This past weekend, I found myself at a party with three opera stars. I’m not going to name them; no reason they should go to a party, and then get talked about in public. But they’re singers anyone who goes to the Met would recognize. And this is worth blogging about, in part because of a comment someone posted to my “Nuns with Manicures” post.

The person commenting asked what I’d thought of an intermission feature in the Met’s live movie-theater presentation of Puccini’s Il Trittico. This was a short film about the Met’s National Council auditions, showing one of the first rounds of that competition, complete with a skeptical judge who didn’t think there would be many singers good enough to go on to the next round. A friend of the commenter thought this was a terrible thing to say, especially if the Met wants to bring new people to opera. I disagreed, which will hardly surprise regular readers. For one thing, we’re not going to be credible — not even remotely — if we pretend that everything about classical music is wonderful. But, beyond that, singers do vary. Some are good, some are bad. And hearing a major opera star sing in someone’s living room is a striking reminder of what the standards for “good” really are.

So here’s what happened. A lot of musical people were at this party — opera stars, opera singers who do smaller roles at the Met, other people in the classical music business, and one coach/accompanist, who seemed happy to spend much of the evening at the piano. Often when he’d start some opera aria, one of the singers would start singing. Though not, for the most part, the major stars. They’re unlikely to sing at parties. They need to save their voices.

But one of them did sing, a soprano who sings roles like Tosca. Which is to say that she’s not a lyric soprano. Her voice is bigger, more potent. And here’s the lesson she taught. (Not that she meant to teach anything. She was just having fun.) She might not be your favorite soprano. Or she might be. I’m not sitting in judgment. But if you heard her do Tosca or one of her other big roles, maybe you’d think that she’d gone past some of her limits, whatever those might be. This is normal. Anyone might go past their limits, singing major opera roles. Those roles are difficult.

But heard in a living room, this soprano was just about mesmerizing. Somehow the pianist and singers got started on The Sound of Music. A lyric soprano sang the title song. And then the Tosca soprano sang “Edelweiss.” All at once, anyone could hear what it means to have a major voice, and an equally major ability to use it. The size of the sound, the richness, the control, the focus, the commitment — these were stunning (and all the more so because it all sounded so easy). You knew you were hearing someone who knows how to sing, someone with a voice you won’t forget, someone who delivers on a very high level.

And that’s what the judges at any competition are looking for. Or, rather, the potential to get that far, since young singers aren’t likely to be there yet. You can get into arguments about who’s going to make it, who’s going to take the further steps that professionals, hearing them sing when they’re young, know they have to take.

But not many people would disagree about what the goal is — or miss it, when it’s plainly displayed just 15 feet away.

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  1. Paul Ricchi says

    You’ve explained very nicely why singing opera is a “many are called few are chosen profession”.

    When the opera world starts allowing compromise and accomodation it will not be the beginning of the end, but it will change opera into something less than it is now. (Some think that the change has already begun)

  2. Stephen Goldberg says

    I can say from personal experience that trying to predict which one singer will have a career, much less become a major opera star, is akin to saying that you can read the mind of God. One might, on occasion, be right, but it just can’t be done with any degree of certainty and there’s a degree of hubris involved in trying to tell people that you can.

    Hi, Stephen. I agree — prophecy isn’t profitable. Especially early in a singer’s progress. Voices can develop, technique can settle in, confidence can bloom. And then there are people who plainly have everything it takes, but can’t handle building a career.

    But at some point, it does become plain. Somebody has it. And that’s when their path starts to diverge from nearly everybody else’s.

    And even early on, it’s reasonable to make at least this kind of judgment: This person I hear singing right now has no chance of getting anywhere without major changes. The next one, by contrast, needs only to change a few things. And then there might be someone who seems ready right now. To make these judgments isn’t taking any risks of prophecy. You’re not saying what _will_ become of anyone. You’re simply talking about what you hear right now.

    And surely there’s no way to avoid such judgments. Someone has to decide who gets into a young artists’ program and who doesn’t, or who gets into a top-rank music school. Nobody with any sense would equate those choices with any infallible decree about who’s going to succeed, but still — the choices have to be made.

  3. Chris says

    I had a similar experience some years ago, where the concertmaster of a major orchestra gave a party at his home, and played a Mozart sonata on his Guarneri violin, accompanied by a friend on a Steinway baby grand. The sheer power and intensity, both of the player and of his instrument, in such a small space, was overwhelming,

    We don’t often get to experience that. It reminds one of why certain things have the reputation that they do.