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                                                              AGE AND LONGEVITY IN OPERA

                                                                                                                                                            by Charles Kellis

          With the developing influence of the "stage director", a new trend began to develop in opera leading to a kind of Broadway style known as "type casting" -or choosing singers according to a particular look or the way they are perceived as a personality. The emphasis shifts toward youth, so in order to realistically compete in this new age of "type casting", responsible singers should make every effort to be healthy and in proper shape. Since everyone is living longer these days, the idea of age should no longer be a consideration in the selection of healthy competent opera singers. A mature singer -after a lot of application, effort and dedication- should have both the life experience and vocal ability to be well equipped to handle the essential musical and expressive involvement of a successful operatic performance.  Whether a singer is thirty, or fifty or even older, it should not affect their continuing ability to sing effectively throughout their singing experience.

   I personally heard Beniamino Gigli at the age of 78.  He performed in a concert in Rome and displayed the voice of a very young man. It was an amazing event. His audience was wild with enthusiasm. In a typical gesture of Italian admiration someone yelled in a very loud voice, “Gigli ritorna al Opera”( back to the opera) which was followed with thunderous approval and with almost everyone shouting “si, al Opera”. When the audience quieted down another loud voice was heard, “Gigli e’ Dio” followed by more enthusiastic approval, and a chorus of Gigli’e Dio”. (GIGLI is GOD) Finally he had to come out, after a few encores, with his hat and coat on, to signal that he was then going home. A short period later he passed away. This was proof to me that if the voice is used correctly and you don't have any debilitating disease or infirmity, you can sing until the day you die.

   Many singers have had the misfortune of an inadequate instructional experience, or may have had vocal problems or even perhaps just started studying at a later age. Like the "turtle and the rabbit", vocal progress with some singers is more readily available and with others it may take a longer time to develop their voice and range capacity. After much preparation and undying ambition, many of these singers eventually emerge with their voices fully developed and are completely capable of handling all the requirements of their profession.

   The unusual soprano, Erica Sonnegarth recently made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera at the age of 40. Erica spent her life trying to be a singer and after a series of disappointments, she finally was able to prove her value and was given a fair hearing. She was successful enough to be even featured on the front page of the New York Times. She worked for many years as a waitress and often had to choose between paying her rent and having an extra voice lesson. The only singing she had been doing was for funerals and weddings. She kept on working very hard and did everything to improve herself and when her time came, she was ready to perform. Her story is inspirational and full of positive optimism and can serve as a model for many talented and worthy singers who have not as yet had this kind of opportunity.

RUCH   MUZYCZNY 2009/English

       May her success usher in a new era of giving singers who have spent their lives preparing for a career a real chance to compete, instead of being disappointed by the greater emphasis mostly offered to more youthful contestants. I believe that the marketing of unusually young singers -who are expected to produce both the requisite psychological and emotional sophistication, and who can also possess a reliably secure vocal technique is not always realistic. Talent alone is not enough. It must be coordinated and nurtured, enabling the proper manifestation of ones ultimate artistic potential.

   There are many examples of fine male -as well as female singers- who were able to continue singing, well into their sixties and beyond. They all relied on their good technique and careful, wise application of their vocal knowledge and experience. Good singing, could still be good singing -at any age, which should include healthy, vocal habit patterns propelled by the energy of the breath -still emotionally expressive- but within the logical parameters of intelligent balance and gracefulness, No need to shout! I hear some huge sounds in a room and then in the theater the voice only goes as far as the third row. Not that there is anything wrong with a voice being loud or powerful. Strong voices can, of course, be very desirable, but not when they are forced to the point of distortion. Of course, good singing should also include good diction. That doesn’t mean forceful mouthing of the words, but instead, adopting the elegance of easily controlled natural pronunciation. Again, vocal technique at its most organized effectiveness. Pavarotti was quoted as saying “many singers are finished and can’t sing any more at the age of 50 -but those who sing really well and use their voice correctly should be able to sing forever”.

He claimed as an example, his father, “whose voice was still intact at the age of 90”.

       Unfortunately, there are also many singers who believe they don't need any more guidance after reaching some level of success. Some singers get better as they get on stage, and then there are those who get worse as they continue to perform. Fortunately, everything can be salvaged, and most vocal problems can be repaired. The really smart ones still depend upon a guide, who can steer them on a correct path in order to be able to continue to sing well, regardless of their chronological age, but “you can only lead a horse to water –you can’t make him drink”.   

      An increasing amount of  "Opera Studios" have sprung up as training grounds for aspiring singers. Many opera houses and other training institutes around the world have these programs, but unfortunately most of them still maintain a very young age limit. But then, even after their training is complete, there is still the question of where they are going to perform professionally? It is sad that there are not more operatic performance venues in the USA and without more places to turn to -in our operatic world-the problem may continue to persist.

    There is so much preparation and dedication and sacrifice that today's aspiring opera singers have to endure. Although they are up to the task of studying and continuing their quest for any opportunity of a performance that can give them experience and the necessary tools to progress, these students, semi-professionals and even professionals often have nowhere to go. The "catch 22" aspect of this endeavor hardly allows for any mobility. If you don't have a resume including some experience with professional opera companies, it is hard to even get an audition and -since it is difficult to get engaged without these credentials- the situation can become discouraging. 

      But, the optimistic projection is that -if a singer really works hard and finally achieves the successful ability to display excellence in all aspects of singing, including solid musicianship, refined language ability and acting with true and natural expression- this cannot be ignored, no matter how old the singer happens to be?

      Giuseppe Verdi was the ultimate master of understanding the full potential of the human voice. He possessed a keen sense, perhaps more than most other opera composers, of how to magically coordinate words with music. His uncanny theatrical sense even leads me to believe that if the technique is solid and the singer is properly cast -and you sing everything as Verdi conceived it- his music and its inspiration will almost do the acting for you. This idea would be more applicable to mature singers who have their voices going in a proper direction. Conversely, a very young singer who attempts to sing Verdi, may easily be courting unnecessary problems and might even be doing damage to the voice. When Verdi was asked the question, "what are the three most important ingredients required to become an opera singer"? His answer was an unequivocal, "Voce, Voce, Voce!". (Voice, Voice, Voice), but I am sure he also meant, "technique, technique, technique!"

     We should never underestimate the role of technique. It is proper vocal technique that keeps a voice young. If a voice is considered beautiful, it is mostly because the technique employed has allowed the beauty to be properly exposed. The voice matures, of course, but with proper care and intelligent application, a voice can be just as beautiful and effective at a later age. I just learned that Bogdan Paprocki, the world's oldest active professional opera singer -at age 88- is still singing a tenor role at the Warsaw Opera, in Poland. What great news! There may still be hope on the horizon for more mature singers to be given a fair chance and for the opera world to celebrate the gift of vocal and artistic maturity.