June 25, 2014

Blog-to-blog rebuttal: my list of difficult arias

As I write this, Facebook is rippling with multiple posts of a blog on Listverse.com with the headline:"Top 10 Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias"

What's that? You're shocked to learn that there are other opera blogs in addition to this one? I know, I know - this will be a big adjustment for you. But it'll be okay.

Lists like this have two goals. First, there is the overriding goal of attracting page-views. (We don't do this for our health, people.) Second, to provoke discussion and debate.
Rogelio de Egusquiza's "Tristan and Isolde"

I'm here to discuss and debate.

First, let's review the Listverse choices, in case you were too lazy to click on the link above. (Some of you just can't be bothered to lift a finger. Tsk tsk tsk.) Here they are:

10. The Modern Major General from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

9.  Largo al factotum from Rossini's Barber of Seville.

8.  Großmächtige Prinzessin from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos

7.  Martern aller Artern from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio

6.  Di quella pira from Verdi's Il Trovatore

5.  Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire from Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau
4.  Credeasi, misera from Bellini's I Puritani
3.  Ha, wie will ich triumphieren from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio
2.  Der Hölle Rache from Mozart's Magic Flute
1.  The Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor

Now then, what to make of these? First of all, the inclusion of anything from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas? Pardon me, but you've already lost me and we're one aria in. The only thing remotely difficult in Major-General Stanley's patter showcase is, obviously, managing all those syllables at top speed. But how difficult is that? It's just a longer version of the old McDonald's jingle: Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.

When I was a kid, there were friends of mine who could not only fire off those words at super-sonic speed, but could also do it BACKWARDS. 

The truth? Whenever I do one of my opera appreciation lectures at a retirement community and I mention Gilbert and Sullivan, the odds are good that an elderly resident will approach me afterwards and proudly launch into some patter song or other, holding me captive prisoner while he displays his Mad Patter Skillz.

Patter is like riding a bike; it's really really hard at first, but once you "get it" it's never difficult again for the rest of your life. Give a break, Listserve.

Moving on, let's consider No. 5, the tenor aria by Adolph Adam, a composer better known for having written the now-hackneyed Christmas chestnut "O Holy Night", beloved of wobbly church sopranos everywhere. I don't think much of this choice either. In fact, I harbor dark suspicions that it was included to demonstrate the author's esoteric knowledge of rare literature.

The aria has one hurdle, and one hurdle only: a high D near the end. Other than that one moment, it's a fairly bland ditty in the tenor's lower-middle range. I would counter with "Celeste Aida" from Verdi's Aida for two reasons: 
  1. The tenor playing Radames has no chance to warm up. Other than a brief recitative, the aria is the first thing out of his mouth. Singing "cold" like that is cruel and unusual punishment. And
  2. While the top note is a "mere" B flat, the challenge is to sing it as softly as Verdi demanded, molto pianissimo. There are few tenors who manage that, particularly as the role really calls for a trumpet-voiced dramatic tenor. Other than Jon Vickers, few of those have been up to the task. Whereas tenors singing the high D in the Adam aria are, in effect, yelling their heads off on pitch. 
But let's not dilly-dally with our little nit-picks. Let me just post my own durn list, with commentary as needed.

NOTE: these are in no particular order. They're all, like, really hard, dude!

10. Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, the Prize Song from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Again, context has a lot to do with gauging difficulty. The Prize Song occurs at the END of the opera, and I've never heard any tenor, no matter how legendary, make it through to the end without sounding like he was pushing a jeep out of a ditch or passing a hundred kidney stones.

9.   Großmächtige Prinzessin, or No. 8 from the list above. We're in agreement here. What's hard about the number is that it's very very long; the Zerbinetta has to have comic chops while she's tossing off her coloratura; and it's become traditional to stage the piece with a lot of physical "business". No "park and bark" for Strauss's clown-ette.

8.   Martern aller Artern, No. 7 above, so another point of agreement. However, my fellow-blogger's commentary does not mention the truly remarkable aspect of this  unique aria: it is really an instrumental composition in which the soprano voice is merely one of the instruments. The form of the aria resembles a sinfonia concertante, more or less like a concerto featuring more than one virtuoso soloist. This places special burdens on the soprano playing Constanze.

