Pavarotti, Billie Holiday and Me: The Secrets of What Makes a Great Singer | Opera
Jhe iconic tenor of my life – and in terms of pure voice, the best – was Luciano Pavarotti. I’ve only heard it once in the flesh, in a production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Royal Opera House in London. His interest in stage action was limited, but his vocal resources were only marginally exhausted after decades of brilliant high Cs, and I felt the magic.
What propelled Pavarotti into the stratosphere of international stardom was a celebratory event at the 1990 World Cup at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome: the famous concert of the Three Tenors in which he sang Puccini’s aria from Turandot, Nessun Dorma, with its high B culminating on the word “vincero” – “I will win”.
I was then a young singer making his way into the seemingly more rarefied worlds of Lieder and Mozart’s opera, and I was more than a little snobby about it all; a snobbery that no doubt stemmed from being defensive of my vocal abilities, as well as being protective of the leaner repertoire I performed and loved. The very adventurous Sir Colin Davis once asked me to sing the Verdi Requiem, the closest I’ve ever had to the Italian big guns, but I knew it wasn’t for me.
But Ron Howard’s documentary on Pavarotti got me thinking about what we really appreciate about great singing. The triumphalism, the sheer athleticism of the classic tenor voice is all very well, but watching Pavarotti sing E lucevan the stelle of Puccini from Tosca, towards the end of his career, led by his friend and fellow tenor Plácido Domingo, I realized that he was not just a voice, not just a tenor, but an expressive artist with extraordinary gifts. Despair of Air draws from Pavarotti that miraculous interplay between personal life experience and artistic material that is at the heart of what great singers do. Great singers like Pavarotti, or Billie Holiday, or Bob Dylan.
My latest recording is a collection of arias from 17th century Venetian and Neapolitan operas, written at a time when the tenor was not the shining star he became during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, the beginnings of the tenor were modest. The term itself comes from the Latin verb “tenere” – “to hold” – and originated in medieval vocal ensemble music in which the upper male voice provided a foundation in terms of pitch and long vowels. Nothing glamorous there. But at the beginning of the 17th century, the tenor became a crucial figure in the development of the new form of opera. The first opera we still perform in the repertoire is Monteverdi’s Orfeo, written in 1607 for the Gonzaga court in Mantua, with the dominant title role played by a tenor. As Giovanni Battista Dona said in 1635, “the tenor has a better fitted and more perfectly organized body”, something we all agree on.
The story usually told is that the glamor of the castrato singer – mezzo soprano or male soprano endowed with prodigious power and virtuosity – came, during the 17th century, to force the tenor into the shadows. . Although there is an element of truth in this, the fact remains that important roles were written for particularly charismatic singers with tenor voices, until the 18th century – notably the Handelian triumvirate of Francesco Borosini, Annibale Pio Fabri and John Beard. It is also the case that tunes written for high, castrato and female voices, were often reassigned to lower male voices in what is called octave transposition. Handel did this, like many of his contemporaries, adjusting their music to the available voices.
My recording includes both of these types of tunes, and what interested me most was the opportunity they provide for a kind of singing far removed from the shrill ascendancy of the post-romantic tenor bugle and roles for which Pavarotti and Domingo were most famous. The orchestras for which these tunes were written were smaller, as were most of the theaters in which they were sung. The instruments were quieter. The vocal writing can be flowery but it never focuses on sheer virtuosity, whether in terms of fast passages or cultivated highs. There is an opportunity to cultivate the ideal enunciated by one of the first opera composers, the tenor Jacopo Peri, who was said to have ‘his singing would have moved any heart of stone’. The emphasis is on the natural, non-overprojected voice, moving in a moderate extension of its speaking range and using vowels and consonants to create color in much the same way as the great jazz singers – Billie Holiday for example.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few years working with jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau. He wrote us a song cycle, The Folly of Desire, with lyrics by Blake, Brecht, Yeats and Cummings among others, and with a stylistic compass ranging from the delicately classical to a raucous imitation of Supertramp (“with Wurlitzer”, as the directions at the head of the song being played). In recital, we then performed Dichterliebe by Schumann and a set of jazz standards, on one occasion in Prague, in harmonious continuity with that of Schubert. Nacht und Träume at Cole Porter Night and day.
Returning to the baroque after this excursion, I remembered the great William Christie, creator of the French baroque group Les Arts Florissants, told me 25 years ago – to my great perplexity – how much jazz there was in this music. And I now note that my favorite contemporary jazz singer is Cécile McLorin Salvant, trained in the French Baroque. Maybe the artificial barriers are falling? And maybe classical singers aren’t primarily tenors, sopranos, baritones, or whatever, but just pure and simple singers.