Cooking it up

Rupert Christiansen

  • Maria: Callas Remembered by Nadia Stancioff
    Sidgwick, 264 pp, £13.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 283 99645 5
  • Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes by John Ardoin
    Robson, 300 pp, £16.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86051 504 4
  • Callas as they saw her edited by David Lowe
    Robson, 264 pp, £6.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 86051 496 X
  • The Great Caruso by Michael Scott
    Hamish Hamilton, 322 pp, £16.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 241 11954 5
  • Chaliapin by Victor Borovsky
    Hamish Hamilton, 630 pp, £25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 241 12254 6

Brecht thought opera kulinarisch, a cooked-up business – a view that has been widely quoted without exerting much influence. Opera still dominates the kitchen of the performing arts in the Western world, imperiously consuming resources and insisting that it be kept properly dusted and aired. Its pretensions have not been reduced by the exigencies of Modernism, by media technology, or by the brutalities of recent history. It has never deigned to truck with materialist or naturalist riff-raff, and sees little reason to start doing so. It manages to live comfortably off the capital of its glorious past, but finds new investment unremunerative: last season Covent Garden presented only one opera written since the outbreak of the First World War, and the number of new works since 1945 which have survived in the international repertory can be counted on the fingers of one hand. What is it in our social psychology that feels obliged, or inclined, to maintain this chronically demanding, persistent invalid on its immensely cumbersome life-support system? Why should we believe that a red velvet and gold-leaf arena of musical entertainment is an essential symbol of our cultural respectability?

Part of the explanation for our infatuation lies, I suspect, in the fact that although opera has assumed the status of the ‘highest’ of the performing arts, it is also the easiest to respond to, offering a massive dose of unabashed infantile romanticism and little genuine aesthetic or moral challenge. By nature it is affective, physically overwhelming, and beyond the claims of rationality. It does not happily accommodate the dialectics, the psychological intricacies and formal complexities, which distinguish its great contemporary, the novel. In opera, notoriously, ‘you can’t hear the words’: and who wants to anyway? (Or so the resistance to the sensible innovation of surtitles would suggest.) It disdains understatement or ambiguity. Profligate with its means, opera characteristically fails to support its compulsive gesturing with adequate syntax: a two-minute Lied by Wolf concentrates more musical argument into its dramatic adventure than an hour of Cavalleria Rusticana. The grand original principle of dramma per la musica – the bare intonation of the spoken word heightened and deepened by the infinitely suggestive dimensions and refractions of music – all too often ends up in a fudge, the bold expression of emotion curdling into melodrama and camp.

But it is in its tendency to indulge that sort of excess that opera is most viscerally powerful. (Secretly, doesn’t every opera lover prefer Puccini to just about anyone else?) No other of our artistic rituals manages so deftly both to hit below the belt, satisfying our most atavistic pantomime cravings for the larger-than-life, and to keep caste as caviare to the general. This applies just as much to the self-confessed puritans of the genre (Gluck, Wagner, Birtwistle) as to the unapologetic sensualists (Handel, the Italians, Strauss): perhaps only Debussy in Pelléas et Mélisande has successfully transcended this fundamental crudity of impact.

In the period since Brecht’s strictures, however, a nouvelle cuisine has evolved, and the sort of opera performance dished up now is being cooked in ways radically different from those in fashion forty years ago. At the most superficial level, there is quite simply an awful lot more opera about than ever before, both in terms of ‘live’ presentation and of the various modes of recording – disc, video, television, cinema. Whether this constitutes a real democratisation of opera or only the exploitation of a commercial potential is a moot point: certainly market research reveals that the composition of the opera audience in Britain remains inertly restricted to the professional middle classes, and, outside London, to the middle-aged as well. There has also been a marked increase in rhapsodic intellectualising on the subject, from fans concerned to redeem their passion and solace from charges of idiocy, rather than from the musicologically qualified: Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death is a distinguished and often fascinating example of this phenomenon. Attempts to transform (or, in Conrad’s case, deconstruct) La Sonnambula or Les Pêcheurs de Perles into matter worthy of learned discourse also manifest themselves in the shape of ‘productions’. This last concept is relatively new to opera: before the Second World War, there were ‘stage managers’, scarcely acknowledged, who organised exits and entrances and occasionally shouted at members of the chorus who’d left their watches on, and there were scene painters. Singers sorted out their own dramatic intepretations and it was the conductor who moulded and controlled the performance. In the post-war decades, largely through the agency of men like Wieland Wagner in Germany and Visconti in Italy, this situation changed. Opera became a sensitive field of ideological possibilities: the traditions associated with Richard Wagner, in particular, had to be reassessed in the withering light of Nazism, while in Italy the revival – begun under Mussolini as part of a nationalist cultural policy – of an apparently dead repertory of early 19th-century works led to a vogue for meticulous ‘period’ reconstruction. Over the last twenty years this trend has consolidated to the point at which one no longer talks conversationally of going to hear an opera, but to see one. The very word ‘opera’ has become suspect: all true believers worship at the shrine of ‘music theatre’. From newspaper reviews to interval chit-chat, interest is invariably focused on the production: not the work itself, or on its musical realisation, or even on the performers, but on what Ruth Berghaus or David Alden or Andrei Serban is saying about it.

