is the operatic version of the little girl who had the little curl "right in the middle of her forehead": when he was good, he was very, very good.  But......  I've heard recordings from later in his career which should never have seen the light of day, when he'd developed a wobble you could drive a Sherman tank through.

But then there's his revelatory recording of "Era la notte", Iago's dream aria from Verdi's Otello.  I used to have an LP recording of highlights from Otello starring Tibbett, tenor Giovanni Martinelli and soprano Helen Jepson.  Tibbett's reading of the dream sequence is so exemplary in diction, characterization, subtlety of vocal shading and imaginative use of language that one begins to think he might have made a fabulous lieder singer.  Someone who sings with that degree of vocal and musical mastery might have done wonders with Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin or Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch.  Seriously.  He captures Iago's fake sincerity and sly manipulation of Otello as no other baritone I have heard.

3.  Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore. When you see Tiger Woods play golf in person, you want to see him nail a 350-yard drive off the tee or sink a 40-yard putt.  When you see LeBron James play hoops in person, you want to see him register a "triple double" (double figures in points, rebounds and assists or blocked shots). And when you see a singer like Pavarotti in person, you want a performance so electrifying, compelling and perfect that it peels the paint off the walls and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

A rather heavily made-up Pavarotti

That's what I got on a magical evening at the Lyric Opera of Chicago sometime back in the 1970's.

I'm old enough now that the events of my teens and twenties have begun to meld into one vague, amorphous stream of fuzzy memory, so don't press me for the date here.  It would have been during my undergraduate years as a music major at Indiana University - I'm 91% sure of that.

In any case, I saw Pavarotti on a night when it was a privilege to see him; when his legend was still being forged, and rightly so.  His knees were not yet decimated to the point of being semi-ambulatory.  He had not yet begun to swim in the deep and choppy waters of extremely dramatic repertoire such as Manrico and Otello; his sound still had that freshness, ping and bloomy sweetness that characterized his best vocal estate.

Two outstanding impressions I retain quite vividly; first, his athletic grace and nimble footwork.  For such a large man (though he was to get much larger in time), he was almost balletic in his footwork, particularly in the scenes in which Nemorino careens around the stage in giddy tipsiness. Of course, we know that Pavarotti actually was an athlete in his early years; there are photos of him on a soccer (pardon me, "football") team.  Those skills, however temporarily, did transfer to his operatic skill-set.

Second, there was that aria; that "Una furtiva lagrima", that cornerstone of every tenor's repertoire list.  We've heard it bellowed, shouted, brayed and crooned, all of us opera-folk.  Well, on that evening in Chicago, I heard it phrased with such impeccable musical line that it brought to mind the string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Mein Gott, such singing!  The real deal - Tiger knocked it out the rough to within three inches of the pin; LeBron dunked the ball with such force the backboard shattered.

I got my money's worth!

4.  Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in one single line as Eva in Die Meistersinger.  This is another recording, one under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, with Hans Hopf as Walther von Stolzing and Otto Edelmann as Hans Sachs.  In the final scene (on side 10 of my long-lost LP boxed set) comes the famous "Prize Song" of Walther, in which all the citizens and Mastersingers of Nuernburg fall under the spell of his beautiful singing.  It's a medieval version of one of those shows like "The Voice" or "American Idol".  Upon his ecstatic and triumphant conclusion, there is general rejoicing from the chorus out of which the voice of Eva (soon to be Mrs. von Stolzing) rises with maidenly adoration in the following line:"Keiner wie du so hold zu werben weiss" ("No one can woo as graciously as you." or, freely translated, "You had me at "Guten Tag").

Now, trying to top a pyrotechnical vocal display like the Prize Song is a real feat.  But let me tell you right now, pals, what Schwarzkopf achieved in that single line is probably the single most perfectly-sung, beautifully-phrased vocal line ever recorded.  Sweet as honey, impossibly womanly and yet maidenly as well; beguiling and as legato as Itzhak Perlman playing the slow movement of the Mendelssohn concerto. Then, after all that, it ends with a trill that could make a man levitate right out of his chair.  Oh yes, yes, yes.  It's ten seconds or so of singing that could remind a person that life is worth living.  No kidding.

Before I sign off, let's have one more live performance I was privileged to witness.  And few if any of you will know this artist, especially since she got out of the music business last I heard:
Heidi Schmidt as Fiordiligi, Rome, 1999

5.  Heidi Schmidt in Fiordigligi's "Per pieta" from Cosi fan tutte.  I wrote about my experiences at the 2010 Operafestival di Roma in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates.  That was not my only experience at the festival, however.  In 1999 I made my first appearance, cast as Don Alfonso in Cosi and also serving as Chorus Master for the production.  Another duty was a stint as prompter for the performances in which the alternate cast was performing.  That cast featured an aspiring young soprano fresh out of the graduate program at the Juilliard School: one Heidi Schmidt.

Heidi and I were fast friends during that four-week festival period.  We did some sight-seeing together and made more than one midnight run out for McDonald's in a festival van.  I would have enjoyed knowing her even if she'd been a mediocre singer, but she was not.  Oh no.

Most fans of Cosi, if asked to name a soprano aria, would cite one of Despina's lively comic numbers or perhaps Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio", a justly famous virtuoso display piece.  However, the most impressive aria from my perspective is "Per pieta", one of those moments of intense emotion in which Mozart transcends an inane, farcical libretto and thus lifts the entire opera to the level of masterwork.  Fiordiligi is experiencing guilt-pangs over the attraction she feels for the visiting "Albanian" suitor while her lover Guglielmo is supposedly off at war.  She reflects on her disloyalty in music of white-hot self-recrimination and remorse, vowing to be a better fiance.

It's a long aria, and rather slow-moving in the first half.  All in all, over four weeks, I heard the aria so often in rehearsals, run-throughs, dress rehearsals and multiple performances that by rights I should have become at least temporarily immune to it.  One can get too much of a good thing, you know?

Yet when Heidi sang this aria, I found myself holding my breath every time.  Brushing aside its considerable technical difficulty (it calls for pin-point control, stamina and thread-thin pianissimos), she achieved the illusion of singing from the heart rather than "performing a masterpiece".  One might have thought she was singing the aria for the first time on each occasion.

So why isn't she famous?  It's a tough way to make a living, friends.  Heidi gave it a go for a while after Rome, auditioning in New York and so on.  But, coming from a family of medical doctors, she found that her motivation to follow the path of medicine was as great as her desire to sing.  Or perhaps she became discouraged and turned to medicine as a fall-back.  In any case, the last I heard from her she was in medical school, buried in textbooks.  We were last in touch about three years ago, when she sent a nice email on Father's Day.  Today is another Father's Day, and I wish her well.

Congratulations, Heidi:  you made my list.


  1. Heidi and I were friends at Butler Univ in Indianapolis during '95-'96. She even sang at my wedding. She is an amazing person, and soon after we drifted apart she co-founded College Mentors for Kids. I've been trying to catch up with her for a long time. She's a tough person to track down.
    - Steve R.

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  2. I was her professor of Anatomy in St Maarten. A fantastic, positive person and student who could sing the anthem and make you tremble...and a with courageous will to go on.
    I found her again through Google...! Congratulations for all your achievements! Hope to meet you later again. Dr JG Anonymous