German Opera and the Voice
— I echo most emphatically the Warning Voice lifted up by a member of the Club at our last meeting. When the German opera was first introduced into America, there was no limit to the enthusiasm of the music-loving population of the great cities. But after a time discreet criticisms began to appear in the most advanced journals. The orchestra was sometimes complained of as too loud, and the principal singers were found to be not quite perfect in their art. The following anecdote will illustrate the indifference of the extreme Wagnerites to thorough vocal culture. One of the most prominent devotees of the Wagner cult in Germany was recently extolling the capacities of Marianne Brandt as an interpreter of Wagner, when a bystander ventured to interpose an adverse criticism respecting that artist’s voice; whereupon, the music director hastened to exclaim, “ Oh, she can’t sing at all! She does n’t know how to sing ! ” and then proceeded in his eulogy of her great dramatic power, her immense capacity for expression. Now when a thorough musician claims preëminence for a singer who “ does n’t know how to sing,” it is high time to stop and see whither this infatuation is tending. The man was more nearly right than most admirers of the new school of music would be willing to allow. Very few of the younger singers know how to sing; and at all the great musical centres there is an immense number of disappointed aspirants, pupils who have broken down before finishing their studies, débutantes who have been forced to retire after a short and unsuccessful probation, artists who possess all the acquirements belonging to their profession excepting the voice, which has either been spoiled by wrong training or worn out by excessive demands upon its power.
It is significant to note that the fault found with the voices was on account of the unevenness of the tones, the marked break between the registers, the disagreeable prominence of guttural sounds in the lower range; and these ruinous errors are entirely due to the method. Nowadays voices are pushed back and pressed down instead of being brought forward and held high.
The best singers of Wagner’s music to-day are the singers who were trained in the old Italian school and developed through the practice of Italian opera. But, unfortunately, these singers are dying out, and their successors have neither their training nor their practice to fortify them against the demands of “the music of the future.”
It is the fashion to assert that “ Italian opera is dead,” and this in face of the fact that the greatest living singer sings only in Italian opera. It is an absurd assertion, for there will always be voices for which florid music is better suited than any other, and there will always be listeners who prefer brilliant execution to heavy recitative. Patti will never want for an audience, nor will any other singer who is perfect in her art. The trouble is that the increasing popularity of German opera has caused a proportionate carelessness in the rendering of the works of the rival school, and therefore it is no wonder that the public prefer Lohengrin in full glory to Lucia indifferently performed. Des Teufels Antheil was recently given in the Royal Opera at Munich, and as Fräulein Dressier cannot sing florid music, Carlo Broschi’s trills and runs, which make that rôle so attractive, were omitted! One of the daily papers acknowledged that the omission was a rather daring innovation, but excused it on the ground that “ we Germans do not care much for coloratura.” What made the incident still more surprising was the fact that only a short time previous to this maimed performance Lucca had sung the rôle in her most brilliant manner to a crowded and enthusiastic house. In the same theatre, Robert der Teufel was given not long ago with the part of Isabella omitted ! Think of it, — Robert without the Gnaden aria !
The Wagnerites are accustomed to assert that Wagner’s music does not injure the voice. But this pleasing delusion will not bear the test of experience. Let any one listen to Heinrich Vogl when he comes, fresh from his summer vacation, to such rôles as Severus or Don Ottavio, and then hear him again after he has been through the Nibelungen Cyclus, and there will no longer be the slightest question as to the effect of Wagner’s music upon the voice. Vogl has the advantage of a perfect method added to the gift of an organ exceptionally strong. Yet the tired sound does not leave his voice for weeks afterwards, and there is no doubt that his power will fail prematurely in consequence of the tremendous strain so frequently applied.
The injury from which a powerful male voice cannot protect itself falls with still greater force upon the more delicate female organ. It is not only the great volume of sound required which does harm, but the abrupt transitions, the long leaps, the extended compass, are also cruel in their unnatural demands upon vocal endurance. Of all the artists who have attempted the rôle of Ortrud upon the Munich stage during the last decade, Frau Vogl and Frau Reicher-Kindermann are the only ones who have sung it in the right way; that is, without any change of register, any descent into guttural tones in the lower range. Frau Vogl (Frau ReicherKindermann died young, after a brief career) deserves universal recognition for her excellent method, her smooth, true tones, her entire avoidance of the faults of the new school. She and Frau Joachim are almost the only prominent German singers who render alto parts with the mellow tones which were formerly considered indispensable to the lower range. The Vogl pair, with Frau Wekerlin (whose voice is like an organ, capable of sounding through and above even the orchestra and chorus of a Wagner opera) and Gura, whose thorough culture and depth of expression are rarely equaled, constitute the glory of the Munich stage at the present date. The younger members of the company are all crude, all more or less spoiled by bad training, especially by persistent use of the guttural chest tones in their lower notes, which involves thinness in the middle range and sharpness in the high tones. The débutantes who appear from time to time as graduates of the music school, or pupils of one or another of the famous teachers of the day, have the same faults and the same deficiencies, and altogether the musical outlook is discouraging.
It may be asked, Who and where are the good teachers, the adherents to the true method, the saviours of the perishing human voice ? Alas, that is a question more easily asked than answered. The good teachers, like the good singers, are dying out, and we may be thankful if there are enough left to hand down the old traditions against the time when these shall be appreciated and followed. Certain it is that the teachers who are at present the most celebrated are not true to those traditions ; otherwise their “stars” would be more brilliant and more enduring.
Strakosch, who trained Adelina Patti, and partially trained Nikita, was master of the old Italian method, and there was a teacher in Stockholm who knew the secret; but both these are dead, as is also Teschner, of Berlin.
Frau Sophie Förster, now living in Prague, has no superior in the art. Stockhausen, in Frankfort, an Italian professor in Paris (Sbolcia?), Madame Lanier, of Geneva, belong to the good old school. There was at least one such teacher in London a few years ago, and one in Boston, and one in New York, whose names deserved to be carved in gold upon imperishable stone, but which are unknown to the writer.
One of the most prominent professors of vocal culture in Paris recently said, ”There is one thing I do know : I know how to train a voice. I have spoiled enough voices in my time to know how to avoid spoiling them now.” Such a teacher is more to be trusted than one who is still engaged in the spoiling process. But best of all is to find one who knows from the beginning what is to be done and what to be refrained from in the delicate task of developing the human voice. Happy the would-be singer who meets with one of these safe guides; unhappy he who yields to the pressure of his day and generation, and wastes his time and his money to the destruction of his glorious gift.
As preventive of disaster, it may be suggested, as a general rule, to avoid any teacher who begins instruction by explaining the mechanism of the throat and the division of the registers, or who requires loud, strong tones before the voice is developed, or who allows the voice to descend into guttural tones upon the lower notes. To discover a teacher in our day who does not commit all these blunders is a hard task, in which it only remains to wish the seeker good-speed.