ALL I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT OPERETTA I LEARNED FROM THE GRAMOPHONE: Performance Practice Lessons from Recordings
When I sit at my desk at work, my iPhone playlists provide a fairly constant stream of music emanating from the speakers. Usually I turn to Janet Baker or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretations of Schubert songs or Murray Perahia’s fantastic recordings of Bach’s keyboard music. However, this past July, as I prepared a recital with Catherine Huggins for the Flossmoor Lyric Opera Guild, I pulled out a dusty disc in my collection that I had previously listened to for a grand total of 7 minutes. In late 2007, two Sony artists, British baritone Simon Keenlyside and Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, paired up for a recording and series of concerts focusing on German-language operetta hits. Called “My Heart Alone,” their disc is a persuasively performed confection, a trove of light, lovely arias and duets; it is a perfect example of why operetta and champagne are so often paired. Yet, despite the delightful selections and fabulous voices, there is almost a feeling of guilty pleasure – as you listen, you think, “Why am I enjoying this? Am I doing something wrong? Am I a silly person?” A review of the Keenlyside/Kirchschlager effort in the Berliner Morgenpost got to the heart of the matter: “With every operetta performance one question is lurking maliciously in the background: what’s the use at all? Who needs operetta today, jaunty gals, Hungarian Countesses, singing impostors?” And thus we encounter this most ingenious paradox: In today’s complex world, is there a place for light-hearted, escapist entertainment? When a string of Judd Apatow-inspired comedies succeed at the box office, it is clear that people want to laugh. However, there is a pervasively lingering elitist trend in classical music which encourages both performers and audience to wear their appreciation of the art as a merit badge, rather than simply engage and enjoy with their eyes, ears, and heart. After years of technical training, learning harmonic analysis, and absorbing subtlety, it can be hard to reconcile the part of the brain that laughs at slapstick comedy with the sensors that melt over a Mahler symphony. And herein lies a second problem: operetta is a form that requires training, elegance, and refinement—but also a sense of silliness and comic abandon; rare is the artist who succeeds in convincing on both fronts. Below, I will share three lessons on convincing light opera performance practice learned from recordings.
Not Everyone Can Do Comedy
As an example, we can contrast the efforts of two famous baritones in the operetta world. Thomas Hampson, one of today’s most esteemed baritones, recorded an album of German-language operetta arias in 1999 with conductor Franz Welser-Möst. Hampson’s intelligence, careful preparation of phrasing, characterization, and even attention to the social and historical background of the pieces presented are in evidence on this recording. In fact, Gramophone magazine’s review of the disc praised the enlightening and thorough liner notes, worth the purchase price alone. But there are certainly some musical treasures here as well: for example, with a discreet semitone transposition, he is able to include the hit tenor aria “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” His refined sound and lovely tone fit this number, as well as the gracefully arched phrases of Emmerich Kálmán’s “Komm, Zigány.” Indeed, about half of operetta repertoire seems to require proper presentation of elegance – since it evolved, as it did, as an entertainment for lower classes aspiring to the upper echelons or seeking escape. However, another important ingredient for operetta performances is an element of unrestrained, madcap comedy. It is in this regard that Hampson pales a bit in comparison to one of his forebears in this repertoire, Hermann Prey. One of the most prominent examples of the light lyric/Spielbariton Fach, Hermann Prey recorded a number of complete operettas in the 1960s. Possessed of a lovely but not especially large voice, he was ideally suited for this repertoire. Unlike Hampson, who was a natural Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, Prey had a knack for characters with a bit of the rascal in them. Prey’s portrayals of Figaro in both Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mozart’s Nozze were the standards for a generation. Though they each sing Millöcker’s “Dunkelrote Rosen” beautifully (again with elegance of phrasing and presentation in full force), it is hard to imagine Hampson bringing the same infectious energy to the comedic excerpts Prey performed on Peter Alexander’s 1970s variety show.
