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Art Song vs. Opera

                                             by Charles Kellis

       A good singer of classical music should be competent in all areas of the singer’s

repertoire --including art songs, opera, operetta, oratorio and even selected musicals. Is there, however, a special skill employed by a lieder singer and quite another by a singer of opera?

Many Opera singers would be apprehensive and never even entertain the idea of singing an art song recital and conversely some lieder singers seem to neither have the proper opportunity, nor perhaps even the prepared ability to be successful in opera. There is something very wrong with this concept. A good singer should still be a good singer regardless of what he or she is attempting to perform.

     In opera we are dealing with raw passion --declamation in enhanced powerful expressions-- and broad theatrical posturing. On the other hand, lieder –or art songs- is the intimate more personal expression of sensitive,  lyrically enchanting, poetic material. 

     What could be more passionate, however, than a lied like Schumann’s “Ich Grolle nicht”; and more declamatory than Schubert’s “die erlkonig”? Likewise, what could be more lyrically magical than Rusalka’s aria to the moon or more intimate than Giuletta’s aria to Romeo, “oh quante volte” or even  Pamina’s, “ach ich fuhl’s”. All of these selections –both lieder and opera-- require excellence in the art of singing. So the question becomes, why cannot a good singer be capable of singing both opera and art songs?

     One of the most famous lieder singers of the last century was the great Dietrich Fischer Dieskau who was an extremely polished artist imbued with an unusual musicianship. He had the amazing ability to make the text of almost any German song come alive with incredible musical shadings that made you feel that you are experiencing art songs in their most mature and fully musical exposition. Although he also acquired some mannerisms that were considered excessive, most young singers relied on his interpretations as gospel for the manner in which this material should be sung. His stage deportment was also impressive in that he clearly displayed with every gesture and movement of his body the completeness of the material at hand.  He was heralded in America as the master of the lied.

     And yet, with all of his notoriety and fame as a lieder singer, he was at most, a second rate opera singer. With all of his finesse and artistic shading in his recitals he could not make his voice quite project adequately on the operatic stage. Not that he didn’t have an “operatic” voice, but that his technique of singing was totally immersed in using his voice as an instrument of shallow vocal integration, dedicated mostly to shadings and nuances and not allowing for the development of  the full vocal potential of his otherwise musically artistic accomplishments.

We then have an example of a popular, very competent operatic soprano, who refused to sing a recital at Carnegie Hall because, as she admitted, she was “not ready” and may have been afraid of possible bad reviews. Although opera singers may be highly successful in many of their operatic roles, they could easily have trouble negotiating some of the requirements of  the song literature  and their interpretations might come off as somewhat uninspiring.

     The inherent difference, of course, is the nature of the art form: Lieder is the recitation of songs with piano accompaniment, composed by some of our very best composers: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss, etc. combined with some of the most famous poetry of Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Schiller, etc.. This successful collaboration has produced some of the most inspiring vocal music that embraces the warmest sentiments of the human experience.

     Opera, on the other hand, is basically theater. It is a theatrical event incorporating vocal dynamics. An actor trying to communicate with his audience. Instead of speaking as a mannered thespian, we have a well cultivated singing voice that would be strong enough to project over an orchestra and still have the impact of getting the point across as an actor in a play. To truly accomplish this is no easy matter. Hopefully we are getting closer, but for the essence of opera to be completely true to its proper design, it would require the highest quality of singers together with the highest caliber of actors. There are singers who claim that, if they dwell too much on acting while they are performing in opera, they will lose sight of their technique. Although this can be understandable because of the many demands of an operatic performance --there is always a way. The new breed of opera singer has to be so well in touch with his instrument that the technique, then, becomes an automatic part of the whole process.  Besides all the obvious majestic splendor of the wonderful ballet, the orchestra, chorus, lighting, costumes, etc., opera must still fulfill what a theatrical production should really be.  Simply a play with music. Sung by singing actors who are wonderful musicians --sensitive to the dynamics of all the dramatic elements—and dedicated to the fulfillment of the entire process of theatrical music making.

     There is a popular, contemporary idea that the words must be articulated in a forceful manner in order to be appreciated and understood. Of course good diction is desirable and should be considered as an intregal part of  the whole structure of good singing, but this concept of overly forceful pronunciation has in some ways been instrumental in creating an unfortunate caricature of  opera singers.

     Like a Shakespearean actor, the goal should be to get the words across by articulating clearly, but not “mouthing the words.” A good Shakespearian actor would never shout his words aimlessly just to be heard, but instead would make his words heard “trippingly on the tongue”.This has served great actors with their wonderful ability to communicate over the many years of great theater. 

   The Opera singer must learn how to make the words come alive with the same kind of good diction, projecting well into the theater. This coordination will amount to a more elegant and happily graceful articulation of the words and may serve to prevent opera from being a series of  shouting matches between conspirators, lovers and villains. Instead it should allow for the clear understanding of the text, together with meaningful inflections and nuances --not with overly forceful diction-- but with graceful, albeit passionately involved flowing of the words.

     If an opera singer is able to acquire this level of accomplishment, then singing lieder or art songs should become a very easy transition. Since the dramatic recitation of poetry by master actors could have the same theatrical dynamics as an operatic dialogue, there is no reason why a well schooled, talented opera singer should not be able to sing a successful “lieder-abend”.

     We can say the same thing in reverse, then, to a lieder singer. Hopefully, the capable singers of art songs would also have this above orientation as an inbred part of their artistic function. As operatic performers, however,  they could give more attention to the fuller development of their vocal potential and learn how to best project in a large space with an orchestral accompaniment.

   I remember hearing a recital about 30 years ago by the, then very popular, bass-baritone Simon Estes. He was able to use all manner of shadings and colors of interpretative variations in his Liederabend at Carnegie Hall, still maintaining his richly powerful voice. Here was an example of an Internationally acclaimed Opera singer who, as John Rockwell, music critic of the New York Times, wrote, “Estes’s best singing came in quiet, lyrical, sustained passages in which his admirable breath control, poetic tone and sweet legato could all shine to their maximum advantage”.

     Happily, we do also have some examples of singers who are performing today who can actually manage both areas. These singers have the ability to use their voices, expressing the poetry with their innate musicality within a more intimate setting, technically adding the possible –bonus-- attraction of a lovely pianissimo. One good example is Renee Fleming who seems --through her variety of colorings and especially her velvety soft singing-- to be able to manage both areas very well.

     In order to achieve a more fluent connection between both artists of opera and art songs, we should ask opera singers to be more cultivated in a more sensitive approach to the intimate poetic aspects of their performance, with easier and graceful articulation of the text.

     We should also, however, ask the singers of art songs to spice up their outdated, stiff, and calculated performance practices. They should learn more about being expansive --or extrovertly theatrical -- and try to translate their intellectually poetic insight into a more inclusive interaction with other players. The poetry could be dramatic in a more theatrical exhibition, graciously reaching out to the audience --still dignified and intellectually stimulating—but with a more friendly approach. This might also help to save the art of the liederabend from its unfortunate 21st century slow road to obscurity.

     Not all opera singers have to sing art-songs and not all lieder singers have to sing recitals but good singing should theoretically encompass all singing opportunities. Truly fine singing artists --with all of their sensitively musical and dramatic theatrical intentions -- should be quite capable of adapting to the performance of both art songs and opera --interchangeably.