7.  Salome's final scene from Strauss's opera of the same name. During Strauss's lifetime, it was not unusual for sopranos to sing the role but opt out of the "Dance of the Seven Veils", allowing a stand-in to shake Salome's royal booty. But these days, in the Age of Physically Fit and Ready-For-Video artists, no soprano would dare omit the dance. By indulging in an orgasmic several minutes of choreography, the difficulty of the climactic finale is thus increased several-fold. --Hey, YOU try it!

6.  The Mad Scene from Lucia. Yup, it's tough, no two ways around it. Again, you can't stand there like you're waiting for a bus and just vocalize; you have to ACT. The audience should be unable to breathe; held in the grip of creepiness and fascinated revulsion. YOU try it! 

5.  Libera me from Verdi's Requiem. Here I offer more of my philosophy about the definition of "horrifying difficulty". It's not automatic that really fast coloratura and/or really high notes above high C automatically get you on the list. Just as some people are so flexible they can easily bend their bodies into every yoga position imaginable, while others of us are as stiff as styrofoam, some voices are just gifted by Nature to have facility in matters of range and agility. The "Libera me" only goes to a high B flat, but what a moment! Again, it comes near the end of this mammoth choral work, and the entire range of a full lyric is exploited, including chesty bottom notes. But the end of the number tapers down to exquisitely floating pianissimos, and the final utterance
 on the word "requiem" involves the sudden leap of an octave up to that B flat. Trust me, it is a terrifying prospect for a tuckered-out soprano, worthy of peeing one's pants. There have been many disasters in live performances of the "OOPS, almost but not quite" variety. It's a moment where we separate the women from the girls, so to speak.

4.  È sogno? o realtà? Ford's monologue from Verdi's Falstaff. Just to, you know, provoke debate & discussion & everything, I'm inserting this number in place of Figaro's "Largo al factotum" above. While the Rossini aria does have the difficult aspect of being the first notes out of the baritone's mouth - he doesn't even get a stinkin' recitative - the chief difficulties are 1) high tessitura, and 2) that rapid-patter thing. Actually, the difficulty of diction increases when the aria is sung in English. It's the dirty little secret of Italian patter that the same words tend to be repeated over and over, whereas English translations avoid that particular cop-out and get a lot wordier.  Now, Ford's so-called "Dream aria" in Falstaff has a similarly high tessitura, but is less bel canto in the vocal writing. Ford's high notes are mostly explosive and violent expressions of comic rage, which means the singer is working much harder. And the final phrase, "Laudata sempre sia nel fondo del mio cor la gelosia" is a slow, sustained, Mt. Everest-like ascent up to a sustained high G, followed (on the same breath) by a secondary ascent to the final E flat. YOU try it! (I have - with no success.)

3.  Der Hölle Rache I have to agree with the famous "Queen of the Night" aria from Flute, even thoug there is precious little acting or even physical movement required of the soprano. It truly is "park and bark", but the opera world had never heard anything like it before. It belongs on the list.

2.  A te, O cara from Bellini's I Puritani. Just to be really poopy, I'm discarding the Puritani aria cited above and substituting another one from the same opera! Yes, that's pretty obnoxious, I'll cheerfully admit it. But to my (educated) ears, "A te" has a higher overall tessitura and seems more exposed. And it does call for a high D flat, so you have the double whammy of high notes plus high tessitura, plus lack of much support from the orchestra. You're pretty much naked out there, on a high wire like in the circus.

1. The Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It was either this or Brünnhilde's famous "Ho jo to ho" entrance in Die Walküre . Either way, omitting Wagner from a list of difficult soprano arias is a no-no. The Liebestod builds to a climax requiring super-human reservoirs of power to soar over an orchestral passage of historic intensity. Also, as we've stressed above, it comes at the end of a demanding opera. Good luck!.

THERE! Whatcha think, opera peeps?


  1. A few questions:-)
    1.Is the Liebestod difficult in itself or just because all what happened before it?
    2.is Lucia's mad scene more difficult than other mad scenes like the one in Puritani or Anna Bolena?
    3.What about Abigail's aria in Nabucco? I heard it live and the poor singer although brave was struggling... :-(

  2. I agree with the Libera me, as I have sung the piece more than 25 times now. I am never NOT freaking out. One correction, there is in fact one high C in the Libera me. It occurs near the end over the chorus. Also, as an early Verdi, bel canto specialist, I do not agree that Lucia is the most difficult bel canto scene in opera. Take a listen to Donizetti's Maria Padilla, where the soprano must have a three octave range because the notes are WRITTEN in and NOT interpolated, and the voice must also be dramatic. It is nearly un-singable.