Michael Jordan just turned fifty.
Yep, the big five-oh. The gateway to his senior years. Those images of him flying through the air towards the hoop like that asteroid that blew out half the windows in Russia are just a memory.
This particular birthday has been major fuel for the furnace of idle conversation that is sports-talk radio. ESPN, Dan Patrick, Jim Rome and all the pundits of the jock universe have been consumed by one topic for the past week: who's the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? This inconsequential question has spawned furious arguments equal in passion to the debates over gun control and the federal budget. "Jordan has six championship rings!" "LeBron is bigger, faster and stronger!" "Jordan was more clutch!" "LeBron is more versatile!" Like that.
This got me thinking about the opera world. (I know, big shock, right?) Just as there are sports nuts who insist that basketball was at its best in past generations, clinging to memories of Jordan, Ewing, Malone, Bird, Magic and other heroes, there are opera fans who believe that the "Golden Age of Opera Singing" dates to when they were young, experiencing the "first, fine, careless rapture" of discovering the art form..
So what's the reality? Figuring this out will be like nailing the proverbial Jell-O to the proverbial wall and there can never be a definitive answer. But let's try!! I've gone to the Metropolitan Opera website where complete rosters for any season are available with a couple of mouse-clicks. For convenience, let's compare representative singers in two seasons fifty years apart: 1963 (right in the heart of my so-called "Golden Era") and 2013. For brevity's sake, let's consider only the most representative and celebrated artists in each standard vocal category: soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone and bass. Hmmm... that's too long for a single blog post, so this week we'll limit ourselves to the females. Are my choices a bit arbitrary? Have I omitted prominent artists who are on their respective rosters? Yes, I have. Hey, this is a blog here, not a book. Sue me.
SOPRANOS, 1963 SOPRANOS, 2013
Leonie Rysanek Diana Damrau
Zinka Milanov Natalie Dessay
Birgit Nilsson Anna Netrebko
Leontyne Price Renee Fleming
Renata Tebaldi Deborah Voigt
Joan Sutherland Sondra Radvanovsky
Teresa Stratas Patricia Racette
My comments (feel free to leave yours in the comment area below): Teresa Stratas and Natalie Dessay correspond to one another, more or less, in that they are noted as much for acting chops as for vocal gifts. Each has been a featured Violetta at the Met. I'll call this a dead heat. Moving on to the Wagnerian fach, and with due respects to Ms. Voigt, I think Nilsson was a goddess of super-human capabilities. Actually, Eileen Farrell, whom I did not list but was also on the '63 roster, perhaps corresponds better to Voigt. And is there any coloratura on the current roster, or indeed of any roster of the past several years, who matches Joan Sutherland? That would be a "no". Diana Damrau is singing a first-rate Gilda at the Met these days, and she's splendid. But she was not the coloratura who forever set the bar in mind-boggling agility and sheer tonal perfection. Yes, Sutherland's diction was iffy, but she's still goddess material.
I'm also claiming "no contest" with any current soprano versus Leontyne Price, another all-time immortal. Disagree with me, do you? You're wrong. Now, Renata Tebaldi compares with Sondra Radvanovsky as being a prominent and capable full lyric with spinto capabilities, each a valued interpreter of Verdi. Radvanovsky's fans can point to a slightly wider repertoire which ventures beyond the Puccini at which Tebaldi also excelled to include Mozart, Donizetti, Dvorak, Tchikovsky and a smattering of contemporary works. On the other hand, Tebaldi was more of a glamorous global celebrity, whose feuds with Maria Callas (not at the Met in 1963, by the way), love affairs and other doings made headlines of near Kate Windsor proportions. Somehow, with artists like Tebaldi and Callas, opera seemed to matter more, know what I mean?
I find an interesting comparison with Renee Fleming and Leonie Rysanek, each of whom specialized in the music of Mozart and Richard Strauss. In addition, each has been a celebrated Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. Fleming, to boot, has become a personality of considerable charm, making her a useful asset as host of several HD Met broadcasts. That charm is just as potent onstage in her incarnations of the Marschallin or Donna Anna. Vocally, Rysanek bests her in vocal resources, with ample power to make her mark in more dramatic territory: Turandot, Aida and Salome. Vocally, the edge is Rysanek's, but with all factors considered I'll call it a draw.
Finally, a bit of bias on my part: I don't get the big deal about Ms. Netrebko. Her voice is one of quality, but for my taste it tends to be monochromatic. I simply don't respond to it. My theory: Peter Gelb, with a Master Plan to bring Met performances into movie theaters, was looking for a soprano with plenty of sex appeal to dispel ancient stereotypes of bovine female singers. He saw Netrebko at soda fountain counter in Hollywood (or the modern operatic equivalent) and said "Sweetie, I'm gonna make you a STAR!", and has cast her over and over. I'll take Milanov, thanks. Both Racette and Damrau are far more valuable performers, for that matter. Even so, here's my verdict:
THE WINNER IN THE SOPRANO CATEGORY: 1963
Now let's move on to our friends the mezzo-sopranos.
MEZZOS, 1963 MEZZOS, 2013
Blanche Thebom Stephanie Blythe
Margaret Harshaw Dolora Zajick
Rosalind Elias Susan Graham
Rita Gorr Joyce DiDonato
Mignon Dunn Elina Garanča
My frustration here is that in 1963 there were a host of legendary mezzo-sopranos singing all over the world, who had been active at the Met but for one reason or another were not on the Met roster in 1963. These include Giuletta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, Grace Bumbry, Christa Ludwig, Shirley Verrett, and others. NO FAIR! This is seriously going to skew the verdict toward 2013, but it's only fair to play by the rules I set up, so let us proceed!
With heavy hitters like Simionato, Bumbry and the others missing, I will concede that the 2013 Met roster is impressive. DiDonato is one of the greatest lyric mezzos ever, of any era. Marilyn Horne, another luminary in that fach, did not make her debut until 1964, but again: rules are rules. Zajick is a force of nature and an immortal Amneris in Aida. Graham is a resplendant Straussian, ideal as Octavian and the Composer. She has also made indelible impressions in Berlioz, Mozart, and contemporary opera. And Stephanie Blythe is fully the equal of any dramatic mezzo I could name, a worthy match for Margaret Harshaw in both Italianate and Wagnerian roles. So here's the thing: if I could include all the missing famous mezzos listed above, I would still vote for the '60's generation. But to be fair, going by the Met roster choices available, the outcome is clear.
THE WINNER IN THE MEZZO-SOPRANO CATEGORY: 2013
See there? I'm not a prisoner of the past! I can be objective. (Sort of...)
Next week we'll continue this fol-de-rol with a survey of the menfolk. Kaufmann or Corelli? Hampson or Merrill? We'll figure it out!
Oh, and on the basketball thing? LeBron is a greater athlete, but Michael Jordan is the greatest champion. There: wasn't that easy? Stick with me folks - I know stuff.
My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com