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The New Art Of The Singer
by [?]

When composers began to set dramatic texts to music trouble immediately appeared at the door. For example, the contemporaries of Sophie Arnould, the “creator” of Iphigenie en Aulide, are agreed that she was greater as an actress than she was as a singer. David Garrick, indeed, pronounced her a finer actress than Clairon. From that day to this there has been a continual triangular conflict between critic, composer, and singer, which up to date, it must be admitted, has been won by the academic pundits, for, although the singer has struggled, she has generally bent under the blows of the critical knout, thereby holding the lyric drama more or less in the state it was in a hundred years ago (every critic and almost every composer will tell you that any modern opera can be sung according to the laws of bel canto and enough singers exist, unfortunately, to justify this assertion) save that the music is not so well sung, according to the old standards, as it was then. No singer has had quite the courage to entirely defy tradition, to refuse to study with a teacher, to embody her own natural ideas in the performance of music, to found a new school … but there have been many rebells.

The operas of Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, as a whole, do not demand great histrionic exertion from their interpreters and for a time singers trained in the old Handelian tradition met every requirement of these composers and their audiences. If more action was demanded than in Handel’s day the newer music, in compensation, was easier to sing. But even early in the Nineteenth Century we observe that those artists who strove to be actors as well as singers lost something in vocal facility (really they were pushing on to the new technique). I need only speak of Ronconi and Mme. Pasta. The lady was admittedly the greatest lyric artist of her day although it is recorded that her slips from true intonation were frequent. When she could no longer command a steady tone the beaux restes of her art and her authoritative style caused Pauline Viardot, who was hearing her then for the first time, to burst into tears. Ronconi’s voice, according to Chorley, barely exceeded an octave; it was weak and habitually out of tune. This baritone was not gifted with vocal agility and he was monotonous in his use of ornament. Nevertheless this same Chorley admits that Ronconi afforded him more pleasure in the theatre than almost any other singer he ever heard! If this critic did not rise to the occasion here and point the way to the future in another place he had a faint glimmering of the coming revolution: “There might, there should be yet, a new Medea as an opera. Nothing can be grander, more antique, more Greek, than Cherubini’s setting of the ‘grand fiendish part’ (to quote the words of Mrs. Siddons on Lady Macbeth). But, as music, it becomes simply impossible to be executed, so frightful is the strain on the energies of her who is to present the heroine. Compared with this character, Beethoven’s Leonora, Weber’s Euryanthe, are only so much child’s play.” This is topsy-turvy reasoning, of course, but at the same time it is suggestive.

The modern orchestra dug a deeper breach between the two schools. Wagner called upon the singer to express powerful emotion, passionate feeling, over a great body of sound, nay, in many instances, against a great body of sound. (It is significant that Wagner himself admitted that it was a singer [Madame Schroeder-Devrient] who revealed to him the possibilities of dramatic singing. He boasted that he was the only one to learn the lesson. “She was the first artist,” writes H. T. Finck, “who fully revealed the fact that in a dramatic opera there may be situations where characteristic singing is of more importance than beautiful singing.”) It is small occasion for wonder that singers began to bark. Indeed they nearly expired under the strain of trying successfully to mingle Porpora and passion. According to W. F. Apthorp, Max Alvary once said that, considering the emotional intensity of music and situations, the constant co-operation of the surging orchestra, and, most of all, the unconquerable feeling of the reality of it all, it was a wonder that singing actors did not go stark mad, before the very faces of the audience, in parts like Tristan or Siegfried…. The critics, however, were inexorable; they stood by their guns. There was but one way to sing the new music and that was the way of Bernacchi and Pistocchi. In time, by dint of persevering, talking night and day, writing day and night, they convinced the singer. The music drama developed but the singer was held in his place. Some artists, great geniuses, of course, made the compromise successfully…. Jean de Reszke, for example, and Lilli Lehmann, who said to H. E. Krehbiel (“Chapters of Opera”): “It is easier to sing all three Brunnhildes than one Norma. You are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene, that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself” … but they made the further progress of the composer more difficult thereby; music remained merely pretty. The successors of these supple singers even learned to sing Richard Strauss with broad cantilena effects. As for Puccini! At a performance of Madama Butterfly a Japanese once asked why the singers were producing those nice round tones in moments of passion; why not ugly sounds?