Poor Puccini !

On his 150th anniversary the composer has everything going for him except this: nobody can sing his music

JAIME J. WEINMAN February 25 2008

Poor Puccini !

On his 150th anniversary the composer has everything going for him except this: nobody can sing his music

JAIME J. WEINMAN February 25 2008


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Poor Puccini !

On his 150th anniversary the composer has everything going for him except this: nobody can sing his music



Giacomo Puccini, who was born 150 years ago this year and whose anniversary is inspiring a round of new productions and recordings, has been the most popular opera composer in the world for at least 100 of those 150 years. On’s list of the 20 most performed operas in North America, the top two are both by Puccini: Madame Butterfly and La Bohème. (He has two other operas, Tosca and Turandot, in the top 20.) Even people who never go to see an opera are familiar with Puccini’s music: excerpts like Nessun Dorma (which has been sung by every famous tenor from Luciano Pavarotti to Paul Potts) and 0 Mio Babbino Caro (a favourite tune in commercials) are known even to opera novices. So as his anniversary celebrations begin, Puccini has everything going for him except one thing: almost nobody can sing his music. At least, not in the ringing, unsubtle way it was meant to be sung.

Puccini wasn’t only the last great Italian opera composer; he was the last opera composer to become a true superstar, and like any music superstar, his death (in 1924) only made him more popular. Michel Beaulac, artistic director of the Opera de Montréal, says that Puccini’s music “is immediately understandable to everybody. You listen to a Puccini melody and you’re immediately drawn to it; you don’t, like other composers, need to listen to it several times to decode it.” ^ And whereas other great

opera composers like Verdi and Wagner wrote operas about kings, aristocrats, or Nordic gods, Puccini increased his popular appeal by picking subjects set in a more or less real world. Olivia Stapp, a U.S. opera singer and director, explains that we can relate to Puccini characters because “like us, they go broke, get sick, fall in love, need money, and can’t pay the rent. They live in our dimension.” It’s no wonder opera audiences, particularly younger people who prefer stories they can relate to, are drawn to Puccini.

And yet if you look at the biggest opera stars of today, almost none of them specialize in Puccini and few can even sing any of his operas. Puccini wrote for a type of voice that used to be very common in Italy and around the world: voices that may not have been subtle or agile, but could sing loud, intense music (including high notes) without strain. Stapp, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera among other locales, and whose repertoire included such heavy Puccini roles as Tosca, explains that a Puccini voice “is an emotional voice, a visceral voice able to reach deeply into the listener’s psyche. It has to carry over a large orchestra.” But that kind of voice, once common, is now quite rare. Today’s singers, even the ones who can sing Puccini, are trained to sing with what Stapp describes as k “diminished colour, diminished vitality, and narrower resonance.” It’s a light, almost instrumental sound that doesn’t feel quite right for Puccini’s music.


The most popular singers in the opera world today include sopranos Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko, mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, and tenors Rolando Villazon and Juan Diego Florez—all of whom are basically lyric

singers, better suited to operas from the earlier part of the 19th century by composers like Rossini or Bellini, where the music is less emotionally draining and the orchestra isn’t as loud. There are only a few Puccini parts these singers are even vaguely suited for—a few of them sing the relatively light La Bohème; parts like Calaf in Turandot (the Nessun Dorma guy) or the title role in Madame Butterfly are mostly off limits to these voices. There are still many singers around who can get through a Puccini part, but they’re not superstars; the stars bring out the crowds for less popular composers like Gounod or Donizetti, while Puccini operas are cast with singers who can’t fully take advantage of the music’s opportunities.

It’s a strange reversal from the way things were in Puccini’s time. He wrote music that was extremely popular with major singers of his time and for years thereafter; stars like tenor Enrico Caruso (who starred in the premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West) loved Puccini because he gave them a chance to do the free, full, passionate singing they did best. Now that same music, written to make singers sound good, shows modern singers’ weaknesses. Kenneth Furie, former music editor for the if U.S. magazine High g*Fidelity, explains that if you listen to an older Puccini singer, like Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas or Mirella Freni, “you can hear how the composer not only took advantage of all those vocal resources but conspired to make them sound good. We’ve gotten to the point where Puccini’s vocal writing has come to seem like some sort of obstacle course, whereas clearly he meant it as a gift.”