Or rather what images they are inflicting upon it – for the production of opera is primarily a matter of what something is made to look like. Singers rarely have any authentic acting ability and the wiser producers (Giorgio Strehler, Nuria Espert) recognise that it is better to accept this limitation, since the poor dears are liable to be much more expressive when they are allowed to sing comfortably than when forced to ride bicycles or stand on their heads. More ambitious maîtres may decide that Il Barbiere di Siviglia would suddenly become relevant to alienated modern youth if the setting was transposed to a Chinese restaurant in Orpington, but their intentions will be thwarted by the masonic gesticulations of a cast quite unable to impersonate the denizens of this establishment appropriately and who mouth a weirdly incongruous fustian made up of English words but fatally lacking in English sense.

Well, it is easy to mock the ‘designer opera’ scenario, and in fairness one should also acknowledge the genuine illuminations provided by institutions like David Freeman’s Opera Factory, as well as the more mainstream vindications of the opera producer’s role like Peter Stein’s Otello for the Welsh National Opera (rehearsed over years, rather than the standard four to six weeks, and worth every minute). But the priorities have been badly scrambled: operas are persistently being turned into ideological tableaux vivants with musical accompaniment, rather than a form in which the drama is essentially communicated through the human singing voice – and no amount of visual or theatrical elegance in a performance can ever compensate for its failure to fulfil that criterion. Fail it does though, persistently. But that is not to say that there isn’t plenty of decent, medium-scale, well-tuned and soundly schooled singing around. It is undoubtedly the case that the revival in the Fifties of the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini brought out of the conservatories a generation which commanded a degree of speed and flexibility of articulation unparalleled in this century: we are not short of interpreters of Lucia di Lammermoor or of tenori di grazia who can skate up and down the runs of a Rossini aria. It could reasonably be argued that we hear pre-Classical music sung more idiomatically, and serial and post-serial music more competently, than our fathers did. The problems lie in two other areas. First there is the absence of large voices, capable of negotiating the technical demands of the later 19th-century masters, not least that of meeting the resistance of a full symphony orchestra with vocal equanimity. Large does not only mean loud: it’s easy enough to sing loud, and plenty can and do. It also implies gravitas, stamina, and an organ-like ability to colour and modulate under pressure. Who can do that? There has been no reliable dramatic soprano since the great Birgit Nilsson withdrew in the mid-Seventies and no first-rate Wagnerian heldentenor since Jon Vickers. Perhaps there has never been a glut of candidates for the roles of Brünnhilde and Siegfried, Tristan and Isolde, or Elektra: but now, as James Levine, the artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, has notoriously complained, it is very hard to assemble a cast even for Aida.

Nobody quite knows why this should be so: it could be the fault of teaching, it could be the merest freak of nature – it has nothing to do with fat. It might also relate to the effects of air travel (cabin pressure is said to cause the vocal cords to distend) and to the inexorable rise in standard pitch, manufactured by orchestras and recording companies in the interests of glossier, sharper-edged sound. But whatever the explanation, the catastrophic effect of the dearth has been that the delicate musculatures of many small young throats end up red, raw and knobbled. Managements will pay anything to those prepared to take the risk – with the result that we live in an era of vocal nine-day wonders and early operatic graves.

The other fundamental problem is the related one of a lack of distinctiveness, of singers whose musicianship has an individuality which changes one’s sense of the possibilities. Fifteen years ago we enjoyed the primes of Jon Vickers, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Joan Sutherland – all of whom came triumphantly into that category; the voices of Cathy Berberian and Peter Pears vitally inspired Berio and Britten to write important new works for them. Today the excellence of Placido Domingo, Jessye Norman and José van Dam is just that: singing with everything except the last degree of creative originality and urgency. The Lieder recordings of Fischer-Dieskau’s admirable ‘successor’ Olaf Baer are representative: smoothly finished, elegantly vocalised, intelligently phrased, but unmemorable, unresounding, once you’ve but them back in the box. (I have an urge to except Teresa Stratas and Peter Schreier from the above censure: but both are over fifty, and for a singer that is old, old, Master Shallow.) Is there something about modern music-making – with its relentless internationalism, its rapid-turnover-and-high-demand mentality – which tends to value the safely homogeneous over the boldly different? Or are opera singers just losing interest in singing?