Life Beyond Old Ladies
One of the joys of the operetta repertoire is that the mezzo-soprano can often step into the leading lady’s spotlight. Several famed mezzos from the last 50 years have recorded at least one compilation disc or full operetta. Frederica von Stade and Anne Sofie von Otter focused their attentions on Jacques Offenbach, to delightful effect. Many of the works included on these discs were roles created for French soprano Hortense Schneider, including the title roles in La belle Hélène, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and La Périchole. None of these roles have particularly high notes, so they became prize real estate for mezzo-sopranos looking to move beyond playing aged crones and confidantes. Thus, in practice over the course of the twentieth century, we began to see Ms. Schneider’s roles assumed with regularity by both sopranos (ranging from Felicity Lott to Régine Crespin to Jessye Norman) as well as mezzo-sopranos (Teresa Berganza, among many others). To my ear, all the years of singing Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia seem to sharpen the comic skills of the mezzo-sopranos who assay these Offenbach roles – they understand the need mentioned above for self-effacement and abandon. By contrast, sopranos who may be more acquainted with the ingenue’s propriety tend to offer less physical but more tonally luxurious performances of the same roles. In the end, it’s a matter of taste which you prefer – or which recording you purchase. One of today’s leading mezzos, Susan Graham, delved even deeper into the French operetta repertoire, exhuming rarities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Composers included on her 2002 disc “French Operetta Arias” include Messager, Chabrier, Hahn, and Yvain. The jazz influences on some tracks may surprise some listeners, but the infectious rhythms and brassy interludes came to characterize many light opera efforts in the United States, France, and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a joy to hear Graham’s warm tone slide through these pieces (though the quality of the material varies); the orchestra led by Yves Abel idiomatically accompanies Ms. Graham on her chameleonic journey of these diverse styles. Lower-voiced women looking for flashy and fun recital encores need look no further than this recommended album. In short, mezzos looking to emphasize their elegance, humor, and sex appeal may wish to explore the (particularly French) operetta repertoire in more depth. Admittedly, one of the juiciest, most familiar mezzo-soprano roles in the operetta canon is…again…that of a man, Prince Orlofsky in Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, but then, who wouldn’t rather play a rich Prince pouring champagne like there’s no tomorrow over, say, a blind old woman?
Look to the Past
Coco Chanel once said “Fashion changes, but style endures.” Truer words could not be said about operetta. National tastes and changing times saw the creation of several different strains of light opera, each with its own subtle nuances and idiosyncrasies. But overarching these periodic fluctuations in taste are stylistic elements that performers can strive to absorb or emulate. Historical recordings can often bring us closer to the intentions of the composer – or at least the performance practice associated with the piece. Compare, for example, Richard Tauber’s 1935 performance of Rudolf Sieczynski’s famous ode to Vienna, “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume” with that of supertenor Plácido Domingo. Again, while one could quibble over which voice one prefers, there is an ease and authenticity to Tauber’s performance absent from Domingo’s. The interesting thing is, one wouldn’t necessarily know what was missing without having heard the earlier version. One can learn the proper notes and words, perfect the accent, brush up on Viennese history – but still come up short. Something intangible about operetta style just cannot be coached, even by the best of the best – it needs to be absorbed from hours in cafes and nights spent walking cobblestone streets bathed in amber light. Only then can the proper dose of Schlagobers creep into the performance without becoming too saccharine. Even as late as 1957, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (incidentally, one of Thomas Hampson’s teachers) gave a lesson in effortless, stylish operetta performance. Her combination of secure vocal technique and understanding of convention yields great results: one moment she warbles sweetly, the next she waltzes wildly, then finally opens up the voice just enough to rise to a perfect climax. This album, in many ways, is a fantastic bridge between the past method of learning the operetta idiom by osmosis and today’s classroom coaching. Some of the stiffness and angular tone that creeps into the Keenlyside or Hampson performances mentioned above may have resulted from too much time spent learning, and not enough time spent living the style. The resultant lesson is that singers today should occasionally take a leap of faith away from the highest quality stereo sound and listen to some of those tinny, grainy sounding recordings of yesteryear. After all, yet another key ingredient of operetta is nostalgia – for golden times that may have only existed in dreams.