You can’t even find many natural Puccini voices in Puccini’s native country. Italy’s leading opera company, La Scala in Milan, is mounting a new production of II Trittico, Puccini’s trilogy of one-act operas. But instead of the Italian superstars

who used to roam the La Scala Ik stages, the new cast is a mix »^1 of promising lesser-known ■Hr singers and stars who are past their prime; one of the major parts will be sung by Leo Nucci, an Italian baritone who was a star in the 1980s but who is now 65 and hasn’t sung particularly well for at least 10 years. Nucci, and other aging singers, continue to sing big Puccini parts in big venues because the conservatories, with their emphasis on lighter voices and technique, aren’t producing new singers who can: the audience demands Puccini operas, but the demand isn’t being met by supply.

Older opera fans might argue that all this is just proof that standards of opera singing are getting worse. But in fact, opera singing in many ways is better than it has been in a long time: there is a greater number of singers who can successfully handle the difficult music of Mozart, or the semiimprovisational style of baroque music. Beaulac notes that today’s opera world “gives an opportunity to singers who don’t have the spinto voice needed for most of the Puccini and Verdi operas.”

He adds, however, that opera fans shouldn’t assume that there was once a golden age of Puccini voices: “voices that can sing Puccini and render all the musical and emotional dimensions are rare, and they were always rare.”

Others maintain that Puccini singing not only used to be better, but that its standards are getting steadily worse. Furie says that younger singers have no incentive to become better singers because of “the fact that you can get away with the kind of mediocre singing it’s possible to get away with now.” Stapp blames the current situation on today’s vocal training, which emphasizes Mozart and other more subtle composers over the big, meaty repertoire. She says that today’s teachers have fallen for the idea that Mozartian training “is ‘good’ for all voices,” and coach students to prefer those 18th-century singing techniques over the Italianate Puccini style. She points out that in countries where “modern” training techniques haven’t been fully accepted, there are still traditional big-voiced singers to be found. Eastern European countries still

produce some big voices; the Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Tosca is cast with a Hungarian soprano and a Russian tenor. Stapp says that North American singers, by contrast, are encouraged to hold back while they search for a style of singing that

can apply to any music: “We have equally great raw talent here,” says Stapp, “but the tendency of most of our voice pedagogues” is to steer them away from the Puccini style. You can just about cast a Puccini opera if you search the world, but you won’t find enough Puccini singers in Italy or North America.

Still, the relative lack of Puccini voices may not be a sign of decline so much as a change in aesthetics. In Puccini’s time, operas were primarily showcases for great singing, with-

out a lot of emphasis on acting or staging. Today’s audiences expect more acting from opera singers, and singers are expected, in Furie’s words, “to sing in a much wider range of styles and vocal formats and languages than was once the case.” A Caruso or a Renata


Tebaldi or a Pavarotti could get away with singing only the core Italian repertoire and with being immobile actors. Today’s singers have more challenges to face and more styles of singing to learn. Furie sees this negatively, in that we now have a generation of singers “who can ‘manage’ many different kinds of singing, but not in such a way that there’s much reason to want to hear them do any of them.” But from his perspective as an artistic director, Beaulac sees this as an advantage: “Acting is more subtle and more nuanced; there’s a wider range of interpretations.” And he adds that we may be missing out on some great new Puccini singing by insisting on “the huge Puccinian and Wagnerian voices”; singing is better today, he says, because “more singers can have access to those parts.”

Still, few of today’s lighter-voiced, subtler singers show signs of becoming stars in Puccini’s operas. Instead, these works are starting to become vehicles not for singers, but for directors: the Los Angeles Opera has announced an upcoming production of II Trittico where all the publicity is geared toward the superstar directors, William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Woody Allen. With good directors and adequate voices, a modern Puccini production can still give audiences a lot of pleasure; Puccini was a man of the theatre and his operas are always effective, even when they don’t have the kind of singers he wrote for. That’s at once the key to Puccini’s popularity, and his curse. “I think he wanted to make his operas in some sense ‘performerproof,’ ” Furie says, “in that they couldn’t be wrecked by uncaring performers. He may have succeeded too well.” M