All this might sound like the wistful connoisseurship of a laudator temporis acti, and certainly critics have for ever grizzled about falling standards. Thus W.J. Henderson in 1906: ‘It is plain to every careful observer that the race of beautiful singers is diminishing with every year, and that in its place there is growing up a generation of harsh, unrefined, tuneless shouters.’ And Lord Mount Edgcumbe in 1834: ‘I never expect to hear again ... new singers that will make me amends for those which are gone.’ But what we do undeniably lack are figures of the legendary status embodied by Caruso, Chaliapin, and Callas, to whose hagiography the books under review here make dubious contributions. All three have attracted, both in their lifetimes and posthumously, a worldwide fame that can only be compared to that of their Hollywood counterparts. In the Soviet Union, claims Victor Borovsky, ‘it is impossible to find someone who has never heard of Chaliapin’; RCA has just completed the issue, for the first time, of a 16-volume complete set of Caruso’s recordings; Callas has already had over twenty books written about her life and work. This is not a fame grounded in the cunning marketing which bolsters a Pavarotti or Te Kanawa beyond their artistic deserts; Caruso, Chaliapin and Callas were egregious personalities, and projected themselves as such, but their fame was grounded in the more significant fact that, in their very different ways, they revolutionised the art of operatic singing, setting standards for their epigones.

Today it is Callas who exerts the most potent fascination, not so much because she died only in 1977 as because her story embodies a sentimental tragedy of womanhood in which the heroine sacrifices her best creative self to an infatuation with sex and money, as embodied in the repellent form of Aristotle Onassis. And Nadia Stancioff doesn’t get much beyond that sort of cliché. Briefly Callas’s secretary, she has written a memoir which follows in the wake of comparable efforts by mother, cousin, husband and sister, all claiming to reveal the true Maria behind the image of the tigress diva. Stancioff sets the tone immediately with the quotation she selects as her epigraph: ‘I do not like being called “La Divina” ... I am Maria Callas. And I am only a woman.’ That woman seems to have been a pretty desperate individual, crippled by an egocentricity born of profound insecurity and a masochistic compulsion to prove herself against impossible odds. She demanded fanatic loyalty from her courtiers, repaying them without much generosity and ultimately casting herself as the helpless victim of other people’s treachery. But Stancioff is not out for revenge. She was clearly exasperatedly fond of Callas, and chooses to emphasise her vulnerability rather than her ruthlessness. She only met Callas in 1969, four years into her humiliating self-exile from the opera house, while Callas was making an ill-fated stab at film acting (the title-role in Medea, directed by Pasolini, on whom she conceived a comically misguided crush). By this time, her voice, her confidence, and Onassis, had decisively abandoned her, leaving only the carapace of her glamour and reputation intact. Stancioff does record some touching glimpses of the frail and exhausted monstre sacré – Callas humming ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ on set, or obsessively playing with the remote control of her television when Leonard Bernstein came to see her – but otherwise the book amounts to little more than a potted biography, fleshed out with some not very revealing ‘exclusive’ interviews.

John Ardoin is the major authority on Callas, who in Callas (with Gerald Fitzgerald, Thames and Hudson, 1974) and The Callas Legacy (Duckworth, 1977), has forged the most detailed and balanced account and critique of her career to appear to date. With this transcription of Callas’s master classes at the Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1971-2, however, it is hard not to feel that he is scraping the barrel. Callas was not intellectually articulate, nor a teacher by nature, and much of her discourse here is consequently of an excruciating banality. ‘Before you begin the aria, fix well its attitude in your mind,’ she advises. ‘Keep a good legato.’ ‘Sing in the middle of the note.’ ‘It is the basics that you must master first.’ Quite how one fulfils these and other similarly Delphic injunctions is not explained.

The notion that the diva’s every word, every relic must be worth preserving is also implicit in David Lowe’s Callas: As they saw her, an encyclopedic miscellany embracing critical essays and appreciations, reviews, interviews and comprehensive documentation. Some of it is drivelling gush (Yves Saint-Laurent can hardly stop himself: ‘those galleries, those balconies, those rows of plush seats, those arc lights, those spotlights, those marble stairs, they are YOU! ... your pins, your hooks, your crowns, your diadems, your tiaras, your palms, Tosca’s dagger, they are also YOU!’). But fans and buffs will enjoy some novel titbits: my own favourite is the remarkable information that Callas sang Vaughan Williams’s setting of On Wenlock Edge at a liberation concert in Athens in 1945. I can hear this rendition in my mind’s ear, and it is very un-Salopian indeed.

Callas’s impact on the post-war operatic scene was the result of a voice that uniquely combined the power of a dramatic soprano’s (she sang the Walküre Brünnhilde, Isolde and Kundry in Parsifal in the late Forties) with the deftness and upper range of a light coloratura’s. It was an unnatural marriage, which fell apart after about twelve years of strenuous music-making – at the point when she allowed herself to be seduced by Onassis. No greater contrast can be imagined than the case of Enrico Caruso. After he first auditioned for Puccini, the composer could only ask: ‘Who sent you? God?’ There is no sense of strain or self-consciousness, none of Callas’s problematic grappling with an instrument that will not quite obey her wishes. Other singers of the early 20th century – Melba, for instance – now sound faintly ridiculous to the untutored ear. But Caruso is still effortlessly modern, the unsurpassed role model of any tenor who signs the Italian repertory.

A third of Michael Scott’s decent but pedestrian biography is taken up with a discography and chronology; the other two thirds follow the familiar story down the familiar path – of the 18th child of poor Neapolitan parents whose musical apprenticeship took place in cafés and church choirs, and who went on to become the first great star of the gramophone (grossing himself two million dollars in his lifetime) as well as the definitive interpreter of the new repertory of verismo, notably of I Pagliacci and the operas of Puccini. He was the archetypal Italian charmer, with a nice child’s sweetness of temper and an infuriatingly naive generosity; his weakness was the engaging one of suffering from excruciating stage nerves. Scott is a respected historian of the voice and has some interesting things to say about Caruso’s technique, such as his preoccupation with the production of tone above the stave. But his portrait of Caruso the man is cool and unsuggestive, and the writing one-dimensional.

Victor Borovsky’s biography of the Russian bass Fedor Chaliapin is a vast and splendidly illustrated volume of tremendous solemnity and impassioned dedication to Art, Genius and the Grand Style. It amounts to a massive labour of love, and I wish I could admire it more. But the note of adulation and high-flown cliché (‘the brighter his fame shone, the deeper his loneliness grew’) is relentless, and Borovsky fails to render the side of Chaliapin’s personality which embraced the impishly histrionic and the blackly tyrannical: ‘this fascinating barbarian’, wrote the soprano Geraldine Farrar drily, ‘whose sentimental attacks were along lines quite unusual to the traditions of over-polite society and so, eminently successful’.

Ernest Newman thought that Chaliapin’s supreme quality was ‘the way he had of making every psychological expression a matter of musical tone’, but his impact seems to have been visual as much as aural. Caruso was pure tenor, and whatever the technological shortcomings of his recordings, they give us his heart and soul: Chaliapin had to be seen to be believed, and his influence on actors was as powerful as on singers. He was a master of make-up, disguise, impersonation, and possessed of what Isaiah Berlin has recalled as terribilita – a gift he shared, by all reports, with Edmund Kean – holding his audiences by freezing them into submission, whether he presented himself as the haunted Boris Godunov or the seedily comic Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Borovsky chronicles Chaliapin’s repertory exhaustively, quoting long chunks of reviews to the point of leaving the reader etherised with superlatives, but leaves the latter part of the biographical narrative full of holes – the coyness about a second, common-law marriage and its offspring is absurdly over-delicate. The author communicates more forcefully the importance of the part Chaliapin played in the export of Russian culture to the West, his art combining fruitfully with that of the painter Repin, the Ballets Russes, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s theatrical reforms, as well as with the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov.

The book is well documented and represents a level of scholarship absent from the great bulk of writing about opera singers. It also serves to remind us of a world we have lost, in which the ‘star’ was regarded as an authentic creative force, not just as a puppet of the producer’s will. It has become fashionable to believe that opera should be purged of this phenomenon, in the interests of balance and ensemble and of bringing it into line with more sensible, respectable and improving sorts of theatre. The sublimity of voice and presence radiated by a Callas, Caruso or Chaliapin might bring us nearer opera’s deepest power than an intellectually hygienic staging of the libretto: but this possibility is not entertained in enlightened circles. One can only hope that somewhere a new performing genius is slouching towards Bethlehem to remind us of our impoverishment.